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By Jim Heid | Wednesday, April 07, 2010

From Polaroids to Lensbabies, low-fi photography thrives

A few weeks ago, I bought new digital SLR. And last week, I bought a few packs of funky film and a thrift-shop Polaroid camera that was made forty years ago.

I adore Polaroids of all kinds (check out my Polaroid shots on Flickr). I love their unpredictable colors and their timeless look. And when The Impossible Project released a new black-and-white film recently, I jumped at the chance to try it. My short review? It’s more finicky than a cat in a bad mood. Results vary dramatically depending on room temperature and other factors, and I’m a long way from mastering it.

I also have a Mamiya RB67 medium-format camera—it’s slightly smaller than a breadbox and it weighs more than one. I love attaching a Polaroid back to it, taking a photo using film that was discontinued a few years ago, and then transferring its emulsion to card stock.

And my digital SLR? It gets to play, too. With the Lensbaby, I can turn my back on years of optical innovation and create blurry, ethereal photos that look like something from a dream. A good dream.

My friend Nick connects brass lenses made in the late 1800s to a Hasselblad. The resulting photos are distorted, odd, and gorgeous.

But why? In a world where lenses have nano-technology coatings and imaging sensors ultrasonically clean themselves, why this focus on being unfocused?

For some photographers, it’s a backlash against digital photography’s exactness, a way of protesting precision. Other photographers just enjoy the warmth of film—just as some music lovers prefer vinyl albums to CDs and iPods.

I can appreciate these reasons and add some of my own. I like the way low-fi photography forces me to slow down and concentrate. With my digital SLR, I can take 11 photos in one second. With my Mamiya and its Polaroid back, it takes me about 11 minutes to set up one shot. It’s the difference between taking a photo and making one.

But most of all, low-fi tools and techniques give me another way to express myself photographically. The world isn’t always sharp-edged and precise, and sometimes a low-fi tool is a better way capture to a scene’s mood. Or mine.

What about you? Do you have any low-fi tools in your toy box? Are you interested in learning more about them?

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