The Camera-wiki page on trashcams defines a “trashcam” hilariously: a trashcam is any camera whose value at least doubles when loaded with film.
There are two ambiguities here (it’s just a working definition, after all). Are we talking about the value of a used camera, or retail price? And what kind of film: a cheap roll like Kentmere or Foma, or a premium stock like Fuji Velvia?
In 2007, the Pogo Click 35mm Focus Free camera retailed in India for Rs. 99. That’s around Rs. 250 in today’s money, or 3.50 US Dollars. So even if we take the narrowest definition – a camera whose retail value at least doubles when loaded with cheap film – the Pogo makes the grade as a trashcam.
Now you might say that qualifying as a trashcam is not exactly ‘making the grade’. The term trashcam does sound derogatory, but I think the time is ripe to reclaim the term. Many years ago I read a New Yorker article which had a line that stuck with me: ‘[Tiger] Woods would destroy us with a single rusty five-iron found at the back of a garage, and Cartier-Bresson could have picked up a Box Brownie and done more with a roll of film […] than the rest of us would manage with a lifetime of Leicas.’
It’s easy to be dismissive of the Pogo and its ilk. But it’s more interesting, I think, to try and take good pictures with it. Likewise, it’s easy to write a snarky review – throw in a few jokes about its plastic lens and general lack of features. But it’s more interesting to approach it like I would any other camera. How does it measure up in light of what it cost? Who was it made for, and how would they use it? Above all, what kind of pictures does it make?
1. Focus and Exposure
The Pogo is an all-plastic, fixed-focus 35mm film camera with no exposure control. Such cameras are usually set to ~f/8 and ~1/100 sec. The small aperture, combined with the relatively wide focal length of ~35mm ensures that everything from ~2 metres to infinity is in focus.
You may have noticed that I used the approximately symbol (~) four times in the previous paragraph. That’s because all of these numbers are based on general internet research on ‘35mm focus free’ cameras. I couldn’t find info on the Pogo in particular, and neither the camera nor its rudimentary instruction manual concerns itself with such minor details. But on the one roll of film which I’ve so far shot with this camera, these assumptions stood me in good stead, so I think they are as good a starting-point as any.
On some higher-end point-and-shoot cameras, focus and exposure are set automatically, but that requires sophisticated electronics which drive up the price and are prone to failure. Manual focus and exposure, on the other hand, is a bit of a learning curve. The Pogo, it seems, was designed for children, or for adults who want to take pictures with the minimum of effort. As such, it does away with the ability to control focus and exposure altogether. Just compose and click: photography at its purest. Sort of.
Needless to say, there are downsides. The lack of exposure control means you can only use the camera in a limited range of lighting conditions. There’s no scope for creative tricks like shallow depth of field or slow shutter speeds. Anything closer than 2 meters will be blurry. Anything further away will be in focus. And so on.
2. Other Features
This will be a short section; the Pogo has fewer features than any camera I have ever used. On top, it has the shutter-release and a film rewind knob. On the left you have a latch to pop open the film door. On the back, there is the film door itself, and below it, a dial for advancing film (which also cocks the shutter). On the bottom, there’s a frame counter, and a button you press when rewinding film. There are no other controls. In particular, there is no hot shoe, flash, lens cover, self-timer or tripod mount (not that you need one at ~1/100 sec).
On the plus side, there is no need for batteries, and few things can go wrong. It is a minimalist, all-mechanical camera – just like the Leica M2. In fact in at least one respect, the Pogo is more advanced: its frame counter resets to zero when you open the film door – a feature missing on the Leica M2.
With the possible exception of small internal parts like springs and screws, the Pogo (including the lens, which I will come to later) is made entirely of plastic – very light plastic at that. As you would expect, it feels very flimsy. I would not drop it, say, or force the film advance dial if it got stuck. That has not happened to me so far, but the dial is possibly my least favorite thing about the camera. It is serrated, which is unpleasant to my fingers, and it makes a squeaky sound.
The Pogo’s viewfinder has plastic optics. Like most compact cameras, it is a reverse Galilean type where everything is in focus. It’s fairly small, and has barrel distortion (unlike the lens, which has pincushion distortion). I didn’t specifically test for whether its field of view matches that of the lens, but it seems close enough.
The grip is surprisingly comfortable. The Pogo has a contoured front, and a plastic thumb-rest on the back. For added security, there is a wrist loop threaded to the side of the body. Film loading and rewind are manual, but straightforward. The camera is very easy to carry – super light (the upside of cheap plastic) and compact.
Toy cameras have been manufactured over decades – the iconic Diana came out way back in the 1960s, and while the likes of Nikon and Canon have stopped making film cameras, toy cameras are still going strong. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, both 35mm and medium-format. Some manufacturers went for the SLR look, while others got more creative. Many, like the Pogo, have a classic compact-camera shape, which I personally prefer for this type of camera. Form follows function, and the lack of decorative or pseudo-SLR elements keeps it smaller and lighter.
Like many other toy cameras, the Pogo was made in China, and bears no indication of the actual manufacturer. Pogo is merely the branding, like on the more famous Time Magazine camera. (Pogo, by the way, is an Indian kids’ channel, which gives you some idea of the target audience.)
The camera was imported and marketed in India by a Mumbai-based company called Mitashi (their name appears on the box, and is also printed on the body itself). The camera I’m using is tomato red, but judging from the pictures on the box, it came in three other colors: blue, pink and yellow. The box also has the month and year of import (July 2007) and the maximum retail price (Rs. 99).
The camera I used for this review actually belongs to my cousin. Her parents bought it for her in 2007, when she was around 14 years old. I believe she shot a couple of rolls with it – family vacations and such – but switched to a digital camera soon afterwards. The Pogo seemed destined to be forgotten.
Last month we were chatting about photography, and she remembered she still has the camera somewhere. Soon the Pogo was retrieved, still in its original box and apparently functional. I had never used a toy camera before, so we thought we’d try it out together. The plan was to go for a walk around my neighborhood, shoot a roll of film and develop it that same evening.
I’m not set up to develop color film at home, so it would have to be B&W. The main limitation, on a winter afternoon with hazy light and lengthening shadows, was the fixed aperture of f/8. I loaded the Pogo with a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus, planning to push to ISO 800. HP5 also has good dynamic range, which I hoped would partly compensate for the lack of exposure control. (In India, a roll of HP5 costs around Rs 600, so it more than trebled the inflation-adjusted price of the camera.)
The sample photos in this article are all from that one roll. They were shot in the space of about two hours in failing light with a toy camera, so I hope you’re not expecting masterpieces. Some photos are by me and some by my cousin. I haven’t indicated who took which, because it doesn’t seem that important. Increasingly I find my photographic interests moving towards collaboration – photo-walks, swapping cameras, engaging with subjects, getting them to participate in the process, giving away prints, and so forth. But that’s a story for another day.
5. Optics, Limitations and Sample Photos
First I’ll show a few photos which illustrate some of the limitations of the camera. With a fixed aperture of f/8, the biggest limitation is lack of low-light capability. Negative film (both B&W and color) handle overexposure relatively well, so too much light is unlikely to be a problem. This is a camera for summer holidays, sunny days by the beach. On a hazy winter afternoon, HP5 pushed to 800 could cope when we were out on the streets, as you can see from the photo of my cousin. But the photo of me on the balcony is underexposed. And the ghostly photo of my mum and aunt, taken in indoor lighting, is essentially unusable.
The Pogo’s single-element, meniscus lens is made of plastic. A very early lens – the historic Wollaston landscape lens (1804) used on camera obscuras – was also a meniscus lens. But unlike the Wollaston which was a rear meniscus lens, toy cameras tend to use a front meniscus – the convex surface faces outwards (rather than towards the film), and the aperture stop is behind (not in front of) the lens.
Meniscus lenses are generally designed to minimize two of the seven deadly optical aberrations – coma (which can be reduced to zero) and field curvature (reduced, but not eliminated). Spherical aberration is mitigated by the small f-stop, but is still quite prominent. Being highly asymmetrical about the aperture stop – a strongly curved element on one side, no elements at all on the other – meniscus lenses also can’t correct transverse chromatic aberration and distortion. Rear meniscus designs like the Wollaston have barrel distortion, while front meniscus lenses, like on the Pogo, have pincushion distortion. Finally, the simple, uncoated plastic lens is prone to flare.
The photo of the cyclists, taken from the other side of a level crossing, shows many of the ‘defects’ I just listed. The resolution is acceptable in the center but falls apart in the corners – spherical aberration running amok. The railway line at the bottom, which is horizontal in real life, shows marked pincushion distortion. The sun was behind them, so there’s a healthy dose of flare (veiling glare) which reduces overall contrast.
The photos of the bridge and the cat show the extent of flare. They were taken in the same location within a few meters (and a few minutes) of each other. The bridge was shot against the light, facing west, and the cat photo facing east. The difference in contrast is remarkable. To be fair, flare can look interesting on color film, which I have not tried on this camera.
Finally, the bird on the wire also shows how the lens is less sharp in the corners (I colorized and added a slight vignette in Photoshop, but these don’t affect the sharpness). The lens, by the way, seems to have fairly even illumination; it has various issues, but vignetting is not one of them.
Some of these defects can be exploited. In the portrait of the young man, the buckets to the left are blurry – the result of optical aberrations, but it creates a nice selective-focus effect. The deep depth of field is not a problem if the subject is against a dark background, like in the photo of the idol, or the child sucking on a chocolate wrapper while his mother looks on.
6. Toy Camera Aesthetic
I think there are two ways to shoot a camera like the Pogo. The first way produces relatively sharp, technically superior images. Place your subject near the center. Don’t shoot against the sun. Avoid straight lines near the edges of the frame so as not to emphasize distortion. Take pictures in good light, with the subject two meters or more from the camera.
The other way – a better way in my opinion – is to lean into the ‘defects’. Nancy Rexroth, who has done some stunning work with a Diana camera, described her approach in a 1974 Aperture article:
“The photographs in this portfolio were taken in southeastern Ohio with a Diana camera. It cost about $1.50. It is a toy camera that works well. The company also makes a cheaper model that squirts water when you press the shutter. I have developed my own method of hand-holding, sometimes shooting with my eyes closed, using the zone system, dreaming, using five different types of film.“
Now if that’s not a cool artist statement, I don’t know what is.
Personally, I’m not very good at this style of photography. My instinct is to take ‘straight photos,’ but I would like to explore other ways of picture-making. That’s one reason for my interest in homemade pinhole cameras, and toy cameras like the Pogo.
Toy cameras can only really be compared with other toy cameras; they are, literally, in a class of their own. And in that class, the Pogo is one of the simplest. However, many of the extra features on other toy cameras are not that appealing to me. For example, the aforementioned Time Magazine camera has a choice of four aperture settings. But its widest aperture is around f/6, which is not much better than the Pogo. Moreover, it has a metal weight glued inside the body to give it a sense of heft. The Pogo is small, light and unpretentious, which I like.
[Image credits: Time Camera by Josh N (cc by-nc 2.0); Jazz 207 by Ross (cc by-nc-sa 2.0); Pokémon by Boxy Brown’s Bling (cc by-nc 2.0).]
Some toy cameras like the Jazz (above) have a fake panorama setting (not something I need) or flash (which requires batteries, making the camera heavier and more complex). And even I draw the line at the Pokémon camera which superimposes cartoon characters on the photo.
Having said all that, there are two simple things I would add to the Pogo if I could: a built-in sliding lens cover, and a hotshoe to mount a small flash unit if one wants to (the toy camera aesthetic pairs well with flash). I think these additions would be useful, but without adding much to the cost, complexity or weight.
This ‘ideal feature set’ does in fact exist, for example on this generic ‘35mm focus free’ camera. A Bulb mode, which appears on some toy cameras, would be amazing… but now I’m just being greedy.
If you’re in the market for a toy camera, Austerity Photo has some great reviews under the fixed-focus tag. Or just look up ‘35mm focus free’ on eBay; they often sell for less than a roll of Kodak Portra. Medium-format toy cameras are also an option, but I have no experience with those.
New cameras are available too, though a bit more expensive. This Austerity Photo article has a roundup of toy cameras in production as of summer 2021, and at least one other camera, the eco-friendly Lensfayre Snap, has since been added to their ranks.
8. Final Thoughts
If you’re into photography (which you presumably are if you got this far!) and have never tried a toy camera, I would recommend it. Worst case, you waste a roll of film. Pass it on to someone else or convert it to a pinhole camera. Or you might get lucky – have a fun time, get some good pictures, and maybe even a new perspective on photography.
I had not used a toy camera either, but thanks to my cousin, I’m glad I had the experience. The simplicity is freeing. Just raise the camera to the eye, compose and click; no need to change settings, or even wait for autofocus to do its thing. Without eye-popping resolution and creamy bokeh to fall back on, it’s a fun challenge to try and take good pictures that rely more on composition and timing.
With more advanced cameras, if I get too hung up on metering, it’s reassuring to remember that we shot a whole roll in changing light at f/8 and 1/100 (film is forgiving, especially with overexposure). If I start taking myself or my photography too seriously, going out on the streets with a bright red plastic camera is as good an antidote as any. And in general, I find it amazing that a device which such basic features (not to mention, a one-element plastic lens!) can produce pictures at all.
The Pogo is not the world’s most rugged camera, but my cousin’s copy is still working 14 years after it was purchased. It has the fun-and-free feel of a disposable camera, while being multi-use and therefore much more eco-friendly. It’s limited in a lot of ways, but you can learn to work around the limitations – or even work with them. And to any possible criticism that you can muster, there is an unanswerable argument: this camera, even when new, cost less than a roll of film.
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I have a few film toy cameras for my sons, 7 and 4 years old. It’s fun and they have fun.