If you call yourself a photographer, you probably have some level of obsession with equipment. You may have amassed an odd collection of cameras and lenses you find essential for your art, and you probably have a list of cameras and lenses that you hope to own one day. And then, like a punch in the face, you hear some schmuck named Chase Jarvis say something profound, like “the best camera is the one you have with you.” But that can’t be true, because then there’s no way to rationalize the Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/1.4 ZE that will solve your soft corners when shooting in low light below f/3.5. I’d argue that maybe Mr. Jarvis’s theory is more accurately stated; “the best camera is most assuredly the one you left at home.”
Let’s turn all this around a bit with yet another pithy aphorism; when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I’d add that when you only have a hammer, you better be pretty good at hitting nails. This long preamble is written in seeking to explain my irrational need to own a camera that uses 120 format film, and some of the results of that need.
I used to own a Mamiya 645 in very decent (maybe even excellent) condition, and I was quite happy with every photograph I made with it. But I didn’t use it very often. One day, upon considering the amount of dust it had collected, and some bullshit that Marie Kondo said in a bestselling book, I decided I should sell it. For no good reason.
I mean, as a camera it was heavy, and slow, and I could only fit fifteen images on a roll of film, and the film was relatively expensive, and I had to take the film to a place to have it developed because my developing tank was 35mm specific, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with learning how to spool 120 film onto a reel anyway. But when I sold the Mamiya I immediately felt the void left by the lack of owning a 120 film camera.
In an attempt to fill the void, I typed “Lomography 120” into the internet search engine and within the week I had me a shiny new hammer, I mean, a shiny new 120 film friendly plastic camera called a Lomography Diana F+. I’m not sure what the “F” stands for (it’s probably in the manual, if I cared to look) but my best guess is that it stands for an unprintable word which would change the rating of this article from PG to R; the Diana F+ is an F-ing crappy hammer, and an even worse camera.
[Editor’s note – for those wondering, the F stands for Flash, since the Diana F was the flash-capable upgrade to the original flash-less Diana. Today Lomography produces all sorts of Diana models.]
In the spirit of Mr. Chase Jarvis, and for the sake of this article, for a few days the Diana F+ would be the only camera I had with me. I’m not sure Chase would be happy being saddled on this same horse, his statement to the public about cameras notwithstanding. Any time I was using the Diana F+, I knew I had many better cameras at home. And I often longed for them.
What’s a Lomography Diana F+ and… why?
I have a bit of a history lesson for you, albeit one that’s un-researched and at the mercy of a failing memory, so it’s probably all wrong. Nevertheless, once upon a time there was no such thing as Instagram. Film was grainy and a lot of consumer-level cameras were pretty basic and took kind of bad photographs. Over time, cameras got better and the pictures they made looked more like the actual world we lived in, and less like the color-shifted blurry messes of many film images.
But human beings often manifest cravings for “the good old days.” We began longing for a time when the photos we collected had what could only be identified as “soul.” This really amounted to pictures that were maybe a little out of focus and maybe a little under/over exposed. The film process we were stuck with back then made lovely and romantic, slightly oversaturated mini art pieces, and it warmed our hearts to have these moments frozen in time despite the graininess and lack of detail and unrealistic representation of color that film gave us. Plus, we were all thinner and had more hair in those photographs. Film got better and better.
Then the digital revolution came along. Film cameras and the makers of film had spent a lifetime making products that fixed imaging flaws and more accurately represented reality. Digital cameras captured life flatly, truer to life than any film ever did. Then phone cameras became the dominant life-recorder, capturing every day of our lives without embellishment.
And then, as if we all went mad for nostalgia at once just few years into the raw truism of digital, Instagram arrived. Now we could shortcut the whole process of Lightroom, Aperture, or whatever existed at the time, and, with the push of a button, transform perfect and well exposed digital photographs with incredible detail for a phone camera with a sensor smaller than a pin head into something shot with a bucket and toaster and people loved it. We were back to loving the film look, whatever that is. We loved it so much that Instagram is now worth over $100 billion. Somewhere in the middle of all that, Lomography was born.
I wasn’t in the board room when the concept of Lomography was proposed and accepted as a viable business consideration, but I imagine the conversation went like this:
“You know photographs, right?”
“We want to do that, but kind of crappy like.”
“While the world is embracing German and Japanese technological marvels that take perfect photographs, we want to make a camera with interchangeable plastic shims for framing, tight thumb wheels that you have to turn by hand to advance the film until you see the next frame number in a little window in the back of the camera, a vague aperture control on the bottom front of the camera, where you will most likely forget it exists making half your photographs be badly exposed or not exposed at all. Oh, and a vague focusing system that doesn’t allow you to check if what you’re taking a photograph of is in focus. You kind of have to guess.”
“You think that’s a good idea?”
“Go for it, but only if you can make the cameras completely out of plastic including the lenses and in a variety of bold colors that will assuredly offend anyone who considers owning one. And we can include a collection of photographs in a hard cover book that suggests brilliant photographs can be taken with this camera, and we don’t even need to use this crap camera to take the pictures in the book. The end user will just have to take it on faith that we used this plastic junk to take those photos and that any crap they come up with is a result of their ineptitude, and not the camera’s fault, even though it’s probably the camera’s fault.”
Thus, the Lomography Diana F+ was born.
Truthfully, LOMO cameras existed before this. They were originally made by the Soviet Leningrad Optical and Mechanical Association, who made their earliest cameras in the 1930s and who’d eventually amass three Orders of Lenin for their efforts.
The Chinese company Great Wall Plastic Co. would copy the playbook of the Russians. The original Diana was born in Hong Kong in the early 1960s. Throughout this decade and into the 1970s, Great Wall Plastic Co. made their LOMO-like toy camera in 120 format out of cheap plastic. By the 1980s, the Diana ceased production. When the word “Lomagraphy” was trademarked by the Lomographic Society International (Lomographische AG) in Austria, they reintroduced a whole new range of Diana cameras to market.
Practical Use and Thoughts on the Diana F+
Well, anyway, I have a Lomography Diana F+ camera. I bought it used and it’s the black and blue color variant, and it cost me $40 Canadian. It came with the original box and the hard cover book that was packaged with it, and I figured at the very least the book was worth ten dollars. The person I bought it from said she ran exactly one roll of film through it. I imagine that’s how most Diana F+ experiences pan out, despite the fact that, as I write this, I’ve run six rolls through mine.
There is nothing about the Diana F+ that will instill any confidence in the user in regards to how the photographs may or may not turn out. There is a sense of disbelief that the little toggle to the right of the lens does anything at all, though it is in fact the shutter release. You will fight the flimsy film advancement wheel and you will think you hear the film being torn apart inside the camera as you advance it. You will look for the next number in the sequence of frames to appear in the little red window on the back of the camera signifying you’ve done your part in advancing to the next frame. You will have no faith in the framing of your subject through a joke of a viewfinder, and you will trigger the shutter, and move on. Maybe you got a picture. Maybe you didn’t.
I kind of wanted to hate this camera. I wanted to be offended by the quirkiness, the “camp” qualities of the object. I wanted to be embarrassed by the bright blue plastic body of the Diana. I wanted to loathe the pseudo artsy images it produced and to be angry at the vignetting you get from the Diana F-ing plastic lens. I wanted to rail against its crap build quality. I wanted to finally declare it was a piece of junk. But I didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, the Diana F+ is indeed a crap bit of kit, but in the end it doesn’t promise to be anything more than that. As of the writing of this article you can buy the Fujifilm Instax variant of the Diana (in the same offensive blue as mine) for just $99 Canadian ($68US-ish), or a 35mm film compatible fisheye-capable piece of garbage for $69 Canadian (under $50 US) brand-spanking-new. The only expensive-ish Diana you can buy is the Diana F+ “DELUXE” kit, which includes a whole mess of hot garbage, like four interchangeable “lenses,” various color filters for no good reason, and something called a “splitzer.” That’s a lot of stuff.
Any self-respecting photographer will get sick of the novelty of this camera in about a month, or six rolls of film – whichever comes first. At least, I did. But in the end, the whole deal costs less than a good night at the bar, and as much as you’ll be embarrassed to admit it, you’re going to like the photos you get. And when you’re done with it you can use the camera to pound some nails. It’s a terrible hammer, and an even worse camera. But I’m glad I own one.
I found myself at the film lab picking up the last roll of film I had put through the Diana F+, and because I had loved/hated the experience I thought, what the heck, two more rolls of Portra 400 please, I’ll give this camera a bit more time. I got home, scanned the film, and loaded up the Diana F+ with a fresh roll. The film I picked up from the lab was as pleasing as ever with quirky, badly exposed squares of film with strangely out of focus bits, and a general loveliness of an undefinable quality. The last two images were a bit more out of focus than the rest, but not offensively so. This is what we will call “foreshadowing.”
I went for a walk with the Diana and then, as photographers are wont to do, I found a thing that I wanted to take a picture of. I retrieved the Diana F+ from my bag, removed the lens cap, composed the shot, and then remembered the need to focus and adjust the aperture. This was when I discovered the lens, well, it was simply gone. Gone missing. Nothing left where the little piece of plastic had once been except a gaping hole. Realizing I was religious about keeping the lens cap on when not in use I knew it had to be nearby. And there it was, on the ground, staring up at me, half of a broken Lomography Diana F+ lens laying in the grass.
I’m the second owner of this camera on my seventh roll of film. This added to the one roll the previous owner had shot brought my Lomography Diana F+ up to a lifetime total of eight rolls. And I had worn it out.
Here’s some quick, inaccurate math (all in Canadian dollars); $40 for the camera, plus seven rolls of film (about $98) times twelve exposures per roll, and another $60 for developing. We’re looking at about $2.35 per frame, and I still have the hardcover book, right?
As an extreme comparison, take a Leica M Type 240 and a Summilux 35mm f/1.4. The cost of that kit divided by $2.35/picture means you’d have to take about 9,000 photographs to break even, and I’d argue there is a much greater ratio of “keepers” in the Lomography photographs than from the typical digital camera.
But it’s not really about the math, right? There’s an intangible quality to the Lomography Diana F+ photographs; something that one might argue isn’t possible with a modern Leica, or even traditional film cameras, and that adds value in some odd way. The fact that the camera is essentially garbage after seven or eight rolls of film is not important. I won’t be buying another. But still, no regrets.
One last note for the record – I own a Stiletto titanium hammer. I take my hammers seriously.
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