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Holga Photography – Fun with Toy Cameras

November 7, 2012 by Admin

Guest Post by Amy Vaughters
Have you ever wanted to photograph without worrying about the aperture, shutter speed, and lens focal length options?  Sometimes I feel today’s cameras offer just too many choices.  I feel this way when I go into Starbucks and have to stare at all the drink flavors on the menu board.  Whenever you come to a decision crossroads, whether for camera equipment or a latte, you inevitably ask which one should I go with?

Photography choices seem endless: which camera should I buy, what lens do I want to carry around all day, what filter is best for today’s shoot, what ISO should I set, how much depth of field do I want, and what are my aperture and shutter speed combinations?  Wouldn’t it be great to leave behind some of those choices from time to time?  Yes,  you could just put your camera on automatic mode, but let’s discuss a more creative solution.

When I was a photography student at Virginia Intermont College, I studied experimental photography and was encouraged to explore other options beyond what my 35mm camera could offer.  My photography professor and mentor, Jay Phyer,  helped me discover the magic of toy cameras.  I must admit that at first I was sold on the idea of carrying around more lightweight cameras and was eager to leave weight of the more traditional camera and lenses behind.  As it turned out, not only did I like the reduced weight of them, I found that I enjoyed photographing with these cameras more than I thought I would.

Okay I’m sure you are now asking yourself now, what is toy camera?  Why would I as an adult be interested in something like this?  The term toy camera refers to an inexpensive plastic camera that is easy to use.  The Diana camera made its debut in the 1960s.  Holga cameras came out in the 80s and are still easy to find today.  Both the Diana and Holga are known to use 120mm film.  This medium format negative allows for big print sizes both scanning and in the traditional darkroom.  Holgas can also be spotted in 35mm format and are even sold at popular venues such as Urban Outfitter.

Holga cameras have a 60mm lens focal length (47mm for the 35mm version) and have only two aperture settings.  They are noted with a cloudy symbol for F8 and sunny symbol for F11.  The shutter speed is about 1/125 of a second.  These cameras are traditionally used on sunny days.  You can modify your Holga to remove the shutter.  This will allow you to take long exposures – what you know as the bulb setting on your camera.  If you take out the shutter, make sure you keep your lens cap!  You will remove the lens cap to expose and put it back on to finish the exposure.  I have also known photographers to take off their lens and remove the shutter to create a pinhole camera.  This is part of the excitement with toy cameras, since they are so cheap to buy, you can afford to tinker with them!

When these cameras were first produced 120mm film was widely available.  Today, you will need to visit your camera store to purchase and develop this film.  Or you can also seek out the 35mm version if you want to purchase and process film from your drug store.  The camera was created in China for the working class to photograph their everyday lives.  Today’s art photographers love the effect of the Holga aesthetic.  The light leeks, vignetting, and blur are interesting visual effects caused by its cheap plastic construction.

There are a few choices on the lens itself for focusing.  These are also noted with their own icons: mountain, large group, small group, and a single person.  Your focus will never be spot on with these cameras!  Choosing the right icon for your scene is a bit of a guessing game.  You aren’t able to see any change in focus when looking through the viewfinder.  It is far from the results you get with your SLR camera.  You often have no idea of what you’re going to get until your film comes back!

As a photographer who has traded in a Hasselblad to go digital, I go back to my Holga from time to time to touch base with my film roots.  I love that I can take hundreds of images with my DSLR.  However, I get the itch still to hand wind my film, look at negatives through a light table, and count the number of exposures still left on my roll.

Negatives maybe on their way out, but I still seek those moments of unexpected joy.  There is something exciting about getting your film back, checking out each and every frame with curious wonder of what you saw during that day’s shoot.  Although I still enjoy reviewing images with my digital, seeing a shot on the back of a digital screen doesn’t quite feel the same.  Maybe it is because I am more concerned with my exposure than thinking about the magic of capturing the world around me.  With my digital I’ll think, “ah good shot”.  When I’m shooting with my Holga I’ll be thinking, “I hope this turns out”.  Later with my negatives, my internal dialogue is often “I can’t believe how good that turned out” or “I don’t even remember shooting that”.  I’ll smile with each and every happy accident.

Here is a good website with some Holga shooting tips: