Friday, March 4, 2011

Using Toy Cameras

Marwin Diana Camera. Photograph by Tim Irving
Me and my Marwin! Diana Camera - Tim Irving
I'm a big fan of toy cameras. Dianas and Holgas have been my tools of choice for many years. They used to be really cheap, I'm talking pennies, or even given away in promotions. Today they're very trendy and very exclusive, I've seen them for sale at MOMA and the Pompidou Centre, in fact if you want one you'll probably pick one up at your local museum. They're not real cheap anymore, but they are affordable and they're great fun.

There's no doubt that these cameras can produce wonderful images. For the photographer the simplicity allows you to concentrate on the subject and composition. Overall though, toy cameras seem to be misunderstood. The reason is, in normal use you wont see a lot of difference between the photographs of a toy camera and any other camera. Of course if you look carefully, you will see a softer image and maybe a little colour fringing, but at standard print sizes that you'll get from the lab, the difference can be hard to see.

These cameras are bought on myths and half truths. "The photos look vintage" Not true. "They produce unpredictable results and colours" Not true. "The photographs look arty" Not true. What is true is that toy cameras tend to share certain traits; The images are softer, especially around the edges. Contrast is low. And some cameras produce definite colour fringing. One thing that is usually consistent is they all produce flare.

Once you know these characteristics you can get the best (or worst), out of the camera  by exploiting these traits. Shooting high contrast or very low contrast subjects. Shoot very saturated or very subdued colours. And, shooting facing the sun to make the most of that flare. Another trick to exploit lens distortion is to compose your subject close to the edge of the frame like I did with Liverpool, below.

There you go, just some thoughts for you. Good luck and have a great weekend.

Liverpool with Pidgeons - Photograph by Tim Irving
Liverpool with Pidgeons - Tim Irving


  1. I must admit your Strokes tee made me smile tonight! I am loving their new song! As for toy cameras, I hadn't any idea about them. I've used Nikons, film and now digital slr. Photography is a love, but a hobby, I have no official training. I picked up a camera at an early age because I always saw my mother with her Nikon in her hands. We have such wonderfully captured moments because of her. Anyway, I might be on the lookout for a toy camera now! And the new Strokes album.

  2. A stroke of genius tim, nice to see that you are stil using these type of camera's and the results don't look half bad, looks like it was taken from Birkenhead side of the water, did you not take any from the ferry ? Oh and I believe birthday wishes are in order I cant remember the exact date but it must be this week some time, all the very best.

  3. I'm glad you posted this (love the picture).

    I've been considering buying a Diana or Holga for over a year. I have to admit that the reviews of them have put me off.

    I read about how photos 'should' look (darker edges, over saturated tones, a dream-like unfocused quality), and then the photos I see are nothing like that.

    Even some of the 'official' sites seem to exaggerate.

    Thanks for the information.

  4. Last year I bought an unnamed toy camera from a thrift store for ninety cents. I shot one roll of film with it out of curiosity, and though some of the images were interesting, I wasn't really sure why. Now I wish I'd had the tips you provided in this post so I could have made the most of experimenting with that little camera. I didn't understand the characteristics I could have been "exploiting." Sigh.

    (I have a copy of your beautiful Liverpool photograph! I love it!)



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