This tiny museum also known as the ‘Giant Camera’ is on the grounds of the historic Cliff House and features a working camera obscura, which reflects images of the beach front outside. It also houses a small collection of holograms.
The technology for the camera obscura is ancient and was popularized starting in the Renaissance, when artists used the technique to draw from life. The name means ‘dark chamber’ in Latin. The technique is simple: a darkened room, box, or tent is fixed with a small opening to allow in light. As in a pinhole camera, an image of objects opposite the opening is projected upside-down onto the surface opposite. A lens is used to right the image.
Originally part of the amusement park Playland at the Beach, the San Francisco Camera Obscura was built in the 1940s by Floyd Jennings.
In this installation, a rotating lens mounted in the roof projects a 360 degree image down onto a 6 foot parabolic focusing table.
The Camera was nearly shut down twice: once following the closing of Playland at the Beach in the 1970s and again in 1999 when the Cliff House was renovated. Public support has kept it open, and in 2001 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and saved from destruction.
The best time to visit is just before sunset. Call ahead to confirm time of sunset and opening hours, as the hours are a little irregular.
Know Before You Go
The Camera Obscura is located at the Cliff House in the Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. Descend the stairs on either side of the Cliff House to reach the platform where you'll see the Giant Camera/Camera Obscura booth. There is parking along Point Lobos Avenue. By public transit: Take the #18 or #38 bus to Geary and 48th. The #1 California bus will get you to Geary and 33rd where you can transfer to the #18 or #38. It's $3 a person to enter the camera. It's only open between 11am and 5pm and is subject to closures if the weather is bad.