Here’s an article on how I used the Holga during a photo project in Kham, Eastern Tibet which tackles the charm, the contemplative nature of the Holga, shooting outside the box and tips for getting the best results!
I discovered the Holga while working in Kham, a province in eastern Tibet. In 2005 I traveled to Nangchen in Kham along with a film crew working on a project on a unique group of Tibetan monkss known as the Nangchen Nuns. It was an arduous trip to get there. In my case requiring travel from the US to India to Kathmandhu to Xining to Jekundo, to Sechu and then through the countryside of the Tibetan Plateau by jeep and by horseback to the nunnery called Dechen Ling. There were no electricity at this first nunnery we came to and one of the monks traveling with us rigged up a multiple outlet generator just for us. We all plugged in our battery chargers; mine was for a Canon 1DS Mark II, the largest mega-pixel 35mm digital camera at the time that cost $8000. You might wonder what fool would pay that much for a digital camera. All I can say is that at the time Getty Images, my main source of income, was requiring 50 meg files for images they accepted and this was the only 35mm camera at the time that could provide that large a file. Anyway, that was then. Now you can buy the equivalent or better for a third of the price.
Back at the nunnery we returned to pick up our chargers and found the generator wasn’t running. All the battery chargers were fried. After a flash of panic I thought about the Holga I had brought along. I had planned to try it out just for kicks. I had briefly tested it with a couple of rolls in Katmandhu so I knew, even though it looked and felt like a toy, it worked. I began to use it for the portrait and landscape work. I have since fallen in love with this cheap plastic toy camera. I have since discovered that Holgas have become a cult phenomenon in the toy camera world used by a growing number of fine art, street photographers and even photojournalists. There are a number of on-line groups and websites where you can find eccentric people dedicated to a variety of toy cameras and the cool images they produce.
The Holga creates an ethereal poetic image with its soft focus, misty highlights and shallow depth of field. You will find your image surrounded by a vignette caused by light leaking around its poorly anchored back. In my view this actually adds to the image bringing the viewer’s attention directly to your subject. Having learned the hard way after the back fell my off my Holga a couple of times exposing parts of my first few rolls I secured it with some old twine I found laying around the nunnery. This camera was a perfect fit for the rugged outback of Tibet, which has no tolerance at all for anything hi-tech.
I think the Holga can help you break out of whatever box you find yourself stuck in. In my case that box was framing the world in the same way I always did with perfect focus and my habitual way of composing. I don’t consciously think about it but my mind tends to divide the world into thirds and place the subject along some of those major intersections. I’m not sure how I became so indoctrinated to composing this way, something western people have inherited from painters of the Renaissance. Using this crude plastic camera not only causes one to ignore the rule of thirds, but its clunky shutter causes a unique and uncontrollable radial blur. Each click creates its own unexpected mystery. Because the Holga actually looks like a cheap toy camera it is less intimidating for you subjects than the presence of a huge digital camera or two hanging from your neck.
The Holga helps bring a fresh, open and more contemplative view that the world, free from checking your digital preview after each shot for exposure, focus and composition, I found myself more open to the direct experience unfolding. You are there, your subject is there, you are both in the perceptual landscape together and there is nothing digital in between.
Here are 10 tips for getting the best results if you decide to venture into this esoteric world of Holga.
1. Make sure you secure the back because it will fall off if you rely on the tin clips that come with the camera. I have found two tabs of male Velcro on the removable back and front and two longer strips of Velcro that wrap around the sides and anchor to this work the best. But you can use two rubber bands, two pieces or twine or just about anything. The only problem with these other approaches is that they tend to partially block the viewfinder.
2. Use 400 ASA 120 print film for black and white or color as this gives you the most exposure latitude. I have tried slide film but your percentage of usable exposure will be greatly reduced.
3. The Holga pretends to have two exposures (sunny and shady) but I learned from Randy at Holga Mods that these are not real. Randy says the swing arm activated by the sunny/cloudy switch has a larger, rectangular aperture, which is useless because the smaller one is fixed. He will modify your Holga with two real apertures of your choice f8 and f11 so you will have that extra latitude when you need it. On request he modified one Holga for me with f4 and f 11, but f4 makes it very difficult to get anything in focus.
4. Be careful loading the film to make sure it is winding smoothly because it tends to come loose or stop winding before you 12 frames are used. There are a number of modifications for this that can be found on the web and a couple of ways to add foam, plastic or cardboard that will act as a pressure plate to keep the film plane flatter or as a film tensioner but I have found these methods more trouble than the are worth. If you are looking for sharpness across the entire film plane you probably should be using a different camera.
5. Learn to judge distance because the Holga has only 4 icons to focus with: one man, a couple and a baby, a group of seven and a mountain. For my taste it is more intriguing to have a central focus sharp and the background soft. Breaking the conventional rule of placing your subject off to the side and placing it dead center seems to work best. You do have two options that come with the Holga for frame proportion, one for 6 × 6 and the other 6 × 4.5. I prefer the 6 × 6. You can always crop later if you want.
6. If you like to shoot in low light you can have your Holga modified with a tripod socket and an exposure bulb. But be forewarned that if you add the exposure bulb modification it is very easy to forget that you have pushed it in and then all your exposures will be subject to how long the shutter releases as you push it. For the most part this creates blurry pictures but you will get a few cool motion blurs if you are lucky. You can also add a cable release, but I found I rarely used this as it tended to get in the way of the shutter button and then you have this dangling release cable to deal with.
7. You can add filters and even and filter adapter for wide angle attachments to your Holga. The kinko wide angle adapter lens works well and creates some cool spherical wide angle images. Techniques for this can be found on holgamods site.
8. If you don’t like the light leaks that are a natural part of the Holga you can spray paint the inside of your Holga flat black.
There’s a whole article on fixing light leaks with other techniques at holgamods.
9. Carry a flash and try it out on your Holga for fill flash. I have had some good results covering the flash with Kleenex or a translucent plastic diffuser
10. Stay loose, be open to anything and have fun. You are bound to be at least surprised,if not pleased your images.