This post details how I came to own the most garish, fun and surprisingly flexible camera in my collection, the Diana F+. It might look like a child’s toy, but this is a fully working system camera.
Lo-fi without the instagram filters
I was pleasantly surprised by how the shots from the Zorki turned out, so I wanted to carry on taking modern pictures using really old (and cheap) equipment. Instead of taking a pin-sharp picture on a digital camera or phone and adding blurs and filters, I really liked the way you got authentic lo-fi effects without doing any editing.
Ideology and marketing
Lens: included (+ other accessories) Total: £36 Full specs
I found out that this lo-fi style of photography was quite often called Lomography. Students in 90s Austria started a Lomographic Society named after LOMO, the Russian makers of the LC-A camera which impressed them, since then they have developed it into a global brand and sell brand new versions of classic cameras as well as their own film.
One of their most popular cameras is the Diana F+ which is based on the same-named 1960s plastic camera made in Hong Kong, itself owing a lot in design to the Agfa Isoly 120.
There are various other names for this sort of photography and since the lines are kind of blurred with Lomo between a philosophy and a brand name, I’ll probably stick with lo-fi. For me it’s about using cheap stuff to get interesting pictures mostly on purpose but sometimes by accident. Cheap cameras are often compact, easy to use and you’d have no qualms about taking them anywhere, although it could be argued that there are few places you’re without your phone. Another factor is that when people notice you using an old or unusual camera it can raise smiles or create talking points, and they don’t come much more noticeable than my CMYK Diana.
Big Boy’s Film
By default the Diana takes 120 film, which I hadn’t heard of before. Called medium format it is 60mm wide which gives you a whole lot more detail than 35mm film, which without the sprockets is only 24mm wide. 120 film doesn’t have sprockets, but is backed by paper which has the frame numbers printed on the back – you know how far to wind it on as the cameras have a red window on the back you can see the numbers through. The look of the film is physically impressive when its developed, put a light behind it and it looks kind of like a mini scroll of a thin, incredibly detailed smartphone screen.
The Diana doesn’t quite use the whole of the 60mm, as it takes either 12 full-frame shots (5.2×5.2cm), or 16 smaller square images (4.2×4.2cm) with a switch on the back and a mask that goes inside the camera. The switch on the back shows a different set of numbers on the backing paper and the mask stops the images overlapping, which they would if you shot big pictures but only wound on the smaller amount each time.
120 film cameras are an odd bunch, they seem to be split between toy-like cameras such as the Diana and then super-expensive cameras like Hasselblads. Naturally I’ll be trying out the cheaper options to see how they manage – will they be surprisingly good, or a waste of really nice film?
Keeping it simple
The Diana is pretty simple, it has three apertures with sun and cloud icons which equate to f/11 f/16 and f/19 as well as a pinhole option f/150. The shutter is fixed at around 1/60″ but there is a Bulb mode which holds the shutter open – neatly it comes with a little plastic plug which jams the shutter lever in place for the long exposures needed for the pinhole mode. The focus is as simple – while it’s smoothly variable the distances are marked in three rough zones.
Mine came with a bunch of accessories and it’s these that make it a system camera. It has interchangeable lenses, which if I’m honest don’t make as big a difference as the numbers suggest they should – I think it’s because the lens is quite far away from the film, the shutter and aperture mechanism stays on the camera when you change the lens, and it already sticks out quite far.
The flash I got with mine looks great and has a few addons of its own, it has adapters to use the Diana flash on other cameras with hotshoes as well to use a hotshoe flash on the Diana, but the most fun feature is a set of coloured gels which slide underneath the bubble and give the flash a selection of colours.
Even more, it has interchangeable film backs, so I can shoot 120 film, Fuji Instax or 35mm film – the latter having options for wider than usual shots as well as being able to expose on the film sprockets, which gives a really striking look.
How it turned out
Fuji Instamax mini
Format/Type: Colour Instant Sheet
Full Total: £9.47
Cost per shot: £0.95
My Rating: 0
Impatient as ever I wanted to try the instant film first. It is not a cheap film format at about £15 for 20 not-much-bigger-than-a-credit-card sheets. I loaded up the back and started shooting, but immediately noticed a problem – after the initial black plastic cover sheet which came out fine, the actual film sheets weren’t being ejected. I tried fiddling with it but not knowing how it was supposed to work I didn’t have any luck and ended up taking the back off which exposed all 10 sheets.
After experimenting with the ruined sheets it appeared clear that the back was just not made very well, the only way I could get it to eject the film through the rollers was to open it up (in the dark) take out the cartridge, slide off the exposed sheet and fiddle around trying to shove it up against the rollers before it would take it up and release the developing chemicals. Even then it produced an uneven spread of chemicals and the results were not very good.
Welcome to lo-fi photography
Fuji 800 #1
Format/Type: 135/Colour Negative
Full Total: £9.47
Cost per shot: £0.39
My Rating: 4
Next I tried the 35mm back. It was May, so raining, so I choose the faster option of 800 ISO film instead of the 400 ISO that was recommended. I’d used 200 ISO film in the Zorki and it had given me some trouble with indoor shots. Also it was the only other film I had at the time. It was certainly liberating to take the camera out and take pictures without having to huddle under the stairs after every shot.
35mm film doesn’t have a paper backing, so the camera has to be able to count which exposure you are on as well as line up each frame correctly. The Diana’s 35mm film back does this with a wheel with the numbers on and a white dot which shows through a hole when you are lined up. It is a surprisingly accurate and clever solution if perhaps rather overengineered, but the whole idea of the camera is that you can wind back or forward as much as you want and expose whereever and as many times as you want to.
The results aren’t very amazing but with the sprockets they do stand out. It does make them a bit of a pain to scan though.
Life in widescreen
Fuji 800 #2
Format/Type: 135/Colour Negative
Full Total: £7.64
Cost per shot: n/a
My Rating: 2
I tried the 35mm back again, but this time with the panoramic setting. Unlike some 35mm automatic cameras whose “panoramic” option just adds bars above and below reducing the image size, this option exposes more film to the sides. It’s not a complicated thing to do when the camera is designed for a much larger film format. However after three or four shots, its overengineered nature seemed to catch up with it and the winder jammed and would not advance. I didn’t want to apply more force than would break the film so I wound what I’d taken back in and put the film in another camera, the Minolta AF-DL.
The results of those few shots are pretty unspectacular, although there was a nice one of a family member which I won’t post here.
Back to basics
Lomography Lady Grey 400
Format/Type: 120/BW Negative
Full Total: £4.36
Cost per shot: £0.36
My Rating: 6
Well I thought I should finally try the film this camera was made for, medium format 120 film. Lady Grey 400 is reportedly Kodak TMax 400 but backed with Lomography’s own backing paper. Now that I was using the camera in it’s rawest, simplest setting it worked flawlessly throughout.
I developed this film before I knew it was really Kodak TMax, and the only resource I found mentioning Lady Grey specifically suggested a shorter developing time. As a result there’s less contrast in the negatives than there probably should be, but I was able to correct that easily once I’d scanned them. The numbers and dots are from the backing paper – something about the ink they use affects the film and doesn’t always happen. That randomness is something they seem to foster at Lomography, so is all part of the deal you sign up to when using their films.
Medium format film is impressive stuff, but more expensive and difficult to work with, it costs more to have developed or uses more chemicals if you do it yourself and it’s harder to scan. I have a few rolls ready to use, but given the extra cost and effort I want to make sure I get the best pictures I can, because it feels like a waste to take poor shots. I have a few more medium format cameras to experiment with before I know which one can give me those shots. The Diana F+ is a pretty good contender, it’s easy to grab and take with you, has some fun addons including a great flash, but works best when used at it’s simplest settings.