Plastic Fantastic

holga 120n

For the last two or three years I’d been thinking about buying a Holga. I very nearly took the plunge about a year ago but ended up buying Helmut the Rolleiflex instead. At the time I was keen to see what sort of quality I could obtain from a medium format camera and image quality was at the top of my mind. Admittedly cost was also at the top of my mind so I ended up with a rather battered but operable Rolleiflex rather than something you would stand in a display cabinet. That was much the better option for me though. If I have a camera I want to go out and shoot with it, not just sit there and look at it because I’m too afraid I might damage it.

Over the last year of shooting film again I’ve found myself becoming much more interested in lomography (lo-fi photography) and in analogue photography in general. Many times I would find myself giving a photo a “lomo” look despite it having started out crisp, clean and sharp straight out of my DSLR. I’d add vignettes, add some grain, give it a splash of one of the “lomo” presets I have in Lightroom and generally just make it look less clinical.

So finally I decided to spend the huge sum of about £27 on a Holga 120N. I wanted the original 120 version as I would much rather shoot medium format than 35mm at the moment.

A bit of background may be required. The Holga is a plastic camera produced in China, first going on sale in 1981. The body is plastic, the lens is plastic. It’s just about the most basic camera you can buy. It has a fixed shutter speed of “about 1/100”, it has two aperture settings : cloudy and sunny (although on the original “S” models changing from one to the other didn’t actually achieve anything due to a design flaw). The Holga makes use of a zone focusing system. Little pictures on the lens barrel show a head and shoulders, three people, a group of several people and a mountain to represent focal distances of 3 feet, 6 feet, 18 feet and 30 feet or more. You can “fine tune” this by setting the focus in-between these presets, but you can’t actually see what’s in focus through the viewfinder.

holga 120N top

More expensive models in the range feature a built in flash and a glass lens, but I wanted the pure, unadulterated Holga experience. This one does have a hot-shoe for an external flash and I’ve checked that it works with the flash units I have.

Film wind on is of course totally manual. Just keep turning the winder until the next frame number appears in the little red window at the back of the camera. Or not! Leave the wind on alone and see what effect you can get out of a multiple exposure.

Lastly there is a switch situated beneath the lens marked N or B for Normal or Bulb. Normal will give you that 1/100-ish exposure and B (as most photographers will know) will keep the shutter open as long as the shutter release is held down. There is also a tripod mount beneath the lens, which I was quite amused to note was metal. I’ve seen a lot of cheap cameras either have no tripod mounting thread at all or a plastic one, and yet on the Holga, the cheapest of the cheap where everything is plastic, we are given the luxury of a metal tripod thread.

If you’ve been following this blog then you’ll know that I’ve been processing my own black and white film for about a year now. As a consequence the first film I put through this was black and white, from the stock of Ilford FP4+ I’ve been using in Helmut the Rolleiflex. I was a little concerned that at ISO 125 this film might prove rather slow for the Holga, the widest aperture setting is f8 and the shutter is fixed at 1/100. Having said that, black and white film does give more latitude for incorrect exposure than colour film so I thought it was worth trying a roll of the ISO 125 FP4+.

I took a test roll on Saturday and processed it at home later the same day. As is always the case, I was delighted to see that I actually had images recorded on my film, especially considering my concerns about the speed of the film. I actually had 12 reasonably exposed frames. Not once had I forgotten to remove the lens cap, although I’m sure that is bound to happen at some point with this camera.

holga 120n roll 1 frame 2

This is the second frame from the test roll, taken from the footbridge at Narborough station in Leicestershire on Saturday (you can click through on the image to see a larger version on Flickr). You can certainly see the famed softness and vignetting, but I don’t seem to have anything much in the way of light leaks. If anything the end result is rather more crisp and professional looking than anything I would have expected to obtain from such a cheap “toy” of a camera.

I had taken the precaution of putting gaffer tape over all the seams of the plastic body before I went out to shoot in an attempt to minimise light leaks. I think I’ll leave the tape off entirely when I shoot the next roll, just to see what happens.

I would also like to put a roll of colour film through this camera, although at the moment I’m not kitted up to process colour so I would have to send it off to be developed. However the plastic lens can produce some very heavily saturated colours so I’d like to give it a go despite the cost of processing and the delay in getting the results back.

I didn’t end up with anything I considered to be an amazing photo on this roll, but then it was just a “test roll” – I was firing a film through the camera just to get a feel for how it responded. Maybe the next film I put through will be more interesting. I’ll leave the tape off to see if I get any light leaks and I won’t be in such a hurry to finish the film to see what I have.

And due to the cheap nature of this camera I can see myself getting up to various things with it which I would never dare to do with something which cost rather more. I’m not worried about knocks and scrapes with the Holga. If I get a scratch on the lens then it will just add to the “personality” of this camera.


8 thoughts on “Plastic Fantastic

    • Yeah, I’ve maybe had a few too many new toys recently. But I have to say that for £27 this one represents very good value for money. I think it might class as an “educational toy” too as I feel bit more inclined towards exploring my own colour film processing once I have a bit more time on my hands than I do right now. Thank you for taking a look Kavey :^)

  1. Nice intro to the Holga. i can see you are new to this. In the beginning, you tape up everything! Don’t wrap it up too much, you have to let some light in. Gaffer taping some cardboard inside the back case over the red window is a must though.

    • It’s the first Holga I’ve owned and the first “lomo” camera I’ve owned. I taped it all up & got absolutely no light leaks. I would like to see how this model manages with no tape at all (other than over the film counter window) so I will try that. I’ve certainly read / heard that the N models are more light tight than the old S models. I guess I’ll find out – and that’s all the fun of it :^)

  2. Yeah, I get you now. Think I read your first comment the wrong way – I was admitedly in rather a rush. Quite right, and that’s what I found. I was expecting light to get in somewhere despite all my taping and it didn’t happen. Next film that goes through I’ll just have the film counter winder taped over and leave everything else free to leak as it will! I think, with hindsight, that’s what I should have done with the first film – just to see what leaks there were before trying to stop them. I’m rather hoping that I will get at least some light leaks, but I do think these N models look a bit tighter than the S. Thank you for the advice and I’m looking forward to shooting with it again. Hopefully take a few tomorrow!

    • It is proving to be great fun Kevin. I’m only on my second roll of film with it, and I’m taking my time with this one now that I’ve put my “test roll” through. Still shooting b&w, HP5 Plus 400 this time. Keen to try some colour, but that might wait until I’ve set myself up to process colour at home.

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