The Holga 120N is the antithesis of camera technology. After decades of photographic advancement, culminating for now with digital wonders, the Holga is a refreshing reminder to stop taking ourselves so seriously.
Well, it is, and it isn’t. Some of work that has been created using this simple device can be truly artistically inspiring. There are artists that base whole careers on the what they can produce with the Holga. It is not surprising then, that when it was temporarily discontinued, there was some panic amongst artists.
Part of the charm stems from the fact that there is not much of a decision to make shooting a Holga 120N. Very limited controls tease you, to be creative and produce something beautiful regardless of the limitations. Almost daring you to overcome those limitations.
That is if you can keep the back closed, considering the strap lugs are the same clasps holding it together. That brings us to the build, which let’s just say is not meant for longevity.
A toy camera that has also been reviewed on PhotoThinking.com is the BelOMO Agat 18K. In that review you can see how much fun a toy camera can be albeit one that does produce more “standard” looking photographs.
I got my Holga 120N as something fun to take on a trip to Cambodia and it has been a camera that I now have used more than just that trip.
Some people may be surprised that the Holga 120 was first designed and produced in 1982. The first model was the 120S which was later replaced with the 120N. It is not exactly clear when that happened.
The designer Lee Ting-mo initially made the camera as a cheap camera for the local Chinese market. Sales in the early 1980s were not good as the consumer market had already started down the road of 35mm, so the camera was almost shelved.
Lee Ting-mo himself had a history in the camera industry, where he worked for Yashica Hong Kong in the late 1960s overseeing production. He left after a couple of years when he started his own company, Universal Electronics Industries, primarily focused on producing flash units. These were so well made that Agfa got interested and had Lee and his company produce them on their behalf.
In the early 1980s the business had run its course, so Lee started to look into other options. He figured that if he produced a 120 camera, it would be more popular due to the bigger size of the frame, thus producing better detail.
As mentioned above, this did not take, so he tried to sell into other markets, including Europe and the United States. This did allow for some reasonable sales and kept the company going.
Most interested were a group from Austria, the Lomographic Society International. They stood for rebelling against the modern march to perfection in photography. They helped the Holga on its road to becoming a creative tool. It continued to sell, so production continued.
The popularity of the Holga really took off in 2001 though. David Burnett took a black and white photo of Al Gore during his campaign. It won him that year’s top prize in the White House News Photographers’ Association Eyes of History contest. It was a stunning picture of Gore, from a unique angle which portrayed him on a podium.
Quite a number of models were then produced, variations with flash and other options. The Holga earned itself a cult following. This was even emulated in filters which were developed in the digital photography space.
In 2015 the Hong Kong based factory closed. While most of the equipment was thrown out, Lee kept the ones to make a 120 camera out of sentimental value, even though he retired.
In 2017 a China based company, Smartgears, resurrected the Holga using some of the original moulds. It has continued to be a popular alternative to the clean results produced by digital cameras. Even software filters cannot faithfully reproduce the effects due to the unpredictability of the results. There have been some complaints, though, that the new ones are too well made.
The Holga 120N is an all plastic 6x6cm 120 film viewfinder camera. It can also shoot 6×4.5cm frames with the provided masks installed. It features a 60mm f/8 lens, which is labelled as an “Optical Lens”. The copy featured in the review is from the original ones made before the 2015 shutdown of the factory.
Construction of the camera is not precise, and the camera is known to have light leaks. Many people use electrical tape to cover areas of the camera so they can design the leaks to their artistic preferences. In fact, the manual includes instruction explaining how you might want to use some tape to cover sections.
On the front of the camera is the lens which has some rudimentary focus controls. The focus levels are one person (1m) for a portrait, 3 people (2m), a big group of people (6m) and a mountain. The latter being for 10m to infinity and used for photos like landscapes. You can leave it between the symbols if you want to try and be more precise and are brave.
The shutter release button is next to the lens on the right and releases the shutter by pulling it downwards. Shutter speed is permanently set to approximately 1/100thsecond. You can select Bulb with a switch at the bottom.
Exposure settings are limited to two aperture options. f/8, with the cloudy symbol for exactly that, cloudy or lower lights. f/11, with the sunny symbol, again for what it indicates, a sunny day or lots of light.
On top of the camera is the film advance knob, which clicks as you wind on. A cold shoe is also located on top.
Behind the camera is the little red window which shows you the frame number. It has a sliding adjustment to allow for when the photographer decides to shoot 6×4.5. The back comes completely off to load film, to unlatch you need to slide the metal side latches up. Unfortunately, they are also what the neck strap is on, which means the camera can open itself up.
The viewfinder is located on the left. There is no information shown in the viewfinder and it is framed for a square photograph.
As mentioned above, I bought the Holga 120N to use on a trip to Cambodia. When it arrived, I thought I must have been sent an empty box, as it is so light. I opened it up and started to understand the things I had read about it.
First thought, wow this is very plastic. Second thought was a question, is it worth taking with me? The answer was yes. I loaded some Kodak Tri-X into the bag and off I went.
In hindsight I probably should have shot a role or two first as each Holga has its own characteristics. The thought struck me while I was in Cambodia, but then I embraced the uncertainty. I had taped it up for light leaks without really trying it out, so all is fair in creativity and luck.
My trip included some very remote areas as well as bustling city locations. Every so often when I wanted to be a little lighter hearted, I would put my Nikon away and just carry the Holga.
When I got back to Sydney, I had the film processed, not expecting much. The results initially were very interesting, but I probably was not in the right frame of mind yet. As time passed and I prepared my albums from the trip, they grew on me a lot.
I started to embrace the imperfections. The photos started to have a character all of their own. I even chose to like some of them more than the regular documentary photographs. The only part that did not really grab me is the dark vignetting, it is quite abrupt on my copy.
I must admit I put the Holga away for a while. That is until Lomography released their Lomochrome Purple and the Turquoise films. The combination of uniquely designed films used in a toy camera was too much to resist. Only adjustment I made was to remove most of the tape from the camera, except for the cover of the red window at the back.
The film did come back a bit thinner than I would have liked, and considering how scarce this film became about then, was not something I could experiment with much. Scanning in the photos took some effort. I must admit the scanned results came out better than I thought they would.
Shooting the 120N is a lot of fun. No one takes you seriously. I could shoot away and not a single person was concerned. It is also very refreshing to not worrying about anything other than framing (as close as a Holga will frame for you) and shoot. Focus is pretty easy if you ignore the distance and use the symbol guide.
I have since used the Holga to shoot around Sydney and even took it on one of my trips to New Zealand. While I have used reliable films like, Kodak T-Max 100, I have also run through some expired Portra 160 VC, which gave some interesting results.
The centre of the frame tends to be quite sharpish. Sharpness is overrated anyway. It falls off considerable, but it gives it this very focused view. One of the tricks that more established “lomographic” photographers employ is ensuring careful placement.
The vignetting, as mentioned above, is considerable. The exposure fall off is fast and furious culminating in almost a circle. Other people do not seem to have it as distinctly, so it must be dependent on the individual camera.
Colour is an interesting aspect from the 120N. The plastic lens does not lend itself to faithful colour reproduction, but it does something magical to it. Colour photos from a Holga have a very distinct look to them.
For a little while, I played with the Hipstamatic app on my phone. I applied filters and had some fun with the results. At the time, it struct me how many of the filters are based on the type of results you would get out of a Holga. As they say, imitation is the best form of flattery.
I was not sure I liked the Holga 120N initially, but it grew on me a lot. It is so much fun to use and it stops me from taking my photography too seriously. I shoot for enjoyment after all.
If you are thinking of getting a Holga to open up some creativity, the 120N is a great place to start. As it can be done with a little outlay, it is definitely worth trying it out.
With a camera as popular as the Holga 120N, there are quite a few good articles worth reading beyond this review:
Alex Luyckx of Classic Camera Revival fame wrote about the fun he had with his in CCR Review 69 – Holga 120N.
Alan at Canny Cameras laments when it looked like the Holga was being permanently discontinued, luckily this was not the case; Holga 120N Review: End of a (Plastic) Era
Peggy at Camera Go Camera picked one up in a whim, though the flash model, and enjoyed it in Holga 120 CFN.
Sandeep writes about his love/hate relationship with his glowing model on EMULSIVE in Reviewing the %#$?! Holga 120N (The Holga Glo).