Toy Camera Conundrum

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.

Gimmicks and Gimmickry

The truth is probably a combination of all these.

What I like about toy cameras is not that they represent specific design choices regarding their limitations. They are intended to be good enough for specific photographic tasks.

Old digital cameras do not feature designed limitations. They were trying to compete with existing point and shoot cameras and the goal has always been to cram as many features as possible into the camera.

It’s not the image fidelity which draws me to toy cameras, it’s the restricted choices. No zoom. No focus. One aperture. One shutter speed. These are the kind of puzzles which get my mind working. Having all those choices and being restricted by just a lousy image sensor? There’s no mental exercise there.

We may have finally gotten to the point where toy digital cameras are possible. Lytro for example, once it stops being fêted as the next big thing, is a great toy camera concept. We can design digital cameras which are heavily skewed toward specifically-limited specialist functionality. Or we can have apps which do the same where one camera can have many toy-camera functions.

Heck, the way I use our iPhone and iPod is already pretty close to toy-camera-like. As I’ve played with the cameras and filters, I’ve found that I enjoy the apps as ways of making the most of the limitations of the cameras. I don’t like applying the filters to photos taken with my SLR. I do like the filter effects with the kind of images I get from the phone or from a lousy point and shoot.

I wasn’t fully aware of these limitations before I started playing with the filters. But now I’m seeing how they take the camera limitations and make them into features rather than try and them. How very toy camera like indeed.

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

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