Friday, May 20, 2011

Tripping the Light Plastic Fantastic: a (short) history of toy cameras

The original toy camera was the Diana; little more than a plastic box that let in a bit of light, it did not require a battery, and it had very few settings—two shutter speeds, three aperture settings, and manual focus. No one knows when exactly the Diana was first manufactured by the Great Wall Plastics Company, but it was first imported to the U.S. around 1966. In the U.S., the Diana was sold mostly in drug stores, especially drug stores in touristy areas, and generally retailed for sixty-nine cents—even in today’s dollars, less than $5. Similarly, though 35mm film was available, the Diana used the less expensive medium-format (‘120’) film.

Image from a Diana camera, courtesy Ty Ueda.
The Diana arrived on the scene just as photography became accepted in university contexts, and it gained in importance when photography instructors realized that the toy camera allowed students to learn the basics of composition without investing in expensive and complicated equipment. Jerry Burchard and Arnold Gassan in particular championed the Diana as a teaching tool.

Some of the students of the late 1960’s went on to become the first professional photographers to work with the toy camera. Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa was the first major exhibition of toy photography, exhibited at the Corcoran in 1971; and in 1979, there were more than a hundred entrants to The Diana Show, a juried exhibition in California. Photographers accomplished on much more sophisticated cameras enthused about the relative simplicity of taking photos with toy cameras, as well as the unpredictability of the image owing to light leaks.

Before The Diana Show had even concluded, the Diana had already been discontinued. But it had become so popular that several similar cameras soon came to take its place. Reader’s Digest and J.C. Penney commissioned their own toy cameras as promotional items. The drug-store market saw the introduction of the “Megomatic,” the “Snappy,” and the Future Scientist,” which were slightly more sophisticated than the original Diana. (They also pretended to be even more sophisticated than they were, with fake light meters and the like.)

But of course the Holga was the most important of the Diana’s toy camera successors; it was developed by T.M. Lee in the early 1980s. Intended to record family portraits and events of working-class families in China, the camera had to be very inexpensive. No surprise, then, that it was very rudimentary—even more rudimentary than the Diana. The Holga had no true aperture selection and one shutter speed; the focus dial was marked with figures in place of numbers. While the Diana’s images had been 4cm squares on 120 film, the Holga was capable of either square or rectangle images.

Holga image with 'dark corners.' Image courtesy Emily Scheideler.
The Holga was developed to accommodate the 120 that was the dominant film in the Chinese market, but while the camera was in production, the Chinese laws governing imports changed, and 35mm film swept the nation. Bcause of this, Universal Electronics had to seek other markets for the camera. It was successful in Hong Kong and then even more successful in Europe, where its images’ distinctive vignette effect (“dark corners”) was very popular.

Toy cameras’ popularity grew steadily throughout the 1990’s and has increased even more precipitously over the last decade, seemingly in inverse proportion to the strength of digital. Several organizations have manufactured and marketed a dizzying array of toy cameras. Unfortunately, because of the cost of both the cameras themselves and the processing, the latest generation of toy cameras has gotten away from what was the essence of the earlier generations—toy cameras’ accessibility to everyone, regardless of budget.

For more information, please consult
Michelle Bates’ Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

About push and pull processing

Push processing refers to intentionally over-developing a roll of film to allow the formation of additional density in the emulsion of the film. It can be accomplished by either increasing the time or the temperature during the formative development step. Pull processing refers to intentionally under-developing a given roll of film, i.e. giving it less time (or a lower temperature) than is recommended. Push and pull processing has become very popular with the new generation of film users, who enjoy experimentation and want unusual, even unpredictable results.

Original image, left; with 'push' processing, right.
All kinds of film (black and white, C-41, and slide/E-6) can be pushed/pulled, though the results on color film are typically less predictable (because of color shift in the layers) than those on black and white.  Film manufacturers, in general, did not recommend push/pull for color film because it results in a lack of natural color variance.  (For instance, a natural flesh tone could be very difficult to achieve in pushed color negative film.) But that has not stopped forward-thinking labs from doing it to accommodate their customers who wanted to break the rules or to salvage what might have been otherwise worse, due to under/over-exposure.

Original image, left; with pull processing, right.
The most common purpose for push/pull processing involves compensating for mistakes in the way that a given roll of film was shot.  So, for instance, in a case where you had your camera set for ISO 400 but you were shooting ISO 200 film, you might request ‘push’ to remedy mistake. In theory, if it were a very sunny day but you had only ISO 100 film, you might request pull processing. (The standard advice is that you should never try to correct more than one stop’s difference with pull processing.)

Hobby and art photographers often make use of push/pull processing to intentionally create unusual variations in color and saturation. Push processing is associated with higher contrast than you would get by processing film at its rated speed; conversely, pull processing tends to decrease contrast. In black and white, push processing tends to be particularly evident in the graininess of the image; where this texture is sought after, push processing may be called for.

Many photographers combine pull processing with cross-processing. Since cross-processing tends to increase contrast, this can be compensated for by pulling the film. The reason you would do this is to take advantage of the distinctive color casts of cross-processed film without all of the contrast of cross-processing.

It is important to note that different brands and speeds of film show entirely different results to the same temperature/time alterations.  For instance, a roll of Kodak Ektachrome 100 and a roll of Fuji Velvia 100 show wildly different color and saturation when cross-processed to the same formula. will be happy to push/pull your film; the option costs $2.00 per stop. We can go up to three stops push, and two stops pull. (We do not recommend either extreme, but we do offer it!)  Please clearly mark ‘push’ or ‘pull’ on the order form.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Scanning 120/'medium-format' negatives

Image by Ty Ueda
Unless you are printing your medium-format film yourself (and bravo if you are!), you will probably want to get your negatives scanned.  You can do this in two ways: by purchasing a scanner and scanning them yourself, or by having the negatives scanned professionally.  

Though reasonably priced negative scanners for 35mm film intended for home use have improved significantly over the last few years, unfortunately, that is not true of equipment made to scan medium-format/120 film.  If you want to have the negatives scanned simply so that they can be viewed online—for instance, so that you can share them on your facebook page or in your favorite flickr group—you may be satisfied with the quality of a flatbed scanner that has a ‘transparency adapter’ intended for home use. 

If you’re in the market for a flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter, read product reviews and ask your friends about their experiences.  Manufacturers change the instrumentation and specifications frequently, and it is difficult to keep up.  The  “off-the-shelf” office supply flatbed scanner from which I saw the best 120 scans was a HP Scanjet G4050, which had adapters for several different sizes of film.  It was current about three years ago and retailed at only a bit over $200.00 (US).  It was not fast, and it took some getting used to, but the output was excellent for screen use and making small prints.  I never tried large enlargements, but the scans would be adequate for at least an 8 x 10.

For a high-quality ‘dedicated’ film scanner, the Nikon Coolscan series is probably the best known and most highly recommended by users. We had a Minolta Pro Scan a few years ago that was quite nice, but it has been discontinued. 

Professional scanning
Since the quality of reasonably priced home scanners for medium-format film remains marginal, if you want to have digital images that will translate into high-quality larger prints or publishing your work, you will want to look into professional negative scanning.

Technology exists for high-quality, high-resolution scans of 120 negatives—but it is pricy. (Professional scanners can cost more than $30,000).  So if you want to be able to store your images digitally, or send/print high-quality images, your best bet is to ask a a friend or professional who actually ‘does it’. 

Not all professional scanning is created equal.  There are several factors, here:
1.     The scanner that the photo lab is using (We use a Fuji Frontier for our 120 scanning).
2.     The quality at which they scan your images (high resolution/low resolution/print resolution). There are a dizzying array of terms, here, and specifications are many and complex.
3.     The operator has to know how to scan!  We had a Leaf Scanner we purchased for over $18,000 several years ago.  We could not make consistent quality scans until we had practice a lot and studied the complete manual.  Scanning is not ‘plug and play’ technology. Moral of the story: once you find a photofinisher with a professional-quality scanner, try a few tests before you order a bunch.

Most labs charge different prices depending on the resolution of the scan (the price schedules will hopefully differentiate between ‘basic’ and ‘enhanced’ scans). Generally, high-quality scans involve more data and thus take more time and skill to complete.

If you are interested in scanning negatives to produce images, you need to take account of the specifications of the printer with which you'll print.  If your printer is only 72 dots-per-inch, then there's no reason to pay for scans at 300 dots-per-inch; the extra data will not improve the image and may even make it worse.

In our lab, our printing equipment prints ‘native’ in 300 dpi. We have these approximate guidelines for our customers:

If your scan is…                        You can confidently print up to…
1200 pixels by 1800 pixels                 4” x 6”
1500 pixels by 2100 pixels                 5’’ x 7’’
2400 pixels by 3000 pixels                 8” x 10”

Even with these numbers in mind, I am still sometimes surprised by small files.  They can astound and confound me if I look at the output quality and information they contain.  It does not always make sense.  Still, as a guide, the above is what we use on a daily basis for consistently good results with our equipment.  Remember, if you are just using it for screen resolution and email, you do not need to invest big dollars in scanning!