Modding a Toy Camera to an “Alex Cam”

Augmented Hair Photography!

August 5, 2009
Reading Time
3 minutes

As a going-away present for our intern Alex, an avid photographer, we decided to hack a toy camera.  Alex has an awesome signature hair cut, so we thought it would be funny to make a camera that prints his hair on all the portraits he takes.  The final design is super simple and only takes a little trial and error to get right.  We used a Diana, the plastic camera from the 60’s with a cult following.  It would also work with the newer Holga camera.

To begin with, we took Alex’s official IDEO portrait and Photoshopped out everything but his hair, converted to vector art, and made an inkjet print on transparency.  (Careful if you’re using your office’s laser printer — if you use the wrong transparency film, it’ll melt and ruin the printer!)  Print another one, proportionally smaller, for the viewfinder.

Tape the transparency to one of the plastic frames that comes with the Diana.  We used double-sided tape.  Since  the image projected from the lens gets flipped, your transparency will need to be upside down and reversed.

Then tape a piece of vellum or tracing paper on top of the transparency.  This is just temporary, so tape it lightly with something you can remove easily.  The vellum will act like the ground glass in a large-format view camera, showing the image that will project from the lens onto the film.

Pop the frame into the camera.  Remember it needs to be upside down and reversed.  At the last minute, we added the IDEO logo.  It’s backwards here though, as we discovered after shooting the first photo.  Don’t forget the vellum — it’s missing here.

It’s possible to just slide the smaller transparency in front of the viewfinder, between the clear plastic and the teal plastic body — no adhesive is necessary.  You might want to wear gloves, so you don’t get fingerprints on the transparency.

To calibrate our new creation, we put the camera on a tripod.  When you remove the back cover of the Diana, you lose the tripod mount, so we fabricated a mount with a clamp zip-tied to an L-bracket and bolted to the tripod head with a 1/4-20 nut.

Note the tape measure on the floor:  we wanted the subject’s head framed as big as possible in the photo, so we had Lindsay stand at the 36 inch mark (the minimum focus distance of the Diana lens).

Switch the camera to the “B” (bulb) setting and tape the shutter button down to keep it open.  You’ll see your subject projected onto the vellum.  It helps if there’s a lot of light on your subject and dark behind your camera.  Now compare the size and position of your viewfinder view (how you’ll frame your photos) and the film view (what will actually be captured).  Note that since you’re not framing through the lens like an SLR,  there’ll be a parallax discrepancy.  For the final prototype, we reprinted Alex’s hair bigger and shifted its position on the transparency to better match Lindsay’s head.  We also reprinted the viewfinder hair to match the film view.

If you’ve done everything correctly, the images should match up in the viewfinder and on your vellum “ground glass.”  If so, remove the vellum before loading the camera with film.  We used the Lomography Instant back for the Diana, but this should work for 120 roll film, too.  The Instant back yields Polaroid-like mini-prints, which we wanted for the Alex’s going-away party.

OK, now you’re ready to rock.  Stand about 3 feet away from your subject and snap away.  Given the low-quality lens on the Diana, and our plan to shoot indoors, we found that the flash helped out a lot.

Some of the greatest hits from the party.  Note Alex in the top photo, wearing his own hair.  It takes a bit of practice (and luck) to get the hair in the right place.

Special thanks to Lindsay Wai for construction and testing help and Michelle Moy for vector art and printing expertise.