|Cross-processed Ektachrome image, made with a Holga|
I guess it’s not surprising to see so many serious photographers these days experimenting with lo-tech, lo-fi cameras (e.g. cell phone cameras, pinhole film cameras, and vintage digital point-and-shoots). Even back in the 1960s when Richard Avedon was making magnificent portraits with 8x10 film cameras, Andy Warhol was creating arguably more notable ones with a simple Polaroid camera. Given today’s super-sophisticated photographic technology, I sometimes get fed up with the precision and accuracy of digital. I need to go lo--which is why my thirty-dollar Holga is always packed next to my ridiculously expensive DSLR.
WHAT’S A HOLGA?
Thought you’d never ask. It’s essentially a toy camera, an all plastic, all manual 120mm film camera. (Yes, you can still buy film and yes, you can still have it developed—see links below). The photo at left shows a basic Holga, which measures about 5x4x3 inches and weighs next to nothing. After exposing a roll of film, you can have the individual image frames scanned so you can work with them as Jpegs (also enables any photofinishing lab to easily print them). The Holga is deceptively simple, having one shutter speed, limited focus, and two aperture settings (which is a joke, since it’s “Sun” and “Shade” settings are virtually the same, around f11). While it’s often used as an intro camera in art school photography classes, the Holga is really not that easy to use. Having been a photographer since the earth’s crust started cooling, I’m of the opinion that it would be much easier to learn the principles of photography with a basic film SLR. With a Holga, you really have NO IDEA how successful your photographs will be, until you get a load of practice under your belt!
THEN WHY USE A HOLGA? (or more to the point, why use it for cemetery photography?)
- Well, for one thing, the Holga’s imperfections bestow upon your images an unparalleled flawed elegance, a very organic shroud of analog mystery that is distinctly non-digital. It’s cheap plastic lens vignettes and loses focus around the edges (as you see at right). These slightly blurred and distorted dreamlike images have a cult following the world over. The effect is so popular that one manufacturer sells sawed-off Holga lenses to use on your DSLR and another makes expensive lens attachments that allow DSLRs to produce images like those from a Holga! (See links below.)
- The Holga is cheap and lightweight. Easy to carry around and who cares if you damage it? Here’s a shot of one of my Holgas I dropped in the snow.
- Since film is relatively more expensive than digital, the Holga forces you to concentrate on every shot. With only twelve 2.25 inch square images per roll (which will cost maybe $7.00 to process, see link below), you need to carefully consider the focus, light, and composition of each frame. With digital, we’re used to the excess of ripping off twenty shots of the same subject, from different angles, color and monochrome, with bracketed exposures and varying depths of field. The Holga forces you to frugally concentrate on achieving the one final image you want to achieve (a la Ansel Adams).
- With a shutter speed of 1/100 sec in bright light, a Holga is better-suited to still lifes. And what’s more still-life than a tombstone?
|Light leak effect|
- The images are square (unless you use a special adaptor inside the camera to make them rectangular), which opens up a new world of composition rules (to break) for those of us shooting rectangular digital format. You’ve seen thousands of square photos in galleries, magazines, and books. Well, this is where they come from—cameras that use 120mm film! (This is known as medium format, by the way.)
- Unpredictability! From happenstance light leaks to the intentional effects achieved by using out-dated or alternatively-processed film, analog weirdness simply cannot be duplicated in the digital world! The photo at the top of this article is a product of the unholy alliance between the Holga and cross-processed slide film. Try it! You’ll surprise yourself with your creative prowess.
One of the things I try to get across in my book is that any camera can take great pictures outside in the sun. The true test of a camera happens in low light situations, because with most cameras, that’s where the wheels fall off. Kind of like a disposable cardboard camera, the Holga is only useful in daylight, when you can hold it relatively still (its single shutter speed is 1/100th of a second). It’s lens vignettes and distorts, its back allows light leaks (which is why they pack a roll of black electrical tape in the box when you buy the camera new!). Cemetery photography lends itself well to the Holga, but you do need to work in bright sun. Even with ISO 400 film, things just don’t look very good in the shade. The Holga you see at right is one of the fancier models ($60)—fancy because it’s got a built-in flash. So this should solve the problem of only being able to shoot outdoors in bright sun, right? Ah, but you are so wrong! The flash is virtually useless.
WHY USE A HOLGA IF IT’S THAT QUIRKY AND UNPREDICTABLE?
WHERE CAN I BUY A HOLGA?
Pretty much anywhere—on the Web, in art supply places, camera stores. The “Lomographic Community” has many variations of many cheap plastic cameras.
NEED HELP IN USING YOUR HOLGA?
Even if you’ve used a 35mm film camera, the Holga is different enough to cause some consternation. If you’ve never loaded and unloaded 120mm film before, you’d be well advised to have someone show you, or watch a YouTube video to help you along (see link below). Focus is a roughly adjustable rangefinder on the lens, offering portrait (about 3 feet), group, or landscape focal zones. The lens is a moderate wide angle, about a 30mm focal length in 35mm camera terms (yeah, I know it says 60mm on the Holga above, but that’s in medium format terms, and the Holga is a medium format camera). I’ll be the first to admit that the Holga can be challenging and frustrating. Here’s an example: probably the most amazing feature of this camera is it’s handy carrying strap, which is tied to the slide latch that holds the back on the camera. So if you let the Holga dangle by its strap, the latch comes undone, the back pops off, and your film falls out and unravels on the ground! Though not a Buddhist, I am frankly a big fan of the third of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, “The suppression of suffering can be achieved.” Therefore, I always employ what I like to call the Kinsman Strap when carrying a Holga. After lamenting about the backs coming off and exposing my film to a friend, she suggested keeping a rubber band around the body at all times. Genius!
|"Broken Hearts and Faded Colors"|
There are many YouTube videos available to show you how to load and unload a Holga, but this is one of the better ones.
There are many Flickr sites devoted to the Holga, images created with it, and other lo-fi photographic devices and techniques. (here are some of my Flickr images).
Check the Lomography site for a great variety of choices of cheap film cameras. In fact, the Lomo brand has become so popular that in 2010 they started selling their own brand film, both 35mm and 120mm.
Accessories available for the Holga
Be a “Lomographer!”
Where to process your film: Philadelphia Photographics
Holga accessories for your Holga and to make your DSLR behave like a Holga
Mimic the optical effects of a Holga lens with a Lensbaby for your digital camera!
The short Holga history