Holga 120N: my favorite film camera (part 1 of 2)

The biggest technological advancement in my lifetime that allowed me to further my interest in travel photography was the digital camera.  Prior to that, I still loved taking pictures, but I didn’t have much of an understanding of how cameras worked or the compositional elements that made a good photo a good photo.  A big problem with film, as those of you old enough to remember shooting film cameras will likely attest to, is that when you press the shutter button, there are many times where you don’t actually know if you got a decent photo or not.  And by the time you get your film processed, printed, and returned to you, so much time has passed since you shot the picture that it’s difficult to go back and figure out what went wrong when do you end up with a bad result.

I’d estimate that there’s a much larger number of competent photographers walking around in 2018 than there were 20 years ago due to the fact that nearly everyone in the developed world carries around a decent cell phone camera during their waking hours.  The instantaneous results of digital photography coupled with the ability to take and delete as many photos as you want until you get the perfect picture makes for an efficient way to improve one’s photographic skills compared to how it was done back in the day.  Instant feedback is a great teacher.

Despite the digital proliferation, over the last couple of years it seems that old fashioned film has had a renaissance, indicated by some previously inexpensive film cameras going for big dollars on eBay (I have a brand new Olympus Stylus Epic that I bought for $40 in 2011 off of eBay, and they’re now selling for up to $300… wow).  I’ve shot some film on occasion in the last decade, but have stuck with digital more recently due to workflow convenience; I end up scanning all my negatives into digital files anyway, so by shooting film I was just making more work for myself for essentially the same results, not to mention the extra clutter from the negatives that I end up storing.

So even though over 99% of my stuff is digital, there is one big exception which brings us to today’s topic:  the Holga.

The Holga 120N is a plastic, piece of crap looking film camera that is mass produced in China.  It is one of the most basic cameras ever made with the bare minimum feature set that still allows a person to take pictures.  It’s a purely mechanical device with no electronics and just a handful of moving parts.  The biggest feature that sets this camera apart from most consumer film cameras is that it takes medium format film, which is about 4 times larger than your standard 35 mm film.

120 (medium format) film up top and 35 mm below.

The Holga is one of my favorite travel cameras for a few reasons.

  • It’s unique.  The plastic meniscus lens on this camera produces a signature quality to the photos that cannot be reproduced with any app or digital manipulation.  Trust me; I’ve tried.  Hipstamatic approximates it a little bit, but I can always tell a Hipstamatic photo from one shot by a real Holga.
  • It’s light.  Properly made medium format film cameras are big, heavy, and expensive.  Not this guy.  Weighing in at 4 ounces, you’ll barely notice the extra weight in your luggage.
  • You don’t have to worry about it.  No thief is going to want to steal this thing.  And if it does get stolen or lost, you can replace it easily for $40.  No worries.
  • It’s surprisingly sturdy.  Since it weighs very little, is made of about 99% plastic, and has such a simple design, this camera can easily survive drops and water splashes.

So what are the characteristics of a Holga photo?  Due to the simple (cheap) design of the plastic lens, the center of the frame is relatively sharp and strongly emphasized while the corners and edges exhibit distortion, gradual blurriness, and vignetting.  I’ve found that the best Holga shots are typically ones with simple composition that feature the subject either at or close to the center of the frame.  Although the camera comes with two different inserts that allow for either rectangular photos or square ones, I and most Holga shooters prefer the square format.  Here are a few examples:

Peyto Lake. Banff National Park, Canada; 2011.

 

Cusco, Peru; 2015.

 

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico; 2010.

 

Machu Picchu, Peru; 2015.

 

These pictures have a dreamy, soft feel to them.  That’s the best way I can describe it.  I don’t want all my pictures to look like this, but it’s a refreshing contrast compared to the other 99+% of pictures I usually take with my digital cameras.  I took about a hundred pictures of Machu Picchu with my Sony RX100 and iPhone 5S when I was there a few summers ago, but the above Holga shot is my favorite of them all despite its technical inferiority.

If you’re asking at this point why I would even bother shooting with a Holga, the answer is that it is a nice change of pace from how I normally shoot my digital cameras.  There are only 12 frames per roll, so I don’t go around taking inane selfies or snapshots of my feet.  It forces me to slow down, be deliberate, and really be aware of what I’m doing.  Because of the massive limitations of the camera itself, I have to pay especially close attention to lighting conditions and my composition; because if the composition is boring, there’s nothing else that will save the photo.  In many ways, shooting with the Holga has made me a better photographer by forcing me to work around the limitations of the gear.

If any of this interests you, there are a few things you’ll need to get if you want to shoot some Holga pictures.  The first is the camera itself.  I bought mine online from B&H Photo in New York.  There are a few different models available, but the one you want is the regular Holga 120N that sells for around $40.  Though the standard model is black, get whatever color you want.  They’re all the same.

In addition to the camera, you’ll also need some film.  My preferred Holga film is Kodak Portra 400 which is a good general purpose color negative film.  Make sure you buy the 120 size instead of the far more common 135 (35 mm).  A few other things that aren’t mandatory but nice to have are a small piece of cardboard (the box that comes with the film roll is perfect) and either some electrical tape or a rubber band to keep the camera held together in one piece.  In my next part 2 Holga post, I’ll go over the reasons why these accessories are helpful, and we’ll review film choices and general shooting tips.

In the meantime, if you’d like to check out some sample Holga photos, here’s a link to the Flickr Holga page.  There’s some trash there just like in most Flickr groups, but if you look through the pictures, you can find some gems.  If you want some high end Holga artwork, Michelle Bates’ Plastic Cameras book contains exquisite images taken with a variety of toy cameras including the Holga.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s