Until very recently the whole ‘toy camera’ thing wasn’t something I’d paid much attention to, but I saw a couple of shots on line from the Holga 120N and i was blown away by the strangely evocative images it produces and I just knew I had to try it out! On the face of it the Holga 120N is a crappy childs toy camera with a plastic lens and only the most rudimentary controls and features - it is literally a cheap plasticky box which isn’t very well put together at all and the only part that isn’t plastic is the thin metal spring that triggers the shutter. So why the hell do so many people (myself now very much included) rave about this camera? I took it along with me on another Art Hike on a rainy, foggy Sunday walk to Malham Cove in North Yorkshire to find out.
First things first it’s the images really do speak for themselves - I mean look at them!! The lens is actually surprisingly sharp in the middle, whilst the distortion around the edges adds a ghostly, otherwordly effect which is very eye catching, it uses medium format film which gives it a specific look to it as well, the 6X6 square images have a depth to them which adds to the mystique - it is worth noting that at the moment the Holga is the largest format camera i own :) but it’s more than the aesthetic qualities of the images this camera is capable of that appeals to me.
A quick shout out to the ‘Art Hike’ crew for such an enjoyable day spent walking around Malham Cove, the rain and mist couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for nature, creativity, walking and a good old chinwag - always great company, thank you all!
So on the face of it then the Holga is a very strange proposition, usually I’m here telling you about my latest whizzbang camera and how amazing it’s lens or features or built quality are but none of that here…. well sort of….it’s the lack of controls, features or creature comforts of any kind which make it interesting, in this world of instant gratification and camera phones that can create near perfect representations of the world, the Holga is an exercise in limitation - to shoot unencumbered by dials, switches, menus, adjustments, meters, readouts etc etc - it’s wonderfully freeing! it’s just you, a roll of film and a cheap plastic lens - love it!
The controls that you do have are a range focus on a scale of portrait to infinity represented by either a single person, two people, small group or a mountain! You can set the aperture for cloudy conditions or wide open at approximately f8 or stop it down for ‘sunny’ conditions and get something like f11 - again nobody is really sure how accurate these are and it’s entirely likely that it differs from one camera to the next, the shutter speed is fixed at who knows what speed and that’s it! :)
All of these images shot on Ilford HP5 and FP4, in the murky foggy conditions we encountered on this walk I’d have been better with two rolls of HP5 as it’s a lot more flexible and responds really well to being pushed in development, I think the FP4 struggled in the poor lighting especially at the beginning of the walk, so the Holga shall henceforth dine only on the finest HP5! it’s a good idea to shoot higher speed films anyway since I have no idea what my shutter speed is on the Holga so having some latitude in your film gives me more confidence that I’ll get something!
So maybe the Holga isn’t perfect but it doesn’t need to be, I paid £20 for mine and for that price it came with a roll of Ilford FP4 film too which is worth about a fiver!! this camera is CHEAP!! it was designed to be cheap! Most of the time photographers are looking for cameras that give them additional features, controls or settings but the Holga has none of that, in fact THAT is it’s feature - it’s more of a mindset thing, without the confusion of dials, buttons and switches to get in your way you are really only left with one option - point the damn thing at something and shoot! the challenge is whether you can make an interesting image under those constraints! I love it! I am officially a Holga convert and the best part is that i am not going to go broke in the process!
The rain soaked summit of Malham Cove - the other great feature of the Holga is that I can quite happily sling this around my neck in horrible weather and not give a hoot about the rain damaging the workings of the camera, becuase the camera is literally a plastic box with a thin metal spring inside…. if i’ve done my job with the 99p worth of electic tape sealing up the camera then water shouldn’t bother the inner workings at all and anyway if it does it just adds to the charm right?
In summary then I would heartily recommend you try one - yes you will take some shots with the lens cap on, yes you will make more than a few unintended double exposures, yes you will spend more on electrical tape to seal it up than you paid for the whole camera and yes you will enjoy every second of shooting with it!