As a photographer, it’s easy to get caught up in the quality of your gear. Are you outfitted with a high resolution, full-frame sensor? At what f-stop does the MTF curve of your lens peak? Can you record noise-free images at high ISO levels? How many RAW shots can your camera take before the buffer fills?

Getting the top-quality shots for clients is important, but obsessing over these details in your professional work may lead to your falling into a creative funk when it comes to the artistry of photography. Sometimes you just need a fresh shooting experience to allow you to home in on the artistry of photography.

Toy cameras allow you to pay attention to almost none of the technical aspects of a shot. Shooting 120 film in a plastic body with a fixed shutter speed and only two aperture settings allows you to concentrate on composition alone. And if you’re looking for other creative tools to fuel your artistic fire, have no fear—there are lots of unique, innovative cameras on the market today that allow you to shoot in new and interesting ways.

Panoramic Cameras

Going wider can, quite literally, expand your horizons. While you can use Photoshop to stitch together individual frames from any camera to form a wide panoramic image, there is something to be said for simply capturing it in a single shot.

Lomography offers two cameras that deliver 120° images. The Horizon Kompakt and Horizon Perfekt both use 35mm film and feature 28mm wide-angle lenses. The lens pans from one side to the other during exposure, capturing an image that is about the width of two standard 35mm frames. The Kompakt features a fixed-aperture f/8.0 lens, while the Perfekt offers you a bit more control and a lot more light-capturing capabilitiy with its f/2.8 lens, which can be stopped down all the way to f/16 in standard increments.

If 120° doesn’t suit your needs, take a look at Lomography’s Spinner 360°. The 35mm camera sits atop a handle with a pull-string shutter release. To take a photo, just pull the string. The camera spins all the way around, capturing a full 360° panorama with its 25mm lens. You can handhold it or attach it to a tripod, but make sure to hold it over your head or duck if you don’t want to be in the shot.

The camera doesn’t use batteries. Its spinning mechanism is powered by a rubber band! Default rotation speeds of 1/125 and 1/250 are available, and you can also manually control the speed at which the camera spins to get different exposure and motion blur effects. You’ll be able to take about 8 pictures on a standard 36-frame roll of film.

(Image Courtesy of Lomography)
A sample image from the Spinner 360°

Pinhole Cameras

If you’re not familiar with pinhole cameras they are, essentially, lensless cameras that with a tiny opening—roughly the size of a pinhole—through which light is captured. Longer exposures, often a few seconds even with medium-speed film in bright daylight, are required to get a good exposure. The images that pinhole cameras create are often described as soft and dreamy.

Because there is no lens, pinhole cameras can be made from just about anything that is lightproof. A quick Web search will lead you to many DIY projects and instructions for making your own from scratch. If you’re not quite that ambitious, but still want a fun project, consider Lomography’s 35mm Paper Pinhole Camera. It ships with instructions on how to put it together, but you’ll need to supply a ruler, pen or pencil and some white glue. 

Lomography also makes a wide-angle paper pinhole camera, which also requires assembly at home, using the same supplies listed above. The Sharan Pinhole Camera captures a field of view equivalent to a 20mm lens on each frame of 35mm film, great for capturing extremely wide-angle photos. Either of these paper cameras makes a fun gift for kids (and kids at heart) who are interested in photography.

If you’d like to experiment with pinhole photography, but aren’t interested in a construction project, Holga has a couple of options that fit the bill. The Holga 120 PC is a plastic camera that uses an f/192 pinhole to record images on 120 film. A viewfinder is built in to frame images, but like every Holga, don’t expect it to be entirely accurate. Holga also makes a wide-angle pinhole camera that uses 120 film. The aptly named 120 Wide-Angle Pinhole Camera includes film masks for 6 x 7 or 6 x 9 exposures.

And, for the truly adventurous, look no further than Lomography’s Diana Multi-Pinhole Operator. It gives you the option of exposing an image using one, two or three pinholes simultaneously. Colored gels to go over the holes are included, making it possible to create trippy, psychedelic images when using color film. The camera uses 120 film by default, but optional backs are available if you’d rather use 35mm or instant film.

Multi-Lens Cameras

If you smile at Holga’s 135TIM, you will quickly notice that the camera is smiling back at you. Its twin-lens design is surrounded by adornments that make it look like a very happy camera indeed. It has two inset lenses, which can be triggered independently or simultaneously. Each covers half a frame of 35mm film. The camera supports multiple exposures, allowing you to capture some pretty interesting images.

Lomography makes a few multi-lens cameras that automatically take a series of images in succession, with a delay between each exposure. Their SuperSampler is a 4-lens 35mm camera that uses a pull-string shutter release. The four images are placed side-by-side on the film frame, allowing you to capture a sequence of motion in one frame. There is a half-second delay between each exposure.

The ActionSampler works in much the same way as the SuperSampler, except it divides the 35mm frame into quadrants rather than in a side-by-side manner. Images are captured about once every quarter second, and a pop-up viewfinder allows for rough framing. You can also get a version with a flash, making it possible to use it in varied lighting conditions.


The Oktomat and a sample image (courtesy of Lomography)

If four images aren’t enough, you’ll want to take a look at Lomography’s Oktomat. If you hadn’t guessed already, let it be made clear: the camera captures eight photos on a single 35mm film frame over a period of 2.5 seconds. Like the ActionSampler, it features a pop-up viewfinder for framing.

Lomography’s Pop 9 takes a different approach to multiple-image capture. The camera, which features a built-in flash, takes all of its photos simultaneously. Because the lenses are physically offset from each other, each ninth of the exposed frame features a slightly different framing. This allows you to create Warholesque pop art photos, making the Pop 9 a very fun option for party photos.

Colorsplash and Fisheye

Colored gels to cover a flash are a popular accessory for creative photography. Lomography’s Colorsplash 35mm camera takes that concept and builds it into the camera. It features a wide-angle lens and a flash that is filtered by a rotating color wheel to modify the filter color. Two of the filters can be exchanged to suit your creative needs, and a total of 12 different colored filters are included with the camera! It is powered by two AA batteries.

Lomography also makes a dedicated 35mm fisheye camera. It features an extremely wide 10mm circular fisheye lens, which delivers a 170° field of view. The camera uses a glass lens for superior contrast and sharpness. Its built-in flash is powered by two AA batteries, making it possible to take photos indoors and in other dimly-lit conditions. An upgraded version of the camera, the Fisheye No. 2, is also available. It adds an external viewfinder for more precise image framing, support for multiple exposures of one frame and full-metal jacket construction.

The Classics: Holga, Diana F+ and Twin Lens Reflex

Although Holga makes a wide variety of cameras, the body most associated with their brand name is the 120N, a light, plastic camera that uses 120 film and features a plastic, 60mm f/8.0 lens. The 120N has one shutter speed, two aperture settings, and is lauded for its light-leaks, irregular optics and the strong vignetting displayed by the photos it captures.

The 120N can capture 6 x 6 or 6 x 4.5 images, and features a very rough focus scale on the lens to aid focusing, although you’ll find that you have plenty of depth of field to work with. The standard version of the camera is plain black, but the fasion-conscious can opt for a Holgawood—a 120N molded from different-colored plastic—in the color of their choice.

Holga also offers 120N bodies with a built-in flash. The 120FN uses two AA batteries to power the flash. For a bit more fun, consider the 120CFN. Identical to the 120FN in almost every respect, it adds a spinning color wheel to the flash, allowing you to use red, yellow, blue or white light to illuminate your subjects.

Photographs taken with a Holga 120N, Ilford Delta 400, © 2010 Jim Fisher

If you’re looking to shoot 35mm with a Holga, you have a few options. The first is to simply purchase a 35mm adapter kit for the camera. You can also opt to purchase Holga’s 35C or 135BC model instead. Both cameras accept 35mm film only and use a 47mm f/8.0 plastic lens. The 135BC model adds an internal frame mask with creates a vignette around the borders of the image.

Lomography’s Diana F+, a modern reproduction of the classic Diana camera, is very similar to the Holga 120N in form and function. It uses 120 roll film to record images captured by its 75mm plastic lens. Unlike the Holga, the Diana F+’s lens is removable. Take it off and you have a true pinhole camera, making it a versatile creative device. You can also swap out the lens for an optional wide-angle, fisheye or telephoto lens, and an external flash unit is available for the camera.

Other accessories for the Diana F+ include a 35mm back, a close-up lens and an external flash unit. You can add accessories as you need them, or purchase the Diana F+ in a kit that has a large number of accessories included. If you’re set on shooting 35mm film rather than 120, you may want to opt for the Diana Mini, a dedicated 35mm version of the Diana F+.

Photographs taken with a Diana F+, Ilford Delta 400, © 2010 Jim Fisher

The final camera in the roundup isn’t so much a toy camera. Rather, it’s a modern version of a classic medium format TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera. Styled after the Soviet Lubitel TLR, the Lomography Lubitel 166+ has a 75mm f/4.5 glass lens. The camera features two lenses; one takes the photo and the other is a viewing lens, which projects the image onto a ground glass focusing screen.

This allows for precise focus, without the need for a mirror box or rangefinder mechanism. The end result is a compact, light medium format camera that gives you a bit more control over your photography . You can control aperture and shutter speed for precise exposures. In addition to 120 film, the camera can also use 35mm, thanks to an included adapter kit. When you use 35mm film, the entire frame, including the sprockets, is exposed.

Just Have Fun

The whole point of getting a toy camera is to have fun with it. They are a great option for enthusiasts and artists alike, as their lack of precision can often be liberating. Many are available at very modest price points, making them terrific stocking stuffers for your favorite photographer or artistically-minded friend! Best of all, it’s easy to browse all of the Holga and Lomography cameras that B&H carries.