The Holga is a Great Camera to Have in Your Bag

I think photography has gotten too easy. I don’t know if that’s actually a bad thing. Sometimes we just have to “let go.” Cameras are a tool that we use for self expression. The control we get from modern cameras can be a crutch. A lot of us try to hold on to that control too tightly.

I photowalk almost every day. The last few days I’ve been shooting a couple of plastic Holga cameras. I’ve had these cameras for a while and I rarely shoot them. I normally shoot on a 35mm film camera, sometimes I take a digital camera out. I have been reinvigorated by using those silly little plastic toy cameras.

The Holga 120SF and Holga 135BC
The Holga 120SF and Holga 135BC

What is a Holga?

The Holga is a cheap plastic camera made China starting in the early 1980s. They picked up where the Diana Camera left off from the 1960s. The Holga is a very simple simple camera that anybody can use. My cameras were made in the early 2000s. They have a very simple one element plastic lens, (there is a glass lens version for the 120 format). Only one shutter speed of 1/100th of a second and an aperture selection switch of f8 and f11 (more on this later). There are several models still available. I have the 120SF and a 35mm version called 135BC.

Why I love the Holga

They are cheap, imperfect, light, and simple to use. The imperfections are where the charm is with these plastic cameras. They free you to concentrate on interesting subjects. These cameras are inconspicuous, people don’t give a someone with a toy camera a second look on the street. I prefer 120 camera over the 35mm camera. I like a larger piece of film. Once I get into the Zone, it seems like I am more inspired to take pictures.

Tips for getting a good exposure

Fortunately most film has plenty of latitude. So over and under exposure is not that big of a deal. The shutter speed is about 1/100th of a second. The aperture switch is marked as cloudy and sunny (f8 and f11). It’s been my experience that the 120 cameras have a faulty switch and the aperture doesn’t actually change. So this would suggest that the aperture is a constant f8. However, I think the T-Stop is somewhere around t11 – t16. Probably due to the poor light transmission of the plastic lens. There’s gonna be a little math involved in figuring out which film to use.

When I shoot color on a Holga, I’m going to shoot 400 ISO or faster film during the day, just to be on the safe side. Knowing that my aperture switch, doesn’t work, I also use a polarizer. I finagle a 46mm — 58mm step up ring on to the front of the lens. The lens does not have threads, but the teeth of the step-up ring grab securely on the plastic lens barrel. I know I could use 46mm polarizer, but since I am installing and removing often, having metal teeth of the step-up ring makes it nice.

With my Tiffen circular polarizer, pointing the letters on the ring down cuts two stops of light, and allows seeing through water without glare. Pointing the letters up, cuts light 1 2/3 stops of light. I use Sunny 16 as my guide. So if I load 400 ISO film, Sunny 16 tells me on a bright sunny day, I should set for f16 and a shutter speed of 1/400 of a second. In a Holga, I would be two stops over exposing the film, until I add my polarizing filter. If I load with 100 ISO film, Sunny 16 tells me to use f16 and a shutter of 1/100 of a second.

With all of that said, I really like the colors I was getting from Lomography 800 film in my 120SF and a polarizing filter. Black and white film is a lot more forging than color film. You can also adjust development time to match your exposure.

Then there is flash. For casual shooting, 200 ISO film with flash works great. If your Holga has a hot-shoe, then you can use your flash to fine tune your exposure. I have a Nikon SB-24 flash with a great auto mode. I set the ISO of the film and f-stop (f11) in the unit and the flash calculates the power output. Easy peasy.

Final thoughts

Cameras are a just a tool to create images. A camera is only as good as your imagination and creativity. The limitations of Holga can be daunting, but once you learn how to use it and work around those limitations, these things are amazing and fun.

It’s funny how the developers of Instagram took inspiration for their logo from Polaroid, but let’s be honest, the inspiration for the app came from the Holga.

Some pictures from last week.

Holga 135BC – Kodak Tri-X 400 – D76 1:3 dilution

Holga 120SF – Lomography 800 Color Negative Film


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