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I’ve posted many photos shot with Diana cameras on this blog. I realize, though, that many people don’t know what a Diana camera is, so I thought it might be helpful to discuss the cameras and why it’s challenging to shoot with them. Here’s one of my Diana cameras.

The Diana camera is a simple, basic all-plastic box camera: the body, the lens, everything is plastic. It takes medium format roll film (120 mm) and shoots 16 shots per roll in a square format of 4.2 cm. Its light controls are minimal, consisting of three exposures of sunny, partly cloudy and cloudy. Once the film is loaded, the camera needs to be taped up to prevent light leaks.

In the 1960s, the Diana was sold as a novelty camera for about 50 cents. In the 1970s, photography schools began to use them to teach creative vision. By removing the distraction of camera technology, the intention is that the photographer will focus on ideas instead. Today, the cameras are trendy, in production again and cost around $50.

Because the plastic lens is low quality, it creates an image circle, which results in strong vignetting, the corners of the image darkening. The lens can also create low contrast, blurred images, odd effects and inconsistent results. I own six Dianas and each is slightly different; no two shoot in the same way.

Well, that’s all well and good, but why shoot with something like this? What’s the point? What makes it interesting?

It’s true that distortions are caused by the lens. But I think of it differently. To me, the Diana can see things I can’t see. It captures a world with a dreamlike atmosphere, one of sensual shapes, ghostly images and unforeseeable effects.

Like a pinhole camera, a Diana shares the fundamental challenge of a camera that takes pictures in an unpredictable way. As opposed to a digital camera, which is designed to capture exactly how the eye sees, the Diana has a view of its own, one that I can influence but never completely control. Although I understand how the camera sees and use it in situations that I think will result in good shots, I never know if I’ve been successful until I develop the film. This lack of control, this mystery, is what I find so appealing. That’s what keeps me coming back.

P.S. Nancy Rexroth shot the first Diana photos that were widely acclaimed. Here’s an interesting interview where she discusses her work. This quote, from that interview, beautifully captures the seduction of working with Dianas: “What did I like about the camera? It was the dream, the liquid dream of the images that I could make with it. I went somewhere with the camera, into my own private landscape, a real mental spot, of needing, of longing, and with a real love of the beautiful… When I was photographing, it seemed that I was awake and dreaming at the same time.”

Diana photos, from the top: Rural Pennsylvania; Princeton Junction, NJ; Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC; West MacDonnell Range, Australia; Carl Schurz Park, NYC.
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