Feature Story

The Plastic Revolution

The Plastic Revolution
Point Lobos
The Track
Post Hospital
80/780 Split
Ocean Beach
Hunter's Point
Point Reyes

Despite the unstoppable snowball of technology, megapixels and auto... well, everything nowadays, the plastic toy camera is having a resurgence. More aptly, it is probably because of the omnipresence of digital that a return to photography's analog and less precise roots has been gaining in popularity lately. Art movements throughout history have always worked in a sort of ebb and flow. Minimalism was a reaction to abstract expressionism, abstract expressionism aimed to reject modernism, which in turn bucked the style of realism, and so on and so forth. In a world now so deeply entrenched in microchips and USB cables, a world that I am admittedly a card-carrying member of, we are now beginning to see a revival of Polaroid, large-format cameras, and alternative film processes. Among these retro mediums having a rebirth is that of plastic toy cameras, the flagship model being the Holga.

The Holga camera was created and issued, one per household, to Chinese families in the early 1980's by their government as a consolation prize of sorts. Images from the western world of growing consumerism were seeping through the borders of the socialist nation and government officials were facing the possibility of an uprising. The token, however small, seemed to have done the trick as citizens were distracted by their new toy camera and for the moment turned their attention to taking family portraits and recording life events.

The Holga, like its friends Diana and Lomo LC-A, is made as cheaply as possible. Virtually the entire camera, including the lens, is made of plastic. In fact, due to the poor materials used in creating these cameras, they are highly prone to light leaks, color shifts, chromatic aberration and blurry images. As if this weren't enough, the image circle only partially covers the film frame, which leads to heavy vignetting around the edges. Since the manufacturing process is let's say... less than meticulous, the degree and type of "flaws" that you will encounter are completely unique to each specific camera, like a fingerprint.

Rather than viewing these shortcomings as problems that need to be remedied, Holgagraphers embrace that which cannot be controlled. It is, in fact, its organic and unpredictable nature that is exciting and refreshing. The experience of shooting with a plastic camera takes me back to my early days of learning to photograph on slide film with an Olympus OM-10 when I would stand in the development lab and tear open the sealed bag anxious to find out what I had on my film. Only this time, rather than unearthing half a roll shot with the lens cap on and the other half drastically underexposed, I would be surprised with beautiful light leaks spilling onto a frame of swirling focus and vignetting. The colors I discover on my film are nothing like what I witness while photographing, but rather the camera's interpretation of the scene. Somehow the representation always manages to come closer to my subjective experience in the moment rather than the objective reality.

The camera itself is rudimentary and bare bones to say the least. The exposure control is limited to f/8 and f/13, which is designated by a picture of a sun or a sun behind clouds. The shutter speed is locked at 1/100th of a second, although like with everything else Holga your experience may vary. Turning the focus ring to one of four icons sets the focal range: a person, three people, a large group of people, or mountains. The Holga takes 120 roll film, but beware of the rear panel, which regularly flops off the camera exposing the film. I have fashioned a makeshift strap for the panel by using a couple strips of Velcro and a dab or two of hot glue.

Speaking of Holga modifications, the market is crammed with them. Everything from remote trigger releases and Polaroid backs to ring flashes and 35mm adapters can be easily found online. In fact, in the last few years there has been an explosion of different Holga models released. You can now get a pinhole Holga (affectionately referred to as a Pinholga), a 3-D stereo Holga, a twin lens reflex Holga, and dozens of colors and styles including camouflage and hot pink. The standard model is still offered for the low, low price of $20 so just about anyone can justify adding a new camera to his or her collection.

It is far too easy to wake up one morning and find yourself trapped in an existence of light modifiers, battery grips and portable hard drives. I have on more than one occasion begun packing for a photo trip to the desert only to find myself three bags deep wondering how I am going to mule all of the equipment across the salt flats. The Holga can be your refuge from the mounting gear. Stuff it in your pocket with a couple of rolls of film and see just how liberating it can be. Take a momentary break from precision and control and plunge into a world of whimsy where the colors are more vivid and life is much simpler.

VOTE: Do you like this story?

Tell a friend about this story!

Tell a friend about this story!

  1. or

Hi there!

thought you might like this story!


—The JPG team

29 responses

  • Toby Morrison (JPG Admin)

    Toby Morrison (JPG Admin)   gave props (30 Jan 2011):


  • Liberty Kifer

    Liberty Kifer gave props (31 Jan 2011):

    very interesting read :)

  • Holga Direct

    Holga Direct said (1 Feb 2011):

    Great article on the merits of Holga and film photography!
    Rick @ HolgaDirect

  • Jennifer Henriksen

    Jennifer Henriksen gave props (1 Feb 2011):

    Great article!

  • Hilman Arioaji

    Hilman Arioaji gave props (1 Feb 2011):

    what a wonderful revolution :)

  • ale di gangi

    ale di gangi said (2 Feb 2011):

    Always nice to see such a clear summary of everything Holga.
    Once you adopt one, you can't stop using it.

  • Michael

    Michael said (2 Feb 2011):

    I'm a keen holga user, I love the sheer simplicity of using it. Nice article.

  • Erin Woodgate

    Erin Woodgate gave props (2 Feb 2011):

    Great article, are you on the lomography site?

  • Stéphane Heinz

    Stéphane Heinz said (2 Feb 2011):

    Great story!! I totally agree with you!! :)))

  • Liz Brown

    Liz Brown said (2 Feb 2011):

    Wonderful story. I love my Holga. I agree, once you get one, it's hard to put it down.

  • Dan Richards

    Dan Richards (Deleted) said (2 Feb 2011):

    I've started using a Diana F+, and have had some good shots come out of it. I agree the vignetting does pose a minor issue that is easily cropped off, or used. But the pinhole feature is even nicer as it gives cleaner image.
    THe worst part of the Diana, is that you need a tripod or a release as the shutter trigger tends to pull the camera down giving you a lot of motion and ruining your shot.

    Very good article.

  • Matt Towler

    Matt Towler (Deleted) said (2 Feb 2011):

    I have a Holga, I need to learn to use it now!

  • Stéphane Heinz

    Stéphane Heinz said (2 Feb 2011):

    Only one thing to precise: if the Diana and Holga are really close in lo-fi spirit and construction, the LC-A has a bit more " "technology" " with the choice of a semi-automatic or full automatic exposure mode and a glass lens... ;)

  • dp *

    dp * said (2 Feb 2011):

    Heck yeah this is way RAD !! Holga user since 11/2011. Totally concur with the others, once you start you will not want to go back to digital.

  • Becca Bornstein

    Becca Bornstein (Deleted) gave props (2 Feb 2011):

    Wonderful story! Great photos as well! I am inspired!

  • Svante Adermark

    Svante Adermark said (3 Feb 2011):

    Great article!

    Another quirk is that the Holga claim to have aperture 8 and 13 settings (sun and cloud), but the hole behind all that has aperture ~14, so that's what you'll get regardless of your setting.

    I have a Holga and use it all the time, lovely, lovely camera.

  • Spectre Photo

    Spectre Photo gave props (3 Feb 2011):

    Great article. I love me some Holga too. :)

  • Maura Wolfson-Foster

    Maura Wolfson-Foster gave props (3 Feb 2011):

    Thanks SO much for this enlightening photo/essay.....I feel a new adventure coming on!!! My enthusiastic vote :)

  • Sara Crowe

    Sara Crowe said (4 Feb 2011):

    Great article! I love my Holgas!

  • Eric Smith

    Eric Smith said (5 Feb 2011):

    I just my Holga 120N in December and I am loving it! Looking forward to adding some additional Holga to the bag of tricks. You got my vote!

  • Giorgio Vitale

    Giorgio Vitale gave props (1 Apr 2011):

    Excellent exposition of what "Holgamania" is. Voted for publication.

  • Bret Robinson

    Bret Robinson said (2 Jun 2011):

    Fantastic story. I am edified. Thanks!

  • Tessa Tuates

    Tessa Tuates gave props (23 Jun 2011):

    Great article!

  • Stephanie Marie Hatch

    Stephanie Marie Hatch (Deleted) said (24 Jun 2011):

    Very well written. So many proposed articles on JPG are fluffy and lacking insight, but I was particularly impressed with the history of the Holga. I carry a Holga in my purse every day and didn't know how it got started. Thanks! Your images are beautiful too! I only shoot with B&W, but the color is so lush.

  • Tomma Henckel

    Tomma Henckel said (14 Mar 2012):

    And great photos too!

  • Jason Grim

    Jason Grim gave props (31 Mar 2012):

    great article :)

  • NiteRunner

    NiteRunner said (23 Jun 2012):

    Well said.

Want to leave a comment? Log in or sign up!