Michelle Bates is the queen of the plastic camera.

Hey, she wrote the book. Literally.

"Toying Around With Plastic Cameras" is a how-to guide that covers almost every conceivable question you might have on the simple and exciting world of plastic and toy cameras.

Bates has used the plastic Holga camera exclusively since she took up photography as a career nearly 20 years ago.

The 39-year-old New Jersey native, who has a degree in biology, also worked as a biotech researcher.

"I went from nothing into the toys, which was great because I didn't know anything, so I broke all sorts of rules," Bates said in a phone interview from Seattle.

"I have a Holga, which is my main muse," she says. "I just kind of found a vision with it and fell in love with it."

When you think of plastic, you think toy. Is a plastic camera just child's play?

"If you know someone who's a great musician and you give them a pennywhistle, they can make fantastic music on it, right? So it's not about having the best equipment. It's about being a great photographer and understanding the principles of photography. Anybody can shoot with a Holga. It's simple; there's nothing to adjust. You just hit the shutter. What you do with it is completely dependent on who you are as a photographer, what your vision is, what your technical skills . . . So it's a blank slate."

What should I look for in a plastic camera?

"It all gets very weird and paradoxical and counterintuitive, because you're not looking for like the best of anything. They're crappy little toys. There are a few different flavors of Holga. I myself prefer the simplest one, which is called the Holga 120N. It just has a hot shoe (to attach a flash unit) and no bells and whistles."

So do these cameras really leak light?

"Not all of them. And the ones that do leak light, you can either embrace that or you can try and fix it. I'm not a big fan of light leaks on my images most of the time. But Holgas have some inherent light leaks and some that are going to appear sometimes."

What are some tips you'd give to first-timers?

"Read my book. I have 240 pages on this. . . . If you want to start off in a way where you'll get some good results, I say put some 400-speed film in the camera . . . and go out on kind of a nice, bright, sunny day and shoot outside. And then you should get pretty good negatives.

"One thing that isn't obvious about a Holga is that you get more on the negative than you see through the viewfinder. So you can kind of frame your pictures and then get closer than you think you should."

In today's high-tech, digital-crazed world, what's the appeal of shooting pictures through Mickey Mouse's nose?

"Have you ever played with a digital camera? They're kind of annoying in a lot of ways. They are very convenient, but they are really annoying. They're expensive. They're very complicated; you never quite know if you're doing it right, if you have any of those settings right. There's something just so freeing about picking up a Holga and you just put the film in it and shoot, because there's nothing else to do.

"I call it the antidote to the tyranny of technology."

The advent of the plastic camera as fine-art tool dates to the Diana in the early 1960s.

Made in Hong Kong, everything was plastic except for the shutter and a few small parts. It was easy to use and sturdy enough to withstand the fumbling hands of a child.

Its demise came in the mid-1970s with the growing popularity of 35 mm film cameras.

The plastic camera enjoyed a resurgence in 1982, when T.M. Lee, also of Hong Kong, introduced the Holga as an inexpensive option for working-class Chinese.

After a series of fits and spurts, the camera, which uses 120 film, was distributed in the West and became a favorite with families as well as art photographers.

The Holga is renowned for quirky light leaks that sometimes create smudges of white or dark shadows that photographers called ghosts.

Today you can buy a new Holga for around $30 at various Web sites and at Photographic Works, 3550 E. Grant Road.