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Seal Rock and the Camera Obscura © Don DeBold/Flickr
Seal Rock and the Camera Obscura © Don DeBold/Flickr

Behold The Camera Obscura: Capturing The Coast Of San Francisco

Picture of Courtney Holcomb
Updated: 22 July 2016
On the western coast of Sutro Heights Park, just south of the Cliff House restaurant, sits San Francisco’s Camera Obscura. San Franciscans can visit this massive camera and experience the 360 degree views that it captures, including a gorgeous coastal view of Seal Rocks. We explore the camera’s unique features and history.

Camera obscuras predate the modern camera; translating from Latin to “dark rooms” in English. NoeHill explains the concept behind these ‘dark rooms’: “If you go into a room darkened by a heavy shade on a sunny day and prick the shade with a pin, you will see the image of the outside world on the opposite wall, in color but upside down. This dark room… illustrates the physics and origin of the modern photographic camera.”

San Francisco’s Camera Obscura embodies this description on a large scale, magnifying images of the Seal Rock area to seven times their natural size. The images are captured from a mechanism in the ceiling of the Camera Obscura and projected below onto a Parabolic Table that is six feet in diameter. “The simple mechanism consists of a ten-inch rotating mirror which projects a flowing image of the outside world through focusing lenses onto a horizontal viewing surface,” explains NoeHill. Visitor can come to observe the live images, sometimes even getting the chance to catch sunsets, sunspots, solar flares, and phenomena like the green flash.

This Camera Obscura is based on a design by Leonardo DaVinci from the 15th century. It was built by Floyd Jennings and Gene Turtle in 1946 as a part of San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach. Playland began as an unofficial collection of rides around the end of the 1800s, located at what is now known as Ocean Beach. The collection grew into an amusement park in the early 1900s, but popularity waned after the death of the park’s owner in the 50s, and eventually the park closed down in 1972. The Camera Obscura is the only fixture of the park left standing today. While the camera’s exterior underwent a remodel in 1957 to create the appearance of a giant camera, its interior has remained unchanged. It is now owned by the National Park Service as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and has been commemorated among the landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places since 2001.

In an episode of the Exploratorium’s Science in the City, camera operator Robert Tacchetto takes viewers on an intimate tour of the Camera Obscura. Watch the full video here.