© 2019 by Silver in the Dark

Lomography's Diana F+ 

Review of the revived plastic medium format camera.

The Diana camera can be bought new on Lomography's website for prices ranging from $49 without a flash to $89 with flash, and multiple special editions on offer with prices starting around $54. I bought my blue and black standard edition on eBay, where prices range from $25 - $100 + (limited edition models priced extraordinarily high for a piece of plastic.) 

History

So what makes this point-and-shoot film camera so special that it deserved a revival? 

 

In the 1960's the Great Wall Plastic company of Hong Kong produced these very cheap plastic film cameras. They used 120 roll film that produced 16 4cmx 4cm square photos. Although extremely low quality, they reached a wide audience, including photography instructors and art schools, as prizes in promotional giveaways, first cameras for children, and art photographers who liked the special effects from the numerous defects, light leaks, and blurriness resulting from the cheap plastic lens. So today, where retro is trendy, and Instagram users are adding filters to their digital photos to replicate the analog looks of photography past, it makes sense that a kickstarter was initiated and a film photography society such as Lomography has brought the Diana back to life.

Packaging and Presentation

What do you get for your $50?

The Diana comes in stylish packaging. Included along with the camera is a detailed instruction manual in 8 languages and a 300 page mini sized book filled with Diana photographs and history designed to enhance the "experience" of owning a Diana remake. The user manual itself is helpful and filled with accurate instructional information. It is also dripping with romantic adoration of this nostalgic "toy." The frequent use of the word dreamy can be gag inducing at times, and they use no less than 15 exclamation points in the five and a half pages of English instruction. 

Technical Details

 

The Diana remake offers a few more bells and whistles than its 60 year old predecessor, but over all this is a VERY simple camera. 

Focus

There are three focus settings selected on the front of the lens. 1-2 meters, 2-4 meters, and 4 meters to infinity.

Shutter Speed

There are two shutter speed settings selected on the top of the lens, N for instant and B for bulb. They say the instant setting is approximately 1/60 of a second.

Aperture

There are four aperture settings selected on the underside of the lens illustrated as weather icons to represent light conditions. These include cloudy, partly cloudy, sunny, and P for pinhole. 

Aperture size selection as seen from inside the camera

Cloudy

Partly Cloudy

Sunshine

Pinhole

Frame masks

The camera comes with 2 frame masks that can be inserted into the camera to change the image size on the film. With no frame mask you will get 12 5.2 cm x 5.2 cm shots. The smaller of the two plastic frame masks will give you 16 4.2x4.2 cm shots, and the larger of the two frame masks will allow you to do what they refer to as "endless panorama"* or shoot 16 4.6cm shots with no spacing in between frames. 

*I have not had the opportunity to try out an endless panorama, but here is a direct quote from the enthusiastic user manual "Advance a full frame once, then a half frame, then a whatever-the-hell frame."

No mask = (12) 5x5cm shots

Medium mask = (16) 4.6x4.6cm shots

Small mask = (16) 4x4cm shots

Film counter viewing window

The back of the camera incorporates a viewing window and a format selection switch. The viewing window is covered with a clear red filter to protect the film from light. The piece of plastic with the arrow can be slid to either 16 or 12 shots which allows you to see the number on the back of the film paper which corresponds to the frame size and number of shots you will get per roll depending on the frame mask you installed. The 16 being the smaller 4x4 size and 12 for the larger 5x5cm shots.

In the original Diana style cameras, this window was a huge source of light leaks, however in my initial tests it presented no issues.

Film advance crank

The Diana uses a standard film advance crank on the top of the camera. It rolls the film on to the take up spool and will only rotate in one direction. There is no protection against double exposures so you have to remember to advance the film and watch through the viewing window. On the other hand, if you wish to make a double exposure, it is easy to do with this camera. Also the pieces of plastic that hold the spools in place are very flimsy, which can cause the film to jam.

Shutter release and bulb mode

The shutter release is a simple sliding knob on the right hand side of the lens. It uses a two part mechanism in the camera, as you press the lever down one window opens to reveal the aperture hole and another window slides quickly over the open hole to expose the film. A simple mechanical setup means less opportunity for functional failure.

The Diana also comes with a little plastic piece attached by a cord to assist in using bulb mode for long exposure shots. With the shutter set to bulb mode, you can very carefully place the tiny piece of plastic into the shutter release slot to hold the shutter open. This works much better if the camera is on a tripod vs simply set on a flat surface.

The Diana has a standard threaded tripod mount on the bottom.

Piece of plastic for holding shutter open

Shutter knob

Plastic wedged into shutter slot, holding shutter open.

Viewfinder

The Diana's viewfinder is nothing more than a plastic window above the lens.  The Lomography user manual romanticizes this crap by saying;  "As you can imagine, the viewfinder is not super-precise...don't give it too much thought -- the squinty viewfinder and composition "surprises" are all part of Diana shooting."  As much fun as they make it sound, composition "surprises" are not a blast when the top of someone's head is cut out of the frame. These composition errors occur because, instead of looking through the lens as you would in a DSLR, the viewfinder is about an inch and a half above the line of sight of the lens. This parallax effect gets worse the closer you are to your subject. This is about the same distance between the taking and viewing lens of a TLR, yet for whatever reason the parallax error seems much worse in the Diana than in any of my TLR cameras. 

Pinhole Mode

For what Lomography calls "true pin hole mode" you can remove the plastic lens from the camera. 

This ability also allows for changeable lenses.

The Lomography Diana lens line up includes:*

  • 38mm (wide angle)

  • 55mm (macro)

  • 110mm (telephoto)

  • 20mm (fisheye)

  • 75mm glass lens (as opposed to the standard 75mm plastic lens)

* Lomography also offers a Nikon and Canon adapter mount so you can take the Diana's cheap plastic lens and put it onto your DSLR. It costs less than $20, but no thank you, I'll pass. 

Flash attachment 

The top of the camera incorporates two holes for plugging in the specially designed flash or a hot shoe adapter. These holes provide an electrical circuit connection. The circuit is closed by the activation of the shutter through a simple mechanical contact. 

Photo Results

 

Focal Distance Comparison:

Honestly, you have to look very closely to tell the difference between the focal distance in these two photos. In general only the center of a Diana photo is sharp so I really should have performed this test with the subject in the center and then measured out 1 meter, 3 meters, and 6 meters. I will try and do this next time I shoot a roll.  However, looking at these two photos, the letter A does appear more in focus in the close shot and the tail of the plane is a bit blurrier than in the second shot. 

Close Focus

Medium Focus

Double Exposure Fun:

I took a photo of the statue against the sky and then one of the front of a cathedral. When taking double exposures you add light to the photo each time you open the shutter, so I used sunshine mode to avoid overexposure even when shooting the church which was in the shadows. Other than the modern building in the lower left corner, this turned out to be a nice use of double exposure and the camera performed its job well.

Capturing Motion

At ~1/60 of a second shutter speed, the Diana captured motion with blur as expected. For this shot I used infinity focal distance and the sunshine setting.

Light Settings and Problems with Parallax:

I was trying to capture the airplane sitting next to me through the window of the plane. For whatever reason, I decided to tilt the camera sideways (totally useless with square format!!) and I encountered the problem with viewing parallax. And thus, I cut off the window in both these shots. Lighting wise, I was trying to find the setting that would not blow out the bright background and possibly still show a bit of the interior of the plane. In the first photo with partly cloudy setting the outside is darker, but none of the inside is visible. In the second photo using the cloudy setting lightened up the outside but allowed for some of the interior to be visible.

Partly Cloudy

Cloudy

Pinhole + Bulb Mode:

I experimented with the pin hole setting and bulb mode for some long exposure shots.

In this photo I attached the camera to my tripod and used the little plastic piece to hold the shutter open and then ran into the frame and held as still as possible for about two minutes (the instruction manual recommends 30 seconds for shade and 6-15 minutes for indoor lit scenes.) then I ran back out of the frame and carefully removed the plastic wedge. Overall I'm pretty happy with the results as the tripod held the camera steady enough while I messed with the shutter to keep the back ground sharp, and the only reason that I am blurry is because I'm not that good at holding still. The timing was a shot in the dark, but also worked out nicely as well.

Cloudy + Bulb Mode:

I wanted to use bulb for a long exposure to capture the inside of this cathedral, but I didn't bring along a tripod so I simply rested the camera on a pew. Without the camera completely secured, it is almost impossible to keep it still while securing the shutter open. The first attempt ended up very blurry and I was a bit more careful on the second attempt which turned out alright.

Using Snapseed filters to "enhance" the image:

For a cheap plastic camera, the Diana takes pretty decent photos for a plastic toy camera. Where are all those dreamy vibes that Lomography keeps ranting and raving about?  I decided to have a little fun with the vintage and grunge filters on snapseed to make the photo look a bit more "hipster."

Original

High contrast B&W w/ added film grain

Conclusion

 

I honestly hadn't even heard of the Diana camera revival until I started research for my "Buying a Medium Format Camera" article and upon discovering it I decided somewhat pessimistically to give it a whirl. I'm typically the type of photographer that is always looking for the best glass to get the sharpest image possible, also known as a snob. So I scoffed at the idea of a cheap plastic lens shining light on to a $6 roll of wonderful Ilford film. In my world plastic equals terrible quality which equals a waste of time and money. Every visit to Lomography's website, which I've had to visit frequently for this post, makes me cringe. Despite all this, I decided to give the camera a fair shake and took it with me on a recent work trip to Mexico to try it out. 

Pros:

  • Simple: There are definite benefits to using a simple camera. When traveling or doing street photography with my Hasselblad, I often spend so much time fiddling with settings and focus that I miss the shot. With this camera, there is not much more involved than pointing and shooting. Even though the photos aren't the sharpest or highest quality the simplicity made travel and street photography somewhat more enjoyable.

  • Light: Another benefit for travel photography. I very much enjoyed not having to lug around a heavy camera and multiple lenses.

  • Cute: Another benefit to street photography is using a non threatening toy like camera which people are often curious about.

  • Cheap: You don't worry about losing or breaking a camera when it only costs $25-$50.

  • Low Quality: An unexpected outcome of trying out this camera, was that because I knew the photos wouldn't be blow up and hang in my living room kind of quality, I actually enjoyed the shooting aspect a little more. Combined with the simple controls, not being stressed about getting the perfect focus and composition actually let me loosen up and be a bit more creative.

  • Options: Lomography has added lots of simple little options to this remake, which some old-school Diana fans scoff at. I find the addition of these options such as pinhole, tripod mount, frame masks, and the shutter holder, make the camera more fun.

Cons:

  • Low Quality: The quality is low but not so low that it looks super special. I think that black and white film is not ideal for this camera and look forward to trying out color film sometime soon.

  • Parallax effect: This is due to the viewfinder being offset from the lens. Even though this is also the case with my twin reflex cameras, I haven't encountered the major issues with the TLR that I did with the Diana. The Lomography user manual warns photographers of this fact but sells it as part of the fun of surprise. I didn't find it fun, I found it extremely frustrating.

  • Cheap build quality: The fitting between back and front of the camera is precarious at best, and sometimes you have to force it to snap into place, the likely hood that I will break this camera at some point is very high. Also the bits of plastic that hold the film spools is wobbly and causes the film to advance weirdly and risks jamming.

Overall I was happily surprised by the Lomography Diana F+. Am I sold into the hipster world of retro photography? Not yet. Will I purchase the $80 glass lens for the Diana or the $15 adapter to use the plastic lens on my DSLR? NO. But, I will continue to add the Diana to my travel bag when doing short work trips. I will also try out color film and perform more experiments. I recommend this camera to any person looking to get in to film at a low cost, especially if they are a bit intimidated by shooting in manual mode or without a light meter. I also recommend this camera to all hipsters out there, it is very "hip." It is also a fun way for anyone who lived through the 60's to get in touch with their past, or perfectionists like myself to loosen up a bit, and have some relaxed, creative fun with film photography.

Have you used a Diana camera, new or old? What are your thoughts?