Camera Hack: Transform the Shape of your Photos with a Film Mask

Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2, 3

Been in a rectangular rut? Do perfectly parallel lines induce uncontrollable yawning?

Here’s a fix: film masks! It’s a quick and easy trick that transforms the shape of your photos (and more!!).

Photos come out of your camera looking like rectangles because the inside of your camera IS a rectangle.

The rectangle fad was great, but we’re ready for something a little less…right-angle-ish.

With a little scissor, tape, and paper, you can actually tape a mask into your camera to turn your photos circles, clouds, stars, or pretty much any shape as you’re shooting.

But, oh there’s so much more, like layering words, colors, or drawings over your photos with transparencies or creating 4 frames within a single photo. Yawn no more, you’ve got shape-shifting photos.

Make a Film Mask for In-Camera Fun

Photo credit: Edithnine (star), Superlighter (kaleidoscope), Zach Ground (pointed), Shoujai (color), Susie Lomovitz (animal illustration)

So, what is a film mask?

beforeHere’s how it works: cut any shape of your desire out of cardboard, paper, or plastic.

You’ll then open up your camera and place this over the exposure area inside your camera. Now, every time you take a photo, your images will be framed by the shape you put in!

Some photographers are ambitious and switch out different masks for every shot (in a dark room, of course), while others have shot with their mask, taken their film out, reversed it, and shot over it again. All kinds of wild mash-up photos result!




  • A 35mm camera (plastic cameras, like the Wide & Slim, Juice Box, TIM Holga, and Double Shot, are especially friendly)
  • A roll of 35mm film
  • Black construction paper (Card stock or plastic also works)
  • Tape (We used artist’s tape because it easily peels off.)
  • Scissors or X-acto knife
  • A pencil
  • Hole punch (optional)
  • Cutting mat (optional)

Step 1: Draw guidelines

beforeStart out with a 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″ piece of black construction paper. This should be pretty close to the size of the rectangular exposure area in your 35mm camera. (That’s the empty middle area inside of your camera and where your film is exposed.)

In order to know where to draw your mask shape, you’re going to draw guidelines on your piece of construction paper.

Open the back of your camera. Hold the top edge of your construction paper up to the rectangle inside. With a pencil, mark lines on your paper where the side edges of the exposure area are. Also mark where the top and bottom edges of the exposure area are.

You should now have a drawn rectangle on your construction paper. This is where you’ll draw your shape!

Step 2: Draw a mask shape

beforePick a shape, any shape! We decided to draw a comic book POW! shape. We also used our hole puncher and made a neat bubble grid.

You might try stars, stripes, a simple circle, lightning bolts, or a heart shaped hole puncher! Pretty much any kind of cut out is game.

Now, draw it!

Step 3: Cut out your shape

beforeYou have a vision. You drew it. And now, it’s time to cut it out.

Before you cut your shape out, trim the edges of your construction paper to make sure it fits over your exposure area just right.

Make sure the construction paper doesn’t obstruct the sprocket wheel that you’ll find above or below the exposure area. This is what grabs your film and helps it wind.

If your shape is big enough to cut out with scissors, go for it! If it’s a little more intricate, use a cutting mat and X-acto knife.

Step 4: Fold and tape

beforeHuzzah! Your mask is ready to go.

Place it over the exposure area inside your camera and position it so your mask is centered.

Fold the paper over the left and right edge of the exposure area. Now take it off and crease the folds on each side a little better.

Stick a small piece of tape on the left and right sides of your paper mask, and place your mask back on top of the exposure area in your camera.

Ta-da, it is now taped in place! It should look like a small frame inside your camera. Now for some shooting.

Step 5: Load ‘er up

beforeGrab a roll of film. We prefer IS0 800 film when we shoot with our plastic cameras. It’s a little faster than ISO 400 and captures our shots even if it’s cloudy or the sun’s going down.

Load your film into your camera, and wind it a little to make sure the sprocket wheel grabs your film’s sprockets. Close the back, and your camera is officially ready!

Step 6: Shoot, Develop, Ooo and ahhh

beforeWhen you venture out with your camera, envision what your photo will look like with the mask. We saw the lovely green sidewalk in the photo to the right, and we thought it’d look just right in our cloud shape.

Maybe your shape is a star, which would be perfect for shooting portraits. You get the picture.

When you’re ready to develop, take your film to any one hour photo lab (a drugstore lab is fine). Let them know that your photos might look a little different than usual, but that that’s the way they’re supposed to look. They’ll get it once they see your pics!

Your results will inspire you to make adjustments, try new cutting and hole punching techniques, and best of all, experiment!

Take It further

  • Create a mask that blocks out a section of your frame. Shoot a roll through it. Rewind your film (leave a small piece of film sticking out at the end). Then open your camera and flip the mask and run your roll through again. The areas you blocked will now be exposed. Check out this photo and explanation here! (Results here)
  • Use a transparency as your mask. You can print anything onto a transparency and tape it over the exposure area. It will appear over all of your photos! (Check this rad music sheet transparency out!)
  • Cut out a piece of a color gel filter and tape it over your mask, like in the photo above. It’ll make all of your photos the color that you choose. You can even make each part of your mask a different gel color. Imagine a couple of hearts, one each a different color!
  • Try making an intricate stencil…like a stencil of a person’s face or a word! It’s kind of like carving a pumpkin. Here are some tips on how to turn an image into a stencil.
  • Make a reusable stencil by cutting your mask out of a plastic sheet.
  • Make a simple square for square-format photos!
  • Collect hole punchers. Craft stores often sell varying sizes and shapes. Your images will look like confetti!