What's a Toy Camera?
Toy camera is the moniker often given the cameras produced by The Great Wall Plastic Factory in Hong Kong during the 1950's and 1960's. Originally called the Diana, the bright blue plastic cameras retailed for under $3 and were sometimes given away with a full tank of gas or a magazine subscription.
The Diana was later sold under a variety of names including: Arrow, Banner, Diana F (with flash attachment), Mego, Snappy, Stellar, and Windsor. All were clones of the original with only slight variation in the basic design.
So why take photos with a 40-year-old chunk of plastic that may have come with a subscription to Reader's Digest? Well, toy cameras can be used to produce amazing, spontaneous images with a dreamlike quality that transcends "normal" photography. As stated in the humorously translated original instruction booklet, "this camera for every magic moment!"
Diana type cameras use 120mm (medium format) film and make negatives approximately 4cm x 4cm. Controls are simplified and somewhat mysterious. Most commonly there are three focus settings ranging from four feet to infinity, three apertures described in graphical form as sun, sun and cloud, and cloud, and a shutter that can vary in speed from 1/30 of a second up to about 1/250 of a second depending on the camera.
The heart of the Diana and its clones is the plastic lens. The photos they take tend to have sharper focus at the image center and soften towards the frame edges. Corners may be vignetted. The effect of the plastic lens is best described by Christopher James in The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes as the "ability to render mass over detail."
Each plastic camera has a unique personality and produces its own unique photos. Photographers will often own several toy cameras and use them according to their various attributes. My personal favorite is the Zodiac I purchased at a thrift store; the yellow 69 cents price sticker still adorns the top of the camera.
Toy cameras are unpredictable so a photographer must embrace the spontaneous and experimental qualities of working with them. Black tape to eliminate light leaks is the most important plastic camera accessory. When the negatives are processed and you have pleasing photos, it feels as much like a happy accident than a guaranteed result.
The Diana may be the antidote to high-tech, fully-automated cameras that weigh five pounds, come with a 300-page instruction manual, and cost several thousand dollars. And, people react in a completely different way when having their photo taken with a cartoon blue camera with a silly name.
One final note: these cameras are now sought after by collectors and can sell for over $100 on online auctions. Not bad for a few ounces of plastic!