One thing I've always admired about The Legend of Zelda series of video games is how fairly modern technology and even groundbreaking futuristic technology is intertwined into a fantasy setting so well. Inspired by the Pictograph Box from Majora's Mask that's essentially a primitive handheld greyscale camera, I want to do something similar with my world.

In real-life the camera didn't exist way until the 19th century, many a century after the dark ages came and passed, and even then it was long before the advent of the handheld camera or colored pictures. I'm not quite sure if I want my fictional culture having colored cameras yet, but I definitely do want them to have handheld ones that are capable of printing photos.

In terms of other technological advancements they've made, they're pretty much what you'd expect. Melee weapons are the go to form of armaments, but they do own very primitive firearms. They have the knowledge to create such contraptions such as catapults and trebuchets, but they have no knowledge of electricity outside of magical electricity.

They make up for their scientific simplicity with vast arcane knowledge. Magic is very integral to their culture, as well as their day to day lives. They could use their magical aptitudes to enchant or imbue physical objects with things like lights, or maybe even alter the physics of items.

Maybe the camera could be less of a technological marvel and more of a magitech creation. Dunno how it would be able to print photographs though.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, apart from this being a pretty good question, it looks like you've given yourself a couple pretty good answers to boot! Realistically, you could go down any of those roads. Thaumology (magitech) is a good route to follow because that mimics the purely technological route. If you have diminutive magical creatures or peoples that can paint, you can always house some of them in a box and give them some tiny canvasses and paint sets. I think you'd do yourself a favour here if you went into a little more detail about this culture's technical capability and what the nature of magic is. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 0:25
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    $\begingroup$ "Dunno how it would be able to print photographs though." What about a mirror that freezes whatever is in it? Because back then...you know...paper as we know it didn't really exist yet. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ "Well, sir, the witch used their evil box to capture Jeb's soul. And the witch wouldn't release Jeb's soul. He just laughed. So we strangled the Agent Of Evil and then burned that horrible box along with their body. I mean, what else could we do? It worked: Jeb's feeling a lot better today. He got his soul back." $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 1:39
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    $\begingroup$ Okay -- but don't tell me in comments! Put it in the question, because that's how people are going to be able to give you good answers! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ So you have this world where "magic is very integral to their culture, as well as their day to day lives"; then you wonder how to justify the use of magic in that world... (Hint: "Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of all?" Isn't that a video screen and camera enabling the Wicked Queen to make video calls?) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 3:02

8 Answers 8


Take a page from Sir Pratchett:

An iconograph is a wonderful device that allows you to make "instantaneous paintings". In fact, an imp with brushes, pencils and a good eye for colours is put in a box, and when you push the button, you open a little window on the box and the imp draws really fast what it sees through the opening. Salamanders are used when more light is necessary for the imp to paint a good picture. All but the cheapest of today's iconographs can paint in colour.

Imps have no imagination whatsoever, and as a result, paint very accurate pictures. They do whatever they are told so long as it is within the limits of their training, such as being able to "zoom" in and paint in very small detail, or even to paint the picture of a cart and its number if it exceeds the speed limit.


Theoretically the lifespan of the imp is endless, but the imps of the cheaper iconographs seem to disappear rather quickly. Independently of this, the painting colours used by the imp have to be refilled as they are used up, and the imps themselves require regular feeding, though they seem to be able to survive without any form of sustenance for several weeks.

Normally, the user of the iconograph is called "iconographer", but another term could well be "Photographer".

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    $\begingroup$ There's always a discworld answer to mediaeval fantasy tech! $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 12:33
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    $\begingroup$ "Another recent adaption is using three imps with different coloured goggles to achieve coloured printing." $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 16:34

Camera obscura is an actual predecessor of a camera that evolved later into what we know as a camera.

Note that neither camera obscura nor camera requires any electricity. If you take a simple camera obscura and add some magically created, replaceable photosensitive material where you can block the photosensitivity (again with magic), you essentially get a basic camera. It doesn't have to be very big so it can be portable. The image quality will be lower than that of modern cameras (it's enhanced by lenses) but that probably shouldn't be a big problem. If it is greyscale or colour will depend on the photosensitive material so you can modify it according to your needs. Since your photosensitive material is magical, you can play with it a lot, including e.g. making it textile based.

The concept of camera obscura is very old. As Wikipedia suggests, the earliest written description of a similar device is dated before the 5th century. Combine it with a magician, who accidentally created a photosensitive material (considering it a failure in some other magical discovery, e.g. creating something edible) and left it inside a camera obscura (it could be just a box that had a hole just by accident) only to discover it "saved" the picture that was outside. Yet, the picture disappeared shortly after removing it from the camera obscura (box). So he started trying to find a way to preserve the image eventually finding a way to stop the photosensitivity. He then experimented a bit to get better quality photosensitive materials and you have your camera pretty much as early as you want.

  • $\begingroup$ Bravo! I thought of this in passing, in relation to my own answer, but never pursued it to the logical conclusions that you did. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you @DougR.As soon as I read the question it just seemed obvious to me. The only part missing in the middle ages is the right photosensitive material. With magic, it's really small handwaving. And I remember those old, film-based, entirely mechanical cameras as I had one (damaged) as a toy. No electricity at all. Strip it down to simplest elements, check how old are those and you have my answer ;-) $\endgroup$
    – Ister
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ "...[O]ld, film-based, entirely mechanical cameras...." You mean like the cameras I grew up with? You kids and your digital cameras.... :-D Really, based on what I read about camera obscura after reading your post, with the correct confluence of events (read: "happy accident"), the camera could've been invented any time after the 5th century, BCE, even assuming no magic. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I'm not such kid ;-) The thing is the cameras I grew up with already had some electrical equipment, like light-measuring device or film positioning. Still, the majority of functions were mechanical and they would work without a battery anyway (it would just require some external light measurement or experience-based guessing). But anyway I had one very basic, that literally had nothing electricity-based, just mechanic parts. When I was starting my experience with photography I was using greyscaled films as it was way cheaper than using colour films. $\endgroup$
    – Ister
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 16:11
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    $\begingroup$ As for the photography inventory - not so easy... The problem isn't in the camera obscura. It's in the photosensitive material. The basic one that is easily available doesn't cover full light range. Moreover, there is a whole problem of processing to prevent further photosensitivity and get nice clear pictures. Otherwise, it would probably be invented much earlier. Magic can easily handwave this particular problem. $\endgroup$
    – Ister
    Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 16:14

In a very magic orientated society, where enchantment are common, surely someone has enchanted a piece of charcoal to sketch something on a solid surface? An artist wanting a self portrait, for example? And a telekinetic paintbrush can't be that much of a stretch either; Maybe someone had to paint a wall but couldn't reach the top so used magic to paint rather than build a ladder? Or maybe someone wanting to graffiti without being caught?

If magic is widespread and common it will be used to solve mundane every day problems like this

Theres a progression from this to more accurate magical drawing, drawing faster, drawing with thinner tips, using paints, mixing the colours closer to the real world visuals. If theres motivation, printed photos could develop from any process which enchants auto drawing in a marking tool.

And there would be motivation, the record keeping of family and important milestones, same as our world.

That's all a printer is really, an enchanted tool which drops tiny drops of ink. The enchantment is done in our world using electricity, why cant an enchanted quill dot out a photo the same way? Surely magic is capable of microscopic, highly accurate quill positioning?


Arcane magic offers several options to create photografic images.

Scrying projection

The concept of scrying and the associated implements is very old and widely spread throughout different cultures. With a few tweaks you could cause your scrying implements to create a permanent image:

  • A crystal ball emits such intense light that it can burn the image into a slab of wood or piece of paper (like a magnifying glass)
  • Instead of tossing bones or rune stones, you toss tiny pieces of charcoal that paint the image on the surface they land on
  • Thin oil paint is dropped into a scrying bowl filled with water (the oil will float on top of the water) and magically forms the image. A piece of paper can carefully be laid on top of the bowl, picking up the paint and capturing the image.
  • A spell causes a scrying mirror to rapidly oxidize and capture the image it's currently showing

enter image description here


I love the magitech ideas (especially the Discworldesque idea - Sir Terry is definitely The Man for all technological things made magical).

However, keep in mind that, even in our own history, we had alchemists. And while they may not have discovered a method to convert lead into gold, they did many chemical experiments. In looking up historical photography techniques, it's not inconceivable that one might have, through empirical experimentation, stumbled upon a method of treating paper (or glass) with silver nitrate and potassium iodide, such as was used in the calotype process, which is one of the earlier techniques, used as early as 1839.

It might take a bit of hand-waving to plausibly move that invention earlier, but Leonardo da Vinci, for example, experimented broadly. What if he had devised such a process? At that point, photography is invented at least 320 years earlier, making it a Renaissance-era form of art.

What if that had happened a few centuries earlier still, by some monk in a monastery? For example, I know that silver nitrate is occasionally used to remove sulphur compounds from wine. I don't know enough about historical wine-making, but if it was used for this (or other processes in winemaking), a method of photography could have been created through an industrial accident - a chemical spill, after which said monk made some observations, which he then tried to recreate in a more controlled fashion (contrary to popular belief, the Church as an institution has never been anti-science, and medieval monks were engaged in preserving knowledge). Many discoveries or inventions have happened through a similar process.

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    $\begingroup$ Terry's camera is a rip-off of the flintstones one.... giphy.com/gifs/camera-gadget-flintstones-nzqk9ixYziYb6 $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 3:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'm very familiar with the Flintstones' camera. And yes, nearly identical. Where Sir Terry takes it to the next level, as he does with all his magical technology, is that he creates an explanation that is internally-consistent within Discworld logic, rather than arbitrarily throwing something together. $\endgroup$
    – Deacon
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 12:42

Viewing through parchment

  1. Take a sheet of very thinly scraped parchment. Hold it up in front of your eyes. Through it you will see a fuzzy and dark picture of the scene beyond.

  2. Stare very intently at a particular spot in the parchment where you can just make out something you are interested in. Gradually an image will start to form in that area. To you it will appear as though the parchment is becoming transparent. In fact, the opposite is true. The transparency is being replaced by an image on the parchment.

Possible problems

You must hold your head and the parchment very still otherwise the image will be blurred.

If there is movement in the picture it will be very difficult to capture it. Human subjects must hold a pose for some time as you scan them with your eyes.

You must be able to stare very strongly and with focus at the parchment during the process. It is possible to do this in more than one session but not easy unless the subject is inanimate.

You can make stereo photographs this way but they will only work for people with exactly the same eye-spacing and eyesight as you. It is much more common to close one eye as you stare so as to get a flat picture.

Scientific/Magical explanation

When you stare at something, "seeing rays" come from your eyes as normal (see diagram below). The difference is that they pass through the parchment in both directions. Where they meet, they react with the parchment to make an image.

Johann Zahn, ‘The Radiating Eye’ from Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium (1702)

enter image description here



The eye has been the subject of conflicting interpretations since antiquity. Many ancient physicians and philosophers believed in the idea of the active eye. Plato, for instance, wrote in the fourth century B. C. that light emanated from the eye, seizing objects with its rays. https://web.stanford.edu/class/history13/earlysciencelab/body/eyespages/eye.html

The above is backed up in more modern times.

Image of man using very concentrated seeing rays.


Adherents of emission theory cited at least two lines of evidence for it.

The custom of saluting is said by some to stem from the habit of Greek soldiers putting their hands up in front of their eyes to "shade" their eyes from the powerful "light" shining from the eyes of their commanders[citation needed]. The light from the eyes of some animals (such as cats, which modern science has determined have highly reflective eyes) could also be seen in "darkness". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emission_theory_(vision)

  • $\begingroup$ superman could send heat beams from his eyes, it's not seeing so much as projection. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 3:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Jasen - Good point. How did his X-ray vision work? He must have been able to switch that on and off otherwise he would have seen with X-rays all the time. Also I doubt it was really X-rays because he could see through brick walls and steel and yet see humans normally in the other side. Are you sure he wasn't just able to stare very hard - much harder than most people? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ The notion of people sending rays out of their eyes in order to capture the image of a scene, is identical to the concept of ray tracing in modern day computer graphics. The camera shoots out invisible rays of light onto the 3D scene. These are not illumination rays as in a flash light, rather they are just for determining the scope of visibility out of an eye. Each individual ray is traced around as it bounces around the scene, getting reflected, refracted, and absorbed by objects in the scene. The end result is a realistic 2D image of the 3D scene, including mirrors reflections effects. $\endgroup$
    – Galaxy
    Commented Aug 22, 2020 at 19:09

There is a cave far on the edges of the known kingdom. Inside this cave are crystals and a type of plant that has large, dark leaves. When exposed to the sun, these leaves will bleach out to white.

However, if you were to contain these leaves inside of a box, where the only light is adjusted by a small lever that snaps a shutter in front of a crystal from the cave, the light coming in would burn onto the leaf, in a pale, correctly-colored hue. The pictures would not be highly defined.

Once the image is burned in, the leaf dies and no more light can affect it. Over time, the leaf will become brittle and decompose. There is a technique to press these images over onto paper, essentially damaging the leaf beyond repair. There is only one copy of any image and it can not be duplicated.

The device could be easily developed by anyone. There would be no focus until glass and lenses are common.


Have someone discover the chemistry and physics of photography several generations earlier than happened in our world. Why is that difficult?

It’s true the camera didn't exist until way into the 19th C but don’t you think that’s a co-incidence? Why could it not have been discovered/invented, say, 500 years earlier even in this our world, let alone yourn?

Zelda contributes what, here, please? Can Majora contribute something, or is your primitive greyscale what most people know as a black-and-white camera?

(Did you notice the 19th C is vastly more than a mere century after the dark ages?)

Again, don’t you think handheld cameras or coloured pictures could by luck and random chance have been discovered/invented generations earlier even in our real world, let alone yourn?

When you’re not sure what you want, what might it take for you to get sure?

What does “handheld cameras capable of printing photos” mean, please? Are you going back to the Polaroids of the '70s which could literally print their own photos, or what?

Whatever “Melee weapons” means - axes, daggers, maces, swords and the like, or what? - how could weaponry change photographic technology?

If you were an ancient warrior with access to even “very primitive” firearms, why would anything less be your go-to weapon? Again, how might weaponry impact photography? With or without the knowledge to create catapults and trebuchets, how might weaponry impact photography? How might knowledge of electricity impact photography?

If you’re allowing “magical electricity” why not “magical photography” alongside “magical (anything else)”?

How does it matter that your people make up for their scientific simplicity with vast knowledge, “arcane” or otherwise?

Why would your “magitech” camera be less or more of a marvel than an ordinary camera relying on nothing more than chemistry or physics?

How could you not know how your camera might be able to print photographs, with or without magic?

Why should your magician need more than to snap her fingers?

Why should your technical photographer need more than the fairly simple science used in our real world?

  • $\begingroup$ @Niobium_Sage If you want to say "I don’t know why you’d even bother leaving a comment if you’re just going to be condescending. I’m not asking anyone to do my work for me, I’m just looking for inspiration that I can use to kickstart my imagination and writing" why not say that in a Comment? It was you who Posted that Question with that wording. If "Why should your magician need more than to snap her fingers?" or "Why should your technical photographer need more than the fairly simple science used in our real world?" are "condescending" what, for you, might not be? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 21:44

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