Digital Camera Lucida




Introduction: Digital Camera Lucida

We've all seen them, those super skillful artists doing slick time-lapse drawings that end up looking like photographs. Inspired by their effortless grace we grab our pencils and produce drawings that a four year old would be embarrassed to show to the cat.

Being able to draw is such a desirable skill that there are endless videos and tutorials explaining the techniques and tools and over and above all, telling us that in order to improve you simply have to practice. Yeah, like I have time to sit and learn proportions and anatomy and shading and so on. Social media doesn't feed itself you know.

This is not a modern problem and 'artists' throughout history have always looked for short-cuts. I'd like to share mine with you.


Web Cam - WindowTop software

Step 1: A Little History Lesson

You may not know this but photography was invented because William Henry Fox Talbot couldn't draw. He tried using a camera obscura which was basically a box with a mirror that projected images onto ground glass and were then traced. His tracings were terrible so he invented photography (disclaimer: there is a lot more to the birth of photography but for this instructable that's all we need to know).

Another fine Victorian fellow - William Hyde Wollaston - invented a camera lucida. Another aid to drawing that was series of prisms that you looked through to trace. Both these tools were designed to bestow upon mere mortals the gift of drawing.

Step 2: My Hi-Tech Solution

I will put my hands up here and say that when I put my mind to it I am not too shabby when it comes to drawing but I am lazy and will always look for the path of least resistance. What I'm sharing here is a quick way to start a drawing that will give you acceptable results to serve as a base to work from.

First thing you'll need is a computer/laptop and a separate web cam. I have an old MS Lifecam that does the job. You need to be able to have the camera looking down onto your workspace. My hi-tech solution was to attach it to a ruler with a rubber band and then jam the ruler under a book on the shelf above.

I use the camera app that came with windows and placed my drawing paper on my desk and framed up with the camera.

Step 3: The Magic Ingredient.

For this to work you need to add a piece of free software that was originally designed for coders. Head over to and follow the instructions about downloading and installing. Once installed there is an option to have the program run at start up which I would avoid, there is no need to have it running all the time.

Once you have the program running you will see an extra little tab at the top of any windows you float. Inside there is an option to reduce the opacity of the window. Choose an image to use as your target image. It can be open in any software.

If working from Google I would always right click on the image and choose open in new tab. Un-dock that tab by dragging it free from the top and then making sure that it is above your video feed, resize it and position it so that it is above your paper. Reduce the opacity - I chose about 40% but it's up to you/

You can now see through your target image to the video below. Pick up your pen/pencil and start tracing. It takes a bit of practice to look 'through' your monitor and not at the paper but once the old hand to eye co-ordination kicks in it is possible to draw around the image.

You now have a digital camera lucida and are on your way to fame and riches as an artist of great skill and effortless grace....or you might just have some fun producing halfway decent drawings.

Step 4: Final Thoughts

Above are a couple of images I produced using this set-up. They took me minutes (I can hear you giggling at the back) and were drawn with pen without any pencil outlines or guides. There are some who say that tracing is cheating but I believe that the more drawings you do the more you develop your muscle memory and the better you will get. Damn, I'm agreeing with the people who say that practice is best way to improve. Anyway, this little set-up will hopefully get you drawing and who knows where that will lead to.

Step 5: Final Final Thoughts

There are apps for your phones that do much the same as this, I have one on my phone that works great but the screen is, well, phone sized. This set-up allows me to use my monitor for extra clarity.

If you're running a Mac I'm afraid this won't work for you. Maybe someone can work out a way.

That's it, get drawing and I'd love to see some of your creations in the 'I Made It' section below.

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