A Giant Camera Obscura at The Cliff House In San Francisco’s Lands End Area

Giant Camera Obscura behind the Cliff House in San Francisco

We’ve been to San Francisco so many times I can’t even count. While growing up, spending the day in San Francisco was an annual tradition for my birthday, and when Brian and I first started dating, we spent both his birthday and my birthday in the city!

We’ve done Union Square, The Ferry Building, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghiradelli Square numerous times. We have visited museums, gone to the theater, visited popular sites like Alcatraz and Coit Tower, walked China Town, and gone shopping. But while I love all the popular, crowded San Francisco tourist destinations, Brian detests them.

We weren’t really planning a trip to San Francisco. To be honest, after our epic summer of adventure, it just wasn’t in the budget for us. But when we saw the dates for Jerry Day 2016, a free one-day music festival, and realized that we had no plans that weekend, we decided to make it a long weekend and do some more adventuring. My job was to find free or low cost, non-touristy, secret, off-the-beaten-path things for us to do in San Francisco.

I totally succeeded! I found a whole bunch of interesting things to go check out like the Giant Camera Obscura. Well, at least I thought they were interesting. Brian though some of the things I found weren’t going to be very cool, but he quickly changed his mind, when almost everything we did was amazing.

  • We visited the Giant Camera Obscura and the famous Cliff House overlooking Ocean Beach and Seal Rock.
  • We explored the Sutro Bath House ruins and the Sutro Estate Gardens.
  • We hiked the Coastal Trail through San Francisco’s Lands End area to Mile Rock Beach and the Lands End Labyrinth at Eagles Point (with awesome views of the Golden Gate Bridge).
  • We climbed the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps and continued to the top of Grandview Park.
  • We hiked Bernal Hill, explored Bernal Heights Park, and walked the Bernal Hill Labyrinth.
  • We visited the Dutch Windmill, the Murphy Windmill, the Rose Garden, the Portals Of The Past, and the Koret Children’s Quarter playground and vintage carousel in Golden Gate Park, and we hiked to the top of Strawberry Hill at Stow Lake in the center of the park.

The San Francisco Camera Obscura

No, the San Francisco Camera Obscura isn’t exactly hidden. Yet, we’ve driven on Point Lobos Avenue past the Cliff House on numerous occasions and never noticed it. So while it’s not a San Francisco secret, it is one of the lesser-known tourist stops!

Located behind the Cliff House restaurant, its observation deck perched on the headlands just north of Ocean Beach, the Camera Obscura is a tiny museum also known as the Giant Camera. It is in the Lands End area of San Francisco’s Outer Richmond District, and the Camera along with the restaurant are owned by the National Park Service and are within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Unfortunately, when we were there, the weather was overcast and dark, so the tiny museum that also houses a small collection of holograms, was closed. I was bummed that we didn’t get to go inside, but we did have fun checking out the weird building and the view of Seal Rock.

Camera Obscura Technology

The name Camera Obscura means “Dark Room” in Latin. It is created when a small opening to allow in light is added to a dark room or box. Similar to a pinhole camera, an image opposite the opening is projected upside-down onto the surface and a lens is used to turn the image the right way.

The San Francisco Camera Obscura projects an live images of the Seal Rock area onto a horizontal viewing table by a reflected image from a viewpoint at the top of the building.

This installation uses a lens mounted in the metal hood in the cupola at the top of the building that slowly rotates, making a full revolution in about six minutes. This allows for a 360 degree view around the building. Light enters the building by an angled mirror in the metal hood, is passes through a lens with a 150 inch focal length, and is projected onto a six foot parabolic focusing table in a black room.

Camera Obscura History In San Francisco

The Camera Obscura is a rare device based on a 15th century design by Leonardo da Vinci. The technology was popularized during the Renaissance when artists used the technique to draw from life.

Camera Obscura history in San Francisco reaches back to the 1860s, when the first recorded reference to a Camera Obscura was made at an attraction called Woodward’s Gardens. The second Cliff House, built in 1896, had a Camera Obscura on its fourth floor that was destroyed when the building burned down in 1907.

When the third Cliff House reopened in 1937, the owner was approached by businessman Floyd Jennings with the idea of adding a Camera Obscura on the cliffs next to the restaurant as part of Playland At The Beach. The current San Francisco Camera Obscura was built by Jennings and Gene Turtle in 1946 and has been in continuous operation since. It is the last remaining structure of the world famous Playland At The Beach.

The 25×25 foot building, shaped like an upturned snapshot camera, can hold about six people at a time and displays holograms along its inner walls. It is topped by a copper pyramid containing a rotating mirror that reflects scenic images down onto a parabolic screen. The camera produces the best images on a sunny day or at sunset and its positioning is ideal for capturing images of waves crashing against Seal Rock.

The Giant 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 continued to keep the Camera Obscura open. Even though the building was modified in 1957 to look like a giant camera, the internal workings of the Camera Obscura have remained unchanged since it was built in 1946, and in 2001 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Know Before You Go

  • The Camera Obscura is located at 1096 Point Lobos Avenue, San Francisco, California at the edge of Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House Restaurant.
  • Follow the stairs on either side of the Cliff House down to the observation deck where you’ll see the Giant Camera and enjoy views of Ocean Beach and Seal Rock.
  • The small museum also houses a collection of holograms is open daily from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm, but closes irregularly for bad weather days. Call 415-750-0415 for hours.
  • There is parking along Point Lobos Avenue and a bus stop next door at the Lands End Lookout.

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