Saturday, July 26, 2014

Toy cameras

When I started taking pictures, I was following the made-up Lomography “ethic”, in which you're supposed to take your camera with you always, and get pictures of everything and nothing, all the time. The idea was to get a lot of uncontrolled, accidental art, using the crummy Russian Lomo LC-A camera, which tended to take arty, screwy-looking pictures. After messing around with the Lomo a little while, I started exploring some of the other cheap/junk/toy camera options, which each have their own visual quirks. I finally mostly gave up the toys because I started getting an idea of what a good picture is, and how to make them, and I started wanting more control over the outcome. To the point where it was becoming counter-productive; I was only taking pictures when I had a definite project or job, or when I thought I could get some special pictures. So I've been coming back to the toys again to get myself producing a lot of images again. And because I took some really cool pictures with them, and I'd like to be doing more of that.

So, here are some of the standard options for toy film cameras:

A way sexier picture than this
extremely humble camera merits.
This is the original artist's camera— back in the early 70s, photography students were picking these up from Woolworth's for  $1.49 and going crazy with them. They are true pieces of lowest-possible grade plastic junk, sold under dozens of different names including, hilariously, Champion, or, more fittingly, Rosko. They had a level of quality control you usually find in toys you get out of gumball machines— even the lens, which is made out of plastic. They're also really cool, weird distortions and smears of light, and heavy vignetting, and each camera is a little bit unique. It uses medium format roll film, but only exposes a 4.5 x 4.5cm portion of each 6x6 frame of film— approximately; the frame is a little skewed on mine. I usually shoot E-6 slide film, and cross-process— I ask the lab to process the E-6 like regular C-41 negative print film, which generally increases contrast and distorts the colors.

Shot with the Diana, in Paris, in 2009

For a long time they were stupidly expensive, but I was lucky enough to inherit one from my brother Scott— over the years he picked up several of them at the Goodwill, basically for free. Now the Lomography people have reissued them, with some added features, and prices on the original cameras are now much more realistic; this week I was able to get one on eBay for $10 in pretty short order.

If you want to get one of the new ones, this forum user had this to say about them:
The new Diana [...] is vastly different [from the old]... Its lens was carefully designed (yes, designed!) to mimic the old look and, to my mind, is a bit too intentionally bad, but in a good way, with lots of astigmatism on the edges, sometimes a bit too much, but it's not bad.

Holga 120N
The Holga, first available (or first popular?) in the 90's, is sort of the successor to the Diana. It's almost as primitive and shoddily-constructed, but with a little better construction— unlike the Diana, it doesn't feel like you could crush it by squeezing it hard— and a better plastic lens. Vignetting, light leaks, and softer focus near the edges of the frame are the notable artistic interest. Since they've become popular with the artist crowd, a bunch of variations have been made available, but I would stick with the straight black 120N. Like the Diana, it takes medium-format roll film. There is a 35mm Holga available, which you might be tempted to get, but it is really worth the small extra hassle to use the MF/120 version— 35mm film with a junk lens just looks crappy, and not in a good way.

Holga: Use the 120 version. 

Both the Holga and the Diana have one shutter speed, and a couple of apertures, and the world's roughest zone focusing. The reason these cameras are usable at all is that a) print film has pretty wide latitude; meaning you can get a usable image even if your exposure is pretty wrong; and b) they tend to have smaller apertures, giving you more depth of field, so you're more likely to have your subject to accidentally be in focus.

Continued after the break:

There are two major versions of this camera, the 30s-looking Lubitel 2, or the Eastern Bloc-looking 166. It's a fully manual twin-lens reflex camera, which also takes 120 roll film, shooting in a 6x6 format. It has a glass lens that is not anyone's idea of good, but still produces beautiful, finer tonality than any 35mm camera ever made. 120 film is just an order of magnitude nicer than 35mm. I took this picture on my friend's farm early one morning, just guessing at the exposure:

The Lomography people have been selling these new, and prices are currently rather ridiculously high, but they're pumping so many into the environment that used Lubis— and Holgas, too— must be due for a big-time price correction soon, like has apparently already happened with the Dianas. While prices are this high, you may as well spend a little more to buy a real camera, like a used Seagull, or an old Yashica D; that latter you would probably have to get adjusted at by your local old-fart camera repairman— but that's a subject for another day.

Some other options:

Lomo LC-A
Back in the early 90s a couple of Austrian marketing students took a trip to Russia, where they picked up a crappy Soviet-era knockoff of a Cosina compact camera, found that they got some interestingly crummy pictures with it, and, tapping into the raver zeitgeist, and applying a liberal dousing of hype, invented a movement. The camera is not actually a toy, and it's not quite as bad as they would like it to be, but there's some vignetting, and if you use the “auto” setting in low light, you get some long shutter speeds, giving you some cool, druggy-looking night/interior pictures. It was fun for a few years, but I finally sold mine because I just wasn't using it that much— other cameras were more rewarding. They're currently way too expensive new, but if you shop carefully you can get one for $40-80 on eBay.

Smena 8M, Symbol, or 35
These are just about the cheapest possible plastic cameras; the main interesting thing about them is that they are fully manual. You have to set the shutter speed, the aperture, focus, and cock the shutter. They have a 'B' setting which allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as you want, so you can do Lomo-like low light exposures. For a little while they were absurdly expensive, but a modicum of sanity has been restored, and you can get them on eBay for <$25. Really, $5-7 is about what you should be spending on them. I think I got my 8M for $3 on eBay. I can't think of a real compelling reason to mess with these.

Fed Micron
This one is really just a curiosity, but also an illustration of the principle that as your camera gets crappier, you really need a larger negative to get a good picture— even a good funky picture. The Fed Micron is a Russian half-frame camera— it shoots two really crappy-looking exposures per 35mm frame. So you get 72 pictures on a standard 36 exposure roll. When you scan them normally, you get two images juxtaposed per frame, which I guess you could use creatively, but the quality of each image is just very shabby. They look cool, but don't bother.

Agfa Clack
You're never going to buy one, but these are kind of fun. It's basically a German Brownie, with steampunk styling. It has one shutter speed, fixed focus, and two apertures; it uses 120 film, in giant 6x9 cm format, so you get, I think, eight pictures per roll of film. The extra-big negative makes up for all manner of ills where the lens is concerned, and I actually would like to get one again— I gave my others away.

Right now people are asking absurd prices for them on eBay, but most of the ones that actually sell are going for $10-25, which is about right.

If you'd like to read more about some of these Russian cameras, my old favorite site for that is Alfred Klomp's Camera Page— written by a kid in the Netherlands who took an interest in them.

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