Camera Obscura - The Focal Point of Edinburgh
by Chartreuse 12/5/2011 18.01
On a must-see recommendation I decided to devote my one day in Edinburgh to a real-life version of a marvel I'd only seen in A Matter of Life and Death. I gathered from the photograph that it was high up and called anxiously to ask about stairs. 100. Gulp. Their application for a lift had been denied on the grounds that the building was 'too old'. The good news is that the 100 is over 5 floors with seating and a photo op in between and is mostly 2 flights of ten interspersed with landings where you can pause and puff and lean on the wall.
May I take photographs? I asked. Not only may you take photographs but we positively enCOURage you to take photographs and if you'd like to send them to us we'd love to see them, was the kindly and enthusiastic response. Hold on. I was calling a tourist attraction. This was a first.
The Camera Obscura is a 5-storey turret of a mini-science museum. There's not a 'Do Not...' notice in sight. It is as touchy feely as its customer services. Very few exhibits are in glass cases and there are copious notices, easily readable, which encourage you to touch, look, put your nose on, stand on, sit on, crawl into and even jump up and down. The place must be awash with school parties and families and yet there are no forbiddens.
A staff member came across me panting a partial way up to the top and encouraged me to take my time. Another found me wondering around the 4th floor and offered assistance and I enjoyed a chat and learned some new things about the exhibits and the city.
£9.50 for an adult and I would say well worth the spend. The gift shop is a good place for presents for present/birthdays/the person who has everything.
The fifth floor houses the camera obscura itself. Latin for 'hidden camera', this Victorian precursor of the CCTV camera uses three lenses and a mirror lodged in the roof above to project an image of the city onto a white table. A pole is used to direct the camera in any direction. You can watch the workmen in front of the castle, on a clear day see the railway bridge, examine the churches, and with a piece of card optically pick up the passers-by below.
Astonishingly for the period, this was set up by a woman, Maria Short, who acquired the top of the building, set up her periscope and, I was told, entrepreneurially took to the streets to sell tickets to the new attraction.
The views from the tower outside the camera obscura and its enclosed waiting area are spectacular and on that clear sunny day were a photographer's dream.
If you are wheelchair-bound you will definitely need assistance. Depending on the level of your mobility you may be able to make it independently given sufficient time so I'd suggest you plan a long interval between making base camp and your arrival time at the summit for the demonstration you're booked into.
However, given the limitations of the structure, it is hard to fault. The notices are translated into three other languages but are written plainly English enough for most grasps of the language. The nature of the exhibits and the physical engagement with them makes the attraction a delight for any age or gender, local or tourist. If you have time for only one port of call in the city and want to see Edinburgh both from a bird's eye view and up close and personal I'd recommend you 'do' the Camera Obscura.
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