Cheap and Cool Photos
Taken from

by Virginia Barnes
Images have become an essential component of Web sites, and the need for good designers is growing. But to be a creative and original designer, it's a good idea to invest in more than a couple CD-ROMs of clip art and a copy of Photoshop. Understanding how photography works and how image manipulation was done in the precomputer era provides a solid foundation for any Web designer. Plus creating your own cool pictures without leaning on the Photoshop crutch can give your sites a distinctive look.

Messing around with photographs can be fun, too, and there are plenty of ways to do it without any software or expensive equipment. Whether you're sick of your same old camera and want something new or you want to take some kick-ass crazy color photos with your current camera, there are heaps of snazzy tricks out there to keep you busy in the land of reverse technology. Toy cameras, cross-processing, Polaroid manipulations, and Xerox transfers are just some of the ways to have a cheap, easy, good time with photography.

Let's start by looking at some inexpensive cameras.

Diana Lives!
Some of the most beautiful images come from the cheapest plastic cameras ever made. The Diana, the Holga, and the Lubitel are a few major players in the toy camera universe. Simple to load and even easier to shoot, most toy cameras are made entirely of plastic (even the lens), which accounts for their endearing problems and general unpredictability. They have only elementary adjustments for focus and exposure, leaving photographers with little control over the technical outcome.

The only thing better than the lack of skills needed to operate a toy camera is the reception you get while using one. Some people get edgy and paranoid around big cameras, but would you take someone seriously who approached you using a kid's camera covered in black tape? No one does. No one cares. No one primps. No one's shyness or ego is too great to be overcome by a toy. Best of all, toy cameras are often welcome where "real" cameras are forbidden or scoffed at.

The Diana, the superstar of all toy cameras, was made by the Great Wall Plastic Factory in Hong Kong and first sold in the 1960s for less than three bucks. Now you'd be lucky to pick one up off of eBay for less than US$100. If you ever stumble upon one at a yard sale, grab it.

The Diana

The camera's crappy plastic lens produces beautiful images of questionable focus with softly darkened edges. It creates pictures that seem to have no time frame, capturing the way things are remembered instead of the way things actually were. Most of them have three controls for aperture (sunny, cloudy, and dull) and three controls for focusing (4 to 6 feet, 6 to 12 feet, and 12 feet to infinity). A few models accept flash attachments. They are predisposed to light leaks and color shifts, as are all toy cameras, and should be sealed with lightproof photo tape whenever possible.

The Diana as well as all her copycats (Arrow, Banier, Banner, Dories, Valiant, and Windsor, to name a few) use 120-mm film, called roll film since it comes on a spool with paper backing instead of the metal canisters used for 35-mm film. Generally, 120-mm film (available in any professional photo store) yields images in three standardized sizes, depending on what camera you are using. The most common size is 6 by 6 centimeters, although some cameras give you the option of a 6-by-4.5- or 6-by-9-centimeter image. The majority of Diana cameras have oddly sized, 4-by-4-centimeter images with 16 images per roll, although there are a few models with 5.5-by-5.5-centimeter images that give you 12 images per roll.

The Holga and the Lubitel
The most accessible of all toy cameras is the Holga. Easily ordered (see the end of this article for some links to online resources), the Holga is super cheap, running about $20. If you've been thinking of trying out a larger film format, start with it.


Like the Diana, the Holga is a lightweight, all-plastic camera that uses 120-mm film. It can shoot two different negative sizes: 6 by 6 centimeters and 6 by 4.5 centimeters, depending on whether a plastic insert is removed from the camera. If you choose to shoot the square image size, you'll get 12 images per roll of film. The smaller, rectangular size will give you 16 images.

The Holga gives you two controls for exposure (sunny and cloudy) and four settings for focus (one person, family, large group, mountain).

As far as aesthetics go, Holga images may not be as ethereal as Diana's since focus was "improved" upon by the time it was made in China in the 1980s. But the Holga does have many advantages, including a standard flash hot shoe, choice of image size, and easy availability.

Another great toy camera is the Lubitel, a Russian twin-lens reflex camera system made by LOMO (Leningrad Optical & Mechanical Union) since the 1950s. It was widely available via mail order for around $30 until just a few years ago. These days, your best bet is to look for Lubitel cameras at rummage sales and flea markets, along with Diana cameras.


The Lubitel is slightly more complicated to use until you become accustomed to the twin-lens reflex system of looking at the world. This means that the camera has two lenses: one that you look through and another below that exposes the film. Since you're not quite taking a picture of what you see in the viewfinder, it is easy to chop off people's heads until you learn to compensate. You can hold the camera at your waist and look downward into the viewing screen. Your image will appear upside down. It will seem strange at first, but it's a good way to concentrate on composition.

The controls offered on the Lubitel are more advanced than those on the Holga, and it is made with glass optics instead of a plastic lens. Shutter speeds can be set from Bulb to 1/250 of a second, apertures can be set from f-4.5 to f-22, and most models give you a choice of 6-by-6- or 6-by-4.5-centimeter images. As a result of its superior optics, the Lubitel takes sharper, more evenly lit photos than the Diana or Holga, although they do suffer the same intermittent light leaks and loosely rolled film spools. But these problems can easily be corrected in all toy cameras with the use of photo tape for a better seal and small pieces of cardboard placed inside spools for tighter film winding.

Now that you've gotten your camera and taken some pictures, it's time to get them developed. That's the boring part, right? Well, if you mix up your chemicals a little bit, you can easily end up with some interesting results.

The Wonders of Cross-processing
Normally, if you shoot color negative film and have prints made at a lab, your film is processed in C41 chemicals. If you shoot slide film, then the lab uses E6 chemicals. If you choose to develop your film in the wrong chemicals (like slide film in C41), this is called cross-processing, and the results are wack, to say the least.

Each kind of film reacts differently to cross-processing. Take a look at the results of the films I tested, and keep in mind that the background color was exactly the same the entire time.

Examples of negatives cross-processed into slides:

background example
Actual Background Color

Kodak VPS
Kodak VPS 160
Kodak PRT 100
Kodak PRT 100
Agfa XPS 160
Agfa XPS 160
Optima 200
Agfa Optima 200
Agfa Optima
Agfa Optima 400
Fuji NPL 160
Fuji NPL 160

Examples of slides cross-processed into negatives:

Ektachrome 64
Kodak Ektachrome 64
Ektachrome 100
Kodak Ektachrome 100
Kodak E100S
Kodak E100S
Kodak E100SW
Kodak E100SW
Kodak E200
Kodak E200
Agfa RSX50
Agfa RSX 50
Provial 100
Fuji Provia 100
Provial 400
Fuji Provia 400
Fuji 64T
Velvia 50
Fuji Velvia 50
Kodak E100VS
Kodak E100VS
Kodak Ektachrome 160T
Kodak Ektachrome 160T
Kodak Ektachrome 100 Plus
Kodak Ektachrome 100 Plus
Kodak Ektachrome 400
Kodak Ektachrome 400
Kodak Lumiere 100
Kodak Lumiere 100

Unfortunately, none of the major photo companies (Fuji, Kodak, and Agfa) do any of their own cross-process testing, so photographers are on their own to figure it out through trial and error - mostly error. In general, cross-processing will increase contrast, blow out highlights, and create some incredibly rich - if not realistic - colors. Could you get the same colors with Photoshop? Sure you could, if you worked at it long enough, but you'd be losing the best elements of cross-processing: strange new color combinations and surprise outcomes!

Changing Your Exposure
The only trick to cross-processing is that you must change your exposure, and you'll usually need to take your film to a professional photo lab for processing. As a general rule, film must be overexposed by two full stops in order to turn out well; this means the film needs at least four times as much light as usual. You'll find that some film will need slightly more exposure, and others slightly less exposure. There are three easy ways to overexpose your film two stops. Choose one:

1. If you're using a camera that allows you to change the film speed or ASA rating, do so. Lie to your camera. If you're using 200 ASA film, set your ASA dial as if you were using 50 ASA film. Each time you cut the film speed in half, that overexposes the film one stop. So:

If your
film speed is:
Then set your
ASA dial to:
25 6
50 12
100 25
160 40
320 80
400 100
800 200
1000 250
1600 400
3200 800

2. If you're using a camera that allows you to change the aperture, open up two full f-stops.

If your light meter tells you: , then set your aperture at:
f-2.8 f-1.4
f-4 f-2
f-5.6 f-2.8
f-8 f-4
f-11 f-5.6
f-16 f-8
f-22 f-11
f-32 f-16
f-45 f-22
f-64 f-32

3. If you can't change the film speed or aperture setting on your camera, then the lab can overexpose the film for you during processing. When dropping off the film for developing, just tell the technician to "push two stops." This means your film will sit in the developer for longer than usual.

Experimenting in Your Lab
The outcome of pushing (overexposing) your film will vary depending on which method you choose. Overexposure during development instead of in the camera (via the ASA or aperture method) will give your images an even higher contrast. Professional labs will also charge you a fee for this service, usually a certain amount for each stop the film is pushed during processing ($1 to $3).

The best thing to do is test the film you want to use. Try pushing a roll two stops in the camera, pushing another roll two stops in processing, and pushing a third roll one stop in the camera and one stop in processing. Mess around with different variations until you find what best suits your images - two stops of overexposure is just a starting point. Each of the films I tested were overexposed exactly the same way: one stop in the camera and one stop in processing.

If you're starting with a negative film of 160 ASA, you shoot the film at 40 ASA (or shoot at 80 ASA and push one stop in the lab or shoot at 160 ASA and push two stops in the lab). After shooting, take your film to a professional lab that develops slide film. Tell the technician you'd like your negative film cross-processed in E6 chemicals and you'll end up with slides. It shouldn't cost any extra (unless you push during development), so you pay the same as if you shot slide film to start with.

The very best film for this purpose is Kodak VPS 160, which is rumored to be discontinued soon, so stock up! Other negative films that work (although none quite as well as VPS) include Fuji NPL 160, Agfa XPS 160, Agfa Optima 200 and 400, and Kodak PRT 100. (Note: Almost every other professional negative film made by Fuji, Kodak, and Agfa doesn't work.)

Starting with slide film, use the same exposure compensation of overexposing the film by two stops (whichever method you choose). After shooting, take your film to a lab that normally develops negative films in C41 chemistry and tell the technician you want your film cross-processed (remember to tell him or her if you want it pushed in processing or not). You'll end up with a roll of negatives.

You can also have the lab make you a contact sheet ($8 to $12) if you wish and then choose which images you want enlarged from that. Any one-hour lab should be able to make prints from your cross-processed negatives, but most will refuse to develop the film since it can change the chemistry balance in their machines. You should choose a lab that can adjust colors when printing, since these negatives are always more difficult to color correct.

The cheapest way to get your roll made into prints is to tell the lab not to cut your film and then take it to a cheaper lab to have prints made. If the film isn't cut, a lab should charge you first-print price instead of reprint price. Then you can have the regular lab cut your film for you. The good news is that every slide film seems to work with cross-processing.

Out-of-date film seems to produce the craziest colors (see the Lumiere 100), so don't throw your old rolls away - you now have a good use for them.

Instant Gratification with Polaroid
Cross-processing looks cool, but all the magic happens in the lab. With Polaroids, you can manipulate the image yourself and get immediate feedback. My first experience with the Polaroid came from working at a one-hour photo lab. On slow days we passed the time by taking photos of ourselves with the passport camera and then messing around with the images. It beat working hands down. The only drawback to Polaroid manipulations is that they can become expensive; Polaroid has no competition and it takes full advantage of its monopoly.

Here's how it works. After you take the photo and pull the film from the camera, you have to wait a minute and a half for the image to develop before peeling the backing from the film. During this time you can rub, scratch, poke, pound, and smoosh the image to your heart's delight. Allow the film to develop for the normal amount of time, and when you peel apart the image you'll have all kinds of crazy markings, spots, and smears from where you manipulated the emulsion during development.

peel apart peel apart

This method can be used with most of the big, old, fold-out Polaroid cameras for which you can still buy film. Most of the old ones use type 667 (black and white) or type 108 (color) film ($15 for a 10 pack, $28 for a 20 pack). As long as it uses peel-apart film, it'll work!

Other than the peel-apart versions, there is one other type of Polaroid film you can directly manipulate with your hands or small tools. It's called SX-70 film, named after the Polaroid camera it was made for in the 1970s - yet another great find at a flea market. Although the cameras are no longer sold, SX-70 film ($15 for a 10 pack) is readily available at photo stores, and you can modify any Polaroid One-Step camera ($25 to $45) to use it.

Just get a two-stop, neutral-density filter and place it over the electric eye of the camera (this compensates for the difference in film speed). Then place an index card in the film slot of the camera and put in the SX-70 film on top of the card, holding onto the card and pulling it out when the film is in place (this covers the idiot latch that's there to prevent you from putting in the wrong film). To manipulate the image, take a photo, lay the image on a flat surface, and use any of the following methods:

1. To soften the image, apply light pressure with a blunt instrument before the picture appears.

2. When the image is just beginning to appear, you can use pointed instruments to trace white and black lines on the image (the color depends on how much pressure you use) and create colors by mixing the color layers of the image.

3. To stretch and bend the image, you have a five-minute window of opportunity. This method works best when the print is warm so use a hair dryer. Or if you're traveling, throw the print up on your dashboard for a couple of minutes. Rub a blunt tool over the area you want to distort. After a minute or two, you'll notice the area starts to move as you rub it. Now pull and push the image in any direction you want with different tools.

4. If you can't figure out how you want to manipulate your picture, throw it in the freezer. You can reheat it later with a hair dryer and try again!

Here's a sample result:


The Image Transfer
There are two kinds of Polaroid transfers: image and emulsion. Image transfers are made when the film isn't given a chance to fully develop because the image is transferred onto another material first. Image transfers have the look of a watercolor painting; slightly softened and diffused.

Emulsion transfers are made by lifting the image from a Polaroid print that has already been fully developed and dried and then transferring that emulsion onto another material. Emulsion transfers can be stretched and wrinkled, even transferred to 3-D objects. Only certain Polaroid film will work for making transfers: 669 (the most common), 108, 59, 559, 809, and 64T.

For each type of transfer you will need film. You can shoot film in a Polaroid camera, a regular camera with a Polaroid back attachment, or a slide printer (Polaprinter, Vivitar Instant Slide Printer, or Daylab II Slide Printer, available for rent at major photo stores and art schools) that enlarges 35-mm slides into Polaroid prints.

You need a tray of heated, distilled water; a tray with cold water; a squeegee; tongs; brayer/roller; 100 percent rag, hot-press watercolor paper (or other receiving surface); vinyl adhesive contact paper; a sheet of clear Mylar or acetate; a hard, smooth surface to work on; a timer; a heating pad and two pieces of glass (optional); and latex gloves (mandatory).

To do an image transfer:

1. Expose the film but don't pull it yet.

2. Soak the paper you will transfer the image onto in a tray of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, distilled water for one to two minutes.

image transfer

Remove and squeegee the paper, leaving it stuck to the smooth surface. (For optimum conditions, place a piece of glass on top of a heating pad and use that as your smooth surface.)

image transfer

3. Wearing gloves, process the Polaroid film by pulling it out of the camera or slide printer. Wait 10 to 15 seconds. Then peel away the negative from the backing and quickly place it face down on the wet, squeegeed receiving paper.

image transfer

Roll the brayer (or use the edge of your hand) over the negative five or six times.

image transfer

Light pressure will result in white spots; heavy pressure will create distorted dark areas.

4. Leave it alone for two minutes while keeping it warm. If you have a heating pad underneath, then lay the second piece of glass on top of the transfer. If not, you can use a hair dryer to keep the negative warm to the touch or float the transfer on the 100 F water.

5. Starting at one corner, peel away the negative slowly.

image transfer

6. Let the transfer air dry.

7. You can then add saturation by applying colored pencils or paint.

Here are some sample results:

image example image example

The Emulsion Transfer
Now let's try the second method.

To do an emulsion transfer:

1. Using a Polaroid print that has been dry at least 10 hours, cover the back of the print with clear contact paper. (You don't have to do this, but it does keep the paper backing from falling apart.)

2. Put a sheet of acetate, bigger than your Polaroid, into the tray of cold water.

3. Soak your receiving paper in the cold water for a few seconds, then remove and squeegee it.

4. Place your Polaroid print face up in a tray of 160 F water for four minutes. Make sure the surface of the print stays underwater.

5. Using tongs, remove the Polaroid from the hot water and place it in the cold water tray.

6. Gently push (or brush, using a soft brush) the emulsion from the edges of your Polaroid while keeping it underwater.

emulsion transfer

Peel the emulsion off the paper backing.

emulsion transfer

Turn the emulsion over and throw away the paper backing with contact paper attached.

emulsion transfer

7. Take two ends of the emulsion and hold them to the underwater acetate sheet.

emulsion transfer

Lift the acetate sheet in and out of the water to try to unwrinkle the image, then turn the sheet and repeat holding the other sides of the image.

emulsion transfer

8. Place the receiving paper in the water underneath the emulsion. Or take the emulsion out of the water and, with the acetate sheet on top, place it on the receiving paper.

emulsion transfer

9. Remove the acetate sheet carefully, then stretch and manipulate the emulsion with your fingers.

emulsion transfer

10. Take the brayer and roll out the image. Start in the middle with light pressure, then press harder as air bubbles and wrinkles are flattened.

emulsion transfer

11. Hang to dry.

Here are some sample results:

emulsion example emulsion example

Xerox Transfers
By far the cheapest, albeit messiest, transfer method doesn't even require a camera. I'm talking about Xerox transfers.

You need a color or black-and-white photocopy of an image, some lacquer thinner or transparent base, a brayer or a spoon, a rag, gloves, and receiver paper. A silkscreen extender or transparent base chemical is the best solvent to use. Serascreen 174 w.w. is the cheapest and is available at silkscreen supply stores. You could also try Jasco lacquer thinner, available in hardware stores.

Here are the steps (remember to do this outside or in a well-ventilated area):

1. Tape your Xerox image face down onto the receiving paper so it stays in place (watercolor paper works well).

2. If you're using transparent base, then apply one teaspoon of transparent base onto the back of your image, spread it evenly, and leave it alone for two minutes. If you're using lacquer thinner, thoroughly squirt the back of your photocopy with the thinner and immediately start rubbing. It has a tendency to evaporate quickly, so you may need to reapply it.

3. Rub the back of the Xerox with a brayer, the back of a spoon, or a rag. Different rubbing tools will result in different "brush strokes" visible in the finished transfer.

4. Lift the edge of your copy to check the transfer progress. The image may start to bleed through the Xerox when it's finished. Remove the tape and Xerox and wipe off any excess chemicals.

5. Allow the transfer to air dry by a window or outside.

Here's a sample result:

xerox transfer

So there you have it. There are plenty of ways to make cool-looking images the old-school way. The resulting images will be more personal and interesting, helping to liven up your site. And these little projects will keep you off the streets and out of trouble.

For more information on cheap cameras and photo manipulation, check out these resources:

Holga Cameras:
Maine Photographic Workshops
Freestyle Sales Co.

Tips on Polaroid Manipulations and Transfers:
Polaroid Official Site
Polaroid Transfers by Kathleen Thormond Carr

Books About Cool Photo Processes:
Creative Photo Printmaking by Theresa Airey
Historic Photo Processes by Richard Farber
New Dimensions in Photo Imaging by Laura Blacklow

Virginia Barnes is the Photo Associate at The Industry Standard. In her spare time, she rents expensive photo equipment and takes pictures of her kitty. She loves her kitty very much.