The camera Lucida is arrayed in a tripod on the right, surrounded by a telescope, a set square, a ruler, a pair of compasses and other devices, while in a tent-type Camera Obscura is in use. This motif belonged to Carl Jacob Lindstrom’s well- known satiric, illustrated book ‘I Stranieri in Italia’, printed and distributed in Naples in 1830. This popularity of the caricature Lindstrom created shows the wide spread popular derision of the attitudes of both the aesthetic appreciation of the nature and instrumental recording that it describes. And it is evidence of the fact that the represented use of optical drawing devices while observing and depicting Nature was a wide spread custom around 1830.
The basic step to understand the difference between the visual experiences conveyed by Camera Obscura and Camera Lucida is to consider the two devices in terms of their technology. In spite of the analogy of their names, in fact, they are two completely different apparatuses. The Camera Obscura is indeed a camera, this means a room or a box in which the scene from outside is projected. – through a pinhole or with the help of lenses – onto a wall or a screen. The Camera Lucida, on the contrary, is neither a room nor a box, but nothing more than a little prism mounted on a stem that can be arbitrarily fixed on a table or on a small portable drawing room.
The analogy of the two names is not thus due technical similarity of both devices. Rather, the confusing adoption of the same term to describe them goes back to the understanding of the general notion of ‘camera’ at the time when the Camera Lucida was invented, this is, as we will see the very beginning of the nineteenth century. The term ‘Camera Obscura’ seems to have been felt to describe less the device as such than the process of drawing with it. As the Latin term was translated with ‘dark chamber’ Camera Obscura was thus commonly understood as something like ‘drawing in the dark’. Since drawing with the help of the prism, on the contrary, was done outside of chambers and boxes, the converse literal translation into Latin was adopted for this process: ‘drawing in the light’ became Camera Lucida. The commercial potential of the Camera Lucida was soon recognized and all the major opticians of the time offered Camera Lucida and different items thought to facilitate its use of drawing.
The Camera Obscura enables us to see nature as an image with an attributes of a painting. Leonardo da Vinci refers to the analogy of the Camera Obscura image with the picture, observing that the images “falling in the dark room through a pin hole, on a sheet of paper really look as if they were painted on this paper”. The Camera Lucida dramatically differs from the Camera Obscura, since the prism does not allow the observer to see a projected, steady image resembling a complete pictura. As a device for the observation and drawing, the Camera Lucida satisfied the upcoming new demands related to technologies and processes of observation and depiction of nature, which the Camera Obscura was apparently unable to cover.