Gimmicks and gimmickry

Quoting and expanding from one of my previous posts.

Anything photographic can become an exercise in technique over content

Photography, by being such a technology and technique driven field, tempts people with the fallacy that better/different gear or improved technique is all they need to take better photos. Sometimes, the temptation is because of marketing-driven numbers and “technical” specification which allow people who don’t know what they need to pretend that “better” can be quantified. Othertimes, the temptation comes in the form of eye-catching results which look markedly different than what comes out of most cameras.

There have been plenty of articles about the myths of sharper/faster/better lenses. I’m not going to go down that road. People who chase the myth of the better lens end up shooting lens tests more than anything else. I’m more interested in the temptation toward superficially eye-catching techniques whose results rarely hold up to additional scrutiny.

These techniques are almost always all form and no content since they only serve to say “hey guys, look what technique I can use!” I call them gimmicks since they stand out through form rather than content.

buzz buzz buzz
Commonly-used gimmicks are HDR, bokeh, panoramas, selective color, toy cameras,* through-the-viewfinder, and apps such as Hipstamatic.** These are all extremely seductive to the photographic neophyte since they are relatively easy to perform. You don’t have to learn a skill, you just need new tools or equipment. With minimal effort you get lots of eye candy*** and don’t have to worry about content.

*And all the related effects that lousy lenses, light leaks, etc. create.

**Hipstamatic and Instagram are possibly so common now that they may no longer be eye-catching. 


Other techniques with high gimmick potential include wide-angle lenses, infrared, and contrast filters. What prevents these from being typical gimmicks is that the motivation for using them is usually content-driven. Sometimes it’s extremely naïve motivation (e.g. trying to “get it all in”) but it’s still looking at what’s inside the frame and trying do something with it.

Gimmicks, by being so form-based that they dominate the content, are extremely hard to use well. It’s already a struggle for many people to master the camera to the point where it does what they want. Once a gimmick is added to the mix? Watch out. Too much camera, not enough photographer.

Which is why I find myself being drawn to gimmicks.


I don’t necessarily want to control the gimmick. I do want to be able to influence it and figure out how best to use its effects. This is the extreme of my typical approach with lenses.

I’ve been shooting toy cameras somewhat consistently for years now and an gradually getting a sense of how to use them. Sometimes it’s for the sense of achieving that “retro” look through semi-legitimate means. Othertimes, it’s because I enjoy the exercise of having to stretch my brain to figure out how best to use the camera. My Brownie Hawkeye Flash is probably my favorite toy camera since it hits the sweet spot between being somewhat retro, having limited functionality, and creating a unique look.* There’s nothing that screams Brownie about my results but I know I wouldn’t have gotten any of the shots I took with it using any other camera.

*Compared to, say, my Duaflex II which is too distinctive and toy-like for my taste.

But I’m starting to like my Kodak Pony 135 C a lot since I can almost use it like a regular camera. Now that I’ve figured out not to trust the focusing and just scale focus for near or far only, I find myself liking it for quick snaps when I’m out walking during the day.

It’s also great for double exposures.

efi multi

Probably the most obvious of the gimmicks I play with. I find myself favoring the planned versions rather than the unplanned ones. So, for example, compositing a shot in two or three consecutive exposures rather than taking the entire roll, rewinding, and reshooting it for random overlaps. Not that I have a problem with randomness, it’s just that I prefer trying to influence the gimmick.

It’s definitely an interesting exercise to try and see things that will composite well. I’m also still barely getting started in this technique so I suspect a longer post will come once I’ve had a chance to really get my hands dirty and run many rolls through the camera.

rosina with light leaks

Other gimmicks I use which I’ve already covered on this blog are shooting with my flipped lens, through the viewfinder, and even tilted horizons. With all of these, I find myself testing how to control what I’m doing and learning how to see things with the special viewpoint. For an exercise which seems to add a lot of options* I find that gimmicky shooting makes me take fewer photos than regular shooting. A roll of film in a gimmick camera takes me months to get through.

*Just point it at anything and it will look interesting!

It’s interesting to realize that I spend more time thinking about my compositions and content the lousier my equipment is. But my photography brain is growing no matter how I choose to force it to grow…

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

10 thoughts on “Gimmicks and gimmickry”

  1. Pingback: Gearhead | n j w v

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