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From Issue #29 November 7, 2013

Toy Story

Plastic cameras offer photographers a different view of the world.

By Brittany Shoot Twitter icon 

Double exposed city park and bench, San Francisco skyline; panoramic taken with a Lomo Sprocket Rocket.

I was a videoblogger back when that was a thing that people called by its own twee name. Before the YouTube talking-head video was popularized, I walked around filming my life with a crappy point-and-shoot digital camera and compressed the hell out of small-frame files to make them into semi-functional QuickTime movies that could be uploaded, downloaded, and played on the Web.

Aside from the fact that I met my husband thanks to the weird — and now rather quaint — medium, I’m kind of sorry about all that selfie recording and talking to myself in public.

Skip ahead seven years, and I still always have a camera in my bag when I leave the house. But I’m behind the lens now. The view has changed. I’m a journalist who has picked up a specialty in travel writing, and I’m increasingly asked to bring home images from the far-flung places I visit. Last year, I invested in a high-end consumer camera, a Sony NEX-7, photos from which I sometimes sell to glossy magazines along with my commissioned reporting.

But I also have a graduate degree in film, which I was working on when I first thrust myself in front of the viewfinder. As you can imagine, that screwed with my sense of artistry and craftswomanship. Even now, when it comes to photography, I consider myself a serious amateur.

To ensure that photography remains a fun hobby as much as it evolves into another skill in my professional toolbox, I play with decidedly unprofessional cameras. Next to the front door in my apartment, where I’ll be sure to grab one or four on the way out, is a box full of vintage folding cameras circa the late 1950s, Konica rangefinders, and matching Canon SLRs — heavy but reliable AE-1 Program and A1 models.

Most important are the ultra-lightweight toy cameras, mostly Lomography brand. I can easily fit three into any bag. No respectable publisher prints grainy soft-focus analog photos. But among the pictures I snap for fun and profit, my favorites are often the ones that I take with my plastic-lens toy cameras.

Picture imperfect

It’s easy to assume that anyone toting a plastic camera of a garish color is a wannabe street photographer inspired by a sale at Urban Outfitters. That’s actually a reasonable assumption. UO has long peddled hipster lifestyle goods like Lomography cameras alongside skinny distressed jeans, cheeky coffee-table books, and flimsy mirror shades.

As a brand, Lomography is best known for its cheap consumer film cameras. Like many millennial AV geeks, I took a somewhat backwards path to discovering its cameras. The first era of Lomo manufacturing ran parallel to my childhood, although I didn’t know that growing up. LOMO, the Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association, was the St. Petersburg-based, state-run manufacturer of Soviet consumer electronics. But it also made medical equipment and produced military optics. In 1982, LOMO created the Lomo Kompakt Automat, or LC-A 35mm camera. By the mid-1980s, the LC-A was a highly popular consumer-grade compact sold and used primarily in Communist countries, including the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, and Poland.

The story goes that in 1991, a group of Viennese film students touring Prague happened upon an old-school camera shop, where they picked up an original Lomo LC-A. Word spread; feverish fascination followed. In 1992, a group of LC-A enthusiasts founded the Lomographic Society, which became the sole distributor of the LC-A outside of Soviet Russia. The same year, following the example of previous art movements, the society published 10 Golden Rules of Lomography and a manifesto, which some argue were then mirrored by later, similar movements such as Dogme 95 and stuckism. Eventually, the Lomography Society secured the rights to license and manufacture a new generation of Lomo re-creations and refurbished cameras.

Swimmers at the shore in my husband’s hometown of Saeby, Denmark; eight exposures in one, taken with a Lomo Oktomat.

Negative thoughts

Not yet knowing I was yet another embarrassing stereotype, I bought my first plastic camera at the Harvard Square Urban Outfitters about six years ago. I was living in Boston, and my now-husband had been tinkering with vintage cameras he’d purchased from suburban New England Craigslist sellers.

He’d taken to shooting with antique rangefinders, delicately tinkering with their sticky shutters and using my hair dryer to loosen the decades-old grease that kept their aperture settings in a decisive lock. One afternoon, while absentmindedly perusing racks of ugly flannel and display stands of overpriced aviators, he handed me a Lomo Fisheye so I’d have a toy, too.

Advance the roll five years. While I’d managed to become a better photographer, I kept accumulating cameras I couldn’t master, like my light-leaking Oktomat and a Diana Mini that often got stuck in half-frame mode. Worst of all were photos taken with our Lomo Lubitel 116+. I desperately wanted to master medium format, but with a twin-lens reverse mirror viewfinder, I was more often angry at the equipment and my off-kilter framing than I was pleased to be photographing my surroundings.

By contrast, my pal Christine Zona is a professional photographer who spends her weekends geeking out with her toy camera Meetup group and fellow plastic-lens lovers. She has at least one of every type of Lomo camera, plus a number of Superheadz models.

“Toy cameras found me,” Zona explains of her journey into the analog world. “I was working at the Discovery Channel as an art buyer and photo researcher, and part of my job was searching stock imagery. One day, somebody showed me a Holga and its quirky soft-focus images with wonky cross-processed colors and double exposures. It was a welcome break for my eyeballs from the perfectly lit stock imagery I stared at all day.” As they say, she never looked back.

Zona’s passion for the lo-fi Lomo look inspired me to join her toy camera group when I moved to San Francisco. This past spring, I took one of her plastic-lens workshops at Rayko, a local photo center. I knew if we spent enough time together, her enthusiasm and skill would transfer. I ended up learning a lot of useful if obvious tricks for taking better pictures with what some consider shoddy cameras. For instance, I now use electrical tape to seal off gaps in the plastic camera body, where light leaks can corrupt the film.

And then, just as my interest peaked and my photography skills markedly improved, the shutter speed changed again.

Dinosaur sculptures, flowery snack near Half Moon Bay; split frame taken with a Lomo Diana Mini.

Sticky shutter

During the first six months of 2013, the only Lomography storefronts on the West Coast — one in San Francisco and two in Los Angeles — shut down. In other major cities around the world, from Austin to Seoul, Lomo storefronts that once promised to help revitalize a flagging pastime have been boarded up.

Vince Donovan is the co-founder of San Francisco’s Photobooth, a gallery and storefront that specializes in handcrafted, one-of-a-kind photographs — anything from instant Impossible Project photos to wet-plate tintypes. He says that in some cases, toy camera makers can be credited with reigniting photographers’ passion for analog.

“People would grab Lomos or Superheadz because they look cool, try them out, and get excited about the photographic process,” he says. “A little more common is someone already interested in digital photography and then they pick up a funky toy camera just to try something new and really experience the difference between conventional digital photography and [learning the] basics of film.”

Zona told me she’s more worried about companies like Fuji and Kodak discontinuing film than about a few shuttered storefronts. “We can build cameras from cardboard,” she says. “But without film, the art dies.”1

There’s at least one short-term advantage to the local Lomo store closure. When I visited the San Francisco shop days before it closed forever, I loaded up on deeply discounted cameras. Recognizing us as loyal customers, store manager Joe Aguirre, a talented street photographer in his own right, gave me several boxes of limited edition Agfa APX 400 film.

Then I spotted something above the door. “You’re selling the fixtures,” reiterating what Aguirre had told me earlier. “Any chance you’re selling the signs, too?”

The irony about the giant neon Holga hanging over my living room sofa is that a Diana is my preferred medium format Lomo.

Bliss Dance sculpture on San Francisco’s Treasure Island; medium format taken with a Lomo Diana F+.

Blurred lines

It wasn’t just a community space that was lost when the SF Lomo store closed. It was also one of the most reliable, affordable local shops from which to send away your film for processing and scanning — and you could feel confident that your negatives and prints would come back exactly as requested.

The lab technicians at a local pharmacy have likely never had to deal with four or eight separate images in one frame, as is the case with a roll of 35mm from an Actionsampler or Oktomat; it’s unusual even at pro labs. Nor have they probably seen rolls of the tiny color 110 film, which was discontinued several years ago by Fuji and only reintroduced in late 2011 by Lomo.2 And such techs are rarely asked to scan negatives by hand to preserve the sprocket holes as part of a panoramic image.

In many places, you pay a serious professional-rate markup of $15 to $20 to have a standard roll of 35mm film processed. The additional cost of scanning nonstandard sizes of negatives on a flatbed scanner — such as panoramic shots from a Lomo Sprocket Rocket — can run another $10 on top of the base cost. Even if you can afford one of the best pro-level home scanners, you’ll spend a lot of time doing it yourself.

It isn’t just film-friendly labs and storefronts that have disappeared. Some of the best blogs devoted to plastic cameras and analog photography tips have stopped posting new content. Four Corners Dark, its name a nod to the vignette effect produced by shooting medium format film through round plastic lenses, went dark in 2011.

Few people in an Instagram era need processing labs. Nor do they use unreliable old film cameras when the optics in basic cell phones are so advanced. At the risk of sounding like an elitist or purist, one reason I stick with toy cameras is how little control I retain, even after all I’ve learned and the many disappointing rolls of wasted film. Often, a small pile of exposed rolls of film accumulates before I make time to drop off the lot for processing.

When I get everything back a few days later — negatives, scans, prints, and all — I’m pleasantly surprised by how certain images turned out. Many times, I’ve forgotten what I even shot or where I was in the world when the photos were taken.

On a recent vacation to the Big Island of Hawaii, I took several toy cameras on an afternoon trip to the Kapoho Tide Pools, a semi-secluded cluster of coastal ponds along the volcanic rock coastline. As my husband snorkeled, I squinted back at the shore and snapped a slightly blurry, overexposed photo of a row of colorful beach houses teetering precariously on stilts.

Instead of a glossy magazine-style picture of the crystal-clear sky and cerulean pools, that hazy, slightly overexposed photo is the best representation of how it looked out there that day. At least, that’s how it looked to us.

Photos by the author.


  1. David Erik Nelson wrote about pinhole cameras that can be built from simple materials in “Light Motif” (Issue 9, January 31, 2013), although the article focuses on a digital pinhole “lens.” 

  2. I shoot 110 film in my Diana Baby, a plastic camera that fits in the palm in my hand and looks a bit like something a spy would carry. 

San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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