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Starting Out


he popularity of plastic cameras like the new Diana + series means that there are more people out there taking their first steps with film and medium format, as well as dealing with the particular quirks of these plastic fantastics. I sometimes forget that in this digital age there are many people out there who have never actually dealt with film in their life!

I’ve outlined a few points below for those who have previously used digital point and shoot cameras set on auto to capture their photographs prior to venturing into this wonderful world of film (& plastic camera) fun.

To begin, if you have just got a ‘new’ camera, I know you will be eager to get out there and start photographing with it, but wait one, take a breath and read the instructions (if it came with any). The Diana + series come with quite detailed instructions and tell you what speed film to use (400) and how to modify your shooting if you are using slower film (say, 100) along with other useful info. If you read the instructions and/or do some research on the web (google is a wonderful thing) regarding the camera you just got, it can save disappointment (and expense) later on.


oading and unloading medium format film:
Prior to shooting, you will need to load your camera with film. If you are used to handling 35mm film you might find the 120 medium format film a bit more of a fiddle. If you can, load in subdued light. The film has a backing paper that protects the emulsion from light, but loading and unloading in low light is always a good practice (in case your film roll accidently loosens or unravels)
Speaking of backing paper, this has the numbers of your exposures on it so you can tell where you are up to on your roll of film. When you first put the film in your camera and replace the camera back, you will need to wind on the film quite a bit before you see the number 1 in the frame counter window. If this is the first time you have done this, don’t panic if you can’t see the numbers for a while, there is a fair bit of backing paper before you actually get to the numbers and before that you will probably see some lines and arrows.

There is a tutorial video for loading a Diana + with 120 film made by the lomo people here
There is one made by squarefrog for loading film into a Holga here
…and for loading film into the blackbird,fly (BBF) camera (which takes 35mm film but can still be a bit of a challenge for a first-timer) there is a tutorial made by yours truly here!

When you have finished shooting, ensure you have advanced the film on until it has completely wound onto the take-up spool (looking into the frame counter window there should be no backing paper visible, you can usually ‘feel’ the last bit of paper come off the original roll as well) – be sure to carefully remove the finished roll (again, in subdued light if you can) and secure the roll tightly with the paper band (some have adhesive, some need moistening, like a stamp) and store it in a cool dark place ready for processing.


aking Photographs:

After you’ve loaded your film into your camera, presumably you’re ready to start shooting! It’s good practice to make note of a few variables when first shooting with film and/or a camera you are unfamiliar with:

#1: Film speed

Different Film Speeds for 120 and 35 film (125 & 400 ASA respectively)

- this will be constant for each individual roll, so once you’ve loaded it into the camera that’s a constant for that particular roll/shoot (but an important one to keep in mind as it will often determine decisions regarding what aperture and shutter speed to shoot a particular scene/subject with or even to bother taking a photo at all!) As a general rule, the higher the film speed, the more sensitive it is to light, so 100 asa will be less responsive in low light conditions compared to 400 asa, so you will need either brighter lighting conditions or have a longer exposure time to get the same results as with 400 speed film. Higher speed films have, in the past, usually meant more ‘grain’ but with newer films made by manufacturers these days this is becoming less noticeable.
Because I have a brain like a sieve, I usually try and stick the cardboard tab from the top of the film box with the film speed information to the back of my camera to remind me what I have loaded in the camera. Some cameras even have a special slot to pop the film info in

#2: Aperture

Typical Plastic Camera Apertures

- in the Diana + series it’s a choice of Sunny (fƒ 22), Partially Sunny/Cloudy (ƒf 16) or Cloudy (fƒ 11) and lets not forget pinhole (fƒ 150) – the larger the aperture (the smaller the fƒ stop number) the more light is going to reach the film plane (and depending on the lighting conditions, shorter exposure time needed). The smaller the aperture (larger fƒ stop number) less light and consequently longer exposure time needed depending on the lighting conditions. On most toy cameras, the aperture is indicated by symbols (like the previously mentioned sunny, cloudy, hazy symbols) In more sophisticated cameras the aperture is usually indicated by a number usually ranging from small numbers like 1.7 (large aperture) to 16 or 22 (small aperture) Some cameras have both numbers and symbols.
With large apertures (smaller f numbers) the depth of fieldis more shallow. That means that items in front or behind the subject you are focused upon are progressively more out of focus. Smaller apertures (larger f numbers) have greater depth of field, so objects outside of the focus distance are more in focus than with smaller apertures. In reality most toy cameras don’t have f-stops small enough (large enough apertures) to make this obvious, but if you are using a camera that can go down to small f-stops you can have some nice blur behind your portraits (for example).

#3: Exposure Time

Shutter Speeds on a Diana ‘B’ – as long as you hold the shutter release down & ‘I’ approx 1/60th of a second.

- the amount of time the shutter is open to let light onto your film. With relatively simple cameras like Diana, you have N or I (approx 1/60th sec) and B (however long you hold the shutter open)
One of the most common mistakes a newcomer can make is to have the shutter selection on ‘B‘ rather than ‘N/I‘ – if your images come out blurred and overexposed, then this is probably what has happened – I still do it from time to time. It never hurts to check all your camera settings before each shot, because you can accidently flip the selector (especially on the Diana + I’ve found) from N/I to B.
B is best suited for long exposures such as night photography or low-light indoor shots. You also need to use B when shooting pinhole exposures. If you are taking long exposures and don’t want really blurry images you willneed to use a tripod or some other method of steadying your camera (a small beanbag is useful if you don’t have a tripod or don’t want to lug one around all the time)

#4: Lighting Conditions

- the way a scene or subject is lit and the intensity of light will help determine your choice of aperture and exposure time/shutter speed depending on what speed film you are using. If you know in advance what conditions you will be shooting in it will help determine your choice of film speed too.
I hope I’m not stating the obvious too much after all I’ve talked about above, but to reiterate:
Bright sunny conditions (especially with faster film such as 400 iso or above) necessitate the ‘sunny’ smaller aperture setting.
In overcast or low lighting conditions, or when using slower speed films, the cloudy, large aperture setting should be used and sometimes the ‘b’ shutter speed needs to be used (with a tripod preferably)
resources: For the Diana + there is a nice free exposure chart from INDIAN HILL imageworks available here.

#5: Focus

Distance/Range Legend on a Holga Lens to Select Appropriate Focus Range

- don’t forget to focus the lens. Most cameras have some form of focusing ability. There are very simple ‘fixed focus’ cameras but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume your camera has a focusing ring or similar to tell the lens what distance the subject matter being shot is from the camera. The Diana has estimated distance set by a ring around the front of the lens, the Holga has the estimated distance on the lens barrel, indicated by simple graphics, as shown in the example at left. Cameras like the Lomo LCA have a lever to set the distance. If you want your images to have somesharpness it’s best to try and get the focus right. Plastic cameras can actually achieve quite sharp images in the right conditions, despite being famous (or infamous) for their ‘soft’ focus, you can be surprised!








So hopefully now you can see that all of the factors above work together to get light to the film plane in order to make an exposure which will eventually become your finished photograph once developed and printed (or scanned). The variables you have control over can be changed to suit the conditions depending what kind of effect you want to get in your final images.

If you pay attention to these variables when you are shooting you will soon get to know what ‘works’ and what doesn’t.

*Other Notes:

Many plastic cameras have inaccurate viewfinders, so what you see in the viewfinder will not be what you get on the final exposure due to parallax errors. For example, the Diana cameras have their viewfinder above the lens which means the horizontal aspect will be positioned fairly accurately, but because the finder is above the lens you may think you have someone’s head in frame only to find it has been chopped off in the developed image. The Holga has it’s viewfinder on the side and slightly above, so the parallax error works (or doesn’t if you know what I mean) in both vertical and horizontal plane.
To confuse these matters concerning what you see in your viewfinder and what is actually captured on film, both the Holga & Diana have the option of 35mm film backs now. Combined with the different kind of lenses these cameras can use (teleophoto, wide angle etc) things can get rather confusing. There is an excellent explanation on this matter by Gimel Vav on a thread in flickr – if you are shooting with a 35mm back on these cameras (and optionally using different lenses) you would benefit from reading it at this link: Distances used with a 35mm back and lenses.
Eventually you will work it all out and adjust your compositions accordingly…

I would further suggest that if you are new to shooting with film or when using a camera you are new to, you start with C-41 (negative film) rather than E-6 (slide film). Compared to C-41, E-6 is usually more expensive to buy and process, sometimes harder to find a lab to actually even process it and has less latitude (not as forgiving in lighting conditions outside of the gamut of your film speed and cameras exposure capabilities) often leading to under or overexposed images. Related to this subject, you may find the ‘look’ of x-pro (cross-processing) very appealing, but I would suggest getting used to shooting ‘normal shots’ first! (Lomo has a lot to answer for!)

C-41 is the way to go for learning what your camera is capable of and it hurts the hip-pocket less if you make mistakes.

Don’t be discouraged by “bad rolls” – keep shooting, keeping in mind what I’ve talked about above and in no time you will be picking up your exposures from the lab with a big smile on your face when you see how cool they turned out. Of course there will still be ‘clangers’, we all get them, but sometimes your so-called mistakes can turn out to be some of your more interesting shots!

The most important thing is to HAVE FUN. If you can’t have fun whilst shooting, then chances are you will not get results that please you and also, what would be the point of doing something you’re not enjoying?

Photography with film cameras and plastic cameras especially (in my honest opinion) can be a lot of fun once you get used to them and once you do (get used to them) and see what you can get – you may be hooked!



  1. Whoah! Great article you got here.. More power! Thank you, learned a lot from it :)

    Sunday, September 7, 2008 at 12:42 | Permalink
  2. pelayoNo Gravatar wrote:

    ¿what abaut the focus control?

    Friday, December 19, 2008 at 10:16 | Permalink
  3. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    I’m glad you found this useful littlemiss!

    @ Pelayo – I originally intended that this article mainly cover the basics of understanding film and exposure variables in relation to toy camera photography, I thought the focus control on most toy cameras was fairly self-explanatory, but I guess we shouldn’t assume anything! Perhaps I will write another article on the basics of focus, depth of field, close up and the like…

    Friday, December 26, 2008 at 19:27 | Permalink
  4. christineNo Gravatar wrote:

    This helps *a lot*! Thank you so much.

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 10:31 | Permalink
  5. Dave DunneNo Gravatar wrote:

    Great primer for all those folks discovering film photography for the first time. I agree that the post could be expanded to cover the topics you mention in your comment. Coming from an auto-everything digital camera, there are some aspects that may seem basic but will be new to a lot of people.

    I also like that you recommend C-41 film starting off. Too many people seem to go whole hog into the “lomography” thing and try cross processing on their first film without seeing what their camera does naturally.

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 15:57 | Permalink
  6. JuanNo Gravatar wrote:

    I just got my first bad roll… but this article is gonna keep me shooting!


    Friday, February 6, 2009 at 00:16 | Permalink
  7. KellyNo Gravatar wrote:

    Thanks for the helpful post! I just bought a blackbird, fly yesterday and dropped off my first roll this evening. Fingers crossed!

    Given that it takes 35mm film, I can get it developed at the Walgreens across the street. But would you recommend that, or do you think I’d get better results taking it to a real photo shop? The nice part about going to Walgreens is that as I’m learning, I don’t have to feel embarrassed by all my blurry, under/overexposed shots. I know I’m being silly, but as a total newbie, some of those places can be kind of intimidating…

    Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 14:15 | Permalink
  8. KellyNo Gravatar wrote:

    Update: My first three rolls with the BBF turned out wonderfully! I’ve been having so much fun shooting with this camera. So much fun, in fact, that I’ve already got a Diana F+ on the way. I think I’ve been bitten by the toy camera bug…

    Saturday, May 23, 2009 at 20:10 | Permalink
  9. SkipMeNo Gravatar wrote:

    Thumbs up :) gd for starters like me and the encouragement.Have fun snapping!!

    blue bbf :D

    Saturday, September 19, 2009 at 18:13 | Permalink
  10. DaveNo Gravatar wrote:

    Could I be a bigger fan of this article? What a great way to easy the Diana anxiety! You = win. Keep up the awesome tutorials, they are completely helpful and awesome.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 08:33 | Permalink
  11. JOHN ELLIOTTNo Gravatar wrote:

    I Bought a Diana Camera for my sister. We found that the 400 asa Fuji negative film was much better than the 100 asa for this particular camera. It meant you can use the settings as given, and exposure is more tolerant. I can get gloss 4 inch square pics with a 1960′s style white 4mm border from “Club 35″ website, England.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 21:21 | Permalink
  12. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    Hi everyone, I am very pleased that you have found this article helpful. As I get more time I will try and expand on it a little, but I don’t want it to get too detailed or overwhelming. There are of course many many other great resources available if anyone wants to learn more about film photography and photography in general. I like visiting my local library, but what you seek is only a mouse click away often. I am still a firm believer that experience is a great teacher though.
    @ Kelly, my apologies for such a tardy reply to your question re: Given that it takes 35mm film, I can get it developed at the Walgreens across the street. But would you recommend that, or do you think I’d get better results taking it to a real photo shop? – I think wherever you take it, you should not be worried about what anyone else thinks of your shots. It is all a learning experience and I have often found that shots I was not that happy with, other people liked so things like that are relative. None of the labs, both professional or fast-outlet types have ever made any comment or judgement on any of my shots (I think they may be too busy most of the time to give but a cursory look to check that the negatives developed properly) the only problem I did have was at one lab where they chose to ‘editorialise’ my images choosing not to print some ‘because they were too blurry’ “It’s a toy camera I’m taking these photos with” I had to explain. “Some shots will be blurry, I just want to see all the output from my camera, I may even like the blurry ones!” – now I just get my negatives ‘developed only’ no prints, and I scan them in. Lately I have taken to developing my own B&W negatives at home, adding even more personal control over my exposures. I’m planning on developing some C-41 at home soon as well, using a colour processing kit I bought online (from B&H)
    @ John, your sister is lucky to have you as a brother! Was the Diana a ‘lomo’ Diana (ie a Diana + or Diana F+) or an ‘original Diana (no tripod mount or pinhole aperture) – It is recommended that the newer Diana +’s are used with 400 asa film, whereas the older Diana’s were released when most films available were 100 asa, and the sunny/hazy/cloudy aperture settings were geared towards that speed.
    I love gloss square format prints with white borders, they have such a retro feel to them! That sounds like a good website for people in the U.K. I know it’s hard to get that sort of print in Melbourne, thanks for the heads up for our U.K. readers.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009 at 21:42 | Permalink
  13. JOHN ELLIOTTNo Gravatar wrote:

    Dear Cameron,
    I am thrilled to have got a reply from you!
    In answer: I bought the new retro copy, ‘Diana +’ blue 120 film camera, through the lomo website. It is supposed to be an exact replica of the original. (£30)It does accept 100 speed roll film, but then requires one stop more exposure through the aperture settings. Hence we use versatile 400 asa Fuji Superia for 12 shots. Exposure is much better, grain is fine for this type of camera. It is great for double exposures. Adjusting for focus is the main thing to remember. The website I mentioned also does standard 35mm prints with the option of original compact 3.5 inch by 5 inch gloss prints with white borders, which are excellent. Very retro. Thank you. Great website.

    Friday, October 23, 2009 at 19:45 | Permalink
  14. ceciliaNo Gravatar wrote:

    I find that all my pictures from the Diana F+ are super zoomed up, even when I change the focus on the lens, is there something I’m missing?

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 11:16 | Permalink
  15. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    Cecilia, are you using the 35mm back when you have this problem? The Diana + (and F+) is designed to expose onto medium format film (and the viewfinder reflects this larger square format, even though it’s not that accurate due to parallax error) – when you use 35mm in a medium format camera, the images will be cropped quite sharply on the top and bottom of the frame compared to what you see in the viewfinder (often appearing as if they have been ‘zoomed in’)

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 11:37 | Permalink
  16. ceciliaNo Gravatar wrote:

    ahhh, yes, I am… thanks for that, I’ll look into getting some medium format film

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 13:43 | Permalink
  17. JOHN ELLIOTTNo Gravatar wrote:

    A very inspiring collection of photographs that I recently read about were by ‘Jacob Holdt’, printed in a book entitled, ‘United States 1970-1975 ‘ He was Danish, but travelled to the states and took photos of the poor underclasses, often ethnic minorities. Amazingly, they were taken on an amateur ‘Canon Dial’ camera, which is a half -frame 35mm model (24 by 18mm neg). I think he used slide film, yielding 70 photos per roll, as he was so short of money. His innate sense of composition was astounding, proving that a camera doesn’t have to be expensive. It lies in the skill or vision of the photographer.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 22:53 | Permalink
  18. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    Thanks John, I think I will have to look for that book! Coincidentally I have recently started using some half-frame cameras. Slide film yields lovely results. Cheers!

    Saturday, December 12, 2009 at 22:40 | Permalink
  19. amandajayneNo Gravatar wrote:

    thank you so much I have been struggling for a while and almost ready to give up….

    Monday, January 25, 2010 at 06:39 | Permalink
  20. DennisNo Gravatar wrote:

    Great article…really teatched me a lot about my Diana F+. I must say I was kind of disappointed with my first roll (especially because I ran down to the first and most expensive developer due to my excitement)but after reading this I will follow the golden rules of Lomo and start bringing my Diana more often! Thank again

    Thursday, June 10, 2010 at 17:48 | Permalink
  21. JOHN ELLIOTTNo Gravatar wrote:

    For purists: Traditional, non-digital C41 optically printed photos are still available at ‘Westminster Studios’ Crawley,W Sussex UK. They specialise in doing standard 6 by 4 inch gloss borderless prints by mail order.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at 17:40 | Permalink
  22. LaurenNo Gravatar wrote:

    Your article is wonderful! So happy to have stumbled across it. I have been shooting with a Diana F+ for 2 years and have always been very unsure of how to properly use it – thanks to this article I’ll never be confused again! :) x

    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 at 03:35 | Permalink
  23. JohnNo Gravatar wrote:

    Just wanted to say a big thank you. Just got my first two Diana F+ rolls back (not great). I think my next few will be better after reading this!!

    Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 03:44 | Permalink
  24. OffshoreNo Gravatar wrote:

    Great information on The Plastic Lens › Starting Out.

    It is without doubt amongst the most reliable that I

    Monday, December 31, 2012 at 10:01 | Permalink
  25. just a quick question:….I received a Diana F as a gift and shot a few rolls and got them developed…..and was pleasantly surprised by the black and white….but…my color outside photos seem to be washed out and do not have that saturated look that I love….I was using kodak 400asa and my setting was on N…..and I had it set for cloudy….could that have been the problem….thank you for your help

    Friday, October 18, 2013 at 12:14 | Permalink
  26. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    Hi Sharon. Depending on the lighting conditions having the camera on cloudy setting can potentially result in some overexposure, which can make images look washed out. Other causes of washed out looking images can be light leaks(although they are usually more obvious & leave distinctive artifacts) different films have different characteristics also, for example some films will be named with letters like ‘VC’ or ‘NC’ or even ‘UC’ (Vivid, Neutral and Ultra Colour respectively) these will have greater saturation than others. The lab you take them too can influence your final prints too. This may be what is happening with your prints. The software used by their machines will tend to ‘auto-correct’ images to certain protocols. This is why I scan my own negatives in these days. Can you link to any examples?

    Friday, October 18, 2013 at 13:17 | Permalink
  27. Hi. thanks Cameron for the tips…it could have been the setting (cloudy) that I used but, I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t light leaks.. and I didn’t know that a lab (I used Dwayne’s) auto correct images….I wonder if I could ask them to NOT do that….???? sorry, I didn’t get the film put onto a CD (another oops) so all I have are the prints….
    thanks again…I’ll keep working on it and see how they develop their film at the lab that I used… you have any suggestions for sending out 120 film to be processed and printed….????
    Thanks again

    Saturday, October 19, 2013 at 09:35 | Permalink
  28. CameronNo Gravatar wrote:

    I hope they gave you the negatives with the prints. Perhaps they might be able to modify their auto-correct software in the scanning stage if you asked. If they gave you the negs (which they should have!) they can scan them again for you and put them on disk, so you can adjust contrast/curves etc on your own software. That may be going to a bit more trouble than you want for just one roll however, but it’s up to you. Disappointments unfortunately happen from time to time in this game. Just today I spent an hour developing a 220 B&W roll (24 medium format exposures) only to find the whole roll was blank & fogged…I have no idea why, it may have been the ordinal I used was too out of date, as it had been quite a while since I used it…or it might have been a problem with the camera I shot it on. Not to worry, I just hope my next roll is a good’n (I’ll get fresh chemicals however, to be sure!)

    Thursday, October 24, 2013 at 21:33 | Permalink

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