Present Imperfect

'Happy accidents' define the new craze for lo-fi photography


The summer of 2006, my last in high school, my mom gave me the task of filing all of our family photos. I spent those hot days in a cloud of dust, sifting through weathered shoeboxes full of photos of seemingly ancient events: my parents’ “before kids” adventures in Europe; my sister’s first time on a bike; my eighth grade dance.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of grainy 3-by-5’s and negative strips, daunted by the sheer volume of a family’s worth of photos, I remembered the days of film. A time when you couldn’t delete the picture of the bird that flew in front of Dad’s face, when the flash robbed cousin Tim of his baby blues and gave him red devil eyes instead. When I’d finished my chore, a part of me longed for an era I thought was lost and gone forever, when one had to wait for shoddily composed, quickly snapped photos to come back from the lab.

My nostalgia has been gratified. Out-of-focus, light-streaked photos have made a second entrance. But this time such photo faux pas as darkened edges and double exposures do not condemn a shot to the scrapbook hall of shame. Whole communities have sprung up around these “happy accidents” and the lovable, crappy cameras that produce them. An entire genre of “toy” cameras, which are often no more than a plastic carriage with a single lens in a bulky, boxy shape, has taken flight. Holga, Diana, Lomo—let’s not forget Polaroid. All low-tech. But all the rage. For some reason.

Cheap Chic

Aside from sharing strange but somehow charming names, the cameras that are making a comeback have more than a few things in common. Most of the models are made completely out of plastic, even the lens. Some operate on 120mm film, some have fixed lenses; all are inexpensive.

Holgas are adored for discrepancies in their plastic construction that allow light to leak into the body, often resulting in bursts of overexposed film. Both Holgas and Dianas are famous for their marginal field coverage and low-quality plastic lenses, which produce the much sought-after vignetting, or blurred-edge look, and highly saturated color photos.

In the 1980s, Holga cameras were mass-produced and widely distributed to the Chinese public. Intended to bring photography to the working class in an affordable way, the camera slowly gained international popularity a few years after its introduction. Professional photographers appreciated the image abstraction Holgas produced, as well as their affordable price, which was as low as $15.

Diana cameras predate the Holga and were brought into the United States from a Hong Kong plastic factory in the 1960s. They were widely used as cheap prizes for carnivals and fairs, and produced dreamy images with their soft focus. LOMO LC-A’s are Holga’s communist equivalent, developed in Russia during the ’80s.

And, of course, there’s the Polaroid. First introduced in 1947, the camera, which instantly produced square photos with a white margin, had its heyday in the 1960s. Ever since Polaroid announced its decision to discontinue production of the film in 2008, though, the cameras have practically become an item of lore.

Film Flops

In an age where digital rules, toy cameras and Polaroids should have no place. The images that digital cameras produce are ultra-crisp, and they’re only getting more exact. Arguably one of the best digital single-lens reflex cameras on the market, Canon’s EOS D5 Mark II, boasts 21 megapixels, eight exposure modes and can snap a photo in 1/8,000th of a second. In contrast, Polaroid cameras tend to generate images that contain the equivalent of less than one megapixel.

Digital images may be quickly uploaded onto a computer and emailed to every corner of the earth, while photos from film must still be processed, cropped and then scanned if one plans to share. For the amateur photographer, digital pictures are much more economical. Only the cream need be printed.

But despite the hassles, low-definition film cameras, or at least their aesthetics, are holding their own—and perhaps even breaking new ground—in the 21st century. The Lomographic Society International is a forum for all things toy camera, whether that entails writing about them, selling them or even selling accessories for them. Championing quick and simple snapshot photography, the group offers 10 “golden rules.” The 10th one trumps all: “Don’t worry about any rules.”

The Hipstamatic iPhone application gives digital photos an old look, as if they were taken with a toy camera. The application’s description reads that Hipstaprints, the application’s resulting images, are “characterized by vignetting, blurring, oversaturation [and discoloration],” while the Hipstamatic itself “keeps the quirks of shooting old-school” with the option of switching the type of film, flash and lens used.


We get that they’re crappy, we understand that they’re popular. But what exactly precipitates this shift in photographic trends? Jeremiah Flynn, of Jeremiah’s Photo Corner in Santa Rosa, reports that this analog obsession has consumed nearly five of his eight years in photo retail. “It’s shocking how much film we’re selling,” he says. “It seems like it’s actually ramping up.” And while the standard 35mm film is still his leading seller, he’s noticing that medium and large format films, like those typically used with Holga and Diana cameras, are flying off the shelves like never before.

The same is true of the Instax camera, Fujifilm’s attempt at a new-age Polaroid, which alone ensures a healthy crowd around Jeremiah’s small but thriving “toy camera” wall. Customers for the Instax, Flynn says, are mostly “people who didn’t have Polaroids as a kid, these 16-, 17-, 19-year-olds, and they’re coming in and they’re like, ‘Wow! Look at this!'”

One simple answer is trend. Tod Brilliant, a professional photographer who has been shooting Polaroid for some 10 years, says that instant film is, in some ways, a fashion accessory. “[Polaroids] were such a hipster item, they were so Urban Outfitters,” he says. Indeed, the alternative-fashion retail store was among the first in the last decade to reintroduce Holgas to the masses.

Of course, not everyone has a Holga from Urban Outfitters. Students of film photography are flea-market- and garage-sale-savvy, but the effect is the same. These photographers are looking for older-looking instruments in the form of weathered plastic. Brilliant, who shoots in both digital and Polaroid, says, “I think I got hooked because it was such a cool object. I go out, I take my Nikon, and it takes great pictures, but it’s not a cool object. Just the same damn thing everyone else has. If you have a camera that looks badass, why not use that?”

Sure, following trends sucks. But in the end, who cares? “When your favorite band becomes popular, well, did you like them, or did you not like them?” Brilliant asks. For him, it’s more about the camaraderie that instant photos foster.

“There’s a lot of great community in it,” he says. “You’re out with your friends and you’re just starting to take photos and you want to share that process with your friends. It’s not so geeky. It’s not like you take your digital camera and take a picture, and you go home and put it in your laptop. You’re out in a car, and you take it and pass [the Polaroid] to the driver, and that’s that.”

The Hi-Fi of Lo-Fi

There’s no denying that digital cameras yield excellent high-definition pictures, and do so with much less angst than their film-wasting counterparts. Perhaps it’s the obsession with precision and efficiency that so often accompanies digital technology that makes digital photography feel inefficient.

Sonoma State photography major Anna Tracy certainly sees the value of film. “There are only 20 pictures on a roll of film,” she says. “You want to be careful about what you take a picture of. You look around and make sure your composition is exactly what you want it to be before you take a picture.”

Tracy, who previously worked primarily in digital media, took her first class in film photography in 2008 with Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior College photography instructor John Ferdico. Ferdico requires his students to shoot with Holgas, and, initially, Tracy was less than pleased about the process. “I was so angry,” she says. “I probably took about six rolls of film, and only two pictures turned out.” They later became her two favorite photos and marked the beginning of her loyalty to film.

She says, “I think photographers in general are a little more anal than a lot of other people in the art world, maybe a little controlling sometimes,” Tracy says. “Everything has a light meter, and it’s very ‘This is how it has to be done.’ [Holgas] kind of let you go a little bit. The fact that you really don’t know how it’s going to turn out, it lets you let go of it.”

Ferdico himself found solace in Holgas at a time in his career when photography was exciting but overwhelming. “I enjoyed it because it was a refreshing change from worrying about stuff with photography,” he says. As an undergraduate art student, he bought his first Holga at a Kansas City dollar store in the 1980s. At around $20, Holgas are more than affordable, especially for photographers, who are prepared to pay many times over that price just for film.

Tracy and Ferdico make it sound so easy, sacrificing to-the-very-pore exactness for the ability to capture a serendipitous moment. And really, does high-def mean true-to-life? “Polaroid is more like what you see,” says Brilliant. “Your eye can’t focus on more than one space. That’s what I really enjoy. To me, it’s more real because it’s less honest, which makes it more honest.”

So blurry pictures with a tiny frame taken with a camera that can’t effectively shoot an object more than 10 feet away evoke a heightened sense of verity? Can the human eye do much better? Brilliant rests his case.

Back to Basics

For experienced photographers, meticulous visual detail and overly planned shots are not the only aspect of digital that’s bringing them down. There’s the data, too. And just the thought of it bogs everyone down, even if we’re not totally aware.

“It’s like a visual overload for me,” Tracy says. “I have probably 18 flash drives, full of digital photographs, just because I want to have them all backed up, but it’s just so much to go through.” And for someone who’s trying to make a career out of photographs, this computerized burden can act as a hindrance to finding one shot among millions. Which is why Brilliant typically travels with only one lens when shooting with his digital camera.

“I really enjoy being limited,” he says, “and right now we have so many choices with digital cameras.” Brilliant relates this camera craze to other trends that have reverted back to older media, such as the popularity of vinyl records. He says these movements operate on a more “human scale” and praises their down-to-earth feasibility. “I can’t carry 4 million photos with me. I can carry 15 Polaroids,” he says.

So Bad It’s . . .

Maybe these crazy, crappy-camera-carrying kids have something here. Sure, it’s a trend. But it’s a trend based on spontaneity and downsizing, which is, at best, a hopeful perspective and, at worst, an idealistic one. Ferdico, who has been teaching photography classes for over 12 years, also sees the interest in film as a desire for an authenticity in the art form, a yearning to know how it all works. “Here’s this basic technology that provides the basis for all art forms,” says Ferdico. “And it is very much like pottery in that way.

“Photographs aren’t only records, but they’re actually souvenirs,” he continues. “Every time you take a picture, a physical part of the world is absorbed by the emulsion of the film. And then you carry that with you on the surface of the paper. As I learned how digital photography works, it seems to me, it disappears the moment that that light energy is encoded. You actually lost that tiny physical thing.”

Maybe it is the physical thing that we hold on to, even in our minds. Are we going to remember the family portrait where every strand of hair is in place long after the flash drive’s been misplaced? Does a photographer really learn from her mistakes unless the mistakes are tangible? It’s hard to pin it down, exactly. But I do know that those tiny physical things are not lost on me.

As I write, I have Instax photos scattered all over my room. Film canisters fill my shelves. Last night, I sat on my bed, moving the small white frames around me and wondering which one of these crappy images could possibly be used to accompany this article. I realized I probably couldn’t use any—they were just that bad. And that was OK.

Sonoma County Library