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Art Space Award 2000 - World Web Award of Excellence

Holga 120S: Toy Camera...

By Nanette Staph - Hollywood, CA

Not Just a Toy Anymore

Some time ago, I never even knew what was meant by the term "toy" camera. Honestly, I thought it was just a generic term for those cheap film-filled point and shoots that you can pick up at the local Walmart. Then, a few months later, I heard words such as "Holga" or "Lubitel" or "Diana" and wondered what they were…were they just cheap plastic carnival cameras or something more?

Then, Santa gave me a Holga one fine Christmas day. I sat there, looking at it, and wondered…what am I supposed to do with this thing? The pieces weren't secure. The back would literally just pop off! Then, I realized the film would be more expensive than the camera! Why would I ever want to give up my pretty SLR system in lieu of this "thing"? So, I did a little searching….and then I did a little experimenting and discovered something…it's the nuances and the playfulness inherent in these cameras that make them worthwhile for photographers. It makes us step back, forget about the technical, and enjoy the "art of observance" all over again.

What's a Toy?

It's not just the manner in which it is made. Sure, it's made of cheap plastic. Sure, it is inept, technically. But what makes it a "toy" is its inability to control anything! Light leaks, fuzzy images and vignetting makes this non-serious looking camera a cult classic. It is reusable, versatile and inexpensive, making it the perfect tool for the photographer with more interest in images than in equipment.

And, its cheap…extremely cheap...quite possibly the cheapest 6X6 available today! So cheap, you can buy a dozen and hand them out as party favors! We are talking $20 for this handy little Holga 120S…and only another $8 if you splurge for the unit with the built-in flash, the Holga 120SF!

Art from a Toy?

There is no glass in this camera…let's be clear about that. The lens is plastic, the buttons are plastic and the connections are plastic. The only metal that I see in this camera is the little metal spring that controls the aperture hole, as well as the back grips, which also hold the camera strap…very badly, might I add.

But, even given the above, this toy offers some benefits that your typical 35mm cannot. First, the film used is 120, so the negatives are large enough to study by themselves without the use of a loupe. Second, this unobtrusive little toy will rarely shy people away from you…I bet you cannot look intimidating with a plastic camera! And third, you will find photography becoming more fun. Since it is difficult to take this plastic camera seriously, you will wind up playing more with it, which will directly affect the way you see, the way you work and the images you make.

There are also some interesting qualities in these images that would not exist in an expensive piece of technological mastery. It is the Holga's inherent problems that give it its unique and creative qualities. Lack of sharp focus, lens distortion, light leaks, lens aberrations and accidental double exposures make the camera a fun tool, often filled with surprising results. Knowing what creates these effects also allows the photographer to increase/decrease the effect:
  • All of these plastic pieces, put together in a very un-scientific way, come together (or more appropriately, don't come together) to provide light leaks that are impossible with expensive systems.
  • The manual film advance crank often fails, providing interesting multiple exposures. Double exposures are not only possible, but often unavoidable.
  • The plastic lens can easily be scratched…something at first, you may avoid doing like the plague, reminiscing of old times when you were told to guard and care for your equipment with your life! But, scratching the inside/outside of this camera can be useful!
  • You can also use black mechanical tape to seal some of the light leaks that result from the back not properly closing…or decide to leave it as is, if you like the effect. You should consider running a narrow strip of this tape around the seal between the body and the camera back. A small tab of tape over the frame number window is another good idea.
  • The camera's ability to advance the film only partially into the next frame allows for an extended frame.

Two Holgas for Twice the Price!

Consider buying more than one Holga, to truly take advantage of the options available in this little box. Most serious photographers that use the Holga have three or four cameras. Here are some of the reasons:

  • No two Holgas see the same way; each is imprecisely unique. Lens distortion, flare and frame lines will vary. Test each camera to discover its characteristics. In addition, having two cameras allows you to continue working without changing film in the field quite as often. You can carry B&W film in one camera and color film in the other.
  • Since these cameras are cheap, they break and you will want a back-up. The price per camera is significantly reduced, the more you purchase. Buy in bulk!
  • They make excellent gifts for your more serious photography friends… tell them to "Lighten up! Have fun again!"

Directions, Directions, I Need Directions

So, you want to know how to use this toy? As you will quickly realize, the Holga has very few options, and as a result, very few directions! It's a brainless camera… no need to look for every "normal" switch or counter…it just doesn't exist. Its simplicity is controlled (or better termed "uncontrolled") by a few steps in the exposure process.

Film Selection
Keep in mind that the idea of the capability of getting a perfect exposure goes out of the window with this camera. So, don't fret about film selection….in fact, why don't you use your Holga with that expired film you found last month somewhere in the back of your cabinet?

But, if it makes you feel better, use these guidelines:
  • Overcast days: We suggest using TRI-X or another ASA 400 B&W film. If you wish to use color, we suggest a fast speed, negative color film with ASA 400.
  • Sunny days: We suggesting using T-Max 100 or Plus-X 125. If you are going to use one film for both situations, use Tri-X, ASA 400.

Keep in mind that this is a simple camera....these simple reminders will ensure you get the most out of your new toy:

  • The shutter speed is approximately 1/100th of a second…but this could depend on your individual camera. Each camera is unique, and you/we can only guess as to the result your individual camera will provide.
  • There are two aperture settings, about one stop different. One for bright sunny/flash conditions is approximately f/11, and another for overcast /cloudy conditions is approximately f/8.
  • One click of the shutter button will give an adequate exposure under a bright sunny day with ASA 400 film. For deep shade and indoor photography you may wish to build up exposure with multiple shutter clicks. If you have a light meter you can calculate an approximate number of clicks to build up sufficient exposure. Experiment with your camera using a test roll of film to get a "feeling" for exposure situations.

Loading Film

While the camera does allow 16-frame 6X6, this does not occur until you make the manual modifications noted near the end of this article. It is a common mistake for new users to rely on the red exposure setting on the back of the camera…this is for your reference only.

The directions below will summarize how to load and advance the 12-exposure roll of 6X4.5 120 film:

  • Open the back of the camera, and put your new roll of 120 film in the left side, ensuring that the black side of the film faces the lens.
  • Slowly pull the film across to the take-up reel on the right.
  • Insert it, and crank the film advance wheel a few times.
  • Notice that the left spool has no tension. This is normal. The frame advance mechanism is purely a "pull" function. If you want to increase the tension, read about the modifications you can make to your Holga, that will be published in an upcoming sister article.
  • Close the back. Put a rubber band around the camera to avoid the back popping off in mid-roll.
  • Continue to advance the film until the "1" appears in the red window on the back of the camera.
  • Ensure that the red filter identifies that there will be 12 exposures in this roll, not 16.
  • You are now ready to expose your first frame!
  • Once exposed, again crank the film advance wheel until the "2" appears in the red window, and so on. There is no reminder for this…so if you forget, double exposures may mysteriously appear!


When all 12 frames have been exposed, continue to crank the entire roll into the right spool. Watch the red filter opening on the back to gauge your time on this. When complete, open the back and carefully pull the spindle from the right side, seal the film, and return the blank spindle (that was on the left) to the right location.

Keep in mind that 3' is the absolute closest the Holga can focus….and yours may very well be different anyways!

There is one dial on the camera that adjusts for focusing…its quite simplistic with only 4 options, so just take your best guess and click. The distances are approximately:

  • Face / Close-up - Approximately 3-5 feet
  • Couple / Full Body-Shot - Approximately 10 feet
  • Group / Distant Subject - Approximately 15-20 feet
  • Mountains / Landscape - Infinity

Only use the above as a guide…test your own camera to discover its true focusing distances. The Holga isn't a tool, so much as it is a puzzle. So solve your own!

Flash Photography

The accessory hot shoe on top of the camera will accommodate most flash units. After mounting the flash, flip the aperture knob to the "flash/sunny" setting. The aperture is now "supposedly" at f/8. Please find the effective flash distance from your instructions with the flash unit.

Yep, that's really all there is to the Holga….at least to use it out of the box. Now, you can surely modify it… which we tell you about in an upcoming stay tuned! But for now, this should be more than sufficient for you to play with that cute little doo-dad of a toy and see what appears on the film!


Editors Note: Good luck on your new toy. If, by chance, you find anything that we didn't discuss or something you found unclear, please let us know!


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