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How To Use A Toy Camera

Pick up a toy camera and get creative. Here are a few tips to get you started.

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This article is an extract from the title: Toy Cameras, Creative Photos: High-end Results from 40 Plastic Cameras by Kevin Meredith.


Photo by Kevin Meredith
Photo by Kevin Meredith.

What is a toy camera?

Maybe a better question to ask is “What is a serious camera?” The answer to that question is simpler. A serious camera is one that has been designed to capture a scene with as much accuracy as possible. The resulting images, while technically perfect, can seem a bit lifeless to some people. Toy cameras are ideal for photographers who don’t want to capture a polished version of the world. As most toy cameras are plastic, the terms are often used interchangeably, and it is largely down to this cheaper plastic design that they have such characteristic quirks, which may not be intentional. These make the images they produce less technically perfect, most typically because of overlapping frames, light leaks, or lens distortions, but the toy camera distinction is not always about the quirks. Some rely on a novelty factor such as adding colour to their flash or capturing multiple frames.

Ultimately, what you consider a toy camera is down to you. Whether you are using your high-tech DSLR with a cheap plastic add-on as a toy camera or you have fallen in love with some plastic fantastic you found at a thrift
store, it doesn’t matter. It is about toying with your creativity and having fun doing it.



Photo by Kevin Meredith.
Photo by Kevin Meredith.



How do they work?

For the most part, toy cameras are very easy to use. They should be child’s play! Most of the time that is true,
but having a little knowledge of photography does help you get the best from your plastic fantastic.

Photographic images are recorded onto film or digital sensors. They need just the right amount of light to record an image. This “amount of light” is referred to as an exposure. The aim of a camera is to get a well-balanced exposure - basically, to avoid an overexposed (too light) or underexposed (too dark) image.

Getting a good exposure is down to three things: shutter speed, aperture, and film/sensor speed. Most of the cameras featured have fixed shutter speeds and apertures. This means they are only really good for shooting in daylight (and that is what they are designed to do) unless they have a flash, in which case you can snap away in low light as long as your subject is within the flash’s range.

Photo by Kevin Meredith.
Photo by Kevin Meredith.


Shutter Speed

The shutter speed, measured in fractions of a second, controls the amount of time that the film/sensor is exposed to light. Images shot with slower shutter speeds may show motion blur, which can be an undesirable effect. Most toy cameras have shutter speeds just fast enough to avoid motion blur, but if you are moving too much you will get some. Most of the cameras in this book have shutter speeds of around 1/125 sec. If a toy camera allows you any control over shutter speed, it is usually a choice between a standard setting and bulb.
When the shutter is in bulb mode, it will stay open for as long as you keep the shutter button held down. This comes in handy for nighttime photos when the camera will need more light for a balanced exposure, but be warned—if you use it during the day, your photos will come out overexposed. With cameras on which you can change the shutter mode to bulb, the bulb setting is usually indicated with B and the normal setting marked as N. Don’t make the common mistake of assuming N stands for Night mode!





The aperture, a hole that lies between the lens and the film/ sensor, controls the amount of light hitting the film/sensor. It does this through adjustments to its size. The aperture has an effect not only on the exposure but also on how sharp an image is: the smaller the aperture, the greater the area of the image in focus. The downside to this is that the smaller the aperture, the longer the shutter needs to be open. On most toy cameras you can’t adjust shutter speed or aperture, but with those that you can, this tends to be really simple. You usually get the choice of two, and sometimes three, aperture settings, most often sunny (the smallest aperture), cloudy (the largest aperture), and if you are lucky partly cloudy (somewhere in between).





Film Speed

Film speed is an important consideration when using a toy camera. A fast film is more sensitive to light, so it will collect light “faster” than a slow film. A film’s sensitivity is given as an ISO number. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the film will be to light. An ISO 200 film is twice as sensitive as a 100, and an 800 is twice as sensitive as a 400. As you can’t control the exposure setting on most toy cameras, the only way you can have any control over exposure is through your choice of film. ISO 400 is what most people use with a toy camera in daylight, but if you are guaranteed that all your photos will be taken in direct sunlight, with no cloud cover, you can use 100 or 200 film. If you know that you are going to be shooting on a really dull day you can use an 800 film. ISO 800 colour film can be grainy and the colours may not look as punchy as what you will get with a low ISO
film, but that is better than underexposed shots.



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