Innovative practice - Look through the pinhole

10th February 2012 at 00:00
Create a camera obscura for a cross-curricular lesson on the science of optics and perspective in art

The background

Justin Quinnell developed his love for old- fashioned photography techniques when he was a lecturer at a further education college in Bristol.

"I was head of photography and the kids couldn't all afford cameras, but they all had cans of Coke," he says. "So I showed them how to turn the cans into pinhole cameras. It meant everyone started from the same level - and I was hooked."

After he left the college in 1999, Quinnell retrained as a secondary teacher and taught design and technology. He now works as an artist and experimenter, holding exhibitions of his photographs, including a series taken from inside his own mouth. His other roles have included being employed by Hollywood as a "pinhole camera consultant". However, he continues to lecture at university level and regularly visits schools.

The project

Camera obscuras - darkened rooms or boxes in which images are projected through a lens or hole - are believed to be the earliest optical device. As a child, Quinnell enjoyed visiting one that overlooks the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol. Then, in 2009, he was asked to create a camera obscura himself by the National Trust. "It was basically a big tent and a force 10 gale blew it down," he says. "But I loved it."

After that, he began creating camera obscuras in schools, which surprised and baffled pupils who were used to digital projections. The lessons aimed to teach pupils about the science of optics, but also looked at the arts, touching on how the architect Filippo Brunelleschi, and later the artist Johannes Vermeer, used a similar technique to create perspective in paintings.

Quinnell realised that other teachers would want to teach the same lesson, so he created a camera obscura classroom kit that includes a lens, a sheet, a mount, Velcro tape and instructions. He sells the kits on his website ( at a cost of #163;25.

Tips from the scheme

- You will need a room that you can make pitch-black. This can be tricky in modern schools, which often have large glass windows, but is still feasible using cardboard and help from the caretaker.

- Be aware of cross-curricular potential, Quinnell advises. The use of camera obscuras does not have to be restricted to science lessons.

Evidence that it works?

Quinnell is, unsurprisingly, strongly convinced of the educational merit of his approach ("It's a camera obscura - in the classroom it kicks butt," he says). He has, however, also collected a range of endorsements from teachers at schools he has visited, extolling his work.

"The children and I have loved the opportunity to do something totally different. There was creativity, science, photography and lots of fun involved," says Leah Tomlin, assistant head of Henleaze Junior School in Bristol.

The project

Approach Making a camera obscura kit

Created by Justin Quinnell, Bristol

Other projects Guides for creating a pinhole camera and an explanation of how to make a six-month exposure camera using a beer can and photographic paper (that requires no chemicals to develop) are available on Justin Quinnell's website:

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