Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Mighty Holga

When I started with lomography, my initial task was to purchase a camera. It was a relatively difficult task, because there are so many to choose from. I tried to narrow down my options by crossing out those cameras that are expensive (as per my personal standard), leaving me with a handful on options. Actually, it left me with one: the Holga 120N. I wasn’t sure yet if I will enjoy lomography as much as I imagined, so I was looking for a really cheap camera. If it does not work out for me, at least I did not invest much.

The Holga is a good camera to start with. It is very affordable. More than that, with Holga, you take a huge leap backwards, where you can escape all the chaos of the modern world. This camera spells a lot of fun, if you know how to roll with the punches.

There is nothing impressive or technologically fancy about the Holga though. In fact, it would seem prehistoric compared to today’s digital cameras. It is huge, it is clumsy, it has substandard lens (PLASTIC!), its two aperture settings does not work, and it leaks! Despite all the flaws you will find in this camera, it has an amazingly huge cult following! More and more people are discovering it; and once you get your hands on this baby, you won’t look back again!

Cracking the Holga Mystery

So, what really is the fuzz about this ugly duckling of a camera? Why are there so many people crazy about it? Why does the mere mention of its name evoke certain emotions?

It's Automagic!

Above is a photo of Al Gore, taken by David Burnett, in one of his speeches during the time he ran for presidency. This photo won the 2001 Eyes of History competition of the White House News Photographers Association. Yes, it was taken by a Holga! The thing about this camera is that, it can take seriously beautiful photographs; bordering on magical. It is magical in the sense that, it can turn the realities we see through our eyes into something dreamy or abstract or unnatural, if not supernatural. However, you have to play your part as well. Your choice of subject and timing are also very crucial. Shooting on a gray day can leave your image dull, and a soulless subject can result to a soulless photo. Eventually, as you become accustomed to using this camera, taking photographs become more instinctual rather than a complex cognitive process. As per my personal experience with carrying the Holga around, I get the itch of clicking the shutter when I have a colorful subject under a bright lit sun. Whenever possible, I get as close to my subject. It is can also capture amazing landscapes! It can amplify the day’s already dreary or gloomy mood or give something modern a retro/vintage feel.


Any photographic endeavor is a partnership between the photographer and his camera. To a certain extent, it is arguable that the camera is only as good as the photographer. I cannot exactly say this with the Holga. With this camera, nothing is what it seems, no matter how much you control it (if you can), it tends to have a mind of its own. This unpredictability often times result to surprising images, beyond what you can imagine.

First of all, you have limited options with the Holga. You have four focusing mode, two shutter speeds, two aperture settings, one of which does not work, leaving you with only one effective aperture, and a view finder that does not exactly find the views. This challenges any photographer to focus on the subject and his perspective. Ironically, despite lack of options, many of us who have been pampered by digital and automatic technology may struggle with the Holga’s fully manual mechanism in the beginning. You will find yourself asking a lot of questions. Were you able to remove the lens cap, did you advance the film, is the focusing right? But, you do not have to worry so much; about it. Part of the Holga’s mystique is its unpredictability, which results partly due to its unmodern technology, which you will eventually adapt to, but unlikely to fully understand. Besides, even if you ran into a Holga accident, there is a good chance that it’s a happy one. I don’t even know how I got the image below.

Complex Simplicity

The Holga is a dead-simple camera. You do not need to be an expert to figure out how to operate it. Its unsophisticated design is probably key to how the photos come out. Ironically, despite its simplicity, there is so much you can do with it, in terms of modifications. Because it is relatively cheap, one can have courage to take it apart and modify it, without the fear of dismantling it to the point of no return. I have had my Holga for 2 years now, and frankly, there are still so many things I’d like do with it. I sometimes feel that the possibilities for this camera are endless. Let us look into some of its major design features that make the Hogla a gem, and see how they can be possibly exploited for our visual pleasure.

Holga 120N Specifications

  • Size: 22cm (8.65in) x 17,5cm (7in) x 9,5cm ( 3.75in)
  • Weight: 730g (1.6lb)
  • Format: all 120 medium format film (color negative, slide, b &w); you can also use 135 film using the appropriate modification.
  • Lens: Plastic 60mm, f/8
  • Focus: manual zone focus with four distance settings
  • Approximate 35mm format equivalent focal length: 38mm
  • Aperture settings: f/8, f/11 (This is defective, there is actually only 1 aperture setting: f/8)
  • Shutter speeds: 1/100, "B"
  • Uncoupled advance & shutter release for m ultiple & partial exposures
  • Standard tripod thread
  • Accessories included: 1 strap, 2 Frame size masks, 1 Take up spool
  • Other Holga 120 Models

    • Holga 120FN (With flash, powered by 2 AA batteries)
    • Holga 120CFN (With color splash, powered by 2 AA batteries)
    • Holga 120GN (With glass lens)
    • Holga GFN (Glass lens, with flash, powered by 2 AA batteries)
    • Holga GCFN (Glass lens, with color splash, powered by 2 AA batteries)

Plastic 60/8 Optical Lens

The primary reason for the dreamy image quality produced by the Holga is owed to its dead-simple multi-element plastic lens. Holga defies one of the contemporary standards of a good photograph, an image that is sharp. Most photos taken by a Holga come out soft, despite any effort to focus it. It also results to vignetting or darkening around the edges. Any expert knows that vignettes are a sign of a poor lens, but this is just what others seek for. It’s like seeing something in a dream, or that moment when you first open your eyes in the morning. It is refreshing! A new day! A new life! Did I mention that the lens is plastic?

Hocus Focus

The lens has four focus settings – portrait (3 ft.), small group (4-6 ft.), big group (8-10 ft.), and infinity. It’s just a matter of guestimating. You may not even pay attention it. If you want to modify it to 2 ft. close up focus mode, there is a procedure for that.

6 X 6

How often do you see a square framed photo? If you are less than 50 years old and has not really been into lomography or photography, there is a good chance that you haven’t even seen one. This is one of the things Holga is popular for. There is just something in the square image that makes it eye catching. Maybe it is the fact that it is different. It’s square man!

120 film format or medium format film is used in a Holga. It is four times larger than the typical 135 film. This assures that your 120 images will outrun its 135 counterpart in the richness, resolution and depth!

The box actually has two masks, a 6 X 6 cm which will give you 12 square photos, and a 6 X 4.5 cm for which you can have 16 rectangular shots. Actually, you can even make your own mask! If you want it to be 6 X 1 cm, or take the shape of a puzzle, it’s not an impossibility.

You may have one dilemma though, how to load that 120 film! Don’t worry, just watch these videos of how to load and unload it.

Shutter Speeds

There are two settings for shutter speed in your Holga; “N” for the standard daytime shooting speed of 1/100, and “B” for Bulb mode. With bulb mode, you can have the shutter open for as long as you want! Coupled with a reliable tripod or a flat stable surface, this gives possibilities to photograph subjects at night. If you don’t have a tripod, but have steady hands, shoot anyway; a little blur won’t hurt, it might even come out beautiful and perfect. Use “B” to capture the hustle and bustle of city streets by night, or fireflies and dancing lights!

I once held my Holga’s shutter open for 1 minute during a fire dance presentation. This is what came out, a ball of fire!

Uncoupled Advance and Shutter for Googol Exposure

The Holga is fully manual. After each shot, you have to turn the advance wheel until the next frame is in place for your next capture. You may also choose not to do this and just take another shot which will overlap the previous one. If you are not yet satisfied, then repeat it again and again until your heart is pleased. Multiple exposure galore!

In advancing the film, you can do so to one full frame, or you can just advance it partially. Doing this will result to pseudo-panoramic-partially-overlapped images! Blows your mind!

Other Things to Know

The Holga’s aperture settings do not work! There is a slide that apparently lets you choose shooting modes if the conditions are sunny, or cloudy. It does not work. The Holga’s constant aperture is f/8 (for cloudy but bright if your film speed is 100; but generally, the Holga loves the sun). For some reason, this was never corrected by the manufacturers. If you do not believe me, then go ahead buy one, dismantle it, and see for yourself.

After you have loaded the film and put the back cover on, you slide up the lock. This lock can be a bit flimsy, so I suggest that you tape it up with a piece of electrical tape, just to be sure that it does not fall off, and expose the film.

There is a red window at the back cover to let you see the frame number as you advance it. Tape it up also with black electrical tape as it can potentially be a source of too much light leaks. When you advance the frame, remove the tape temporarily, and once it is set put it back on.

Do not rely on the view finder, it only show 60% of your actual shot.

Each Holga is distinct from other Holgas. Each of them has a signature of their own. Some leak, some have slower shutters, some are sharper. So treasure yours, because yours is one of a kind!

A Classic

Different people love the Holga for different reasons. The vignetting, the square frame, the soft images, its simplicity, its flexibility; there is just so many things to love about it. They say that when people are troubled, they tend to regress back to a previous state. Perhaps this is what Holga is all about. Holding it or seeing pictures taken by it, transports you back to a time when life was simple and free of complication, and for a fleeting moment, you become a child again.

Other cameras come and go, but the Holga has defied everything we know about cameras and photography, in general. It has been around for 3 decades, loved by many, and there is no sign that the devotion for this camera will wither away soon; and that’s what makes it a classic! It is timeless!


  1. hi, i know this is an old post of yours but i just stumbled upon it, and it so far has been the most helpful post about Holga's.
    i have a problem with my (Brand new!) Holga 120N, the frame number doesn't show up in the red square. is this in any way normal? and how far should i twist the dial to get to the next frame (roughly)
    i dont have an account, but you can contact me at lollyliker@hotmail . com
    any help would be very much appreciated

  2. hello! like the previous commenter, i also just stumbled upon this. and i want to say thank you! i enjoyed reading this! it helped me understand the camera better. i just got it in the mail and i'm trying to figure out how to work it before wasting film. thanks! =)