The Top 10 Weirdest Cameras Ever Made (A Personal List)

All photos ©Sylvain Halgand Collection-Appareils

After 140 years of photography, camera design has reached something of a pinnacle with today’s DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. But along the way to our digital era there were lots of false starts and dead ends. These were unusual cameras that had their brief moment and then simply disappeared.

I have a small collection of these oddities and one day while searching the web looking for more, I found Sylvain Halgand’s marvelous website “Collection Appareils." Halgand’s is a self-described paraphernalia junkie who haunts flea markets and street fairs buying old and peculiar cameras.

Over the years, he has amassed a huge collection of cameras, lenses and other strange odds and ends like old camera company catalogs. The site is made up of photos and text of every one of the 10,000 plus items in his collection. After spending a few hours searching through this extensive photo library I’ve made a list of my top ten favorite oddball cameras. With Halgand’s permission I present them to you.


1. Fresh Fries

Fast food chains don’t like photography in their restaurants so if you really want to take some burger dining candids you’ll need a “Topico Fresh” French fries cameras camera from Ginfax. With one of these very cool French fries cameras you can shoot away all day and never be discovered. It is a real 35mm camera with a fixed focus 28mm lens and it’s the perfect disguise for a fast, fast food shooting. If Security starts getting suspicious all you have to do to keep from blowing your cover is to pour a few squirts of ketchup on the Fresh.   


2. The Linex from Lionel Trains

I grew up with Lionel model trains and that’s why I was happily surprised to discover the Lionel “Linex” camera. Built like their model trains out of very heavy metal, the Linex is fitted with two protruding lenses for stereo photography. The camera produces two tiny but slightly different images which when viewed though a special viewer create stereo 3D pictures. There was a dedicated flash available for the Linex but only about 85,000 cameras were ever made.


3. Barbé Gun

Talk about point-and-shoot cameras! This is a Barbé camera-gun named after Joseph Barbé who was both a photo enthusiast and the commander of a French military aviation school. In 1916 he combined his two interests by designing this impressive camera-gun for his student biplane pilots. Mounted in place of the machine gun on training aircraft it would allow students to photographic where they had flown and what they had seen. This is one of the two prototypes Barbé had made for him in a bicycle shop.


4. Stylophot

This is one of the late model Stylophot pen shaped cameras made by the SECAM company of Paris. A very James Bondish camera it not only looked like a fountain pen on steroids but to add to the illusion it had a nifty pocket clip. The Stylophot used double perforated 16mm film and made 10x10mm images that were, at best, of mediocre quality. Two models of the Stylophot were marketed in America. One was called the Kimac “Private Eye” and the other “The Detective.” The Stylophots  were produced from 1956-1970 and sold for about $32.


5. 110 Cigarette Pack Camera

Speaking of “spy” cameras, here’s another camera that even Q would have loved. The Peer 110 Cigarette camera not only looks like an innocent pack of smokes but it came in several brands. He would have particularly been pleased with the shutter release button that is cleverly disguised as the filter end of a cigarette. The Cigarette Pack was a rather limited as a spy camera because it only had one shutter speed--1/100th second--and a rather slow f/9.5, 27mm lens. It’s the kind of camera you’d have to use outdoors while standing around in the rain and wind taking pictures of the other smokers around you.


6. The Sakura Petal

The Guinness Book of World Records calls the Sakura Petal the smallest film camera ever made. Measuring just about an inch in diameter it has a 12mm, f/5.6 lens and took 6 round pictures on a piece of cut film. Made in occupied Japan, the Petal came in the lovely wood box (shown) with its operating instructions printed on a delicate piece of rice paper.


7. Tom Thum Radio-Camera

Video may have killed the radio star but radio was America’s dominant media in the 1940s and 50s. So it must have seemed only natural to combine a radio with another popular device: a film camera. That’s just what the Automatic Radio Company of Chicago did; they literally built a radio with a camera inside. Unfortunately the Tom Thum did not live up to its name. It was anything but small and portable. The vacuum tune radio alone was big and heavy and it made the Tom Thum far bigger than the family Brownie. Plus the radio was powered by a couple of 67-volt batteries that sat outside the body making it far from portable. The little camera inside the Tom Thum was a real film camera but somehow the designers forgot to provide a way to adjust the camera from outside the radio body. The Tom Thum shown here was made in 1940 and some later models were smaller with transistor radios replacing the vacuum tube units in the 1950s.


8. The PicPac Camera

Not to be confused with the PicPac Android app, this is certainly one of the weirdest cameras ever made. Looking more like a hockey puck or a tiny flying saucer than a film camera the PicPac was manufactured in England after WWII. It is such a strange camera, that even Sylvain Halgand has no idea what it was used for or who made it.


9. Gummy Bears Jelly Camera

Lots of cameras are weatherproof and water resistant but only the Gummy Bears Jelly camera is drop proof, greasy finger resistant and childproof. The soft jelly plastic body protects the delicate digital components of this working camera from its users. Marketed to be a child’s first digital camera, the Gummy Bear Jelly has a 1.3 MP sensor and can take and store up to 80 images. It should be noted that the Jelly camera has a lot of shutter lag as it takes a good deal of effort and time to push hard enough through the jelly to trip the shutter. Most reviewers agree that not only is the Gummy Bears Jelly camera childproof, it is also pretty much photo proof too, taking just the kind of pictures you’d expect from a $10 digital.


10. The Fotosphere #1

While not all that weird a camera, the Fotosphere #1 with its fine engravings has to be one of the most elegant relics of turn-of-the 19th century photography ever produced. Manufactured in 1902 by the Compagnie Francaise de Photographie, the Fotosphere was marketed as the camera of choice for explorers venturing into the heart of ‘darkest’ Africa. It was sort of the GoPro of its day. Amazingly the Fotosphere was a wet plate camera that took several 3 1/8 x 3 ½ inch pictures on glass plates and it was advertised as being “tropicalized” to withstand the jungle rigors of high temperature and humidity.

That’s my top ten weird cameras and once again thanks to Sylvain Halgand for his wonderful pictures. Please take a look at his website.