One of my favorite photography devices is the Holga. The Holga is a super basic plastic camera often called a “toy camera” that uses 120mm medium format film and is entirely mechanical.
I love this camera because its limited settings force you to become a better photographer. By using a camera that is entirely mechanical, you’ll begin to understand how cameras work in a hands-on way.
You’ll get to choose the type of film, whether or not to use a flash, and which of its two (yes, just two) apertures you’ll use, and you’ll only have one shutter speed to work with (1/100). With so few variables under your control, this camera forces you to learn how to eyeball the light in a given setting. After some practice you'll be making quicker judgement calls on whether or not you can shoot in any situation.
And don’t let the lo-fi nature of this camera fool you, with so many choices of film stock and the ability to use a flash, you can actually get quite a bit of versatility out of it. A mechanical camera can also do in-camera multiple exposures, which is why I decided to get my hands on one in the first place.
Film photos also have a certain cinematic and ethereal quality to them. I really enjoy the Holga’s signature aesthetic and the entire experience of shooting on film. To me, the process of going through a roll of film, dropping it off to get developed, and getting your pictures back to see how they came out is very rewarding.
HISTORY OF HOLGA & THE HOLGA AESTHETIC
Some background on the Holga: it was developed in 1982 in Hong Kong to meet the demand for an affordable camera as photography grew into a more popular hobby. Due to its flimsy plastic build (even the lens is made of plastic instead of glass), the photos it produced had numerous flaws. However these flaws were soon regarded as a unique aesthetic rather than a problem to be avoided, and the cameras inspired a cult following. This aesthetic has been cited as an early inspiration for Instagram, right down to its original square image format. So what started out as a way to bring photography to the masses ended up doing so while also defining a style all its own.
While these cameras are no longer manufactured, it’s still quite easy to get your hands on one. If you’re intrigued and want to learn some of the basics on how to use these cameras and some tips and tricks I’ve learned through my own experiences with Holga, keep reading and/or check out the video below.
One thing that makes the Holga special is its use of 120 medium-format film, which is typically used in high-end cameras. Medium-format film is larger than 35mm, and can therefore achieve a higher resolution image. More advanced medium-format cameras can cost thousands, so while the film itself adds an expense you don't need to consider when shooting digital, the Holga (which costs about $40) really makes this advanced and niche realm of photography more accessible.
Something to keep in mind when purchasing film is that the ISO is inherent in the film stock you choose. So if you’re accustomed to digital where the ISO is something you can change at the press of a button, this will take some getting used to. Select your film based on what lighting conditions you think you’ll typically be shooting in. My personal favorite is CineStill 800T (ISO 800) because I generally tend to shoot subjects in low and/or artificial light, so I need all the brightness I can get, and I absolutely love this film's quality/aesthetic (shoutout to Jourdan at Bromfield Camera in Boston who helped me choose this film based on my wanting to achieve a Wong Kar-Wai look).
Part of what makes Holga so bare bones is that you only have control over a few exposure settings when using it. You have a switch to change between just two options for aperture: “sun” and “less sun” (roughly f/11 and f/8 respectively). You can adjust the focus ring from “person” to “a few people” to “a group of people” to “mountain” (suffice to say: it’s imprecise). And lastly, you only have one shutter speed: 1/100th of a second (there is an exception to this, see "techniques, tips & tricks" below).
The last piece of the exposure puzzle, ISO, is determined by the film you use. So unlike on digital cameras, you’re using one ISO for the entirety of that roll and you can’t really change it. (There is a technique called “pushing/pulling” the ISO, but it doesn’t really apply to Holgas). Therefore when shooting with your Holga it’s important to remember what ISO you’re working with, as that’ll help you decide what light settings will be too dark or too bright for you to shoot in.
So quick re-cap, when shooting on a Holga your settings are: f/8 or f/11, 1/100, ISO X (constant, determined by your choice of film)
Now here’s where things get interesting: with your Holga, you can use a flash! The camera body has a metal hotshoe mount on the top which will connect with a speedlight or other hotshoe flash, meaning the flash will fire when you release the shutter. This is one feature which makes this cam much more versatile than meets the eye and so if you’re thinking of getting a Holga I highly recommend you make sure to get one (like the 120N) that has this feature. If you use an adjustable flash (like mine), you can change up the settings for even more versatility.
TECHNIQUES, TIPS & TRICKS
Being Entirely mechanical means this camera gives you some added freedoms that further make its lo-fi nature a benefit rather than a hindrance. For example, your film doesn’t automatically advance, rather you advance it yourself by turning the knob on the top of the camera. This means you can take a shot, NOT advance, and then take another shot, creating multiple exposures on a single image. The resulting photos can be really fun and trippy and it’s honestly one of the main reasons I decided to get my hands on a Holga in the first place. I definitely recommend you try this technique for at least one of your frames if you do decide to get one.
Here are some examples of multiple exposures I've shot with my Holga:
KEEPING A PHOTOGRAPHY NOTEBOOK
To remember whether or not you’ve shot a frame, keep a little notebook or a list on your phone. This way you avoid advancing past an unexposed frame and wasting that shot. It’ll also help if you are doing multiple exposures to remember what you shot first, you could even do quick drawing if you want to try and do something with framing.
MODDING YOUR HOLGA
Holgas have a huge community of modders. Some of the most popular mods are to “flock” the inside (paint the inside with a matte Black spraypaint to reduce light reflection that happens within the camera body) and taping the seams to reduce light leaks. There’s a wealth of ideas and how-tos on modding Holgas online, so once you’ve got your bearingS with this cam I recommend you check some of them out for yourself. The photos featured in this post were taken without modding the cam, but I’ve since flocked the inside of my Holga.
A NOTE ABOUT THE LENS CAP
When it comes to the lens cap, LEAVE IT OFF! Since the Holga is not a single lens reflex (SLR) camera, what you see through the viewfinder is not actually the view through the lens. So you could leave the lens cap on and be blithely unaware, clicking away and then getting an envelope full of all-black photos back from the lab (what a nightmare). For that reason (since I’ve forgotten and wasted far too much film this way) I actually leave the lens cap off my Holga at all times and just wipe it with a soft cloth once in a while to clean off any dust.
ADVANCING THE FILM
I recommend you advance the roll right before taking a shot, not after. The film doesn’t sit in the camera all that tightly and it has a tendency to advance on it’s own. You can tell where the roll is by the number on the back panel, so if the last shot you clicked was #2 and then you just see a blank or part of the #3, you know the film has done some jiggling since your last shot. Better for it to shift past the last shot than through part of the next one.
THE EXCEPTION TO SHUTTER SPEED
The Holga does allow you to use “bulb” mode, which means you manually open and release the shutter with your finger to get the desired shutter speed. I don’t recommend this because 1) this flimsy camera body is awfully shaky so doesn’t lend itself to longer exposures anyway and 2) because it’s extremely difficult to get the timing right. If you feel confident in your ability to steady the camera or don’t mind the shake, you still need to be precise in your timing of the open shutter to get the exposure you want. I find it much easier to plan around a 1/100 shutter speed, however I’m also always a supporter of experimentation so do what you will!