This is a review of the NeoLucida, a modern take on the Camera Obscura. It can be purchased for $47 on Amazon. An alternative is the LUCID-Art (links and prices at end of this review) as well as the Camera Lucida app for iPhone/iPad. Click here to read my review of the Camera Lucida app, which may be the best option available.
The unit consists of a clamp, bendable arm, and a prism at the end of the arm. The photo below shows the setup I used, which is pretty much what is recommended in the documentation:
- The object to be drawn is at the same height as the NeoLucida;
- The object and the paper are illuminated roughly equally.
My desk did not have a suitable lip for the clamp, so I used a sheet of Masonite on top of the desk. It was slightly bendy, but that wasn’t an issue for me.
To use the NeoLucida once it is set up, you look straight down into the prism from above, with your eye about one inch away. This provides the maximum field of view — and maximum is not much, as shown in the photo below. Click the image to view it full size.
As you can see, the area in view at one time is quite small – a horizontal slice of the total view, with the object completely visible at the top, a narrow band where you can see both the object, and your drawing, and then your drawing. The overlap zone, where you can see enough of both (drawing, object) is pretty narrow, due to the small size of the prism. You have to bob and weave very carefully to bring each small bit of your object into the overlap zone so that you can draw it.
The small prism also limits the angular size of the object you want to draw; if you have a larger object, then you must move it further away. The small size of the projection of the object limits how much detail you can record.
Here is the pencil drawing of the red pepper I was able to do with the NeoLucida. Note that my line is extremely hesitant; I had to look really really carefully at the project and my pencil tip in order to make accurate marks. So my individual line lengths are extremely short. I would draw a tiny segment, adjust my eye position as necessary, then draw another tiny segment.
Because I already know how to draw, this was more time consuming than I would normally like. However: if you do not know how to draw, then I think these issues — small total field of view, small zone of overlap, needing to be quite careful to draw the object, and frequent adjustments of position — would be minor. Because, as you can see below, you get a decent sketch of your object as the result of your effort.
The previous night, I made an ink sketch of a different pepper without the NeoLucida. It’s rough and ready – it lacks the careful placement of lines of detail and brightness/shadow that I could achieve with the NeoLucida above. I liked being able to place reflections exactly; I added the long horizontal lines above afterwards — the NeoLucida gave me the precise dimensions of the object, and I could then add/modify details to suit my artistic intentions easily.
If I were to use the NeoLucida (or, better, a similar device with a larger field of view; see link below), I would use it capture position and proportion, and then continue without it.
Here is the ink sketch from the previous night:
The only problem I had with the NeoLucida was the small field of view. It works exactly as you would expect in all other respects, and is usable for a careful person willing to take their time. You need to work carefully for two reasons:
- To learn the nuances of working with the device
- To move a new area of the subject into the overlap zone, where you can see both the object and the paper/pencil.
It took me a few minutes to make those adjustments, and I expect I would get better over a few days using it, say, 30 to 60 minutes each day. At $47, it’s a good value. It’s going to give most users some frustration as they learn how to use it, but that fades away and it works as it should as long as you work carefully to stay within its limitations.
If you want to get a camera obscura that is more functional, you are going to have to spend considerably more money. I found a unit with a much larger prism on Amazon and tracked it down to its web site (where it’s available at a lower price than on Amazon). The Amazon price is $249, and the sale price on the web site is $179. They also offer a gooseneck version like the NeoLucida, but with the larger prism, for $109 on Amazon, $99 on their site. The alternative unit, the LUCID-Art, also has a few useful accessories, including a photo projector (a fresnel lens with bracket).
My recommendation? If you just want to play at this, or if you have enough curiosity about the history of art to want to play a bit with a camera obscura, or if you are just cheap, then the NeoLucida will be fun to use once you get the hang of it, and will produce useful and attractive results with some care (which is always a given with drawing, no matter whether you are working freehand or tracing). If you have a bit of inclination to embellish, you can do your basic sketch with the NeoLucida, and then add more details, or add ink or paint, as you wish.
If you are serious about this type of device, then the more expensive LUCID-Art with the larger prism may be a better choice. I didn’t try it myself, but there are details videos of its use on the web site; follow the links above. I am comfortable drawing, but it would be advantageous to sometimes establish proportion and placement of a complex subject using a camera obscura. So I may spring for the money to get the more expensive unit at some point.