Getting The Best Image Out Of A Toy Camera by Dan K
Not a peep from Dan K in months, and then there is a flood of great articles. This time a few thoughts on Toy Cameras and how you can make the most of their limitations. Check it out.
Most toy cameras are very simple cameras, not much more sophisticated than a single-use “disposable” camera that you just wind and click.
Focus on a camera that takes 35mm film isn’t usually too critical, because these cameras have a wide lens and a small, fixed aperture of about f/8-f/11 in size. That means there is quite a deep depth of field; much of the picture, from the person standing in front of you, to the mountains in the distance may be reasonably sharp. 120 roll film has a much larger negative and due to the laws of optics, focus becomes much more critical, so these cameras generally have lenses that can be focussed. If you see pictograms of a head-and-shoulders portrait, a group shot and mountains, then they are a guide as to what approximate zone of focus you should pick.
In reality though, most of your photos won’t be very sharp. The simple plastic lens isn’t very sharp anyway. The trick is to use contrast. Pick subjects with larger shapes, with the subject closer in or with patterns of stronger contrast. Be less subtle.
Perspective and Positioning
Getting close to the subject will also help your composition and put your photo’s viewer deep in the action. There’s a saying that “If your wide lens is boring, you’re not close enough!” Note though, that if you are too close for your camera to focus, your photo will look odd with the subject out of focus and the background in focus. Therefore check the instructions to see how close you can get and it’s worth experimenting with your first roll of film to see where the limit lies.
Where most people come unstuck is exposure. Most toy cameras have a single shutter speed of 1/100s, give or take a stop of manufacturing tolerances. So unless your scene just happens to be at the right light level, the exposure will be off. Most print films have 3 or more stops of over-exposure latitude so you can get away with too much light up to a point, but the same films have only one stop of underexposure latitude, so unless you have enough light, the negative won’t be fully exposed. The symptoms start with a loss of detail in the shadows, then you lose density; the colours and contrast fade. Grain becomes more apparent as the enlarger or scanner compensates for the underexposure. You may also get some colour shift as not all films produce perfect colour when underexposed.
What you do to avoid this problem is work out the range of lighting conditions that produces acceptable images. Research the camera’s aperture and shutter specification, and use an exposure table or a meter. If you experiment, take good notes.
I recommend you start out with 400ASA print film in good daylight. The wide latitude of print film and a a relatively fast film rated at 400ASA should cover all outdoor photography from bright sunlight to light shade. As you gain more experience with that particular camera, you can get a feel for when you can get away with slower films.
One useful tip is to use Fuji Natura 1600. 1600ASA sounds too fast, but it works great in toy cameras in all but the brightest conditions. I’m not saying FujiFilm is telling porkie pies, but it was an old trick of film manufacturers to stretch the truth about the speed of their high speed films. I personally rate Natura at 640-800ASA but with excellent underexposure latitude. Fuji’s Natura cameras drop the DX rating by approximately two stops when you press their trademark ‘Natura” button to give richer colours and higher contrast.
Slide film is where it gets tricky. Slide film has much less latitude than print film. Slide aficionados use sophisticated meters or take multiple spot meter readings to get the exposure right. It seems crazy to use a fixed exposure camera with an unreliable shutter to shoot slides, yet this is precicely what Lomography suggests you do. If you’re going to do it, bring a meter and at least try to get in the ballpark. Slow films like Velvia 50 in a camera that has a tiny aperture are going to be a big challenge.
If you’ve used 400ASA print film and most of your photos were taken under an overcast or in shadow, I’d request the lab to push the film two stops. It’ll cost more and will boost contrast and grain, but it saves the underexposed shots. I always ask for +2 stops, because +3 is a bit too extreme. Also, many labs will take your money but not bother changing the settings if you only ask for one stop, assuming the film’s underexposure latitude will handle it.
When developing black and white film at home, I would normally give a toy camera roll an extra stop or two, or use stand development to maximise latitude. The HDR-like effect it gives also contributes to the toy camera look.
Any photograph below outdoor shadow demands the use of flash. The trick to flash on a toy camera is positioning yourself the correct distance from the subject to get the right exposure from the flash. Bundled flash units will have a distance measurement associated with each film speed rating. Stick closely to that distance.
To get funky colour shifts, you’re probably going to try cross-processing slides in print film chemistry. Bear in mind that cross-processing can knock 1-2 stops off the film’s sensitivity, giving murky images if there isn’t enough light. Imagine starting with 64T film, then knocking off a couple of stops and shooting on an overcast day with a camera that has an f/11 aperture and a 1/100s shutter! You won’t get many usable images. If you ask me slides and cross-processing doesn’t suit toy cameras, but if you do it, do lots of experiments and remember that every slide emulsion cross processes differently.
The same goes for redscaled film. Redscaling is where you respool colour print film back to front in a changing bag to get a strong red shift. Redscale film still has latitude, but be aware you’re exposing through a dark orange film base and that’ll mean the film is about two stops less sensitive that it is used normally.
I know there is a lot of jargon and technical details for an article targeted at new users of basic cameras, but the truth is the simpler the camera the cleverer you have to be to get the best out of it. Hopefully, you’ll quickly get to the point where it all comes automatically and you can live by the mantra “Don’t think; just shoot.”
If readers disagree with anything I’ve written, or want to share their tips and experiences, be they successes or frustrations, please comment below.
TL;DR – Use 400 ASA or faster print film in good daylight.
Text and unwatermarked images © Dan K. All rights reserved. Watermarked images were contributed by my Twitter followers; MANY THANKS!
Dan K is a life-long enthusiast photographer. He celebrated his return to film by collecting just about every quality camera and lens that he could lay his hands upon. Along the way he has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of film cameras and film processing. Follow him on twitter for a humorous look at photography techniques and technology from all eras. Follow him on Tumblr for his images, journey of photographic discovery and a generous helping of gear-porn.
Past articles that he’s written on similar topics:
Text © Dan K. All rights reserved.