24 October 2010

Toy Cameras

I've had a bit of fun lately with toy cameras, which really are cameras but not usually toys. "Toy camera" is a term of art for simple cameras with a plastic body and lens. Most are cheap and look at least a bit toy-like, but as cult objects some can in fact be quite expensive. Most are film, either 35mm or medium format, though the category of digital toy cameras is becoming better defined and is growing. Google will teach you all you want to know, but see here and here and here. This one was $2 from a goodwill shop and is clearly a toy toy camera.

Pink Eyelash
Still trying to the work up the courage to use this in public.

Toy cameras are very simple point-and-click affairs. They have a fixed focus and no exposure controls. That means you just load them up with fast film, stand back at least four feet or so from a well-lit subject, and trip the shutter. The picture turns out or it doesn't. Amazingly, it usually does. Though it will probably look like it was taken with a toy camera.

Which is the half the fun. Pictures from toy cameras are lo-fi and wonderfully flawed. Poor contrast, softness, distortion, light leaks, and all manner of random weirdness. Some photos are just bad and others are so bad they're good. Just depends on the camera and many unguessable variables. You never really know what you'll get, which is the other half of the fun. It's so cool that they make iPhone apps to simulate it. But accept no substitutes. Using film is part of the experience. Since every shot costs you money, it feels a bit like playing the slots. You only find out how much you lost or won when you pick up your prints from the printer.

Enthusiasts scour second-hand shops for toy cameras. The odd thing is that you will be sorting though a bin of $5 cameras, looking for one that came free with a magazine subscription or with a Malibu Barbie, and tossing aside film point-and-shoots that cost a couple hundred bucks just twenty years ago. I recently pulled one of those out of a bin, too, and will blog the results later. Some of those eighties p&s cameras were engineering marvels. But I find that toy cameras, cameras that take bad pictures by design, are just more interesting.


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