Plastic Cameras Ready—Prepare To Flash

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You know you’ve heard that noise before: the sound of an aperture opening and closing, of gears advancing a strip of light-sensitive celluloid.

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You’ve seen them in hipster centers like Urban Outfitters, or hanging from the necks of the local millennials. They have offbeat names like Holga, Lomo, Blackbird Fly and Sprocket Rocket, and their retro-chic atmosphere has a habit of turning heads when they venture out in public.

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If you haven’t guessed already, what we’re talking about here are plastic cameras, those peculiarly fashionable shutterboxes that have helped make film (yes, film!) photography resurgent once again in an age where digital’s domination once looked to wipe that old medium out. Thanks to their quirky looks and the equally quirky pictures they produce, plastic cameras have made film photography hip once again…so much so that the popularity of modern digi-apps like Instagram has risen even further after their makers included digital filters that copy the low-fi plastic camera look. So the obvious question is, how is it that while the old industry heavyweights like Nikon, Canon, Fuji and the like have almost entirely stopped making film cameras altogether, plastic cameras are exploding in popularity worldwide?

The answer: because plastic cameras are cool. Really cool. As in, beyond hipster cool and into general pop culture cool, unbound by limitations like demographics and age groups. So cool that the White Stripes produced their own limited line of plastic cameras, as has X-Games snowboarding champion Gretchen Bleiler. So cool that Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers are now using them in their photographic arsenals. So cool that thousands of pictures taken with them are uploaded to the Internet every week; if you Google “Holga” or “Lomo,” you will be inundated with a deluge of galleries, forums, how-to sites and more devoted to these cameras.

Okay, I can hear you asking, so what is it about these things that make them so cool?

Reason #1:

Because they make images that most conventional cameras—especially digital—cannot. Since these cameras are made almost entirely from plastic (including the lens), their images usually exhibit a slightly fuzzy, soft-focus sort of look. On top of that, many of these cameras, like the Holga line in particular, can also leak prodigious amounts of light, which ends up as flares and spots on the film. Then there’s the vignetting, a soft black border that creeps in from the edges of the frame in sometimes unpredictable ways. These combined factors, together with whatever photo trickery the user brings to the table, produce images that are often very dreamlike in nature, far removed from the crisp, clean, and sharp images that a DSLR churns out. They can be quirky or somber, poignant or silly, whatever the photographer has in mind.

Reason #2:

Because plastic cameras are very simple to operate. Most have only one shutter speed and one or two f-stops for exposure control, unlike so many cameras that are loaded up with function buttons and dials. Oddly enough, this sense of limitation is actually liberation in disguise, since the only things you need to worry about are composition and lighting. Because technology has been removed from the equation, the photographer has more freedom to think about what sort of image they want to make, and why.

Reason #3:

Because film has a very different look from digital. Plastic cameras quite happily fill the needs of people who don’t want their pictures to look like everybody else’s. Think about it—when you go on social media and see the digital photos posted up there, don’t they have more or less the same look about them? There’s a reason for this: these cameras are specifically designed to deliver the same type of image. Sure, the colors might be a bit different here and there, but they still look basically the same. On the other hand, most film has a very warm, retro ambiance when used inside a plastic camera, far removed from that of digital. On a similar issue, black & white film frankly leaves digital B&W in the dust. There’s simply no comparison, and black & white film lends itself extremely well to plastic cameras. Now, there are some who ask, can’t you just recreate all those visual aspects with Photoshop over a digital image? Well, yes you could…but unless you’re a total computer techie who loves that kind of stuff, why would you want to spend all that time doing that? It makes much more sense to simply create the same thing in three seconds with the click of a shutter, doesn’t it?

Reason #4:

Because plastic cameras are attention-getters. They just don’t look like almost any other kind of camera out there, particularly since now most of them come in numerous bright colors and patterns. You will almost certainly turn peoples’ heads if you show up with a fluorescent Holga, for example, especially if you have a fisheye lens or an instant film back attached (yes, that means instant Polaroid-type film—more fun ways to express yourself!).

Reason #5:

Because plastic cameras are light both on your shoulder and on your wallet. Most models weigh only a few ounces, so you can take them virtually anywhere. On top of that, most of them are extremely affordable, if you know where to buy. If you don’t mind waiting for a few days to a week for shipping, and can suppress the “impulse buy” urge when you pass by one of those boutique stores with marked-up merchandise, you can order instead from some of the big nationwide photo supply houses and save a pretty decent amount of coin.

Reason #6:

Because plastic cameras are FUN. Far more fun, in fact, than most digis—so much fun that users are willing to put aside the instant gratification that digital provides and actually wait for the film to be developed. Quite a concept in this age of I Want (And Expect) It Now.

Here’s another point that most of you probably haven’t thought of yet: archiving digital pictures can be a real pain in the ass, since all hard drives will eventually crash, and CDs and DVDs used for data storage will eventually deteriorate. However, if you take care of film and store it properly, it will very likely outlive you. Consider this: Abraham Lincoln died in 1865, but most of the daguerreotypes and glass plates from his time are still in fine condition. Funny how materials from the very early primitive days of photography have better archival quality than today’s advanced technology, isn’t it?

So now that you’ve been overpowered by the preceding impeccable logic, let’s have a look at some of the retro-reprobates that are leading this analog charge backwards into future history:

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diana

DIANA

This is the camera that basically started the plastic camera genre in the ‘60s, and could be found in drugstores and the like for a dollar at the time. Tens of thousands of this 120-format camera were made over the Diana’s original run, but not many survived, so the remaining originals can command a pretty penny on Ebay today. By the late ‘70s the Diana was gone, but it was resurrected as the Diana F+ by the Lomographic Society in the mid-2000s. It has the unusual distinction of possessing three aperture settings and being able to be converted to a pinhole camera. Loads of accessories and color schemes make the Diana the leading seller in Lomo’s lineup.

holga

HOLGA

If you’ve seen any type of plastic camera around, this is probably it. First made in China in ‘81, the Holga has spread itself worldwide to become the most popular camera of its type. Available in both 120 and 35mm, Holgas come in many shapes and sizes, including half-format, 3-D stereo and panoramic models. Equipped with one shutter speed and two f-stops, the Holga’s popularity has led the plastic camera explosion over the past ten years. And yes, the automatic response to this camera by most is still “Hipster Alert!,” but don’t let that throw you because the Holga really does take remarkable pictures. The camera’s infamous vignetting and light leaks, plus a wide variety of accessories and lenses, ensure that the Holga photographer won’t become bored using it anytime soon.

blackbird-fly

BLACKBIRD FLY

The Blackbird Fly is perhaps the most unusual of the plastic cameras to come out in the past several years. Named for the Beatles’ White Album song “Blackbird”, the BBF is a genuine 35mm twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera modeled after the classic Rolleiflex and Yashicamat TLRs. Held at waist-level, the BBF recalls a period of photography that your grandparents would be quite familiar with. Its very nature slows down the picture making process to a crawl, making it a much more contemplative and even cerebral exercise. Plus, the BBF’s unusual design ensures that it will be noticed when you take it out for a spin.

(Note: Big kudos if you can snag the ultra rare “Kamen Rider Decade” shocking pink limited edition version of the BBF. Only 50 ever made it to the States, so they’re nearly impossible to find.) 

GOLDEN-HALF-500

GOLDEN HALF

Reminiscent of the old Canon Elph subcompact, the diminutive Golden Half is what’s known as a half-format camera. That is, each shot takes up one half of a frame of 35mm film, which means that a 36-exposure roll will yield 72 images. Thus, more bang for your buck, which is always a good thing nowadays. The remarkable thing about the Golden Half is that the image quality is actually quite good—pretty amazing for a lens which is only a tiny little plastic bubble. Plus, they even shoe-horned in a working hot shoe for a flash attachment.

SprocketRocket

SPROCKET ROCKET

The most unique of all the plastic cameras today, the Sprocket Rocket is a ultra-wide panoramic item that has the unusual distinction of putting an image on the film that goes beyond the sprocket holes, to the very edge of the film itself. As any fan of deconstructionist photography will tell you, sprocket holes are rad, and so is the Sprocket Rocket, because not only does it produce panoramic images, but its’ reversible control knobs mean you can forward and rewind the film as you like to create overlays or collages. 

Superheadz

SLIM & ULTRA-WIDE

Another tiny 35mm job, the Slim & Ultra Wide line used to be made by Vivitar until several years ago. Production ceased for several years, before being re-started by the Japanese company Superheadz, creators of the Blackbird Fly. The camera’s 22mm super-wide lens gets pretty much everything, and its tiny size means it fits in just about any pocket.

PLASTIC CAMERA WEB SITES

Holga Blog

Go Hola

Holga Inspire

Holga Direct

Lomography

Lomo

Free Style Photo

Square Frog

Toy Camera

Flick R (Not strictly for plastic cameras of course, but a huge source of images)

PLASTIC CAMERA BOOKS

Plastic Cameras, 2nd Edition, by Michelle Bates

Fantastic Plastic Cameras by Kevin Meredith

Photo Op: 52 Weekly Ideas for Creative Image-Making by Kevin Meredith