They may look cute, but toy cameras aren’t actually toys at all. The name refers to inexpensive film cameras made predominantly of plastic and paired with a simplistic lens.
From around the 1990s, toy cameras garnered popularity for their distinctive aesthetic. Cameras like the Diana and Holga are embraced, light leaks and all, for their wonderfully unpredictable results.
With their vignetting, blurry focus and lens distortion, photographers armed with toy cameras relinquish control over the definitive outcome of the image, adding a palpable sense of serendipity to the photographic process.
Applying a toy camera effect to a digital photograph isn’t the same as using a toy camera itself, I know. But it’s a fun way to add a unique retro feel to a photograph while making use of the control that a digital camera affords.
Here’s how to add a toy camera effect to a digital photograph using Photoshop.
1. Cropping your image
Open up your image in Photoshop. Here’s my starting image.
Toy cameras work within a square format, so you’ll need to crop your photograph accordingly. Select the Crop Tool from the left toolbar. In the top toolbar, click on the dropdown menu that regulates the crop ratio. Select 1×1 (Square).
A square demonstrating the crop parameters will appear over your image. Adjust the parameters until you are happy and press enter.
2. Applying a vignette
With your layer selected in the Layers palette, go to Layer -> Duplicate Layer. A dialogue box will pop up. In the input field next to “As:” type “Layer 1” and click OK. This duplicates your current layer so you can work non-destructively.
Next, right click on Layer 1 and select Convert to Smart Object.
Select Filter -> Lens Correction and a dialog box will open. Click on the Custom tab. In the Vignette section of the Custom tab, adjust the Amount slider and the Midpoint slider until you have a nice, dark vignette (for this image I set the amount to -100 and the midpoint to +10). Repeat this step if you want a darker vignette.
3. Adding blur
As I mentioned before, a lot of photographs taken with a toy camera are unfocused or blurry. To emulate this, make sure Layer 1 is selected and go to Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur. In the Gaussian Blur window set the Radius from 5 to 10 pixels depending on your image and click OK.
4. Adjusting colors
Toy cameras often lend a distinctive color-cast to photographs. In the layers panel, click on the Create a new fill or adjustment layer button and select Curves. In the Curves adjustment palette click on the RGB menu, select the red channel and create a shallow ‘S’ bend. Select the green channel and apply the same shallow ‘S’ shape. Now select the blue channel and create an inverted ‘S’.
5. Creating light leaks
One fun characteristic of toy cameras are light leaks. A light leak is caused by a hole or gap in the body of the camera, allowing light to “leak” into the film chamber. This exposes the film to excess light. The result is whimsical fields of color that add character to a photograph and illustrate the photographic process.
To emulate light leaks you first need to create a new layer. Click on the Create a new layer button at the bottom of the layers panel and rename the layer “Light leaks”.
Select your brush tool and set the brush size to around 2000 and your hardness to 0%. Set the foreground color to your preferred color – usually red, yellow or blue. With the “Light leaks” layer selected, dot or streak one or two patches of color over your image.
Once you are done painting the light leaks, change the Blending Mode of the layer by clicking on the Blending Modes dropdown menu and selecting Color. You can change the opacity of the light leaks by toggling the Opacity slider on the layers panel too.
And there you have it. Now that you know how to add a toy camera aesthetic to your photograph, the possibilities are endless. This is a great opportunity to make use of unfocused, spotty or noisy digital images. It’s the next best thing to using a real toy camera yourself!
Here are a couple of my own creations below, post yours in the comments!