Instagram Before It Was Instagram

By: Chris Garrett

It’s a look that appears to be everywhere these days. You’ve undoubtedly seen it; on Facebook, at parties, and even in advertising—a vintage flair to the familiar, contemporary photograph. It is the look digital photography was designed to do away with, yet it is digital photography which has brought it back to the limelight. Today, this lo-fi photography is known as the “Instagram” effect, and is characterized by light leaks, overexposed frames, diffusion, high saturation, and crushed colors. Typically, a border mimicking a sheet of Polaroid paper or film negative adds to the gritty photo-effect. All these elements were once considered defects of photography—the issues associated with using a cheap or broken camera. Today, this is the look of choice for amateur and professional photographers across the board; and while the aesthetics of the imagery can be accomplished using photo editing software like Photoshop, smartphone applications have simplified the process to the click of a button. However, for those of us who cannot afford either of these approaches, but still desire to achieve the lo-fi effect, there are ways of achieving this by using some of the old photo methods Instagram was designed to replicate.



Holga: Not just the name of your old Russian nanny; the Holga camera is classified as a “Toy camera” by function and design. The images of the Holga are highlighted by vignetting andblurring from the plastic lens; light-leaks caused by fissures in the camera body; and generalconstruction distortions. Released in 1982, the camera was designed to provide an inexpensive camera to middle-class Chinese in order for them to document family memories and events. The camera gained popularity outside China withits lack of precision, light leaks, and inexpensive qualities, which forced the photographer to concentrate on innovation and creative vision in place of increasingly expensive camera technology.Holga cameras can still be purchased new for around $35-$45, a fraction of the cost of the digital alternatives for that lo-fi look.

Holga photo

Holga photo

Diana: The Diana is the predecessor to the Holga, and also considered a toy or novelty camera. Like the Holga, the Diana is comprised of an entirely plastic boy, which allows for the anticipated photo-defects of the camera. Many of the “flaws” of the Holga are also seen in the Diana, though the Diana is known for having much softer, blurrier images; yielding a much more dream-like quality to the photographs. The Diana was first sold in the 1960’s for purely novelty purposes, and with the upcoming release of Kodak’s Instamatic, the camera soon fell out of production. With the new popularity of toy cameras, a company called Lomography has brought the camera—now in a 35mm format—back into production as the Diana+. The camera retails for about $50.

Diana Photo

Diana photo

Pinhole Cameras:Pinhole cameras are the real McCoy when it comes to photography. They are basic, simple, and easy to use. The majority of pinhole cameras are homemade; though, if you want to purchase a ready-made pinhole, they are available. The pinhole uses very basic photography principles to create the image, and consists of three basic elements. The housing—which can be made of any house-hold item, such as a match box or even a Pringle can; the aperture—a tiny hole poked through one end of the housing; and the photo-sensitive material—on the opposite end of the housing from the aperture. The image tends to be extremely sharp—assuming the camera is held still for the exposure—and usually has little to no depth of field. Heavy vignetting is characteristic of pinhole photography. You will find you have much more control of the exposure time of the photo, but you will have to essentially guess on the framing as a pinhole camera will have no viewfinder. Trial and error with be the best way to get to know how to stage your shots, but this very basic method will yield a very rewarding experience.



Polaroid: I am hesitant to ad this one to the list. While Polaroid cameras are aeasily obtained at any garage sale or thrift store, finding the Polaroid cartridge is a much greater challenge. Polaroid stopped producing the cartridges a few years ago, and whatever stock still exists is often fairly expensive—costing typically $40 for a pack of 10 photos. 600 is the more commonly used format, and the best bet for finding stock is off ebay. We are all fairly familiar with the appearance of Polaroid film—usually containing washed-out colors and crushed blacks with little light loss. Half the fun of the Polaroid is the mounting of the print, as well as the instant nature of the product—a draw that has somewhat lost its punch with the digital age. Using Polaroid is not really a cheaper alternative to digital effects, but are certainly a fun and social way to get that lo-fi effect you are looking for.

Disposable Cameras: We all remember these from the countless weddings and family reunions we have attended. Disposable cameras are probably the cheapest investment in the lo-fi world, with a sort of pay-as-you-go functionality. Disposable cameras are generally configured to work in any environment, so they have fairly uniform settings and applications—often, depending on if you stick with the same brand, the photos will look similar from camera to camera. Higher speed film tends to give much grainier images with washed out colors. There it usually no light leakage, and focal length is generally pretty standard. All in all, a pretty good way to go if you are just getting your feet wet. You will have a different look and feel to the photos over digital, but nothing as extreme as the earlier mentioned methods; the tradeoff being there is nearly no investment needed to get started.

Other Tips: Think about your film stock going into each shoot, as the stock of the film you are using can have a good deal of impact on how your photos turn out. Are you looking for natural colors or high saturation? High grain or low grain?Positive or negative film? If you really want a washed out look, try shooting some expired film. Because the majority of photo labs today do not create prints off of the actual negatives—opting instead to scan and print digitally with low-res scanners—it would be to your advantage to scan your own negatives with a high dpi scanner. You can then modify the images better digitally if you wish, and the prints will be a much higher quality. You can also save money on the price of processing by only having the film developed and not receiving the prints.

Lo-fi photography is a lot of fun and a great conversation starter. It is an excellent way to add some abstraction to your images and allow you to find new ways to photograph the world around you. The effort of saving shots for the right moment will pay off as you see your photographic eye progress; and best of all, amongst the hype of instagram and hipstamatic images, you will have the satisfaction of knowing yours is the real deal.

Author Bio: Chris Garrett is a large format printing expert and online publisher for the customized wallpaper expert He frequently blogs on the topics of design and printing.

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