RIP: Camera Lucida

This article appears in the 2014 no.2 Journal of Natural Science Illustration

— by Jennifer Landin

In grad school, I was assigned the task of drawing a series of teeth using a camera lucida attached to a microscope. This was the best tool EVER! I knew the measurements were correct, knew proportions were accurate… because I’d traced it. Fast and simple. Alas, the camera lucida faded into obscurity as more microscopes were equipped with cameras.

So when a Kickstarter campaign launched to create a new kind of camera lucida (Fig. 01), I eagerly awaited the result. When they released to the public, I bought two (I teach a course in Biological Illustration and thought the tool would be useful to show (or check) contours, proportions, or values. Afterall, the camera lucida turns 3-D images into 2-D traceable elements).

When the NeoLucidas arrived, I eagerly opened one and tried it out on a still life… the pencil holder on my desk. I’ll admit that my first attempt included drawing the object upside down. After referring to the scant instructions again, I figured out how to use the NeoLucida correctly. But my drawing did not look much better – just right side up.


From the Kickstarter campaign, I was under the impression that this tool was easy to transport (which it is). I imagined working en plein air to quickly sketch a scene. Unfortunately, while the NeoLucida is easy to transport, the work area is small – perhaps 3-4”. It’s also incredibly difficult to keep your eye in the correct location. Here’s my attempt to sketch a scene in my back yard.

As you can see (Fig. 02), my positioning shifted as I drew my way around the scene. The roof and tree top are fairly accurate, but as I move down the structure, objects appear lower than they really are. By the time I get to the door and left window, my drawing has significantly shifted down and to the left.


Recently, a question came up on SciArt’s listserv regarding the NeoLucida vs. phone/tablet apps. Here’s my (illustrated) experience with both:

So I was disappointed, but still rooting for the NeoLucida. I hadn’t followed the directions; I didn’t have the tool attached to anything. So I clipped a bit of fern and went to the kitchen table.

First, I have to take off my glasses to get my eye positioned correctly (given the reviews on Amazon, I’m not the only visually-impaired artist to have problems with this). Here’s the result – not too impressive (Fig. 03). 

I tried drawing a few other objects. Those in too much darkness or without a lot of contrast could not be seen at all. It does seem sturdy with a nice carrying case. I just can’t imagine where or why I would take it anywhere.

Overall, I found the results to be childish and sketchy. My eyes were quite sore after only a few sketches. I produce much faster, more accurate drawings on my own. Given the cost of the device, I’d suggest skipping this purchase. Bummer.

On to the smartphone apps!

I downloaded two free apps, Artist’s Eye and Augmented Drawing. Augmented Drawing had a bunch of ads scrolling across my phone, reducing screen availability and making the app difficult to use. So I pretty much stuck with Artist’s Eye.

Here’s how it works – you take a photo of what you want to draw, open the photo in the app and adjust the transparency. Your camera/video feature is displayed through the photo so you can see your hand as you draw. (Fig. 06)

The problem, of course, is that your hand moves. My proportions were off as a result (Fig. 04). You’d need a stand to position the phone securely over your paper (used in a YouTube video of the app). If you elevated the phone, you could probably produce up to an 8” drawing.

My final experiment was to quickly sketch the location of the fern’s pinna using the smartphone app, then go back and add details from sight (Fig. 05). It’s still not as accurate as I would like, but it’s the best product so far.

Try it out for yourself!

All photos and art © Jennifer Landin

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