An alternative to techno overload
Find photo freedom with the Diana plastic camera
Does the latest high-tech camera equipment risk turning you away from photography? If the answer is yes, don’t give up on photography! Try a Diana and escape into the simplicity of a totally plastic toy camera. Beginning in the early 1060s, the Diana was made by the Great Wall Plastic Factory of Kowloon, Hong Kong. In the United States, the camera was sold by the gross (twelve dozen) and cost one to three dollars per camera, although it was also won in carnivals and given away as a novelty item. It was also marketed under other names such as Arrow and Banner, which for purists makes them ‘clones’ or ‘knockoffs’, and not Diana’s. The true Diana is no longer made, and the main sources for these cameras are secondhand stores, yard sales, flea markets, and of course, eBay.
The vague history of this camera is part of the mystique. In the 1970’s a large wave of American photographers made the Diana popular and the rush was on to get these now extinct toys. All that can said be for certain is that the manufacturers of this camera surely did not expect there to be such a surge of buying of these cameras some 40 years later to the point where some of these cameras in good condition can sell for as high as 150 dollars, that is a big markup for something that was sold wholesale for 50 cents!
The many models of the diana camera
A number of different models were produced, though it’s somewhat of a mystery as to how many. The original has only a single shutter speed (which varies tremendously from camera to camera, depending on how well the spring mechanism has withstood the test of time, from 1/30 to 1/200). Some models have a bulb setting for time exposures. The Diana F features a built-in flash, whose synchronization often does not work properly. It is easy to make multiple exposures with the Diana; the shutter on most Diana’s can be fired as many times as wanted. Diana’s have three aperture settings: sunny (f-16), cloudy (f-6.3), and dull (f-4.5). They also have adjustable zone focusing areas, which can be set at 4 to 6 feet, 6 to 12 feet, and 12 feet to infinity. Most Dianas accepts 120 roll film and makes 16 exposures of about 2×2″ per roll.
The Holga is not related to the Diana camera in any way other than photographic qualities: plastic lens, guesswork exposure, and a not-too-light-tight body. The Holga was made in the 1980’s by a Chinese company that had no affiliation to the Great Wall Plastic Co, and apparently had no prior knowledge of the Diana camera cult following in the west. It is also pretty evident that there is probably a period of about 10 years that Great Wall Plastic Co. stopped producing Diana cameras and another company created the Holga.
Characteristics of the diana camera
Almost all the Dianas have light leaks. Many photographers wrap black tape around the camera body, after the film is loaded, to prevent stray light exposure of the film. The red transparent frame-counter window and the inside seams of the camera also can be taped for light protection. Some people paint the camera’s interior flat black. The area where the lens is attached to the camera has been known to leak light, requiring additional taping.
The plastic lens creates a soft-focus image that appeals to many photographs, especially those fed-up with the constant race to improve image quality. The lens tends to be sharpest in the middle, with the focus falling off rather rapidly towards the edges. In addition, the quantity of light striking the edges of the film is less than the center, creating a vignetting effect that is very much classic Diana. The lens is also not color corrected, so unusual color effects and shifts are normal, but are often very beautiful.
The Diana’s is a rangefinder camera and as the viewfinder is not corrected for parallax, what you see in the viewfinder is not exactly the same as what the lens sees. This produces an image with a somewhat haphazard look because you have to figure out the composition by intuition and guesswork. Often what you see is higher than what the lens sees, so raining the camera slightly before exposure can compensate for this. The closer the subject, the more this is important.
Black-and-white or color films can be used. Negative films having an ISO of 400 are often shot to compensate for the limited range of camera adjustments. The faster films provide a greater tolerance for exposures that are less than perfect (a likely situation with the Diana). The faster films tend to emphasize grain and texture, adding to the lack of traditional image clarity for which Diana photographs are known. Be sure to use only brand-name 120 roll film, as some of the off-brands use heavier spools and paper, which tend to bind in the camera or break the advance mechanism.
Why choose the diana plastic camera?
Using the Diana questions many photographic axioms, such as “a photograph must be sharp,” “a photograph must have maximum detail,” and “a photograph must possess a complete range of tones to be considered good.” The Diana challenges the photographer to see beyond the equipment and into the image.
The camera is also very easy to use. There is no need to use a light meter or to calculate shutter speeds and f-stops.
The Diana summons the Dadaist traditions of chance, surprise, and a willingness to see what can happen. The lack of control can free you from worrying about doing the “right” thing and always being “correct.” Since the Diana is a toy, it allows you to react to the world with the simplicity and playfulness of a child.
To sum this up this funny camera is difficult. Is it pop or a serious art movement? Is it a gimmick or a serious tool? Is it in a round of dismissal by the purists similar to the pictorialists being rubbed out by Newhall and Adams? The Camera can be a tool to become an instant pictorialist. Many successful toy camera users don’t like to be associated with the romance of the pictorialist photographers that once were and they like to use the camera with a modern vision. Many use it for very personal visions and ideas and use a standard camera for most of they’re other work. There are countless success stories with users of this tool.
You can not make a bad picture; the camera is too easy. Sadly many use it because they can’t make a good picture with glass so they depend on the effects the plastic creates. It can often make very cute weak pictures look serious and seemingly much stronger. I see a dangerous similarity with Polaroid transfer. It’s too easy to be arty; the majority of work I see is often empty of vision, personal style and craft.
Ansel Adams once said most people have sharp lenses but fuzzy concepts.
Some contents of this article adapted from Photographic Possibilities by Robert Hirsch, Boston: Focal Press, 1991, pp. 141-3.