in Cameras

The Holga 120N and me

As I noted previously, my recent interest in photography started with the purchase of a Holga 120N. Actual photographic types reading this may well be familiar with said camera, and may also have let out a groan. I’m not going to make excuses for myself here, and in fact might make things worse by saying that I bought that because:

  1. I’d been using the iPhone app Hipstamatic, and liked the novelty of unpredictable “lenses” and “films”, but had got a bit bored of the poor quality camera on my old 3GS;
  2. I purchased an iPhone 4S and found that its far better camera made me a lot more interested in taking casual photos;
  3. My 4S was stolen in the Starbucks on New Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. With no insurance. Ho ho ho. So now I had no camera, apart from a serviceable but unremarkable Nikon Coolpix.
  4. The experience of Hipstamatic made me think “why don’t I look at getting one of the real cameras that this app is trying to emulate?” You know, unpredictable toys.
  5. The first one that I saw advertised and written about was the Holga.

I had never even heard of medium-format film before that, but bought some along with my order of the Holga from Amazon. I did, however, look up some of the prices for developing 120 rolls, blanched slightly and thought “might as well get the kit to develop this myself, plus it will keep me busy and out of the pub”. (I still have four colour 120 rolls undeveloped, something which I’m putting off until I finish the fifth, to get a 5% discount from Peak Imaging whom I have been recommended.)

I appreciate the positive aspects of the “lomography” philosophy, and would defend toy cameras from photo snobbery forever, but let’s not pretend that the Holga isn’t mostly a tool for taking crap photos that would have been better with something else. I’ve taken some decent pictures with it, but the imprecise focusing and bad lens have mostly just been frustrating. Vignetting is fine, irregular focus is fine, but I tend to look at pictures I’ve taken with the Holga and think one or more of

  1. “That’s just a bad photo”
  2. “That would have been a good photo if only it had been in focus”
  3. “That would have been a good photo if it wasn’t underexposed because the aperture is either ƒ11 or ƒ13”
  4. “That would have been a good photo if it wasn’t overexposed because I loaded it with a 400 film to cope with the small aperture and then took a photo in bright sunlight”
  5. (very occasionally) “That’s quite a nice photo actually, even if it is a little blurry and under- or overexposed”
  6. (or, frequently) “I wish I’d taken the lens cap off / not had it in bulb mode”

If you have a lot of 120 film which you need to get rid of in a hurry and can’t just throw away, perhaps as part of some sort of Brewster’s Millions deal, then by all means shoot a lot of 6×6 frames with a Holga. I have put mine on 4.5×6 indefinitely, partly because I always mess up half the frames so having 16 is better and partly because I’ve had to tape it up a bit internally to stop light from the flash leaking in.

But without the Holga I wouldn’t have thought “yes, I quite enjoy this film photography thing, but you know I’d quite like to have the odd picture that’s actually in focus once in a while”. I would not have then bought a decent Praktica MTL3 SLR on eBay for about the same amount, coming with standard, zoom and macro lenses, case, flash etc – or, for medium format, a Lubitel 2 TLR, which (even though it is a workmanlike Soviet clone) takes pictures that are just absurdly better than those from the Holga.

And I do find it fun to use, still, which is important with a toy. It is not particularly small, but it is the lightest camera that I own, and the toy-ness means that I never feel at all anxious about carrying or using it. If I have nothing better to do and am just wasting time wandering around and taking pictures, the Holga is a perfect companion – it’s just as pointless as me.

I couldn’t say that, if I had to pick just one camera to take with me on a desert island, I would pick the Holga. But at the stage I was in at the start of the process, I just wouldn’t have picked something in a different category. For that it will always have affection.

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