The 1980s saw the ultra-cheap Chinese-made “Color Optical Lens” cameras spread across the world. Today these cheap leftovers fetch as much as their original purchase price on eBay.com.
Offered in the U.S. as promotional giveaways, the most memorable examples are probably the TIME Magazine and Sports Illustrated subscription cameras. Dozens or hundreds of other promo versions exist. I’ve seen Bentley, TV Guide, LIFE Magazine and several others, not to mention the hundreds of hilariously pseudo-branded knockoffs like Sitacon, Meikai, Hodar and Impac.
The Color Optical Lens (a.k.a. Optical Color Lens, New Color Optical Lens, Glass Color Optical Lens, Lavec Color Optical Lens and many other similar monikers) is such a well known hidden gem of a piece of junk it has spawned multiple groups on Flickr including the famous “Optical Color Optical Lens” group.
Instead of an actual aperture, the lens (often reported to be glass) uses a teardrop-shaped slot for an aperture. As you open it up, the slot rotates toward the wider end in front of the tiny leaf shutter. Every one I’ve seen has four marked settings indicated by multicolored icons showing sunlight, partial sun, clouds, and night-time — not that I’d use this thing indoors or at night.
One of the oft-acclaimed results of this amazingly cheap optical setup is unbelievable amounts of lens flare. Add that to the Holga-esque light leaks present in even the most pristine examples, the blurred edges, and the ever-present and asymmetrical vignetting, and you’ve basically got a $5-10 35mm camera that you can pump film through for 1/3 of the price of a Holga or Diana, getting 36 shots per roll and buying expired drug store film at tourist traps around the country.
I found my first Color Optical Lens camera at a thrift store (big surprise, right?) for $0.99, and it even had a cheap plastic “lens cap” and “case.” I put those in quotation marks because they barely qualified as manufactured products, let alone the things they were intended to be. I loaded a roll of drug store-bought Kodak Gold 400 that expired in 1994 and managed 9 frames before the winder jammed and the camera became an inoperable lump of plastic forever.
I attempted to wind the film in, figuring 9 was enough frames for testing purposes, and the plastic winding fork broke before I managed to get three turns of the knob. I had to “disassemble” (I wasn’t careful) the camera in my (formerly) light-proof bathroom to extract and rewind the film. Then the film sat on the desk for months before I remembered to take it to the photo lab at Englewood Camera with my other C-41 films sometime in mid-June. That’s why these are coming now.
Needless to say, I tossed the plastic remains of the off-brand camera and sought out a better one. I bought a $9 TIME Magazine subscription camera from the Bay of E, which I may one day use and post photos from/of.
As you can see, the vignetting is asymmetrical, the light leaks are horrendous, the focus is blurred at the corners and the lens flare is bigger than Ronnie Spector’s hair in 1963.