Monday, March 12, 2007

"Toy" Cameras

To camera enthusiasts there's a subgroup that enjoys a considerable following on the web: so-called "toy" or "junk" cameras. These are usually poorly made, mass produced cameras, sometimes intended for children, but typically either sold to unsuspecting consumers lured by pretty plastic or given away as cheap carnival prizes. The most obvious example of this group is the "Diana" and its numerous manifestations. Some enthusiasts will also toss in the Holga as a signature model. (For a more thorough and humorous discussion of these cameras and their artistic utility, check out or Regardless of origin, most can be classified according to several common variables, including, but not limited to: crappy (usually plastic) optics, light leaks, lens flare, and cheap price (usually less than $20). And while most people have no use for these cameras - particularly as the tide of digital photography advances - there is a devoted following that sees the toy camera as a tool for artistic expression. As notes: "Toy camera photographers are rebels who want to prove that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."

Sure, I love a beautifully rendered photograph that's a product of a keen eye and excellent glass. Perusing a compendium of Edward Steichen photos the other night (I've posted one of his classic Flatiron Building shots.) I marveled at the velvety texture of his black and white images. And I'd love to drop several thousand dollars on a new Leica. But there's also considerable beauty in the fuzzy image rendered by a Holga. Toss in some lens flare and contracted depth of field, and your photo could resemble the efforts of the earliest photography pioneers - without the caustic chemicals and protracted exposure times. Daguerre and Fox Talbot would laud your efforts.

Until now, the "toy" camera genre has focused on film-based images. Yet it should come as no surprise that the same mindset which inspired film-based "toy" cameras has brought us "toy" digital cameras. Go to any Wal-Mart or "dollar store" and you'll see them: cheap digital cameras, some with recognizable names like Vivitar, promising fantastic results and a whopping 1 to 2 megapixels . . . joined to the same craptacular optics that anchor the original "toy" camera group. Snap away! Drop the images onto your hard drive, crop your image into a square format, and voila! . . . an image to make a Holga enthusiast proud.

Well, obviously this is leading to something . . . I finally broke down and used a "toy" digital camera that we had lying about at home . . . a tiny Vivitar that takes beautifully hazy images complete with flare. Sadly, there are no light leaks since it's digital. The two images I've posted here represent the best of about a dozen. While snapping these I was also trying out some b&w film in a 1950s Argus C3 "Brick" - one of the ubiquitous cameras of that period, more recently featured in a Harry Potter film in which a C3 is used by a reporter for the school paper. (No doubt Argus enthusiasts, legion in the eccentric world of cheap camera collecting, uttered gasps of rhapsodic recognition at a moment in the film which must have puzzled their fellow moviegoers.) When I have those photos developed, I'll post a couple of the better ones for comparison. These were taken at a playground in the West Village which abuts a large warehouse-like building on Horatio Street. The trees form line at the back of the playground and without their leaves sit starkly against the large expanse of concrete and brick. I'll be curious to see how this looks when the trees leaf out in April. Hmmmm, perhaps some color "toy" camera photos? I'm actually happy with these images, like the contrast and the trees' shadows on the wall. (And as always, one can click on each image for a larger version . . . if one feels compelled to enlarge the imperfections and blur.

Who knows, I may actually have to go out and get that Holga after all. I shoot a lots of 120 film on vintage cameras with good optics, so it would be fun to see first hand how that medium format translates. Again, check out the links I provided; they're informative and entertaining, particularly the Junk Store camera page.


One Wink at a Time said...

Sadly, a portion of this post has gone over my head. Mostly because, despite taking a Photography course in art school and spending more on cameras and equipment than my experience would merit, I know nothing of the finer points of the art of Photography. But I know I can rely on you if I need to??? You got me looking at the stained glass windows and wondering what they would look like in watercolor. I think I like the idea. One more thing to go in my file titled "Things I Wanna Do When I Find the Time".

BD said...

You should really be getting into the Bondtography with that...