First off, I never thought I would find much of any desire to shoot with a plastic camera. A few years ago I brushed the Lomography movement off as a trend and criticized it as dumbing down photography. I have no problems admitting that I was being short sighted in this way of thinking. In this day of iPhone applications pretending to look as though they were taken with various film cameras it’s clear what kind of influence this style of photography has been left on the world of casual photography. In the same way the DSLR left traditional SLR cameras to question their purpose in life, gimmicky iPhone applications have left countless Holgas and LC-A’s wondering what to do with themselves.

While it’s easy to think that the digital revolution in photography has left film cameras obsolete I feel as though, in many ways, quite the opposite effect is happening. A mass of new photographers have entered the field because of these digital tools yet as time goes on I see more and more of these new photographers wanting to experience the joys of shooting with film. It only makes sense really because as much as we try to emulate the grain, saturation, and detail of a great film exposure nothing quite comes close to the real thing. While digital photography certainly has its place in the world, film photography still has a growing amount of affection lavished upon it and I for one am excited to see this happening. Not only has this left more people trying cameras like the Holga, but has also pushed the popularity of vintage SLR’s and rangefinders up as demand has been growing for these amazing old cameras. It’s not just fun it’s rewarding. I will leave that discussion for another day.

In light of this I realized why not embrace the fun being had among photographers shooting with “toy” cameras? You know the type, plastic bodies, plastic lenses, cleap construction occasionally leaving you with now iconic look of light leaks across your film. It’s a strange thing putting a roll of film into such a cheap shell of a camera but the results can be surprisingly rewarding. So hopefully without rambling too much I thought it would be good to talk about the way the Holga functions and my expereinces in shooting with the camera so far, for those of you who have not had the opportunity to shoot with one. While some of this may be obvious or already known to many of my readers I feel I should cover everything from the lens to developing the film.

While some of these toy cameras are built to higher standards than those like the Holga and sometimes include features like basic automatic exposure control, the Holga is about as basic as you can get. There is a simple spring loaded mechanical shutter release only capable of one speed of shooting which is believed to be around 1/100th of a second but this time varies slightly from camera to camera. It is simply a bent piece of metal wire that flips the shutter after all. The aperture size is a debated subject and while most believe the two settings, sunny or cloudy, to be f/11 and f/8 there are some users that have dicected the camera and meticulously measured and tested the few simple mechanics of it to find that there is only one aperture in use believed to be somewhere around f/13. Whatever you believe its only a stop or two of a differnce here and unless your shooting slide film, this should not present too much of a hindrance to your shooting.

The simple fact of the matter is that you need to experement with your Holga to get a feel for it. As simple of a camera as it is you still need to be aware of the conditions you are shooting in. Due to the basic options available on the camera the conditions you can shoot in and get well exposed negatives depends entirely on what the ISO of the film you load into the camera is. Shooting around 100 you will be set for bright sunny days, 400 and you can get away with shooting just out of direct sunlight, 800 and up and you can slip into the shadows more and more. Getting good results involves a good amount of experimenting and taking chances. In my experiences so far with the Holga your best bet is to use it as a sunny day camera. to get the iconic sauration, contrast and vignetting, you are better off shooting with a sower color film or even 400 in many cases will work and take the camera out with you on sunny afternoons and have fun with it.

So then there is the focusing, the trickiest part of shooting with the Holga. This is not a rangefinder, you have no visual cue to see if your shot will be in focus. All you can do is set the lens at the correct distance from your subject and hope for the best. If you are a good judge of distance then by all means, use the focus but if you are like me and don’t have a great sense of how far something is away from you then leave the focus set at infinity. You will end up with most of your images with a nice sharp center. When deciding on your composition there really is no question here. Always put your subject un the middle. Should you put it in the corner or to the side you will have a strange looking, distorted subject. The basic nature of the lens leaves only the center in true focus. An alternative to always at shooting infinity focus you could measure the length of your arm, leg, and average walking stride then use this knowledge to best guess your distance from the subject. Also something to take note of is not all lenses on Holgas are created equal. While most of them that you see being used are made with a plastic lens, there is the option of getting a glass lens version of the camera which can yield sharper images. You can tell which ones have the glass lens in the name of the Holga. The one pictured above of the one I am using is a glass version and is indicated by the letter ‘G’.

One more thing I wanted to mention here while on the subject of shooting with a Holga, film choice. This is laregely going to depend on your personal taste and desire in shooting with film. Not all color films are created equal. A couple of basic ideas for anyone trying a Holga out for the first time. If you would like a nice negative film that still holds a nice amount of saturation try Kodak Ektar. This will allow you to have the forgiving nature of negative film on your side as well. If you are looking for a more natural look to your photos try fuji Pro160S or 400H. These films are a couple of my personal favorites because of their neutral preservation of color. If you want to shoot with slide film to get saturated colors and rich, dark blacks try Fuji Provia but keep in mind that slide film is not so forgiving and you should have a pretty solid idea of how your Holga handles certain light so you can be sure to get as close to an accurate exposure as you can manage. Even with a lot of films leaving the market there are still a lot of wonderful variations to experement with to find just the right look for you. Another Holga shooters favorite is cross processing slide film in negative film chemicals. Not all labs do this, however, so ask ahead if your goal is to try X-Pro on for size.

On developing film. The Holga uses a medium format 120 film which can be tricky for those of you not living in larger cities where you are more likely to find a local photo lab to develop it but its not impossible, it will just cost you more to use because you will be mailing off your undeveloped negatives. There are a lot of shops that deveop film sent through the mail and a quick google search will give you plenty of options. It’s unfortunate that the initial decline in film usage killed off many labs that once developed 120 but seeing as a Holga is only around $30USD it still may be worth your time to have a little fun with film and shoot through a couple rolls with it when you have the time and a few dollars to spare. Alternativly, there is a 35mm flim adaptor available for Holgas that let you shoot 35mm film through the camera which can still be developed almost everywhere.

That is about all there is to know about the basics of shooting with the Holga. It’s easy to think that there is no skill at all involved in using a toy camera but the fact is that you need to be aware that not anything you shoot with the camera will automatically turn into something amazing. As with any camera it has strengths and weaknesses and by catering to it’s strengths as a camera I think anyone can have fun shooting with one of these. For further digging I suggest you have a look through www.squarefrog.co.uk which offers a lot more thoughts and details on shooting with these fun, unpredictable cameras.

So if you were ever interested in shooting with a Holga I encourage anyone with even a slight interest and access to a lab that develops 120 film to jump in and give it a try. I for one have had a lot of fun exploring them after so many years of dismissing them as a novelty and I very much look forward to continuing to explore what I can do with this camera. This will not be the only post of this nature here on 50ft. You can expect a number of closer looks into the film cameras I use in the future.

ALSO! I plan on giving away a Holga sometime in the nearish future so keep an eye out here on Fiftyfootshadows.net for the chance to get one of these great simple cameras free. I just need to get the details together and decide how I will go about it ;)

As a bonus to the write up here I have included a number of shots from my first two rolls with the Holga to give you an idea of the kind of results I have been getting with the camera so far. Also! The image above of the Holga I have made available as a desktop and you can find the link at the bottom of the post. Simply follow the Read more link to find them.






(The top image of the Holga is available as a desktop, links can be found below)


  1. Jorge Quinteros - February 19, 2011 at 2:08 am

    I always wanted to try something different with photography but when I think about “different” signifies, the immediate thought generally has to do with changing up on what I photograph as oppose to changing the gear itself. I’m aware of all the buzz around the photographer’s hobbyist world regarding the Holga and you’ve just sparked my interest in it once again.

    The photographs you took came out beautiful, especially the dreamlike quality that is usually missing from our usual high end lenses and kits. The idea of using film is part of what makes the Holga interesting. I like that some of the result is completely out of ones hands — you get what the camera and film decide.

  2. Tom McLaughlan - February 19, 2011 at 6:29 am

    Thank you so much. This is the article I’ve been waiting for to help me take the next step. Holga here I come :-)

  3. S. - February 19, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Being a Holga-user myself, i was wondering
    A) whether you did some postprocessing with the Holgapictures you scanned?
    B) which ISO your film was.
    Thank you very much in advance for your response…
    Stephanie from Belgium

  4. Michel Dupre - February 19, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Al principio solo quería tener una cámara digital en mis manos, pero con el nivel de las cámaras que he tenido en manos, mis habilidades en Ps hacían lo restante. Pero hace medio año encontré la réflex de mi padre “para mi asombro en un estado excelente”, me dije: es lo mismo (era mi fijación en el lente), pero la diversión que me entrega en estos momentos es increíble, el tener que controlar todos los ajuste, la expectación de no saber como resulto la imagen, etc.
    Bueno aun estoy experimentando y en busca de una Holga pero en mi país son escasas, pero continuare en su búsqueda.

  5. john - February 19, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Jorge, I don’t see using old film cameras as a purely hobbyist thing. The lomo look is just as valid as any pristine photo coming off of a DSLR or otherwise. I have long felt that as long as a photographer is using their camera of choice in a way that makes sense and using it to the best of its ability I see no difference at all in the end result. I understand the tendency to look at a holga as less than what is typically a professional camera. There is no right or wrong really as long as the resulting image has heart. I feel the term “professional” is someone who has a mastery over his or her tools of choice and a complete understanding of how to best get the shot you want to get.

    I think it is a common misconception that the Holga is so wildly unpredictable. If you have a good understanding of how the shutter speed, aperture, and film choice work together within the camera you can get great shots every time. Light leaks are the only somewhat unpredictable side of it. That is as long as its not X-Pro, thats a different world all together.

    Even a camera as simple as the holga takes a fair amount of user understanding. Anyways, it’s an age old debate I suppose and a subject I will continue to explore and write about this year. Pardon my rambling, I don’t mean to over elaborate… you know I do my best to keep things to the point but I have that tendency to over analyze sometimes ;) I have really enjoyed using such a simplified camera and they are so cheap why not give it a try? I have always seen the color choices in your photos to have an influence in a cross processed feel with the heavy saturation/contrast, and off white light and exaggerated colors. Having this in mind I could see you having fun shooting with one.

    Stephanie, There was no post processing in these images. The shots from the mountain were shot with Kodak Ektar and the ones in the forest were shot with Fuji Pro 400H.

    Michel, I’m sorry for needing a translator. It is wonderful to hear you enjoyed shooting with the film camera. I know how you feel. It can be very satisfying using film as you feel very connected to the process of it.

  6. Michel Dupre - February 20, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Ok, I will remember for the next time.

  7. Neil - February 20, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Very interesting article, and great to see you using one. I appreciate what you’re saying here and it seems to me the limitations of the camera have been a liberation of some sorts, which is cool. It’s true that this has been quite fashionable and a lot of iPhone apps now cater for the xpro, lomo-esq look, the jury for me is still out on using the iPhone as a camera with these apps, it just seems too easy to me, requiring very little effort or inspiration. The rewarding part is the journey, not the shortcut to the result. If someone is willing to try the real thing out then I have far more time for their work than someone just swiping across an iPhone screen.

    From my perspective I think the Holga isn’t really about the camera, it’s about 120 film. To me the camera itself is simply a mechanism to expose the film via a cool lo-fi way, the plastic lenses, blurry corners and vignettes have a certain something I guess, but for me the real trick is the route into medium format, which has traditionally been rather expensive and prohibitive to the average user wanting to try out film.

    I’m still quite keen to use mine, but I’m waiting for the light and the location to put it to it’s best. Got to say I’ve never had the guts to leave it untaped though, those ‘cool’ light leaks annoy me, funny that a lot of these iPhone apps purposefully put them in :D

    As usual you’ve got some stunning shots with the camera which is really annoying! ;) too much natural ability :D

  8. Nathan Taylor - February 20, 2011 at 10:49 pm

    I completely agree with some of your first bits you were saying about apps simulating this classic square sort of style me myself who been using this has found that this wasn’t enough to satisfy my photographic needs of what I enjoy and becuase of this I decided to make a investment in a lomo lubitel 166b becuase I wanted to give medium format a shot and not just be stuck to Digital or 35mm film.

    Ive been coming back to your blog here and then for quite a while and been following your mini storys its inspiring and fresh and its been making want to go out more with my cameras and as for taking photo using film i’ve never used so much film since I first came across this site.

  9. Rick - February 22, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Great article! and some really nice shots there too. Plenty of useful information for anyone interested in Holga Photography. Be sure to check out our site at http://www.HolgaDirect.com for Holga Photography articles, news, interviews and an online store.

    Keep up the good work!
    Rick @ HolgaDirect

  10. Dante - March 4, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    John, I’m interested in your thoughts on the Gakkenflex “toy camera”. I noticed a few shots on your flickr and was thinking that it echos your thoughts in this write up in that you actually have to build the camera yourself and really know your tools before you use them.

  11. Gift Giving - December 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    […] design but because it happened so close to the holidays I chose to wait until now. I bought a new Holga 120N (plus a roll of Kodak Ektar to get you started) and pair of my current favorite pair of headphones, […]

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