A really cool toy camera that takes black and white or color photos. I wrap the camera body in duct tape to seal up the sides, because the light leaks, while a nifty effect, can be prohibitive.

The photos that I take with my Holga are like images from a dream, or an unbidden memory that drifts like ether, the kind that's triggered by a word, a song, or a stranger's face....especially with photos taken on rainy days.

The Holga 120S is a cheap, medium format, plastic, toy camera. It creates negatives which can be 6x6 cm or 6x4.5 cm. The images tend to have foggy edges and are often quite dreamlike. No two Holgas take pictures in quite the same way. Many people buy several at one time. Taping the camera with gaffers tape or camera tape will help to cut down on the light leaks.

The Holga 120S is made in China. It comes in a blue box with 'Made in China' written on the back. That's all I know about the background of the camera, and after looking on the internet it appears that I am as knowledgeable as the next man.

The camera itself is extremely cheap (about $20 from eBay) and basic. It has three controls - a film advance knob, a shutter, and a manual focus control which ranges from three feet to infinity. There's a fourth control that supposedly switches the camera from f8 to f11, but it doesn't actually work due to a design flaw.

The camera is mass-produced and made out of plastic. It's quite rugged, like a child's toy, but not particularly precise. It allows stray light onto the film, the frame advance mechanism is quite loose (something which causes the film to 'buckle' slightly, pushing parts of the image out of focus), and, most striking of all, the lens is made out of plastic as well, and is very fuzzy around the edges of the frame.

What makes the Holga so interesting? Firstly, it uses medium-format film. Medium format (or '120') film is physically larger than common 35mm film and captures more detail. Black and white 120 film is fairly easy to develop at home, and it has a much higher 'gadget factor' than 35mm - instead of lurking within a plastic container, it comes wrapped around a spool.

Secondly, the poor build quality and dodgy lens can be positive attributes, provided you aren't looking for definitive image quality. The blurred, ill-formed edges and streaks of leaking light give the Holga's images an otherworldly, timeless quality - with black and white film, the images usually look like documentary footage of the Russian Revolution, not matter what you shoot. Lens flare manifests itself as an apocalyptic white splodge, whilst the manual winding control allows you to create ghostly double-exposures.
(Unless you are obsessed, it's not possible to create pin-sharp, perfectly-focussed, perfectly-exposed images with your Holga. This is extremely liberating. Instead of worrying about the technicalities of photography, you are forced to concentrate on the image itself.)

Thirdly, the Holga encourages a hands-on approach to modification. In fact, it almost forces you to tinker with it - out of the box, it is set up to take 16 relatively conventional 6x4 images, but can easily be altered to take 12 6x6 images (with the Holga's trademark blurry edges). Further modifications involve taping the body up in order to keep light out, all the way to fitting a bulb release and adjustable aperture settings. Pre-modified examples can be bought from eBay, but as they are hand-made they are quite expensive.

Which leads to the fourth and most important point in the Holga's favour - it's cheap. Professional medium-format cameras cost anything from £300 to a hefty four-figure sum. To buy a Holga from eBay and import it to Britain costs a tenth that.

The Holga has some drawbacks, however. Unless you have the equipment and time to develop and print it yourself, 120 film is fiddlier than 35mm film. High-street shops have to send the film off to a bigger lab, where it is developed by hand before being sent back, which usually takes a fortnight. And it's a lot more expensive than 35mm film to have processed - each roll will cost slightly more than a roll of 35mm, but a roll of 120 film at 6x6 lasts for only 12 exposures, and that's assuming that all 12 come out.
If nothing else, this stifles experimentation. With 35mm film most people can afford to take lots of pictures and weed out the boring ones. Unless you're quite well-off, or you have space for a darkroom, you can't use the Holga casually. Another disincentive to experimentation is the fact that the Holga is quite large and conspicuous, and you have to launch into an explanatory speil every time you whip it out.

The other drawback is that, unless you tinker with it, the Holga is seriously limited, if only because the shutter is fixed (at roughly 1/250th of a second). Although black and white medium-format film can be 'pushed' a lot, it's hard to take photographs in conditions other than bright sunlight. You can build up exposure time by simply taking several shots of the same image on a single frame, but it's an inexact science. There's a flash hotshoe, but using a flash seems wrong somehow.

The sales pitch

From the same people that brought you the Lomo, the Holga is pretty much the same thing, but this time in medium format!

According to the Holga web site (www.lomography.com/holga) the camera is designed and engineered in 1982 in China. The name is derived from Cantonese; Ho Gwong, which supposedly means "Very Bright".

There are two models of the Holga; The Holga 120 S features an extremely dark lens (f8), fairly wide angle (60mm) and that's it. The Holga 120 SF is identical, but has a flash.

According to the web site, the Holga has "soft focus, double-exposures, streaming colors, intense vignetting, and unpredictable light leaks"

Otherwise, Ashley Pomeroy offers a very good description of the camera.

The truth

The Holga is a complete joke, pretty much like the Lomo. Yes, it is fun to tinker with, but the entire point of shooting medium format in the first place is to get significantly better picture quality.

The fact that the Holga has a f8 lens is worth shedding a tear over (even single-use cameras have f8 lenses, and they are basically thrown at you). I cannot imagine everything they must have messed up to not being able to squeeze any more brightness out of that lens.

Also, the soft focus argument is rather depressing. Of course, soft focus can be fabulous, but shouldn't you, the photographer, decide when your camera decides to use soft focus? The same goes for the rest of the list of "features".

The Lomo had something called the "tunnel effect" which really was due to horrendously bad lens quality. For the Holga, they have at least got the sense to call a spade by it's real name, and call it vignetting. However, vignetting is never a good thing. Streaming colours, double exposures (providing you cannot control them) and unpredictable light leaks are all signs of a camera that is seriously flawed.

I ran a few films through the Holga the other day, and I must say I was curious if I should laugh or cry. I decided to do the latter. The camera I tried (A less flawed model than the average, according to the owner) was the worst camera I have handled in my life.

It costs £18 brand new, what do you expect?

Well, I really expect people not to fall for that. If you look around a little, you should be able to get a decent TLR for about £25 in an antique shop or used photo dealership. You will be getting something far more reliable, far more fun, and far more exact than the Holga can ever be.

For pete's sake - if you are going to go with medium format, at least get something where you have any advantage of the format at all! The Lomo is fun, because it offers you to see the world from a different angle. The camera even has a decent lens and a fair chance of taking good shots. The Holga is absolutely worthless.

All in all; I recognize the fact that flaws might "make" the picture. But - and this is important - you should at least be able to control the flaws to a certain extent. Do yourself a favour and avoid this thing!

The Holga camera is a type of medium-format camera, belonging to the larger family of plastic cameras. It is quite possibly the most popular of these cameras, as it is fairly readily available and inexpensive.

The Holga's controls are very simplistic - it has only one shutter speed, about 1/100th of a second, though every camera is different, and it's unlikely that any two exposures will be the same. It has two f-stops, conveniently labeled "sunny" and "cloudy," they are about the equivalent of f/8 and f/11, respectively. The fixed 60mm wide-angle lens features four focus guides: "Portrait" (one person at about one meter), "Small Group" (three people at about 3 meters), "Large Group" (a number of people at about 6 meters), and "Mountain" (denoted by - wouldn't you guess? a mountain, at about 10 meters to infinity).

The Holga also has the ability to shoot 16 6x4.5cm images on standard 120 roll film, or 12 6x6cm images on the same. To obtain the square image, the photographer must remove the rectangular frame from inside the camera body - it can easily be installed and removed depending on your particular intent for the roll you are photographing. The photographer can buy Holgas with a built-in flash, but the standard model features a hot shoe for an external electronic flash. No batteries are required for operation, the shutter is finger depressed, and the photographer manually loads and advances the film. The Holga also doesn't care if you've made an exposure and not advanced the film, making double exposures possible, to either your advantag or chagrin.

The Holga is made virtually entirely out of plastic (including the lens, which has no sort of coating on it at all). It is also incredibly prone to light-leaking (in fact, I don't think I've ever seen a roll of Holga film that hasn't had some kind of light-leak on it), which, in your new Hasselblad would be cause for suicide - in this $20 beauty, it is a thing to be explored. I would, however, recommend taking some or all of the following steps to ensure that light-leakage is kept to a creative minimum:
1. There are two little holes inside the camera body, inside where the 6x4.5 frame sits, on the roof of the camera, near the lens. Cover these with gaffer's tape.
2. When your film is loaded and the back is put back on, tape the bottom seam (where the back meats the rest of the camera body), the top seam, and the two side seams closed with black gaffer's tape. Also gaff over the window that allows you to see what frame you're on. Take the tape off to advance the film, then replace it. Though this little window is supposed to be light-tight, it isn't.
3. When not photographing, I'd recommend keeping the camera some place relatively dark - inside a bag or backpack is probably best. You ought to load just before you shoot, and probably shouldn't leave the film sitting in the camera for extended periods of time, because despite the steps you've taken to try and make the box more light-tight, it still isn't foolproof.

The totally unpredictable nature of the Holga is what makes it so much fun to work with. Additionally, with such simple technical controls, the Holga allows the image-maker to be much less concerned with the technical aspect of photography, and much more involved in the actual creation of the image - a liberating feeling to a view camera photographer like myself. Because of the nature of the lens' relationship to the film, you're almost guaranteed to get vignetting (to some degree) on the outside corners and edges of your film. Also, because the focus ring is so vague, your focus will rarely be perfect. Because of this, images made with Holga are generally surrealistic, as if they’ve been taken from a dream – it is this quality that makes them so unique, and why the quirky $20 plastic camera that could is just as powerful an image making tool as that new 8x10 Calumet Zone VI Modified View Camera of yours.

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