Buying Guide to Cheap Fixed Focal Length Plastic Cameras AKA Crappy Plastic Cameras

You'd think when it comes to something like a cheap plastic camera there would not be a lot of quality difference. The cameras already have barely any features: a fixed focal length where everything is in focus, a fixed shutter speed and no metal anywhere to be seen. In the 90's they were giveaways for magazine subscriptions and practically disposable toys. We pretty much have the same options as we did back then, with some notable exceptions. Hopefully this guide will help you pick up a decent one.

I started my search for plastic cameras after a challenge by David S Allen. He said, "if you can take good images with a cheap plastic cameras you can take good images with anything." While it sounds like there would be a bunch of options it's actually a pretty limited field of cameras. You have the disposable cameras which have a problem of being one time use and then needing to be modded to shoot additional rolls. And then you have all the "oops I forgot my camera" so I need to pick one up from the drug store cameras.

When looking for these cameras you want to keep a ,few things in mind. You want the camera to be as dumb as possible, so no flash and batteries, no film advancing system and no metering. You basically want a plastic toy with a spring for a shutter. This is a camera that you'll throw into your bag and take out for snapshots. Can you use it more seriously? Of course, but these cameras were designed to be barely a step above disposable.

There are two cameras that lead the crop of focus free 35mm snap shooters. The Vivitar Ultra Wide 22mm and the Bell & Howell Promotional Camera with a 28mm lens. If you do a quick eBay search you'll notice that nearly all of the focus free cameras come at a 35mm focal length. While this is a great focal length having the lens be slightly wider gives you some advantages. First the images will look a bit different at 22mm and you'll be able to get closer to your subjects. The hyperlocal distance of a 22mm lens and a 35mm lens are 6.6ft and 16.7ft respectively. The shorter lens gives you a little more range and versatility.

Secondly these cameras were built well. I currently own a Bell & Howell and it's a great camera. Last year a I purchased a knockoff version that was made with much lighter plastic and felt like a hollow version of the original. The camera has has a sturdy heft for what it is and works wonderfully.

One thing to be aware of, the straps on the camera somehow is really attracted to the lens. It's such a small camera that it's really easy to cover up the lens. It's been such an issue that I'm thinking about cutting off the straps on both cameras so they don't get in the shot. Secondly, I'd recommend going with a faster film than the recommended ISO 400. An extra stop with a ISO 800 speed film is going to make shooting in shadows more possible and also give you a little bit more leeway later in the day. It can be a little costlier but I've been really enjoying Lomography 800 recently and find it to be perfectly usable and surprisingly great.

If you read this far you're probably firing up eBay to do some hunting or thinking about the next time you'll can scour a thrift store or garage sale for one of these cameras. I'd take the extra time and look for a good one. The cost to develop film make shooting a luxury and having a tool that is reliable and takes great images it something I wish I took more seriously in the beginning. So find one of these gems and start shooting your eyeballs out.

Are there some cheap fixed focus cameras I missed? Let me know in the comments.

Not Second Fiddle, A review of the Canon GIII QL 17

I've been using the Canon GIII QL17 for the past couple of months. Before that my main rangefinders was the Leica M4-2 and the Canon P. Both the Leica and the Canon P are much larger than the GIII QL17 and things I wasn't totally comfortable traveling with, mostly due to how rough I am on my gear during travel. Things get banged around and I'm not a huge fan of shooting with flashy cameras. So far the Canon GIII has been an amazing travel partner.

The Canon GIII is a very productive and solid shooter. I purchased one with a broken shutter that needed repairing and a broken meter that I can live with. The lens is a 40mm F1.7 with a very awkward 48mm diameter ring, luckily there are plenty of step up rings. Having a large aperture gives you a little bit more reach when you need it.

Unlike the Leica IIf which was my previous travel rangefinder the GIII is extremely straightforward to use. The QL (Quick Load) feature makes loading film quick and stress free. You drop the film on the plane and you can start shooting immediately, I end up getting an extra frame or two on each roll.

The camera is light but made of sturdy materials. While I don't feel that it can withstand a large fall it has been an object that has lasted many decades and works fine mechanically. I replaced the light seals when I got the camera and haven't found any other issues that need addressing.

There are a few glaring issues I find with the camera. When I first began using the camera I had a had time with framing. Unlike the simpler Leica and other rangefinders the incorporation of the light meter readings on the right hand doesn't give the photographer an intuitive frame of reference for where the image ends on the right side of the frame, it actually ends at the left most edge of the meter bar. I've gotten used to shooting with it over time but I still find myself questioning where I am in the frame.

The most problematic issue of the GIII is the lack of zone focusing on the lens. While this camera was aimed at the prosumer this is a gigantic oversight. Being able to use a rangefinder to control focus is something we can take for granted but I'd trade a rangefinder for zone focusing marks any day. With a 40mm lens and a compact package this camera benefits greatly from being able to set your focus at a hyperlocal distance and fire aware. I found myself having to memorize a few measurements and contemplated if I needed to add the zone focusing marks myself to increase the functionality of the camera. I can see how Canon tried to market this camera to a wider audience but a few extra lines of paint would have made this an even more perfect camera.

Lastly the images from the camera are great. Colors are accurate and punchy, even across different film stocks. The black and white images are sharp and contrasty and the lens doesn't bring in too much character but isn't boring as well.

One thing I'm realizing is that the images a camera takes also is affected by the ability of the camera to blend in. The GIII is as inconspicuous camera and sometimes looks more like a toy than a serious instrument. For shooting in tight settings and in close quarters taking out the GIII doesn't change the moment, like a Leica and Hasselblad do. Because of it's approachability I find it easier to take intimate shots and get closer to people.

If you're looking for a Leica alternative for a rangefinder you can't do much better than the Canon GIII QL17. It's a simple camera that has almost all the things I love in a rangefinder. More importantly, it is a camera that totally gets out of the way and allows you to just focus on capturing images and moving around as simply as possible.

Rediscovering the Canon S90 in 2018

I came of age in the early 2000's when digital cameras were a necessity and not an add on to a smart phone. We all carried around small digital point and shoot cameras that could take some video (badly), had a strong flash and dedicated modes that you selected with dials and buttons. When we all went to smart phones we traded in the convenience of always being able to take a picture with all those photo dedicated buttons and settings small point and shoot cameras had. I enjoy shooting with my iPhone but deep down know that it's always awkward and something I never really love.

Luck has it that I live next to a Goodwill that sells old digital point and shoot cameras for 4-5$. I started to buy a couple and take them home to shoot and was instantly hooked. The cameras served a very clear purpose during the 00's and still serve that purpose today. They were smaller than film cameras, took great images and had all the functionality you could want or need.

If there was one crown jewel of that period it had to be the Canon S90. It had some very simple functions and a really intuitive click wheel that you could use to change your focal length (my fave), ISO or aperture. On top of that it was the first camera at the time to take relatively great photos in low light settings and had a F2.0 aperture throughout the entire focal range.

I've been shooting with it for the past couple of weeks and having a blast. It slips seamlessly into my front pocket and weighs close to nothing. In the hand it feels extremely well made, perfectly proportioned and simple to use. I can fire it up and take a picture in less than three seconds and with the dedicated camera functions and dials doesn't feel like your losing control over your image.

Negatives, the images don't have the greatest dynamic range and low light images leave a lot to be desired but I find myself just shooting a lot more in places I wouldn't be shooting: at work, in the car and going to and from work. The images are fun and simple, and I'm slowly building up the discipline to not just take a quick snap but to really frame my scene.

As much as I love shooting film it can also be a crutch at times to take "special" images due to the added cost of shooting on acetate. With a small digital camera you can experiment a little more and be a little less disciplined with the fear of blowing through frames and dollars. I'm glad I started with film first and learned that discipline, even with digital I shoot largely with no photo review out of habit, but I'm happy to bring back digital into my shooting style to allow me to take more photos.

At the end of the day we have a lot of reasons not to shoot. Cost, portability and image quality are all things we juggle with in our modern photographic landscape. With the very old and still capable Canon S90 I really don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything.

July 4th Used Film Camera Deals

This isn't the healthiest thing to do but hopefully you find some good deals in here. 

Leica IIF Review: A Throwback

History has a weird way of connecting things. We connect the greatest photographer of all time, Henri Cartier Bresson, with Leica who he adored and vaulted. The ultimate Leica is the M3 which was released in the 1950's. When Henri was making his incredible images in the 1930's he was using a variant of the Leica III and most likely a standard 50mm F3.5 lens. 

I had been looking for a reason to get the standard lens and when I saw a deal on the Leica IIF (no slower shutter speeds and self timer compared to the IIIF) I jumped on the deal. With a trip to San Antonio around the corner during the Fiesta celebration it would be a perfect time to test the old body and lens. 

The first thing I noticed about the camera was: it's definitely from a different era. Film loading is complicated. I needed to cut the film leader to accommodate the spool. Once trimmed you load the cartridge and place the roll and spool into the camera. One trick is to make sure the film is firmly locked on the advancing gears otherwise it will spin continuously without advancing the film, a problem with the newer M's too. 

Next the rangefinder and viewfinder are split both being in separate windows. With a camera like this I'm shooting using hyperlocal distance 85% of the time so it wasn't a huge issue. The times I had to switch between the rangefinder and viewfinder were a clumsy at first but became natural and fluid after a few rolls. Both viewfinder and rangefinder are also minuscule compared to modern standards. 

Advancing the film was done via a round dial and not a lever and film rewind was a simple knurled knob. It took extra time to do everything on the IIF. I've shot with some older cameras, and compared to the clunky and awkward Argus C3 the Leica was much closer to a modern shooting experience but still not as user friendly as a Pentax K1000 or Nikon FM.  

The other functions of the IIf are extremely familiar and intuitive. Aperture is set on the lens, shutter speeds set on the top of camera (only after the film is advanced) and focusing is normal. 

The camera once set up has an amazing ability to get out of the way. Being lighter and simpler than a SLR it can truly be a pocketable camera with a collapsible lens. I can easily see Henri Cartier Bresson keeping the camera on him at all times in a coat pocket and carrying a few extra rolls of film.

It also handles as a fully formed and developed camera, everything on the camera is laid out and connected in a logical way. It's the type of thing that you could pull out of your pocket, extend the lens and take a shot within seconds. The weight and balance of the camera are solid and the shutter is nearly silent.

Walking around in 2018 shooting a camera from the 1940s can be an awkward experience. If you're carrying around a TLR or Graflex, eyeballs are going to follow your every shot. The IIf blends into the scene with it's classic design and usability. No one asked what I was using and I rarely got a second glance.  

The images from the IIf came out as I expected. In direct sunlight metered correctly it performed extremely well, like all cameras should. Older lenses are known for being softer at lower apertures but I really couldn't find any conclusive examples. Shooting at hyperfocal near sunset gave me some great images with contrast and depth. I did have a few shots where a beam of light flared out the image but I think a hood should solve that issues easily. 

Shooting with the Leica IIf was a very fun and informative experience, I don't really need the camera but after buying it I'm going to keep it because of how portable and unique it is. It's not the type of camera I'd recommend for someone just getting into film or looking for a cheaper Leica experience, it's finicky and there are much easier ways to start. It is a throwback camera and a great portable system. As a backup or a change of pace camera it can be a real treasure. 

The 4 Best Places to buy Used Film Gear Online (USA) 

When I was making videos weekly for Youtube I would spend a lot of time on used photo gear websites. I still do, even though I don't really need any more new gear, it's a bad habit to break. Here are some of their strengths and weaknesses. Note, eBay is excluded here. eBay is a collection of shops, great and terrible and I'll do a future article on that. 


NYC based and a staple in photography community, Adorama is known for their  good deals and printing services. In terms of deals you can get some insane bargains on their website, but it usually comes with a gamble. 

I've purchased things from them that were too good to be true and have only returned a few items. Their grading and quality control is a bit hit or miss. A big difference between them and KEH is when that an "X" or "G" rating, heavily used and parts respectively, it means it and will be non functional.

Strengths: Really great bargains, Random listings and prices  
Weaknesses: Product descriptions of used items can be spotty. No images of some used items make it even more tough. 
Steals: Hasselblad Kit (650$) Leica M4-2 (200$, yeah) Multiple Nikon FM and F2s with broken meters (25$ or less)
Tips: The Hasselblad backs and Rangefinder section are something you can create manual alerts on. If you are looking for a bargain Leica I'm not sure there is a better place to keep your eyes glued to. 

B&H Photo Video

B&H are the other NYC staple of the photography world. While Adorama is known for having good deals and being accessible B&H simply sells the best stuff and has amazing customer service. 

This comes at a cost and B&H rarely have as many good used deals as Adorama and their focus mainly on having really great used gear and not messing around with beaters. 

Strengths: Really great quality used items
Weaknesses: Rare deals and higher priced than competitors
Steals: Manfrotto RC2 quick release (25$) Manfrotto fluid head 128 RC ($70)
Tips: I've been really lucky with used grip equipment on B&H photo. They don't treat tripod heads and accessories as preciously as their cameras. 

KEH Camera

The best and most dedicated used camera store in the USA. Their grading system is straightforward and simple to understand, an industry standard. They also continuously underrate their gear and I really only purchase bargain/ugly gear from them and haven't had a prolblem. 

Their returns are also great and they do repairs as well. Unlike Adorama they also don't sell garbage cameras, they will put these in lots and auctions on their eBay site though.

Strengths: The best rating system, lots of photos and good descriptions of cameras, incredibly nice sales people, best website to navigate
Weaknesses: Can be a little expensive, some of their best deals on eBay, really great sales can be random and cleaned out quickly
Steals: Hold your drink....Nikon SB-24 (17$ BGN), Nikon 105mm F2.5 (109$) Manfrotto Magic Arm (40$)
Tips: You won't get too many steals but you'll always get a good price. Also their grips and flash section has some absolute bargains. 

Used Photo Pro

I'm late to the game when it comes to Used Photo Pro. They have a huge selection of stuff which get's turned over pretty quickly. They price things to move which is great and also annoying. I always feel like I'm missing out on something when I go to the website and they tease you with the "just sold" items. 

I've also gotten some really great deals on their website and think their listing system is pretty good. They also have the best use of social media out of all the online used photo retailers. One issue is their testing can be hit or miss, a few items I've bought haven't worked and should of been sold as parts. 

Strengths: Really great prices that move items. 
Weaknesses: You have to check in often to make sure you are getting good deals. I check almost daily and things slip by really quickly. 
Steals: Summicron 50mm F2 ($400) Olympus Stylus (17$) Olympus OM-1 ($20)
Tips: Check often and use their automatic sale codes TAKEFIVE to get 5% off items. If you buy fro them it's like an insider secret. 

Hope you enjoyed that overview. Any shops that I missed? Any tips you have for these sites as well? 

Dying on the Crappy Camera Hill

I've been having a fallout with gear over the past year. Gear doesn't matter! You can take great pictures with crappy cameras! It's all about your vision and skill as a photographer and not the camera! 

That's all good and I've stood on that corner for a hot second but I have to be truthful as well. Gear isn't everything to a point.


I've been going through a recent phase buying a lot of plastic cameras and crappy lenses to make this to point myself. It's also taught me that using crappy gear is a pain in the ass. 

Plastic cameras can sometimes be sharp and take good pictures but aren't the greatest things to handle. I had a weird camera strap in half of my pictures and didn't realize it. It also really limits you ability to shoot in shadows and gives you little options for control. That was the point in the beginning but missing or not getting shots isn't a good consequence. 

There is happy medium to all things. Good food, housing and camera purchases. It sounds fun and adventurous to use nothing but Holgas and Dianas but it's also incredibly limiting. We have access to so much good and affordable gear at the moment and we don't need to define ourselves with what we're shooting. I should focus more on going out and getting great shots with whatever camera I'm shooting rather on trying to squeeze out hitters with a crappy camera. I've replaced one gear problem, thinking better gear leads to better pictures with another. Getting great pictures out of bad gear is somehow more admirable. 

Ondu Pinhole 6x12 Multiformat Review

A few months ago I was contacted by ONDU to review and showcase their pinhole camera. I've used one before and was really interested by their 6x12 medium format model. Wide format photography is something I wanted to tackle but couldn't afford it, and definitely not in medium format.

When the camera came I was delighted with the build quality. Most pinhole cameras are made of paper or plastic and cheaply built, the ONDU is not that. Made with walnut and maple it's a beautiful thing to hold. Small details like rounded corners and edges, clean jointing, precise milling and smooth finishing show that the ONDU was made with love and care. I used to dabble in word working and seeing something made this well is really inspiring. 

The camera itself is simple. The only moving parts are the shutter and winding nobs. The frame selection system is cutaways on the film plane with small spacers you can use to select between frames (6x6, 6x9, 6x12).  Two winding nobs on top of the camera advance the film in either direction. On top is a very useful spirit level and on the bottom a metal tripod mount. View lines are etched into the top and side of the camera. 

I took the ONDU out an a couple of trips to test it. I chose the 6x12 frame giving me 6 images on a 120 roll. This means using the center window and shooting on frame 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 to get 6 images. Most forums recommend being conservative with winding and to stop advancing when the even numbers are barely visible. This ensures the images don't get cut off if the 120 roll is a bit short. Frames 6x6 will give you 12 shots, 6x9 will give you 7.

I placed the ONDU on a small tripod and added some pressure to the top of the camera as I opened the shutter. I always worried about camera shake but didn't see any in my images. The shutter was open the length of time that ONDU recommended and after that elapsed I closed the shutter and advanced the film to the next number. 

Shooting on Ektar 100 I got some great images with some interesting color shifts. The images weren't the sharpest but didn't look like mush either. Vignetting was pretty strong but that's part of the charm with pinhole. The images had a very specific character and style that you don't see much of anymore.

I don't think the ONDU should be your first pinhole camera, you should start out using those cheap plastic and paper ones to get your feet wet and to see if you even like pinhole. If you do, the ONDU should be your second camera. It's extremely well built, acts predictably and makes the pinhole process, which is hard enough, simpler. 

You can purchase the ONDU 6x12 and other models from