What is a “toy” camera? Can’t any camera be a toy? If a toy is something that you have fun with, then you’d have to call a Leica M9 ($9,000) a toy, too. It seems toy cameras are actually any variety of inexpensive (although usually overpriced) plastic cameras with image quality that is too poor to be taken very seriously. Let’s face it, if the camera you’re buying is bright yellow (see image at left), then you probably aren’t too concerned with MTF charts.
There is a Lomography “movement” that has sprung up partially in response to the obsession with test charts and image quality brought about by the digital age. Whether or not this movement has any merit is up to you. I’ve seen a lot of good work done by toy cameras, but the good/crap ratio is probably about the same as with any camera or imaging medium. Yes, Lomo cameras and photographers produce photos that look different from most digital cameras, but the photos are not very different from each other. What I’m trying to say is that there has to be some effort on the photographer’s part to make something original rather than just fall back on the qualities of toy cameras (softness, vignetting, low contrast, funky colors, light leaks, etc.) as a crutch.
The fun thing about toy cameras is that they force you to see differently. A fundamental part of creativity is working within limitations. And boy is the Lomo Fisheye limited! It takes film, which limits the number of exposures; it has a single focal length lens, so no zooming; the lens is a fisheye, so things look weird no matter what; it has a single exposure setting; it’s viewfinder is so close to the lens that you can’t see at least a fourth of the scene that you’re shooting; and last, but not least, it’s brightly colored (teal, in my case) so you can’t use it without getting comments from people. All of these things force you to work outside of your comfort zone, which helps you grow. Maybe you won’t get any exhibition-worthy shots out of the camera, but you’ll begin to see differently even when using other cameras (with limitations like less than 180 degree field of view).
The key word for this camera is “fun”. In fact, it’s just about impossible to be very serious while you’re using it. The color might have something to do with that… The build quality is better than you would expect. The all-plastic body is covered in a rubbery skin that provides a nice amount of grip and sturdiness. The only moving parts are the shutter, the film-wind, and the flash on-off switch. The lens cap is made of floppy rubber and it’s tethered to the body. My biggest complaint about the build is the tiny film rewinder knob. It’s hard to grip and a pain to use. Not a huge deal, but it manages to annoy me every single time.
In use, the camera could frustrate you if you’re taking it too seriously. When using film, you already have to wait to find out exactly how your shot turned out, but at least with an SLR you have a lot of control and you can see through the viewfinder basically what the picture will look like. Not so with the Fisheye. Getting the film developed is extra-exciting because you never know what you’re going to get. This camera is the very essence of point and shoot. You load it with ISO400 film and shoot away. If you’re indoors, use the flash; if you’re outdoors, don’t. The only thing you have to think about is what to point the camera at. Don’t get too fussy with your composition, though, because you can’t see a large chunk of the frame through the viewfinder. I assume this was a design choice to minimize parallax error. When using a fisheye lens, it’s often recommended that you get close, otherwise your subject will look tiny. Unfortunately, at close distances, the parallax effect arises and what you capture on film may not match what you’re seeing through your viewfinder. To battle this, Lomography put the viewfinder as close to the lens as possible. The viewfinder is so bad that I often just point the camera at what I want to photograph and hope for the best. The field of view is so wide that it’s bound to capture everything anyway.
The lens is fun, but it’s by no means a match for the precision of a glass fisheye designed for an SLR. It’s a little sharper than most non-fisheye toy cameras, but don’t expect too much. Also, the image doe not fill much of the 35mm frame, so you’ll probably end up cropping. Let’s say that the resulting sharpness is adequate. 4×6’s look decent, but I wouldn’t go any bigger than that. As expected, fringing around tree branches and other high-contrast areas is extreme, but it’s not that bad at the small print sizes you’ll be using. Flare is surprisingly well-controlled, which is good since you have almost a 50% chance of including the sun in any of your outdoor shots. Unfortunately, in bright shots you can often see the edges of the lens along with a “glow” that corresponds to the camera’s color around your image. This can be taken care of in post-processing, but it’s pretty ugly if left untreated. Also, there is extreme barrel distortion… obviously… it’s a fisheye.
This is one of the least expensive ways to play around with some fisheye photography. Even manual focus fisheye lenses for SLR’s run several hundred dollars. Be warned: this camera is fun enough that you’ll soon be considering a fisheye for your SLR. Click here for a bunch of examples of what this camera does.