TIME Magazine Camera (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The TIME Magazine Camera, the trashcam that sold a million magazines… probably (All pics: Stephen Dowling)

Just imagine you’re sitting watching television in the mid-1980s.

Perhaps you’re waiting for ‘Magnum PI’ or ‘The A Team’ to resume, or counting down the seconds until the next episode of ‘Dallas’ begins. Anyway… an ad appears for TIME Magazine, that red-bordered perennial of street kiosks and airport newsagents.

The presenter, all mid-80s voluminous hair, walks to the camera in a packed office full of people – the insinuation is – are just waiting for your call. This isn’t just the usual subscription call-to-arms, however…

The rest of the ad is a classic of the “but wait there’s more” genre, as a cardigan-clad would-be subscriber repeatedly has his hand slapped away from the phone until the final reveal – not only would he be getting the magazine for a low, loooooowwwww price, but a 35mm camera aswell! Unbelievable!

TIME Magazine had, not incorrectly, gambled that its potential subscribers had an interest in photography and might be swayed by such a deal. Those subscribers, however, weren’t quite getting what they expected…

Squint from a distance, and the TIME Magazine Camera certainly looks like a 35mm SLR. Get a little closer, however, and the façade starts to fall apart. The SLR-style pentaprism is clearly just for show, as the camera’s actual viewfinder sits offset to the right and offers only an approximation of what the camera’s lens captures. The 50mm lens was attached firmly to the body. The camera had just one shutter speed. The left-hand-side grip (seen from the front) appears to also house some kind of motor drive, but is pure affectation; the film is wound on with the kind of thumb wheel found on a disposable camera. The knurling around the lens is just decoration – the lens is focus-free. And the “reassuring” weight in this almost completely plastic body? A piece of lead attached to the bottom plate.

It wasn’t long that thrift shops and secondhand stores across America were deluged with unwanted examples. But the TIME Magazine camera, it turns out, has much a little more going for it than most models in the “trashcam” category.

TIME Magazine Camera (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The camera almost looks like a professional SLR

Believed to have been made by the New Taiwan Photographic Corp in Taiwan and distributed in the US by Lavec (the lens at least features Lavec’s branding), the TIME Magazine Camera was also sold under a number of other liveries in the 1980s. TIME’s rival LIFE also sold a version of the camera emblazoned with the famous red-and-white logo. In the UK, Barclay’s bank also offered a version to those signing up to their Barclaycard credit card. Tabasco sauce sellers McIlhenny’s even offered one, known as the “Hot Shot”.

Come the 1990s and the Lomography movement, the TIME Magazine Camera got a reappraisal. While the lens couldn’t be focused, it did come with no less than four different apertures, twice as many as you would normally find on a camera of this class. The apertures are a simplified version of what you’d find in a proper lens – rather than a circular iris diaphragm, they have a basic tapered opening. The narrowest aperture is f/16 and the widest is f/6, allowing the camera to be used in much lower light than many simple cameras. That variable aperture is all the more useful thanks to the fact the TIME Magazine has just one shutter speed (probably around 1/60).

TIME Magazine Camera (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
TIME was just one brand that opted to sell the camera – more than 80 variants are known

But, in the spirit of the ads that brought the camera to life, wait – there’s more. The TIME Magazine version at least had another thing up on your bog-standard trashcam: a glass lens. This may have very well been a standard upgrade offered by Lavec offered but which other customers weren’t bothered to take up. Most cameras of its class had a plastic one-element (meniscus). It could indeed render an image, but the quality fell off sharply from the centre, and the plastic was particularly prone to flare and aberration. Glass – even one element of glass – is a vast improvement.

There were a few other surprising additions to the camera’s plastic body. For one thing, it had a tripod mount. And a working flash shoe! The TIME Magazine Camera didn’t have any electronics, or indeed a battery compartment, but an accessory flash was offered for the camera for a nominal price (at least by TIME Magazine, that is).

The camera’s film plan was curved, too, to help dampen down distortion. It makes pictures from the camera much better than first impressions might suggest, but is also the reason this camera was largely ignored during the Lomography craze of the 1990s and 2000s. No dreamy, swirly, hazy wooziness here. The TIME Magazine actually takes sharp pictures.

TIME Magazine, as mentioned before, were far from the only company who saw the value in an SLR-alike camera as a promotional tool. As this discussion on a Flickr group shows, there are more than 80 different versions of the camera identified so far, either given away by well-known brands or sold with grandiose names in an attempt to make them seem a little more sophisticated. The Olympia DL 2000! The Protax Sharpshots! The Quickshot X3000!

TIME Magazine Camera lens symbols (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The camera’s aperture settings are potrayed with helpful weather setting symbols

Quickly usurped in the cult camera stakes by the likes of the Diana and the Holga, the TIME Magazine Camera continued to attract plenty of new users. Some found the camera pleasingly easy to hack and upgrade. This guide shows how the cheap and cheerful faux SLR can be tweaked to add everything from multiple exposures to extra shutter speeds and the ability to use a cable release. All of which – almost – pushes this Taiwanese toy into proper camera territory.

Read more:

Support Kosmo Foto

Keep Kosmo Foto free to read by subscribing on Patreon for as little as $1 month, or make a one-off payment via Ko-Fi. All your donations really help.

Become a patron at Patreon!

Stephen Dowling
Follow me

Article Rating
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
amigo toro
amigo toro
7 months ago

Maybe it’s time for this type of camera to be revived? certainly a hotshoe flash, glass lens (although wider than 50mm preferred) & aperature setting would be a welcome addition

Neal Wellons
Neal Wellons
7 months ago

Thanks for the great review. I collect promotional cameras but had ignored the many Time Camera listings because I thought it would be a really crummy camera. After reading your review, I made an offer on the Bay and got an unopened package set for $17. It came in today and seems quite nice for a plastic promotional camera. Even the vinyl case looked better than expected. I shot a 24 exp. roll already and will process it tomorrow.

7 months ago

The Life Magazine version was my first 35mm, and also had the glass lens. BTW, Life was not a rival to Time- Life was a large oversized pictorial heavy mag, while Time was weekly news. Both were owned by the same publisher. Sadly I tossed the camera years ago when I got my first Minolta SLR, but many were the photos I took with it till then.