If you are into photography and creative imaging you may have noticed an explosion in the popularity of plastic and toy cameras in recent years. What started as a desire by some photographers to get back to basics and reject the increasing perfection of modern digital gear has since become a photographic counterculture and has spurred the popularity of toy cameras such as the Lomo and Diana. It’s even gone so far as to inspire iPhone apps such as Hipstamatic and Instagram, with their ability to apply treatments to images to emulate the types of effects achieved by using toy cameras and different film and processing techniques.
This movement effectively started with the Holga – a plastic camera designed in China in 1981 and produced for the domestic market. In a land with ready availability of 120 format roll film and limited imports of foreign technology it was expected to be a success, however the opening up of China’s markets to foreign imports in the early 1980’s killed the domestic 120 rollfilm market. For consumers, cameras such as the Holga just couldn’t compete with modern 35mm compacts, and so the manufacturer of the Holga had to look to overseas markets to sell his cameras. The Holga thus made its way into the Western world, and is now established alongside other toy cameras as a staple of photographers seeking something different the world over.
Images taken in Tasmania using a Holga with a hand cut 6×6 film blind
So what makes the Holga so sought after by these photographers? Well, the combination of poor design, shoddy manufacturing and cheap construction combine in the Holga to create a masterpiece of light leaks, distortion and vignetting, generating interesting and exciting results. For some photographers (foolish masochistic photographers like me) it’s not necessarily about the final destination, but the journey you travel to get there. The challenge of creating images with a camera with no lightmeter, one shutter speed (approx 1/100) plus bulb, and two apertures (f/13 and f/20) is rewarding in itself, however it also means that the results achieved with a Holga can also be very disappointing for inexperienced photographers due to poor exposures, particularly in low light. When combined with the cost of processing and scanning 120 roll film, which if you don’t do it yourself will be more than the purchase price of the camera, it takes a real analogue fan to choose the Holga as his camera of choice.
So what do you do if you are an analogue groupie and actively want the challenge of using a Holga for creative imaging? The answer is here! Introducing the Holgaroid – a miraculous merger of the Holga with a Polaroid back, enabling the use of the camera with modern instant film! WooHoo! Do we celebrate now?
Well, let’s not crack the champagne just yet. While the concept itself was inspired, the designers did have to make some sacrifices to usability to achieve the end goal. For starters, the camera’s film plane was moved backwards several millimetres to accommodate the back, with the result that the camera can no longer focus correctly. To address this the manufacturer includes with the polaroid back a 0.3x diopter lens that attaches to the camera’s lens, and corrects for this issue at the cost of a MUCH wider field of view. More on that later.
On the 7.3cm x 9.3cm Polaroid film, the camera’s 6×6 film mask actually creates an image that is approximately 7×7 – leaving a black edge to the image where the light was blocked from reaching the film by the mask. The combination of the diopter lens and the expansion of the image (by the time it reaches the film plane) means that less light hits each part of the film, resulting in underexposure when using slower films. Instant film is now available in two speeds – ISO 100 and ISO 3000, and with this change to the standard exposure of the camera ISO 100 film is not fast enough for daylight use, while ISO 3000 speed film is too fast in normal light.
Finally, while the viewfinder of the Holga was never renowned for its accuracy, as it is now obscured by the film back any assistance it once offered is no longer available. On the plus side, the 0.3x diopter turns the camera’s standard 60mm lens into an ultra wide angle, meaning that accurate framing (and focus for that matter) is less of a priority than it might otherwise be!
All in all, the keen Holga user could be excused for thinking that they had exchanged one set of problems for a completely new set of issues when they switched to the Holgaroid. So how can users address these issues and get the images that they imagined when they purchased their Holgaroid?
The answer is simple and results in a camera where users actually have more flexibility than the original Holga. The secret is the use of high speed (ISO 3000) film, in conjunction with a filter to reduce the level of light that reaches the film plane. As every Holga is different these results may vary for different users, but the basic concept can be used by any Holgaroid user to achieve consistent and great results.
After some experimentation I determined that with ISO 3000 film on Sunny setting, my Holgaroid was overexposing in full sun by approximately two stops. I wanted to reduce the light entering the camera, but the addition of a filter would cause increased mechanical vignetting at the corners of the image, as the filter would further extend the front of the lens. The simple solution was to place the filter between the normal lens and the diopter, and I did this by using plastic flash gel as the filter. Flash gel is of near optical quality and while I would hesitate at using it on my professional equipment, with the Holga’s lens being a single plastic element I figured that it wouldn’t make an appreciable difference to the performance of the camera. In fact as the imperfect aesthetic is the key element of the toy camera counterculture, it may be considered as an enhancement to the camera!
A piece of red gel was cut to fit inside the front of the lens, and then the diopter was attached, holding it securely in place. The red gel had the effect of reducing exposure by approximately 2 stops, with the added bonus of providing a red filter – darkening skies and helping to create striking landscapes. The reduction in exposure meant that the camera exposed correctly in full sun, and with the addition of an orange filter it makes it possible to adjust exposure to effectively shoot in conditions from full sun to shade.
An additional issue with the use of high speed film is that the light leaks which were a minor inconvenience (and indeed enhancement) when shooting 100 speed colour film, were now a serious problem due to the sensitivity of the film. Have a look at the image on the left – the camera was exposed to full sun with the film blind still in the camera, and these light leaks were evident. The results can be even worse depending upon the time of exposure to direct sun. On the right is an image where the camera was held in direct sun when the image was created – the fogging is extreme.
These issues are not as apparent with slower film, but the 3000 speed film is naturally extremely susceptible to any light. The solution if you will be in bright sun? Gaffer tape and a camera bag in which to keep your Holgaroid when not shooting.
As colour film is only available in ISO 100 speed, the changes proposed for high speed film will not work, and alternative methods of obtaining images are required. In this respect the obvious choices are multiple exposures and long exposures, the net effect being to increase the light getting to the film. Here’s a few samples taken with multiple shutter releases to increase the overall exposure.
A challenge to doing this successfully is the flex in the camera body caused by pressing the spring-loaded shutter release when the camera is on a tripod. This can be resolved by reinforcing the tripod base by wedging something between the camera body and the base.
Overall the Holgaroid is a challenging camera to use, but the immediate feedback provided by the use of instant film does enable the photographer to correct errors and achieve good results. The sense of accomplishment achieved when creating images with the camera is significant, and with practice the Holgaroid is a tool that photographers can use with confidence to create striking instant photographs.