A man named Lee Ting-mo, a former employee for Yashica, created the medium format 120 Holga Camera in 1981 in Hong Kong. He wanted to put an affordable camera in the hands of families in China and he chose the 120 medium format because it was the most widely available in china at the time, but at the same time 35mm film was starting to become very popular forcing him to start selling his Holga outside of China where it would be more popular. He continued to create them until 2015 when the Holga factory was closed after film and processing became out of reach for consumers..
When this camera was invented camera technology was hurling towards the digital world we know today. Each camera trying to strive closer and closer towards perfect pictures. This plastic toy camera may have been a little relief. A small break for creatives who may have been craving a challenge from times before automatic focus.
One thing that makes these cameras so popular among the creative community is the individuality that each photo maintains. While some people may hold this plastic camera and see the photos it produces and think it is amateur, the light leaks, vignetting, and the focus that falls off at the edges is exactly what Holga lovers strive for. It is its very simplicity that makes it even more challenging to work with because you don’t have many options helping you to create a perfect picture.
Not every creator wants to portray realism. Getting a perfect shot to look the way it does with your eyes isn’t art to everyone. With Holga, imperfection is the art.
Holga didn’t hit its high popularity until the early 2000s when photojournalists like David Burnett started using it sending it to stardom the way Kendall Jenner has done for the Contax T2.
Later in 2017, a new Hong Kong factory called Sunrise began making the Holga 120N, resurrecting the once loved camera using the molds that Lee had once kept as a souvenir.
The Holga 120N in the style of most toy cameras, is made of plastic including the lens. There is a switch for the shutter speeds (N for normal) of 1/100th of a second as well as a (B) Bulb mode for long exposures. It has a 60mm lens with two options for aperture f/8 in the shade and f/11 in sunny conditions. It also has a hot shoe adapter for use of an electronic flash on top as well as a tripod mount on the bottom.
As it says in the name, it uses 120 medium format film. It comes with two film masks, one for 6×4.5 cm exposures and another for square 6×6 cm shots.
The lens employs zone focusing using pictures as follows:
- One person for subjects 3 feet (1 meter) away.
- Three people for subjects 6 feet (2 meters) away.
- A group of people for subjects 18 feet(6 meters) away.
- Mountains for anything 30 feet (10 meters) away.
Two things you’ll want to remember that are easy to forget, take the lens cap off before taking a picture, and to choose your mask size with the switch on the back. The 12 is for the 6×6 and the 16 is for the 6×4.5.
I received my Holga 120N for Christmas in 2019. My mom got it for me from Amazon and I sat it on the shelf until Holga Week finally came around this year. This was precisely why I asked for it for Christmas, so I could take part in the community’s fun contest.
It came in a package with a strap and a roll of Ilford HP5 400 film, so I loaded it up for a test roll. At first I didn’t realize I had the switch on the back set for 12 photos with the 6×4.5 mask installed and all of my shots overlapped. I kind of liked the effect it made on some of the photos though.
I have had experience shooting with several primitive type cameras before, so I had an idea of the results I would most likely get. I know the Holga is known for its soft focus that some call “dreamy” and the vignetting in the corners. I am really pleased with the way that these imperfections add to a composition.
Especially with black and white film, I think it adds a haunting and dramatic feeling.
I also tried out an external flash on the hot shoe to see what that adds to indoor photos. As you can see from the shot below, it really helps in low lighting situations quite nicely. Excuse our bathroom. It was really messy that day.
I tested the Holga in all different lighting situations and was really happy with most of what I got.
I was surprised I didn’t get any of the light leaks I have heard comes with these cameras, but that may be because it hasn’t been well used just yet. I am sure over time the plastic body starts to bend and stretch.
One strange thing I noticed is not all the photos had vignetting on the corners. I am not sure what causes it, but it seems mostly present on my color shots.
In the end, I really enjoyed using the Holga. It has been fun to participate in Holga Week. I don’t know that I will win anything, but it still gave me something to work towards and it was nice to have a set intention while shooting these pictures.
I recommend the Holga to anyone who enjoys creative photography. If you want something portable that shoots medium format and you can carry in your pocket, this maybe the camera for you. Once you get the hang of the focusing, you can get some really nice work with it.
Remember not to take it too seriously. It is similar to shooting with an old box camera. You’re doing it for the quirky results and the simple experience that comes with it.
For footage of my experiences with the Holga during Holga Week watch the video below.
As always stay motivated and keep shooting.