Holga, My Holga...
Why a Holga?
A Holga's Innards
Prepping Your Holga for the First Time
Shooting With a Holga
Film Types for Holga
Simple Holga Mods
But Now I Need a Lightmeter...
Where to Find More Holga Info
So you've never used a Holga before, but you vaguely heard about this toy camera or you just saw it at the local photo store and were charmed by the sheer bubble-gum quality of it. Maybe you've worked with 35mm or digital photo before, but you've never shot anything like this plastic box. Heck, you don't even know how to load 120 film, though you'll figure it out with a few minutes of fumbling. This is for you.
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What is the attraction of this cheap plastic toy? Well, it actually has several charms:
- The plastic lens and a moderate amount of light leaks and vignetting produce strangely dreamy, retro pictures.
- Medium format negatives, considerably larger than 35mm ones, can store a lot of fine detail.
- It's the cheapest way to get into medium format photography.
- You can produce square images, which is a refreshing change from the traditional oblong photos of 2x3 or 3x4 proportions.
- It's so simple that it allows you to concentrate on composition rather than technology.
- It allows you to try tricks such as multiple exposures effortlessly (perhaps too effortlessly!)
- It's light, reasonably sturdy, and easily replaced, so you can take it everywhere and never have to miss a shot anymore.
- It's very inexpensive, so you'll never break the bank equipping it.
- Also because it's so inexpensive and so easily replaced, you can experiment, modify, and tinker without worry.
We have scanned a few of our Holga pictures; you can find them here.
(Image based on the schematics from Holgamods.com)
A Holga 120S is a very simple animal. It's a plastic shell with a spring-triggered shutter and a plastic lens (1). There is a rudimentary focusing ring (2) which is part of the lens; a shutter release (3) with a fixed speed of about 1/100th of second; a manual winding knob (4); a cheap neck strap hung on cheap little metal clips (5); a shoe for a flash (6) but no sync control for it; a viewfinder (7); a toggle for sunny/cloudy conditions (8) that does absolutely nothing since there is a single lens aperture of f/11; and a little window on the back to let you see frame counts.
There are more "elaborate" models, such as the Holga 120CF (which includes a built-in flash); the Holgaroid (which uses Polaroid film); the Holga CFN (which comes which a colour flash); the Woca (a Holga but with a glass lens instead of plastic); and a bunch of variations on these themes, including the cheerfully ludicrous version that comes with a cheap slot-in filter set. In our opinion, the best bet is to buy the cheapest, most basic model, and customize it yourself, or to buy a hand-customized model from Holgamods (but hey, do what you like!)
The native, feral Holga comes with a plastic mask that produces a vertical rectangular format, 4.5 cm wide by 6 cm high. In that configuration, you can take 16 photos on a roll of 120 film. The insert can be removed (more on the how-to later) to produce square pictures, 6 cm on a side. This will give you 12 pictures per roll.
The run-of-the-mill Holga is equipped with a cheap plastic meniscus lens with a focal length of 60mm. Because for medium format a "normal" lens (i.e., one that approximates what the human eye sees) has a focal length of about 80mm, the Holga produces a wide-angle effect.
(The Woca model is equipped with a glass lens rather than a plastic one, but a lot of the charm of Holga photos comes from the soft-focus effect produced by the plastic lens.)
The viewfinder on a Holga can charitably be described as "through-the-body". It doesn't show you what the lens actually captures, it just point generally in the same direction. So you have to use your imagination a bit to picture a more wide-angle view of the scene and compensate for parallax. It also means that if you want to cencentrate on a subject in the foreground, you should get closer to that subject than you think you have to.
Despite the two aperture settings (clouds/sun!), a Holga has only one effective aperture, f/11. There's a fixed aperture of approximately f/11 mounted directly on the lens, and one aperture of about f/8 mounted on a swinging arm. Unfortunately, whoever designed this setup didn't think too hard. It the smaller aperture is fixed, what is the point of having a wider one moving around? Resourceful tinkerers can follow Mark Hahn's instructions or T. Escobedo's to install two apertures for real.
You should know right from the start that if you don't tape your Holga, it's going to have light leaks. Some of these may actually look neat, or they may just wreck your pictures. Between that and the fact that no two Holga (cheap plastic) lenses take exactly the same picture, you could say that Holgas are, um, very individual. You may want to shoot a roll or two before you decide whether you like your very own light leaks or whether you'll tape the heck out of your camera; on the Holgas we tried, tape made the image much better. The most common light leaks are indicated on Figure 2.
The best tape to use for this is gaffer's tape (we get it at a pro photo shop). Electrical tape and duct tape can melt off your Holga on hot days, and leave a sticky residue. First aid tape is also pretty good, though it leaves more residue than gaffer's tape.
(Coming soon — in the mean time, there is a good picture on the New York Institute of Photography site.)
The Holga's default format is 120 "medium format". As described above, your Holga comes with a plastic mask that produces a vertical rectangle format, giving you 16 photos per roll, 4.5cm x 6cm (also known as "456" format). Let's assume for now that you stick with this format for your first roll. Each roll of 120 is spooled onto a plastic spindle; your Holga comes with an empty take-up spindle that should be on the right-hand when you open the back of the Holga. Tear the plastic wrapper protecting the film, then break the paper seal (ring) holding the roll. To load your camera, you need to notch the beginning of the film roll into the empty spindle, and insert the film spool in the left-hand compartment (see Figure 3). Wind the film about half a turn and close the back.
It's better to load and remove the film under "subdued lighting condidtions", meaning not in glaring sunlight. Some people may notch first, then insert the film roll, or you may find it easier to secure the roll first, then pull out enough film to notch the take-up spool. Once you have the film notched, wind the take-up spool a bit to tack up the slack and give some tension (this might be a good time to look at the tension adjustment mod first). Close the back of the camera, and tape up the light leaks.
Now start cranking the take-up spool and watch the little red window in the back for the symbols that indicate you are approaching the beginning of your first frame. Depending on the film, arrows and logos precede the frame numbers.
For example, Agfa Scala has three arrows of decreasing size as you approach the next film frame number (Figure 4a), Ilford film (e.g., Ilford XP2) has pale gray circles of increasing diameter between frame numbers (Figure 4b), and Kodak film (e.g., Kodak T-Max or Portra) shows rows of very small Kodak logos (Figure 4c). The frame numbers appear upside down, with 6 and 9 underlined.
By the way, the symbols on Ilford film are so pale and so hard to read that they make the film (which is otherwise of good quality) almost more trouble than it's worth.
Still assuming that you're using the 4.5x6 format, you should see the numbers in the bottom part of the window (the default setting), as on Figure 5.
Your first few rolls of film will likely be experimentations, as you get the hang of this toy (and figure out where the light leaks are). And if you're like us, every roll may be an experiment as you try new tricks! You can save a bundle on film costs by buying film that has passed its expiration date, usually sold at about 25% of its original price in many photo stores.
Every time you insert a new roll, you need to move the now-empty spindle from the left-hand side to right-hand side in order to use it as the new take-up spool. Jamming the full roll in is usually a pain in the ***, and some day we'll probably break the plastic pin by forcing that roll in, but this has not happened yet.
OK, here are some easy mistakes. In fact, they're so easy to make that you're almost garanteed to make them once or twice... or more... on your first few films.
- "Oops, I forgot to take off the lens cap before snapping..."
- "... And THEN I advanced the film instead of just taking off the cap and shooting again!"
- "Unintended double exposure — I had forgotten to wind my film after the last shot!"
- "I just wound the film too far and skipped a frame."
- "I forgot to focus."
Now you know. It's helpful to develop (so to speak) a standard operation procedure; for example, get in the habit of always winding to the next frame immediately after taking a picture, and you'll always be ready to snap a shot without wondering "Did I wind?"
It's unclear what focusing distance the icons on the focusing ring correspond to (see Figure 6, adapted from Holgamods.com). There is a discrepancy between various sources; while Holgamods says the icons correspond to 3 ft, 6 ft, 9 ft (0.9 m, 1.8 m, 2.7 m), and infinity respectively, other sources give 3 ft, 9 ft, 15 ft (0.9 m, 2.7 m, 4.5 m), and too far(!), or as 4 ft, 10 ft, 20 ft, (1.2 m, 3 m, 6 m), and infinity. The best way to find out is still to experiment.
A fun thing to do with a Holga is to play with multiple exposures (Figure 7). You have a neat landscape framed, but the moon is over there in that empty corner of the sky? No problem. Snap the landscape, then turn around and add the moon by exposing again on the same frame. You'll likely do this a few times unintentionally when you forget to wind the film between shots. Who knows, it may produce an interesting result.
You can use this trick to take multiple shots of something moving, for example, a dancer, and create strange special effects.
Another use is taking photos of stationary objects (e.g., buildings) in low light. If you didn't install or buy the "bulb" modification (well explained on Argonauta Productions), you're stuck with a 1/100 s (nominal) shutter speed. But if you keep pressing the shutter release, you add more light to your picture! Of course, if you need an exposure of 1 second, this can get a little ridiculous...
A couple of sites (e.g., Melisa Taylor and Mark Skorji at Toycamera.com and the Washington Post's Frank Van Riper) have good explanations and examples of the "Holgarama", or Holga panorama, so no need to give a detailed explanation here. In a nutshell, you keep panning around with your Holga, slightly overlapping the images to create a panorama. 220 film is good for this, since your frame count will be approximate anyway. Note that the pictures must be taken from left to right, or the overlap will be in the wrong direction. Andreas Wolkerstorfer and Pask have some nice examples of Holgaramas.
As previously mentioned, the Holga's basic format is 120 film. It's widely available, second only to regular 35mm (135) film. You can find it in color and in black and white, print or slide. A roll of 120 does not have a cartridge like the more common 35mm rolls; its' simply a length of film wound on a plastic spindle and held by a paper seal. It comes in plastic wrapping (Figure 8).
Although the Holga nominally uses 200 ISO film, you will likely get your best results from the more flexible 400 ISO. Colour print and C-41 (CN) process B&W film are very forgiving for exposure. In addition, C-41/CN film uses the same chemicals as colour film for development, and therefore can be tinted, for example, sepia or blue, which works nicely with the Holga retro style.
Print (colour-reversal) film is always more forgiving on exposure than slide film. If you choose to go for slide format, remember that the transparencies will be unmounted, although you can purchase frames and mount them yourself. Naturally, these frames are larger than standard 135 slides, so you need to check whether there is an adaptor for your projector for this format. Yes, Agfa makes some of its B&W Scala slide film for 120 format.
We tend to favour Kodak T-Max 400 and Kodak Portra 800 NC because we find them for cheap here, but Ilford, Fuji, and Agfa films are fine too.
You'll read quite often that the only difference between 120 and 220 film is that 220 is twice as long so you can take double the number of frames (i.e., 32 4.5x6 frames or 24 6x6 frames). That's only partly true. See, the reason 220 film can be twice as long and spool to the same size is that it doesn't have the paper backing that (a) keeps 120 film more light-tight, and (b) displays the frame numbers. So you can put 220 film in your Holga, but as soon as you reach the black portion of the film, cover the little counter window with tape and don't uncover it again until the end of the roll, or you'll expose the film (see Figure 9).
Use a point of reference such as the arrowhead on the take-up spool knob (you may want to mark it with white-out). If you're using the 6x6 format, count one full turn plus two "clicks" (or a total of 34 "clicks") between frames. If using the 4.5x6 mask, count just under a full turn by bringing the tip of the arrowhead just where the back of the arrowhead's starting position was, or a total of 26 "clicks". Count 24 shots for 6x6 format, or 32 for 4.5x6, and finish winding the film to the end of the roll (both ends do have a length of paper to protect the film from exposure).
Also known as 35mm film (nominal) or as 24mm x 36mm film (its real dimensions). 135 film can be used in a Holga by jamming little pieces of foam above and below the canister; this is explained very well on holgamods.com. It produces attractive "sprocket hole" pictures. However, you have to wind the film back into a canister by hand, which is a pain if you don't have a darkroom. It can be done in a changing bag, but only if you're more dextrous than Sophie...
Just like for 220 film, cover the little counter window (use tape if you have to) and don't open it again until you've rewound your film back into a canister, or you'll expose the film. Count 34 "clicks" (or one full turn plus two "clicks") between frames.
You can also use Polaroid film with your Holga if (a) you bought the expensive Holgaroid, (b) you bought the expensive Polaroid back for the Holga after the fact, or (c) you're as creative and skilled as Randy at holgamods.com.
Here are a few elementary modifications for your Holga, none of which involves doing anything destructive. Even if, like us, you are hesitant to cut, drill, or otherwise mutilate your Holga (or your fingers), none of the following mods should present a problem. And of course, they're all just suggestions.
Several descriptions and versions of the "Velcro mod" are available on the Web; the most helpful is probably the one from Rannie Turingan at Toycamera.com. That is what Sophie chose, with one changed detail: instead of ribbon for the outer side of the self-adhesive Velcro, she used gaffer's tape. It doesn't tend to peel off and is very flexible. This mod makes it quick and easy to seal the Holga every time. Edmund does not use this mod, preferring to tape up his Holga.
There is nothing in a Holga to ensure even tension on the film, except the friction of the spindles themselves. After you've used your Holga a bit, the film roll may tend to go slack or back up on itself. Some Holga users recommend sliding a piece of cardboard or even a thin spring blade under the spindle ends. We like to use a strip of the fuzzy-side of a piece of self-adhesive Velcro, just wide enough to fit in the groove under the spindle. It may tend to peel back a little after a while, as you manhandle the spindle in place; just rip it off and put in a fresh piece. So far, this has prevented any film slippage. Just make sure, every time you put in a new roll of film, that you wind the film a bit on the take-up spool before closing the back of the camera.
The red transparent window used to view the frame count on 120 film is one big light leak. It can create some exposure problems even with 120 film, despite the paper backing; it will wreck the film if you use 220 or 135.
Cut thin strips of grip-side self-adhesive Velcro, about 3 to 4 mm wide, and use them to frame the entire counter window. Then cut a longer strip of the fuzzy-side Velcro, just big enough to cover the entire window. Place a piece of tape or ribbon on the sticky back of the fuzzy piece. Voilà! Just peel off the portion covering the red window to check the frame number when winding 120 film.
There are several good sites out there that show how you can cut and file down the 4.5x6 mask to take 6x6 photos instead. However, if you (a) don't have the tools or space to do this safely, (b) are just afraid of removing your own fingers with the knife, or (c) want to be able to switch back to 4.5x6 format every once in a while, there is a simple solution. First, open the back of your Holga; remove the plastic mask, and store it somewhere for future use. Now you need to do something to ensure a bit of pressure on the film, or it will wobble in its slot.
Find one of those envelopes padded with bubble wrap. Cut pieces to fit between the ridges in the removable back plate of the camera. Using black gaffer's tape, secure them to the plate, taking care to tape in layers so that the direction of film pull does not lift the tape.
Note also the two holes in the camera body above the shutter housing; once the 4.5x6 mask is removed, these can cause light leaks. Cover them with black gaffer's tape.
Finally, you should now switch the counter window to display the numbers in its top part. Unfortunately, this damn window is stuck when you first get your new Holga. Use an instrument such as a small flat screwdriver and lots of care to slide the black plastic mask down without perforating the thin translucent red window cover.
Vignetting is the darkening of the corners caused by the shading of accessories extending too far in front of the lens, such as stacked screw-in filters, step-down rings, and screw-in lens hoods.
The plastic lens is just the right size to take 46mm diameter threaded accessories such as screw-in filters or lens hood. However, the best way to proceed is to start by using a 49mm to 46mm step-down ring, costing about $2. That has the two benefits of allowing you a wider choice of filters (46mm is a somewhat limited size in most stores), and limiting vignetting — not that you can or even want to completely eliminate vignetting from your Holga's many lovable features (see Figure 10). In my (Sophie's) case, that also means being able to use filters I already own.
Carefully screw in the step-down ring, trying to keep it straight; force a thread into the cheap plastic. Once the 49mm-to-46mm ring is in, you can always add another (for example, a 52mm-to-49mm) to take whatever size of filters you happen to own already. If you do have to buy filters, buy them used. Who cares if they're a little scratched?
You can screw in a cheap rubber lens hood of the correct diameter after installing the step-down ring(s). Once again, it's not terribly important to worry about vignetting, which is a Holga trademark.
You may wonder why anyone would bother using filters with a cheap plastic camera? Black and white photos can be greatly improved by using a yellow or red filter, and colour may benefit from a warming filter, etc. If it's very sunny and you're using 400 ISO film, you may want to use a neutral density filter to tone down the brightness, regardless of film type. You can also use diopters to take close-up pictures, as described in this article on Toycamera.com (Method 3).
As you experiment in different light conditions, and particularly if you decide to opt for the "bulb" modification described on some Holga sites (i.e., removing the spring that snaps the lens open and shut, so that when you press the shutter release, it stays open until you close it manually — useful for night exposures), you may be challenged to guess at the light conditions. But surely you don't want to buy an expensive light meter (exposure meter) for a cheap camera? Relax. It's perfectly possible to buy a used light meter for under $50, and even under $10! Before you buy, be sure the manual is included, or find a copy somewhere.
- Argonauta Productions :: Holga Cameras – Good tips on how to use and modify a Holga camera.
- Capturing Mermaids with a Holga – by June Lang
- Digital Sucks – Touts the virtues of photography with actual film and the challenges of creating beautiful representations with the Holga camera.
- Holga.net – The official page for Germany.
- Holgamods – Get your Holga all tricked out! This site also has lots of excellent Holga links.
- Plastic Fantastic: An Overview of the Holga camera – by Chris Groenhout
- The Authoritative Guild to Holga Tune-up and Modifications – By Mark Hahn
- Toycamera.com – Devoted to the Search for the Photograph that is more than the sum of its parts.
- Toy Camera Forum – on Onfal Forums