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Megapixel Counting Got You Down? Worry No Further!
by Joshua Fischer


The average 35mm or medium format negative will almost always have a higher resolution than your new digital camera. It’s just a fact. So why bother worrying when you can embrace this fact with the Holga line of cameras!

"It's not the camera that takes the photo; it's the photographer" is a comment heard time and time again in photography schools throughout the world, but is it true? On my last trip on the road why did I take more photos with a thirty-dollar plastic camera than with my high-tech Nikon D700? The answer comes down to the plastic. Throw away your multi-element, multi-coated, auto-focus lenses and embrace the Holga. You've never had so much fun!

What, exactly, is a Holga?

Put simply, a Holga is a thirty-dollar, medium-format plastic camera. The characteristics that make it special are the same things that would make any other camera a “lemon”--light fall-off, lack of sharpness, distortion, accidental double exposure, flare, or any combination of the above. These “problems” are precisely why many Holga users own a handful of the cameras-- one for every special effect.

Not only is the Holga a medium-format camera, but it’s also capable of shooting both 6 x 4.5cm and 6 x 6cm formats (with the removal of an internal plastic mask). It has a pretty basic square format viewfinder, so you’ll have to guess when you’re shooting 645 format (although its general lack of accuracy makes 6 x 6 just as tricky). The best bet is to get in close and fill the frame!

There’s one shutter speed to choose from--allegedly 1/100th second. This, coupled with the f11 lens, means shooting in bright sunlight is your best option. I’d recommend using 400 ISO B&W or color negative film to give you not only flexibility in low light but also greater exposure latitude for better results.

In low light, there’s the option of flash--either using an on-camera flash attached to the hot shoe on top, or using an external flash unit connected via an adaptor on the hot shoe. Since you know the aperture (f11), the flash auto setting can be adjusted to the appropriate aperture. Don’t be surprised when the flash fires twice. The contacts connect both when the shutter opens and on the way back (luckily, when the shutter is already closed). Interesting effects can also be obtained using a flash during daylight conditions.

A first-time guide to Holga use:

Before you do anything as dramatic as loading film, decide if you want to shoot 6 x 4.5cm or 6 x 6cm images. Personally, I prefer the latter, as it shows the illumination fall-off in the corner of the images more dramatically, and--let’s face it--squares look more artistic, anyway!

To use 6 x 6 format, you’ll need to remove the plastic mask from inside the camera. (It’s clipped over the center of the camera’s inside.) Store it somewhere handy in case you ever want to shoot 6 x 4.5cm. Next, move the arrow on the back of the camera from sixteen to twelve. This action can be tricky and stiff. Be careful not to damage the red safety window. While you’re there, put a little black tape over the window to prevent fogging between exposures. (The red does little to prevent light from entering the camera.) If you’re using 6 x 6cm format, you’ll also need to tape over a couple of holes in the interior of the camera. They’re directly above the shutter and to each side of it.

To load, slide the metal clips downward to remove the camera back. If they seem loose, the center “v” can be bent inward to tighten the clip and prevent the back from coming off while it’s in transit. (It’s always a good idea to load and unload the camera in subdued light.) Place the empty reel into the side with the wind-on knob and the unexposed film into the other side. Pull the leader paper across the back of the camera and insert the end into the take-up reel, keeping your finger on the spool to maintain tension. Wind the film on a little, and then quickly reattach the back to the camera. As you wind the film to “1,” watch the film’s progress through the red safety window. Once the film has reached the “1,” remember to replace the black tape to prevent fogging.

After taking each image, be sure to advance the film, as multiple exposures are easier said than done. This possibility can actually be quite useful as can partial winding, allowing the creation of pseudo panoramic images which merge from one to another (the blending being assisted by the characteristic fall-off towards the edges). A common problem with Holga usage is loose winding which can lead to your film fogging upon removal. To prevent or minimize this, fold a small square of card stock and insert it between the bottom of the film reel and the camera. If winding becomes difficult, try a thinner piece of stock. If you suspect the film has wound loosely, unload the camera in a darkroom and keep it out of the light until processing. Don’t forget to fold under the film’s leader and lick the paper strip to secure the film.

Taking photos with the Holga:

“Point and Shoot”--that’s pretty well it! There’s no shutter speed to select, and, for most purposes, the “cloudy” aperture setting will suffice. Focus is one area where you have some control. Around the outside of the fixed wide-angle 60mm lens, there are three settings:

Head and Shoulders--about three feet (one meter)

Father, Mother and Child--about nine feet (three meters)

Everest--thirty feet to infinity (ten meters to infinity)

I’ve found the depth-of-field to be quite shallow at times, so when you get the focus right, the results can be impressive. In fact, even when you miss the focus, your result can be successful. Such is the beauty of the Holga!

Don’t take the viewfinder cropping too seriously. You’ll notice that most Holga images are composed with the subject in the center. One look through the viewfinder will make you realize why. As we mentioned, move in close, focus accordingly, and fill the frame--and there’ll still be room to spare.

I find shooting “from the hip” to be effective due to the camera’s wide-angle lens and fast shutter-speed. A plastic camera is way less obtrusive than a professional camera and probably faster to use, as well. Be creative! Take the shot and move on. It’s all part of the fun!

A final note:

Have fun with your Holga. Don’t take it too seriously. Shoot often and make an event of it. I take my camera to parties, markets, friends’ houses; it’s always welcome. Don’t feel constrained by the camera’s limitations; feel liberated. Never again will you be disappointed with an underexposed negative. Rather, you’ll be amazed it turned out at all!


Joshua Fischer of Datacolor is the NSA Sales Representative in the Digital Color Solutions business unit. Joshua provides sales and support for the Spyder3 line of products. He often travels to shows, presents seminars and offers demonstrations.

Josh graduated from The New York Film Academy where he majored in cinematography. Since then, he has worked primarily as a professional photographer and videographer as well as a program coordinator maintaining scientific equipment at Merck Pharmaceuticals and Schering-Plough.

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