Manufactured in the 1980s at an unknown factory in Hong Kong, according to the Film Photography Project website, the “Plastic Filmtastic” Debonair is sort of a cross between a knock-off Diana and a knock-off Holga, with a bit of Time Magazine subscription camera thrown in for good measure.
The FPP crew found a pallet or so of these blurry boxes, reportedly in a Rochester, N.Y., warehouse, all brand new in the box. Their crew opens each one up and applies the “Film Photography Podcast” and “Plastic Filmtastic 120” decals, and packs it back up with a fresh roll of film before the sale, so you start with absolutely everything you need in the box.
The Toy Camera
As advertised, the whole thing is plastic, including the lens.
The 60mm “Super Lens” has a plastic focus ring (the entire outer housing…) marked with symbols for portrait, group and landscape. At f/8.0, it’s pretty forgiving on the focus.
Above the lens is a switch that indicates sunlight or flash/cloudy. I’m not sure, but it seems to change the shutter speed. The bright sun setting seems faster. This jives with what FPP superstar Michael Raso said on this Flickr discussion, guessing that the difference was 1/100s vs. 1/60s.
Next to the possibly-a-shutter-speed-switch is the big shutter button. It’s got a pretty firm spring under it, but the cheap plastic kind of drags and moves unevenly as you depress it. It’s still not hard to gently ease it down and follow through, like pulling the trigger on a rifle, to keep camera movement to a minimum when maxing an exposure.
There’s a big film advance knob on top that ratchets forward with a satisfying machine-gun spray clicks, a tiny plastic latch on the bottom that holds on the back, and a red window in the bottom center that counts off the half frames.
That’s right, this is a half-frame camera — well, 2/3-frame, actually. It makes 6×4.5cm negatives, but that means you get 16 photos on a roll of 120 film. Of course, this means that the images are going to be portrait orientation by default, which means a lot of shooting with the toy camera sideways if you prefer landscape-oriented photos.
The viewfinder (it’s not a rangefinder — this is basically a toy, after all) is square, but it seems to err on the side of matching the shorter dimension of the final image. In other words, if you fill the width of the viewfinder, you’ll just wind up with a little extra image above and below what you were aiming for. You might still be crowding the edges of your negatives, but you hopefully won’t miss much.
The Debonair is extremely lightweight, and just in case you still can’t hold it up for long periods of time it includes a wrist strap to clip onto one of the brittle plastic loops molded into its sides. I’m not sure which feels flimsier — the plastic loop, or the thin metal clip meant to snap through it.
Another thing that draws photographers and lomographers to the Debonair is the ability to shoot so-called “sprockets” — photos that completely cover a strip of 35mm film, including the feed holes along the edges.
Reportedly you can start on your own “sprockets” by wedging a 35mm cartridge into the film well with a couple styrofoam packing peanuts or something similar. You’ll want to be sure the spool in the cartridge still turns freely.
Thread your 35mm leader through the slot in the take-up spool or tape the end of the leader to it (the standard 120 spool should work fine). Start advancing the film slowly and carefully, making sure to get it centered as best you can and get it doubled over itself securely before closing the back.
In the same Flickr discussion, Raso indicates that he uses one and a half turns of the film advance knob to separate frames when shooting 35mm.
Raso also points out that you should put some tape over the red window when shooting 35mm. Without the heavy backing paper of 120 film, even the little light filtering through the red plastic would just expose all your film.
Obviously, you’ll have to open the camera and wind the film back into the cartridge in a dark room or changing bag.
I haven’t tried this, personally. It seems a tad gimmicky to me, not that I haven’t seen photos I liked that included the sprocket holes. It’s entirely possible that I’m rejecting it because shooting sprockets happens to be so in vogue for a certain subset of photographers these days…
I put a roll through the Debonair last fall and got surprisingly good results. Yeah, this post has been in the pipe a long time.
The film included with mine was a roll of Kodak Portra 160. Based on the advertised shutter speeds, I guessed this was near perfect.
Reports have it that 100 or 200 ASA film is best for bright sun, and 400 is recommended for cloudy days. I ran my test rolls on bright, sunny days, but tried to avoid taking all full-sun shots.
The thin, plastic lens is surprisingly sharp. At least, in the places it is sharp. Which is basically just the center. The closer you get to the edge of the frame, the blurrier it gets.
FPP describes the blurred effect as ‘dreamy,’ and in a way, it is. It evokes a hint of the vaseline-on-the-lens pseudo-tilt-shift of movie dream sequences, at least in some shots. In others it looks less artistic and more, well, blurry.
The center-focus situation isn’t outside the bell curve for most toy cameras, though. The Debonair’s rate of change from center to edge isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Herbert George cameras in my collection like the Imperial Herco or the Imperial Debonair — they’re more comparable to the glass-lensed Ansco Shur-Flash or the tiny Kodak Baby Brownie Special.
There is, not unexpectedly, fairly noticeable chromatic aberration with the plastic Super Lens.
Rather than the severe barrel distortion of the Herbert George toy cameras, the Debonair suffers from a very small amount of pincushion distortion, though it’s not really enough to be a major concern in light of the other image quality factors.
There is very present vignetting on a lot of shots, and it seems to be much stronger toward the top of the frame sometimes. There are occasional light leaks, too, although not very severe. Contrast from the lens is so-so.
For $20, it’s hard to go wrong with this thing. Especially if you’re just dipping your toe in the medium format waters.
The Debonair does have a few nice things going for it. You can use 35mm film with it if you want, and you can hardly find a better 120 film camera for the money.
With the Debonair’s 6×4.5cm format, you get the stunning resolution of medium format film, but you’re not constrained to square photos (if that’s not your thing). And you save a bit of money on film getting 16 shots per roll.
The big, beefy shutter button and its spring make it hard to accidentally make an exposure, but not hard to use. You know damn well when you’ve tripped the shutter.
It’s super lightweight, being almost entirely plastic, but that’s part of my biggest beef with it, too.
Being all plastic — and thin, brittle, cheap-feeling plastic, at that — it’s somewhat delicate. Aside from feeling, well, cheap in your hands, it also looks cheap. But, even though it’s not as sturdy as a Holga or as stylish as a Diana, the images are surprisingly good for what’s making them.
It’s easy to tuck into a pocket in your camera bag if you want another take on a subject, and so easy there’s nothing at all wrong with keeping it around. It’s definitely a fun toy, without the questions a Holga always gets you or the look of smug ego that seems to follow a real vintage roll film toy camera.
Give one a try yourself over at the Film Photography Project site. They won’t last forever.