Friday, January 21, 2011

The HOLGA is Greater than the Sum of its Parts


This week I used my new Holga camera for the first time.  The Holga and other “toy” cameras like it are making a comeback lately, probably in reaction to the limitless possibilities for manipulation and control in digital photography. For those of you who have never seen or used one, these low tech cameras have only two settings -- “sunny” and “not sunny”  -- and only four fixed points of focus, ranging from a closeup of a person (3 feet away) to a mountain (infinity), that you have to estimate and select as you aim at your subject. The body is plastic, and so lightweight a mouse sneezing nearby would likely blow it apart. The seams are not airtight, watertight or light-tight, which means the film inside the camera is subject to “light leaks” that can expose the film randomly, often beautifully. Basically, you depress the lever 12 times, hand the film over to the guy at the camera store, hope and wait.

 Things Are Looking Up

I am in love with this camera. Everything that is wrong with it is right for me. My digital camera is so much smarter than I am, I have owned it for months and still haven’t finished reading the instruction manual, and when I do open it, there is so much to learn about so many settings that can produce so many nuanced results, I forget everything I’ve read an hour later. And that’s before the images even get out of the camera and onto the computer for post-processing! After an extended shooting session recently, the camera beeped and turned itself off after flashing me a tiny screen full of icons and abbreviations that may as well have been in cuneiform for all I understood. I later guessed correctly that the batteries needed recharging, but I still had my suspicions that the camera had simply gotten tired of me and wanted to go home and go to sleep and so, simply shut down. Maybe one of the icons was the universal symbol for “triumph over a fool.” My greatest accomplishment with this superior being was to learn just enough to set everything on automatic and surrender control entirely. I have a camera with which I can do anything, and I have chosen to do as little as possible!

Sharp Eyes

My old film camera and I have a more equal relationship. I let him figure out the shutter speed and aperture, but I insist on doing the focusing myself. He can advance and rewind his own film, but I have to first put it in place. We have developed a certain trust that if I have done my part to carefully select, compose, frame and focus a shot, he will get the rest of it right for me in the 24 or 36 precious occasions allowed to us. We have an agreement. There are no take-backs or do-overs. When we work together, we are serious and joyful and in absolute harmony. Most often I’m pleased by the results that come back from the camera shop, which look exactly like what I saw through the viewfinder and hoped to capture, and require no further online editing.

Night Studio

The Holga is another creature entirely. Entrusting the film into its insecure chamber, advancing it by means of a plastic lever that feels as if it could break off any second, waiting for a faint number to appear in a tiny red-tinged window and making sure it is not too far or not far enough, all of this before taking a single photograph, I feel the same ignorance and lack of control as I do with my digital camera, but in this case it isn’t a matter of one of us knowing more than the other – there is something at work greater than both of us, and we are equals in the game of chance. So, this week in the safety of the studio, I estimated distance (not a person but not a mountain), I aimed the camera, I depressed the lever, advanced the film, and handed over to the camera store what could be brilliant images, or 12 black squares, or anything in between.

Visions of Time

There are ways to make a Holga work for you, but they do not involve an instruction manual the size of the Gutenberg Bible, expensive software, or an academic degree. The effects you can get with a Holga are indeed subject to chance, like the strange electric arc of sparkling light in the image above.  However good you are at calculating and correcting for certain conditions, working with a Holga is a unique blend of giving in to the randomness of the possible, while attempting to impose all of your skills and instincts in setting up a shot to give it the best shot at looking as close to what you see and want to capture as possible. Then you have faith. Then you have fun. Then you wait. Then you have even more fun.


I'm happy to report the first images my Holga and I created together look very much like what I saw and wanted to capture. I think this could be the start of a beautiful relationship! I tried one double exposure by shooting with the same frame twice before advancing the film. Oddly, when I got this film back, there was a second double exposure of two shots I distinctly recall advancing between, which you can see below. It is one of my favorite shots of the group though I feel only partly responsible for it! I like that feeling. Ah, Holga! 

Upside Down


  1. Yay a Holga! I love mine for it's simple and complex nature. I think the light leaks are my favorite part. And I love the feel of film in my hands again and waiting in anticipation for the lab to process it and see what you got. I like your double exposure shots too!

  2. Serendipity, I call it, when mind and machine work as one.

  3. Wow! I'm loving these shots but also the lovely relationship you are developing with dear Holga. They feel a bit like subversive photographs - taken without anybody knowing. I particularly love the magic of Upside Down. Continue to explore and enjoy!

  4. Really fascinating. On the one hand, you’ve described my own experience with a digital camera, and on the other my experience with writing. I love your Holga results. And your description is great, right down to Gutenberg’s mouse.

    (Thought I’d combine those two; if the Holga can do it, then so can I!)

  5. Gabriella your shots are wonderful. Double exposures excellent! Yes, Holgas in good hands are pretty amazing.

  6. TB - loading film manually was indeed part of the fun! I felt like I'd gone back in time. I really should polish up my darkroom skills and develop the film myself to make the experience complete! Thanks for your comment!

    ELISABETH - I like how you phrase that! Many thanks.

    FIONA - You are absolutely right,they do have a subversive feeling to them, as if I were trespassing. That makes it even better! By the way, many thanks for your order!

    WILLIAM - I think it's interesting how creative people not only struggle with their work, but often have a highly personal relationship with their creations and the tools they use. They are friend or foe, we feel for them, talk to them, miss them, mess with shamelessly loving posts about them!

    Gutenberg's mouse! Could this be the start of a new artform - verbal double exposures?

  7. Greetings, Luis, and thank you! It means so much to me that you like these first attempts. Working with the Holga is so full of contradictions - on the one hand it is making me think harder about setting up and capturing a shot, and on the other hand I have to let go and accept that I'm leaving a lot of the results up to chance! It's a totally different experience and I am eager for more!

  8. I love the look of Holga pictures. So artsy and unpredictable.

  9. Thanks, Kass! I like them too, as if the camera sees some shadowy world that is always there under the surface, and can show it to us, but only if we let the camera work its magic!

  10. Cool POVs, you have good eyes.
    Have a great weekend.

  11. TT - love the upside down shot - lot of mystery about it - ghostly image floating in the background and yet tethered to the image in the mirror - and black and white always adds another dimension. Pity the double exposure does not work for the contents of wine bottles as well. Go well. B

  12. I like these photos a lot Gabriella, there is that feeling of captured images with no human involved. As if the camera walked around and did it on its own. To reach this effect is great and your achievement.
    Looking out for where the Holga will take you.
    Nice to read about the interaction between the artist and his tools.
    xx Renilde

  13. WONG - many thanks! It means a lot.

    BARRY - Double the wine - I like how you think! Thanks for your comment.

    RENILDE - What a cool idea that the camera is walking around by itself. That if you just leave it alone and come back the next day the film will be full of images ready to develop! Thanks for your comment and have a great week.

  14. I love Vintage, and Vintage look! I'm thinking to buy myself a lomo camera or one of holga camera, oder an old kodak,
    it is so nice to see as modern time can be turned in 50er or 60er, this is for me amazing!
    your foto are fantastic fo me

  15. LAURA - Yes, I love all things vintage too, and these images do seem to come from another time period! You should definitely get yourself a lomo camera of some kind - you are the perfect match for such images!

    Many thanks for your comment, dearest, and a big hug for you.

  16. G.....Yes, I'd love a Holga....I'm very interested in chance and random marks, made by hand or by a very low-end camera. I think we have the same digital camera (are we surprised?) and not being a photographer, I haven't even cracked open the manual. I only know how to use it enough to shoot artwork, and that barely adequately. Now the Holga for me would be a creative tool....not so intimidating. I too have my own light leaks and I could be friends with a Holga!!! Wonderful results!

  17. PATTI - I think you'd have great fun with a Holga or other low-end camera! The only photographic expertise it requires is to have a good artistic eye and pick your subjects with a certain aesthetic intuition and instinct - which you already have to spare! Not to mention a healthy embrace of the random...I am mostly using my digital camera for documenting works too, or any time an immediate downloadable image is required. I don't like feeling so removed from the creative process by technology, am much more comfortable if the x-factor is pure chance, not a machine smarter than I am! All the best to you, and thanks for your comment.

  18. oh Gabriella , what has happened ? your posts just don't appear on my dashboard... i have lost many posts ...
    I alread stoped and started to follow your blog in hope to be a blogspot problem , but it isn't .I don't know how to explain this .

    other thing I want to say is that .... from times to times I intend to take some of the photos on this blog and post on my tumblr, if you don't mind : , sure , always with your credits and link to this blog.

    this photos are great. I never use the most sophisticated resorses of the cameras when i am with a good one . I do everything manual ... gives me more pleasure . It is very personal as the viewer never notices the diference ... but i like to do it by myself ... i have a canon here for more than 10 years , it is wonderful ... but i only used the manual resorses , the most basic .


  19. Caio, I don't understand it, why the Blogger is trying to keep us apart!

    Please feel free to post my photos on your site - they will have such good artistic company!

    Always good to see you here, my friend, better late than never!

    Kisses to you! Hopefully the Blogger won't stop you from enjoying them!

  20. Great photos...I especially liked "Sharp eyes" and "upside down" You have a great eye.

  21. Thank you so much, Narayan! I'm very happy with this first attempt and will be buying more film this week and showing the results of my continued experiments here. It's so good to have people to share these with whose opinion I respect! I'm glad you enjoyed these.

  22. This series could be the start of an exhibition.
    Always good to venture with new cameras. Great result!
    Magnific view!!!
    Kisses, dear Gabriella.

  23. I agree, Crissant! They work together well as a group, but they also seem to tell a story that needs to keep going! It means so much that you like these, I admire your work so much, dearest! Kisses to you too.

  24. Suddenly, even in the crust of this mood, I am in love with Holga. I've seen the results elsewhere, too. And Robert has talked of getting one. I think now it is as good as done, not because the images are perfect, but because they aren't, and so they most decidely are. Brilliant. Life seeps in and takes over. I think I could use some of that.

    (And thank you for coming by my way again today. Your voice is indefatigable to me today.)


  25. And at this! I am excited! I have just remembered that I had a dream last night. The whole dream occurred as though seen through a pinhole camera! I feel like this is a gift, to remember this!

  26. Erin - the first Holga, Diana, pinhole, etc. images from this new resurgence that I saw I fell in love with the look. I thought mistakenly that it was the result of sophisticated manipulations I'm not advanced enough to pull off, but no! It was the tangible manifestation of how my eye sees the world most times, in that dreamlike, multi-layered way that is not real but more than real - the way I would paint if I could paint! But I am stuck with the "realism" of photography, so to find a camera that can create these reveries for me is amazing! I can't even imagine what Robert can coax from such a sympathetic medium!

    I am so glad to know my voice softened the crust a bit today. That is a gift also from you to me.

  27. I love these pics!! Please take a pic of your camera so I can see it!!
    I loved my 35mm camera and was bummed when digital cameras came on the scene. I now have a really good Rebel but heck.... I have no idea what I'm doing because I didn't even open the

  28. Now there's an idea - get my cameras to take pictures of each other!

    I guess my mistake was even trying to read the manual for the digital SLR...I shouldn't have even bothered because I'm no better off!

    I'm glad you liked these.

  29. This is hilarious. I enjoyed reading about you and weightless, cheap, crazy Holga. I gotta tell you, some of my best images are from my cheaper cameras.

  30. Jorge - so happy to see you here! I am glad you found the humor in this post! I forgot to mention how very lightweight Holga is - the first time I depressed the shutter release I almost dropped it on the rebound! I'm sure any camera in your hands produces fine images, but glad to hear the cheap ones serve you well! Stay well, my friend!

  31. I love Holga photos! Your shots are excellent! I'm going to get my own Holga some day because they stir up my creative side. :)

  32. JAMES - oh, yes, you and Holga would make a great team! Like I said on the other post - go for it! - no more of this "some day" stuff! Thanks for stopping by, J. I really do appreciate your positive feedback.