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HomeContentsThemes > Camera lucida


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695.01   Improving content on photographic techniques
695.02   Camera lucida: Design and use
695.03   The camera lucida
695.04   Captain Basil Hall: Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828 (1829)
695.05   Henry Fox Talbot: Camera lucida drawings (1833)
695.06   Henry Fox Talbot on using the Camera Lucida at Lake Como (1833)
695.07   John Herschel: Camera lucida drawings
This theme includes example sections and will be revised and added to as we proceed. Suggestions for additions, improvements and the correction of factual errors are always appreciated. 
Status: Collect > Document > Analyse > Improve
Information requests 
695.01   Drawing and optical devices >  Improving content on photographic techniques 
We are seeking to expand the themes covering photographic techniques and processes. These sections will include:
  • Invention of the process
  • Any related patents
  • Trade literature
  • Contemporary advertisements and announcements of the innovation
  • A description of the process and its variants
  • Historical examples and details of where examples can be located in public collections
  • Contemporary examples by photographers using the exact process.
Conservation will not initially be included but may be in the future if required.
695.02   Drawing and optical devices >  Camera lucida: Design and use 
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In 1807 William H. Wollaston published his "Description of the Camera Lucida" in The Philsophical Magazine in the following words:
Having, a short time since, amused myself with attempts to sketch various interesting views without an adequate knowledge of the art of drawing, my mind was naturally employed in facilitating the means of transferring to paper the apparent relative positions of the objects before me; and I am in hopes that the instrument which I contrived for this purpose may be acceptable even to those who have attained to greater proficiency in the art, on account of the many advantages it possesses over the common camera obscura.
The principles on which it is constructed will probably be most distinctly explained by tracing the successive steps by which I proceeded in its formation.
While I look directly down at a sheet of paper on my table, if I hold between my eye and the paper a piece of plain glass inclined from me downwards as an angle of 45¦, I see by reflection the view that is before me in the same direction that I see my paper through the glass. I might then take a sketch of it, but the positions of the objects would be reversed.
To obtain a direct view, it is necessary to have two reflections. The transparent glass must for this purpose be inclined to the perpendicular line of sight only the half of 45¦, that it may reflect the view a second time from a piece of looking-glass placed beneath it, and inclined upwards at an equal angle. The objects now appear as if seen through the paper in the same place as before; but they are direct instead of being inverted; and they may be discerned in this manner sufficiently well for determining the principal positions.
The pencil, however, and any object which it is to trace, cannot both be seen distinctly in the same state of the eye, on account of the difference of their distances, and the efforts of successive adaptation of the eye to one or to the other would become painful if frequently repeated. In order to remedy this inconvenience, the paper and pencil may be viewed through a convex lens of such a focus as to require no more effort than is necessary for seeing the distant objects distinctly. They will then appear to correspond with the paper in distance as well as direction, and may be drawn with facility, and with any required degree of precision.
This arrangement of glasses will probably be best understood from inspection of fig. 1. (Plate VIII.) in which ab is the transparent glass; bc, the lower reflector; bd, a convex lens (of twelve inches focus); e, the position of the eye; fgh, the course of the rays.
In some cases, a different construction will be preferable. Those eyes, which without assistance are adapted to seeing near objects alone, will not admit the use of a convex glass, but will, on the contrary, require one that is concave to be placed in front, to render the distant objects distinct. The frame for a glass of this construction is represented at ik, fig. 3, turning upon the same hinge at h, with a convex glass in the frame lm, and moving in such a manner that either of the glasses may be turned alone into its place, as may be wanted to suit an eye that is long- or short-sighted. Those persons, however, whose sight is nearly perfect, may at pleasure use either of the glasses.
The instrument represented in that figure differs moreover in other respects from the foregoing, which I have chosen to describe first, because the action of the reflectors there employed would be more generally understood. But those who are conversant with the science of optics will perceive the advantage that maybe derived in this instance from prismatic reflection; for, when a ray of light has entered a solid piece of glass, and falls from within upon any surface at an inclination of only 22 or 23 degrees, as above supposed, the refractive power of the glass is such as to suffer none of that light to pass out, and the surface becomes in this case the most brilliant reflector that can be employed.
Fig. 2. represents the section of a solid prismatic piece of glass, within which both the reflections requisite are effected at the surfaces ab,bc, in such a manner that the ray fg, after being reflected first at g and afterwards at h, arrives at the eye in a direction he, at right angles to fg.
There is another circumstance in this construction necessary to be attended to, and which remains to be explained. Where the reflection was produced by a piece of plain glass, it is obvious that any objects behind the glass (if sufficiently illuminated) might be seen through the glass as well as the reflected image. But when the prismatic reflector is employed, since no light can be transmitted directly through it, the eye must be so placed that only a part of its pupil may be intercepted by the edge of the prism, as at e, fig. 2. The distant objects will then be seen by this portion of the eye, while the paper and pencil are seen past the edge of the prism by the remainder of the pupil.
In order to avoid inconvenience that might arise from unintentional motion of the eye, the relative quantities of light to be received from the object and from the paper are regulated by a small hole in a piece of brass, which, by moving on a centre at c, fig. 3, is capable of adjustment to every inequality of light that is likely to occur.
Since the size of the whole instrument, from being so near the eye, does not require to be large, I have on many accounts preferred the smallest size that could be executed with correctness, and have had it constructed on such a scale that the lenses are only three-fourths of an inch in diameter.
Although the original design and principal use of this instrument are to facilitate the delineation of objects in true perspective, yet this is by no means the sole purpose to which it is adapted; for the same arrangement of reflectors; may be employed with equal advantage for copying what has been already drawn, and may thus assist a learner in acquiring at least a correct outline of any subject.
For this purpose, the drawing to be copied should be placed, as nearly as may be, at the same distance before the instrument that the paper is beneath it; for in that case the size will be the same, and no lens will be necessary, either to the object or to the pencil.
By a proper use of the same instrument every purpose of the pentagraph may also be answered, as a painting may be reduced in any proportion required by placing it at a distance in due proportion greater than that of the paper from the instrument. In this case a lens becomes requisite for enabling the eye to see at two unequal distances with equal distinctness; and, in order that one lens may suit for all these purposes, there is an advantage in varying the height of the stand according to the proportion in which the reduction is to be effected.
The principles on which the height of the stem is adjusted will be readily understood by those who are accustomed to optical considerations. For, as, in taking a perspective view, the rays from the paper are rendered parallel by placing; a lens at the distance of its principal focus from the paper, because the rays from the distant objects are parallel; so also, when the object seen by reflection is at so short a distance that the rays received from it are in a sensible degree divergent, the rays from the paper should be made to have the same degree of divergency, in order that the paper may be seen distinctly by the same eye; and for this purpose the lens must be placed at a distance less than its principal focus. The stem of the instrument (which slides) is accordingly marked at certain distances, to which the conjugate foci are in the several proportions of two, three, four, &c. to one; so that distinct vision may be obtained in all cases by placing the painting proportionally more distant.
By transposing the convex lens to the front of the instrument, and reversing the proportional distances, the artist might also enlarge his smaller sketches in any proportion with every desirable degree of correctness; and the naturalist, by employing a deeper lens, might delineate minute objects in any degree magnified.
Since the primary intention of the camera lucida is already, in some measure, answered by the camera obscura, a comparison will naturally be made between them. The objections to the camera obscura are,
1st, That it is too large to be carried about wiih convenience; but the camera lucida is as small and portable as can be wished.
2d, In the former, all objects that are not situated near the centre of view are more or less distorted.
In this there is no distortion; so that every line, even the most remote from the centre of view, is as straight as those that pass through the centre.
3dly, In that the field of view does not extend more than 30, or at most 35 degrees, with distinctness.
But in the camera lucida as much as 70 or 80 degrees might be included in one view.
As it has been thought advisable to secure an exclusive sale by patent, those who are desirous of purchasing the instrument are informed that Mr. Newman, No. 24, Soho Square, has at present the disposal of it.[1]
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Drawing and optical devices Camera Lucida 
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695.03   Drawing and optical devices >  The camera lucida 
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The camera lucida[2] is a drafting aid for artists which allows the optical superimposition of the subject being viewed upon the surface upon which the artist is drawing. By the use of a 45 degree tilted half-silvered mirror or a prism the artist sees both scene and drawing surface simultaneously.[3]
An 1835 account in the The Dublin Penny Journal gives a contemporary description:
Q. How does the camera lucida act in the formation of pictures ?
A. The camera lucida, one of the most elegant of optical instruments, consists of the following arrangement CDFG is a glass prism, having four sides inclined, as seen in the figure. The side CD being exposed to the object to be delineated, rays pass through it and fall upon the sloping side DF; from this they are reflected to the side FG, and finally pass out of the prism to the eye at E. Now, from the direction in which rays enter the eye, it receives them as if coming from an image at A'B'. Accordingly, if a sheet of paper be placed below the instrument, a perfect delineation of the object will be formed upon it, which may be easily traced off with a pencil.
The instrument is mounted on a convenient brass frame, which is so constructed as to allow the prism to approach to, or remove from, the paper, according to the size which the picture is required to have.[4]
   Drawing and optical devices Camera Lucida 
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695.04   Drawing and optical devices >  Captain Basil Hall: Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828 (1829) 
Captain Basil Hall (1788-1844)[5] travelled in North America with a camera lucida and his artistic sketches of views of Niagara, the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Missouri and others were printed as etchings in his book Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828.[6]
"The views are of particular value and interest because of the character of truth preserved by the mechanical accuracy of the Camera Lucida."[7]
Later in his career Basil Hall continued to promote the camera lucida when in a letter of 23 October 1839 accompanying a drawing he'd made of a recovered capstan of the Royal George he wrote:
Basil Hall: Camera lucida drawing of a capstan from the Royal George (1839) 
I hope you will allow me, once more, to call the attention of naval men to the great advantage of using the camera lucida—an instrument which confers a wonderful power of rapidly, and at the same time correctly, delineating any object—no matter how intricate the form, 01 complicated the perspective. I do not say that a person entirely unacquainted with drawing can use the camera, efficiently, all at once, and without any trouble; on the contrary, a good deal of patience and application are necessary to acquire any proficiency in its use. But I am convinced that I in no respect overrate its merits, when I say that one-tenth part of the pains generally bestowed, to very little purpose, in learning what is sadly miscalled " drawing," would enable the same persons to employ a camera lucida made by Dollond, with very useful effect. This arises from the accuracy which belongs to all its delineations, and which is quite consistent with the most perfect freedom of execution in the hands of those who possess taste or capacity to represent nature with spirit. Its chief advantage, however, lies in the power it confers on a person like myself, who knows little of drawing, who cannot, by any degree of effort, represent a complicated object correctly without this instrument, and to whom, though the rules of linear perspective are more or less familiar, the labour of applying them in a sketch is to the last degree irksome and discouraging. The use of the camera in such hands is a real source of pleasure, and its results may often he useful. The drawing of the Royal George's capstan, given on the next page, occupied me not quite three-quarters of an hour, yet, I will undertake to say it is as correct in all essential particulars as if it had been drawn by a professed artist. I remain, &c.
Basil Hall[8]
695.05   Drawing and optical devices >  Henry Fox Talbot: Camera lucida drawings (1833) 
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When Henry Fox Talbot compared his faltering attempts with a camera lucida to the highly expert camera lucida drawings of his friend John Herschel[9] he was dissappointed. In his Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art in The Pencil of Nature (1844) he explained how his frustation got him thinking about he could capture a scene using chemicals.[10] 
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695.06   Drawing and optical devices >  Henry Fox Talbot on using the Camera Lucida at Lake Como (1833) 
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"Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art" in Henry Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844)
One of the first days of the month of October 1833, I was amusing myself on the lovely shores of the Lake of Como, in Italy, taking sketches with Wollaston's Camera Lucida, or rather I should say, attempting to take them: but with the smallest possible amount of success. For when the eye was removed from the prism—in which all looked beautiful—I found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold.
After various fruitless attempts, I laid aside the instrument and came to the conclusion, that its use required a previous knowledge of drawing, which unfortunately I did not possess.
I then thought of trying again a method which I had tried many years before. This method was, to take a Camera Obscura, and to throw the image of the objects on a piece of transparent tracing paper laid on a pane of glass in the focus of the instrument. On this paper the objects are distinctly seen, and can be traced on it with a pencil with some degree of accuracy, though not without much time and trouble.
I had tried this simple method during former visits to Italy in 1823 and 1824, but found it in practice somewhat difficult to manage, because the pressure of the hand and pencil upon the paper tends to shake and displace the instrument (insecurely fixed, in all probability, while taking a hasty sketch by a roadside, or out of an inn window); and if the instrument is once deranged, it is most difficult to get it back again, so as to point truly in its former direction.
Besides which, there is another objection, namely, that it baffles the skill and patience of the amateur to trace all the minute details visible on the paper; so that, in fact, he carries away with him little beyond a mere souvenir of the scene—which, however, certainly has its value when looked back to, in long after years.
Such, then, was the method which I proposed to try again, and to endeavour, as before, to trace with my pencil the outlines of the scenery depicted on the paper. And this led me to reflect on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature's painting which the glass lens of the Camera throws upon the paper in its focus—fairy pictures, creations of a moment, and destined as rapidly to fade away.
It was during these thoughts that the idea occurred to me…how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remain fixed upon the paper!
And why should it not be possible? I asked myself.[11]
695.07   Drawing and optical devices >  John Herschel: Camera lucida drawings 
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John Herschel[12][13] in addition to being a scientist, astronomer, writer, photographic innovator with his use of hypo (sodium thiosulfate) as a fixer and the cyanotype was a talented artist. His work with the camera lucida from the 1820s onwards show his ability in contrast to those of his friend Henry Fox Talbot who was artistically challenged as his drawings of Lake Como, also made with the help of a camera lucida, show.[14] 
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  1. Λ William H. Wollaston, 1807, February, March, April, May, "LVIII. Description of the Camera Lucida. By William H. Wollaston, Sec. R.S.", The Philsophical Magazine, vol. 27, pp. 343-347 
  2. Λ John Hammond & Jill Austin, 1987, The Camera Lucida in Art and Science, (Taylor & Francis) 
  3. Λ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston - Using the Camera Lucida
    Curator Karen Quinn describes how artist Fitz Henry may have used a mechanical device to aid him in painting "Coffin's Beach," a shore scene from Gloucester, Massachusetts. 
  4. Λ "Camera Lucida", August 22, 1835, The Dublin Penny Journal, vol. IV, no. 164, p. 61 
  5. Λ Basil Hall - Wikipedia
    (Accessed: 8 December 2014) 
  6. Λ Captain Basil Hall, 1829, Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828, (Edinburgh: Cadell & Co., London: Simpkin & Marshall, and Moon, Boys, & Graves)
    First Edition, ii.[1], plus 40 illustrations on 20 plates and 20p. of descriptive text, folding colour frontis map, in the original publisher's boards, with the title repeated on the upper cover and publisher's ad on the bottom board, expertly rebacked, uncut, The etchings were prepared from "sketches [made with the] Camera Lucida, an instrument invented by the late Dr. Wollaston". cf. Spendlove, p48. The views are of particular value and interest because of the character of truth preserved by the mechanical accuracy of the Camera Lucida. - The view included Niagara (5); Bridge Lake Cayuga; Buffalo on Lake Erie; River Niagara; Village of Rochester; Mt Holyoke in Mass.; Great Eire Canal; Canadian Voyageurs of Captain Franklin's Canoe; Mississauga Indians in Canada; St Lawrence below Quebec; Peterborough, U.C.; Rice fields in South Carolina; Two Slave drivers; Riceborough in Georgia; American Forest on Fire; Mississippi at New Orleans; Steam-Boat on the Mississippi; Banks of the Missouri; American Stage-Coach; etc
    Basil Hall also wrote a detailed description of America - Captain Basil Hall, 1829, Travels in North America, in the Years 1827 and 1828, (Edinburgh) 
  7. Λ Captain Basil Hall, 1829, Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828, (Edinburgh: Cadell & Co., London: Simpkin & Marshall, and Moon, Boys, & Graves) 
  8. Λ Capt. Basil Hall & Augustin Creuze, October 23, 1839, "Drawing and Description of the Capstan lately recovered from the Royal George", Extracts from the Minutes of Evidence Given Before the Committee of the Lords on the London and Birmingham Railway Bill, (London and Birmingham Railway), vol. 2, pp. 3-5 
  9. Λ For the camera lucida artworks of John Frederick Herschel - Larry J. Schaaf, 1991, Tracings of Light: Sir John Herschel and the Camera Lucida - Drawings from the Graham Nash Collection, (Curatorial Assistance) 
  10. Λ H. Fox Talbot, 1844, Pencil of Nature, (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans), "Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art" 
  11. Λ H. Fox Talbot, 1844, Pencil of Nature, (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans), "Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art" 
  12. Λ For John Frederick Herschel - Larry Schaaf, 1980, ‘Herschel, Talbot, and Photography: Spring 1831 and Spring 1839‘, History of Photography, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 181-204; Larry Schaaf, 1992, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot and the Invention of Photography, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) 
  13. Λ For the camera lucida artworks of John Frederick Herschel - Larry J. Schaaf, 1991, Tracings of Light: Sir John Herschel and the Camera Lucida - Drawings from the Graham Nash Collection, (Curatorial Assistance) 
  14. Λ H. Fox Talbot, 1844, Pencil of Nature, (London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans), "Brief Historical Sketch of the Invention of the Art"


HomeContents > Further research

General reading 
1835, 22 August, ‘Camera Lucida‘, The Dublin Penny Journal, vol. 4, no. 164, p. 61 [Δ
Gernsheim, Helmut & Gernsheim, Alison, 1982, The Origins of Photography. Vol. 1 of The History of Photography, (New York: Thames and Hudson) [Δ
Gernsheim, Helmut & Gernsheim, Alison, 1988, The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era, (London: Thames and Hudson) [3rd edition] [Δ
Hall, Captain Basil, 1829, Forty Etchings From Sketches Made With The Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828, (Edinburgh: Cadell & Co., London: Simpkin & Marshall, and Moon, Boys, & Graves) [Δ
Hammond, John & Austin, Jill, 1987, The Camera Lucida in Art and Science, (Taylor & Francis) isbn-10: 0852745273 isbn-13: 978-0852745274 [Δ
Jay, Bill, n.d.From Magic to Mimesis: The artist's quest for a faithful representation of a natural object, through mechanical and lenticular aids, prior to the introduction of photography [Undated article -] [Δ
Kemp, Martin, 1992, The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) [Δ
Wollaston, William H., 1807, February, March, April, May, ‘LVIII. Description of the Camera Lucida. By William H. Wollaston, Sec. R.S.‘, The Philsophical Magazine, vol. 27, pp. 343-347 [Δ
Readings on, or by, individual photographers 
John Herschel 
Schaaf, Larry J., 1991, Tracings of Light: Sir John Herschel and the Camera Lucida - Drawings from the Graham Nash Collection, (Curatorial Assistance) isbn-13: 978-0933286559 [Δ
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - 

HomeContentsPhotographers > Photographers worth investigating

John Herschel  (1792-1871) • Henry Fox Talbot  (1800-1877) • Pauline Jermyn Trevelyan  (1816-1866)
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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Camera lucida

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ThumbnailCamera Lucida 
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Released (December 18, 2011)
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Released (March 31, 2012)

HomeVisual indexes > Camera lucida

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ThumbnailHenry Fox Talbot: Camera lucida drawings 
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ThumbnailJohn Herschel: Camera lucida drawings 
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ThumbnailDrawing and drafting aids: Camera Lucida 
Refreshed: 11 January 2015, 15:14
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