Instant Pinhole photos are almost an oxymoron. The film process with the fastest feedback loop coupled with the film process with the longest exposure times. Does it make sense? Well, yes it does, particularly in the Diana Instant Square. In this article, I’ll be taking a look at the camera and how it delivers that classic Diana/toy camera aesthetic in both its traditional “lensed” and pinhole mode.
The results (and I mean this), may surprise you.
I missed Lomography’s Kickstarter campaign in 2018 that launched the Diana Instant Square camera, not so much because I wasn’t aware of it, more so that I was simply not an instant film photographer at the time. The Diana Instant Square is firmly part of Lomography’s Diana family of toy cameras that includes the iconic Diana F+ for 120 film, and now that now extends to 35mm and 110 cameras too.
They are all based on the original Diana created in Hong Kong in the 1960s, a cheap 120 film shooter with plastic meniscus lenses, of which there were a multitude of clones sharing the toy camera features of a variable center sharpness, a lack of sharpness at the edges, and heavy vignetting.
The Diana Instant Square is substantially larger than the Diana F+, but it retains the toy camera aesthetic in both build, looks and function. It uses Instax Square film that, whilst looking very similar to a classic Polaroid sheet, is smaller than its much older counterpart. You get 10 sheets per cartridge of Instax film.
In a point of distinction to the Holga, the other classic toy camera from Hong Kong, where aperture choices may have been available but were often non-functional, Lomography’s Diana cameras come with real aperture choices. On the Diana Instant Wide these are f/11, f/22, f/32, and Pinhole (f/150) apertures. The need for adjusting the aperture for an appropriate exposure has actually been listed as a negative in some reviews, the assumption being that most instant film shooters are after a point and shoot experience.
Most instant film camera manufacturers may think the same, as almost all current instant film cameras are of the point and shoot type with limited or no control over the aperture, shutter speed, or even flash. For others including me, having control over the aperture is a very desirable feature, and this is how it is framed in the Lomography store too.
[The other point of distinction compared to the Holga is that the Diana is decidedly better built and designed, in that the back cover does not have a tendency to pop off unexpectedly at any time for no reason.]
The Diana Instant Square has no built-in light meter, of course, but this isn’t different from most of my other film cameras. I simply use some form of an external meter. Similar to the Holga, the Diana Instant Square’s focus is a somewhat dubious zone system. I do use the focus guides, though I have heard it mentioned that it is better to calibrate the focus yourself using a ground glass (with the camera’s back open without film loaded, of course), as the zone focus guides can be quite inaccurate. Granted, this was heard in relation to the Holga and not specifically the Diana, and I haven’t calibrated the focus myself with either camera.
Swappable lenses – or no lens at all
The Diana allows its lens unit to be removed and exchanged, for example, with a Diana glass lens, wide-angle lenses, telephoto lenses. All are available as kits or as separate purchases, along with a Diana flash unit. The standard 75mm lens also has a thread for a screw-in filter. The lens unit is separate from the aperture and shutter apparatus, which are built into the camera.
The Pinhole aperture can be selected with either the lens unit left on or removed. Except for the exceptionally heavy vignetting, I don’t find leaving the lens unit on when shooting the pinhole aperture makes much of a difference. I usually shoot pinhole with the lens unit remove to avoid the vignetting.
Like the Holga, the Diana allows for two shutter modes, both a standard 1/100sec (at least nominally) and Bulb mode. Although there isn’t a built-in cable shutter release capability on the camera — an aftermarket cable release fitting can be purchased as part of an accessory kit — the Diana shutter can be held open with a tool, a purpose-made plastic chip that sits in the shutter lever’s groove, which keeps the shutter lever depressed. This works well for the task, though you will need to deal with the issue of camera shake when applying the tool to the shutter. In any case, I have not felt the need to search for a dedicated cable release adapter.
A word of caution: be careful not to throw out the long exposure shutter tool when opening your Diana’s packaging, as although it is connected to a loop tie, it does look like a random offcut from the factory rather than part of the tool kit.
All of these features make the Diana very usable as a pinhole camera.
The Diana Instant Square aesthetic
As I mentioned earlier, the typical aesthetic for the Diana is that “toy camera look” of a sharpish centre of frame and a rapid loss of sharpness toward the edge, along with heavy vignetting. I find the vignetting is more prominent with closer focus settings on the lens, compared with infinity. I don’t mind the toy camera aesthetic in low light, moody, and atmospheric conditions, although I am less of a fan of these effects in straight-up daylight photography.
Open the aperture to f/11, lock the shutter open, and the long exposure images can be ethereal with the Diana Instant Square, rather than just poorly rendered. To my mind, the vignetting is less intrusive with the darker images. There can also be eerie circular lens flares when pointing at a light source with a very Ringu feel… I have been able to capture some lovely star trails, car light trails, and moonlit silhouettes this way. I was really pleased, as long exposures and low photography was the real reason for this purchase.
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The images below were taken in low light conditions with the standard lens:
I have even shot night sky images, again with the standard lens:
Pinhole photography with the Diana Instant Square
I didn’t initially expect that I would shoot the Diana Instant Square in pinhole mode much. In usual circumstances, the pinhole image would be softer than the equivalent lensed image. The exposure times for pinhole images are naturally far longer, and this is an issue for Instax with its notoriously poor reciprocity failure characteristics.
So… I am not sure why I took those first pinhole images, except that it was during our 2020 lockdown, which might be all the explanation needed…
Yet my first experiment with the pinhole aperture surprised me. It was sharp, really sharp, easily surpassing the Diana’s lensed images and perhaps even sharper than my Instax Mini camera. The exposure times were ridiculous. I allowed five additional stops for exposure (I know this isn’t the scientific way to calculate reciprocity, but I found it a workable rule of thumb), and yet the image was well exposed. Later I found that removing the lens unit altogether also removed any vignetting when shooting pinhole.
These are some of my first pinhole images on the Diana.
These images were taken later on a trip to Gulgong, about 4 hours drive out of Sydney. Again, all with the lens unit removed in pinhole mode.
At least for the moment, for long exposures on instant film the Diana Instant Square is the camera I turn to.
How I use the Diana Instant Square for long exposures
First, I don’t turn on the camera when capturing an image. Batteries are required for the film eject mechanism, but the aperture and shutter are entirely mechanical. When the switch is turned to single exposure mode the Instax will automatically eject after the shutter is released. In multiple exposure mode, the film will eject after the switch is moved back to single exposure mode. The problem is that because setting the plastic chip to keep the shutter open can sometimes be tricky, if you accidentally misalign the long exposure shutter tool, and the shutter lever pops back up, you will unnecessarily eject a sheet of Instax (you won’t be able to reinsert it as it will be a developed sheet).
If the camera switch is off and the pinhole is covered whilst you are setting the open shutter tool in place and there is a mishap with opening the shutter, the film is unexposed and unejected, and you can simply start again by setting the shutter with no harm done.
To stop camera shake I will leave the lens cap on when activating and setting the shutter, and I will time the shutter opening from the moment I then gently remove the lens cap rather than from when the shutter is opened. I will end the exposure by gently replacing the lens cap, and only after this then release the shutter from being open by pulling out the plastic chip. In pinhole mode and if you remove the lens unit, you will need to hold the lens cap over the pinhole with your fingers or tape, as without the lens unit there is nothing to attach the lens cap to.
Third, in very low light exposures the pinhole aperture may simply be impractical (the exposure times with reciprocity failure taken into account is simply too long) and I usually use the lens with the aperture set wide open to f/11 in those circumstances.
I hope you enjoyed this article and would love to hear about your own experiences with long exposures and pinhole photography on Instax film. If you are looking for further examples of the former, please read my MiNT Instakon RF70/Night photography on Instax article here on EMULSIVE, or check out my photography on Instagram here and here.
Thanks for reading,
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I didn’t know Diana had an instant version! You may have led me down a bit of a rabbit hole now!