It’s been a while since I did a camera review on here, as it’s not often I get a new one to play with. I suppose that while not having gear acquisition syndrome is good for my bank balance, it’s not ideal for my content production.
So when I had my brief encounter with the globetrotting Littlest Holga, I thought I’d double dip. In other words, do a Holga 120N review to go along with the post I did showing the shots I got from it.
I had no idea how to use a Holga until I got my hands on this one, and there were a few things about it that were different to what I usually shoot. If you’ve never played with one either but fancy doing so, there’ll be things you also need to know.
This comprehensive review and guide is just me passing on the knowledge and experience the Littlest Holga brought to me. If it gives you the push you need to finally get yourself a Holga too, you can find them new on Amazon, and new or pre-owned on eBay.
Get your Holga 120N today
A brief history of Holga
Before we get into this camera specifically, it’s probably worth explaining the background of Holga itself, who have produced many more models than just this 120N in their time.
It all began in Hong Kong in the early 1980s when the first Holgas were designed by a man named Lee Ting-mo. The idea was to have things be as inexpensive as possible, which would help make these all-plastic Holgas the go-to everyday camera for working-class Chinese families at the time.
Keeping the costs of buying a Holga to a minimum meant having minimal technical features, minimal focusing ability, minimal light seals, minimal sharpness outside the centre of your photographs, and minimal chance of your results turning out exactly as you’d hoped.
Still, with 120 film by far the most popular format in the country at the time and a huge population of unwealthy people to sell cheap and easy-to-use cameras to, what could possibly go wrong?
Unfortunately for Holga, China’s opening up and economic reform of the late 70s and early 80s is what.
It didn’t take long for the rapidly-growing middle-class to be able to start buying the newly imported 35mm cameras instead, which meant both 120 format and Holga were left out in the cold.
The word pivot is used a lot in tech and start-up circles today, but it’s really nothing new. In fact, it’s exactly what Holga did when their Chinese dream died.
Instead of resigning themselves to having a fatally flawed product, they took those imperfections and turned them into reasons to buy when marketing Holgas in the west.
The unpredictable light leaks along with the softness and vignettes in the corners became desired rather than shunned, and the signature retro, surreal, and dreamlike Holga look they produce has endured ever since.
Production of Holgas continued in China through the decades until 2015 when the factory making them closed down. It was reported at the time the moulds used to make the plastic Holga bodies had been discarded, meaning there appeared no way back.
However, it later emerged that Lee Ting-mo had kept the tooling for the 120 models as a souvenir. With these, another Chinese company called Sunrise put the 120N back into production in 2016.
What is a Holga 120N?
The Holga 120N was first introduced around 2003 as an upgrade on the 120S, which was the original Holga from way back when it all began. Aesthetically, they are almost identical.
There’s a plethora of other Holga camera types out there, with twin lens reflex, pinhole, panoramic, stereo, 35mm, and 110 versions all made at one point or another. But even with all those, the 120N is probably what people mean if they don’t specify when they say they have a Holga.
It’s the classic, default Holga design, although there are versions available that look very similar but have additional features. These are identified by additional letters in the model name, with more additional letters meaning more additional features you get stacked on.
The 120GN has a glass lens, while the 120FN has a built-in flash. Simple maths then tells you a 120GFN has a glass lens and a flash.
Meanwhile, the 120CFN has a colour flash, while the most alphabet-heavy Holga of them all – the 120GCFN – has a glass lens and a colour flash. Imagine that.
The one I got to play with was the Holga Glo 120N which has none of the above, although it does have the special and quite useless ability to glow in the dark.
And just in case you weren’t sure, it is approximately 99% plastic. Only really the hot shoe, the film back release latches, and the shutter mechanism are metal.
Holga 120N features and layout
The Holga may be bereft of even the most basic features most normal cameras have, but it’s still good to know what it does have, and where it all is.
First up are a couple of things that are just there and you might not ever use: a standard tripod mount on the underside of the lens and hot shoe on top of the camera itself.
Next to the tripod mount is a switch that technically allows you to change the shutter speed, although it only gives you two options. N is normal, which is said to be around 1/100 of a second, and B is bulb, which keeps the shutter open until you tell it to close again.
There’s another switch above the lens that is supposed to let you change the aperture, with your two options here being f8 and f11. These are denoted by a cloud for the former and a sun for the latter, although how much difference this makes to the actual aperture of the lens appears to be up for debate.
There’s a focus ring on the Holga lens that gives you four options. These are one person, three people, lots of people, and mountains. This is a zone focus system where the icons translate to the following distances:
- one person = 3 feet / 1 metre
- three people = 6 feet / 2 metres
- lots of people = 18 feet / 6 metres
- mountains = 30 feet / 10 metres to infinity
If you want to get more precise than the Holga is probably designed to do, you can set the focus ring anywhere in between these icons.
Finally, the shutter release button is to the right-hand side of the 60mm f8 lens as you hold the camera.
How to load film into a Holga
As the name suggests, the Holga 120N takes 120 medium format film. Before you load your film, you can choose whether you want to be taking 6×6 photographs with it or 6×4.5 simply by loading the appropriate film mask – a piece of plastic that sits between the film and shutter mechanism.
If you’re familiar with loading 120 film, loading a Holga shouldn’t present you with any issues. If it’s your first foray away from 35mm though, like it was for me, you’ll need to read the following guide.
First, slide the two metal latches down on either side of the camera and remove its back. If the camera has been shot before, you should find the leftover spool from the last roll still in there. If it’s on the left-hand side, move it over to the right.
Open your 120 film, which will be on its own spool, and place it into the left-hand bay. Then pull the leader over and slide it into the slot on the right-hand spool.
When you’re confident it’s in, wind the wheel on top of the camera to pull it on further, ensuring it’s rolling on tightly to avoid, or minimise at least, light leaks.
Replace the camera back and ensure you have the red film window correctly set. It should be on 12 if you’re shooting 6×6 and 16 if you’re shooting 6×4.5, as that’s how many shots you’ll get from a roll with each.
Now keep winding until you see the number 1 in this window, at which point you’re ready to take your first photograph.
When you’ve finished the roll, wind it on until it’s fully wrapped around the spool, open the back, remove the film, tape it tightly to ensure it doesn’t unravel before developing, and move the leftover spool over to the right ready for the next one.
How to use a Holga 120N
Shooting with a Holga 120N is in some ways more simple than probably most other cameras you’ve used, and in others a little more tricky.
That apparent contradiction comes from the fact that its features are so basic that it takes more of an understanding of how a camera works to make good photographs than it does with a camera you can use on auto mode. There’s no light meter or autofocus to help you out here.
Because of this, I think explaining what to avoid and leaving you in a position to just shoot is a good way to explain how to use a Holga.
With that aforementioned switch set to N for normal, you’re stuck with an approximate shutter speed of 1/100. Unlike whatever it is you might be used to shooting, the Holga cannot change this for you if there’s not enough light. I learnt this through experience.
You should also understand that you’re not looking through the lens when you look through the viewfinder, which brings up three more potential issues that I can think of.
First – hence the note stuck to the back of the Holga I played with – is that you can shoot your whole roll of film with the lens cap on and not realise until it’s too late.
Second is the issue of parallax error, which can result in your subjects not being exactly where you thought they were in the frame. This happens because the viewfinder is showing them from a different angle than the lens. With practice, you can get used to this and compensate when composing your shots.
The third issue I found is that the viewfinder has a noticeably narrower field of view than the lens. This is definitely better than the other way around, although some of my shots came out messier than I’d intended by having stuff around the edges that I thought I’d left out.
You’ll also need to remember to wind the film on to the next exposure after each shot. The Holga won’t stop you from shooting double exposures if you don’t. You use that red film window to know how far to wind it on each time. Basically until the next number shows.
It’s also recommended that you tape up anywhere that may allow light to leak in. This could be pretty much anywhere, although the red film window is often said to be particularly vulnerable.
And finally, be aware those metal latches that you slide down to remove the back aren’t the most reliable things in the world. They’ve been known to slide down of their own accord on plenty of occasions, which can ruin your film if the camera opens up.
That seems like a lot of negativity, but it’s important to be aware of how shooting your Holga can go wrong. You’re not going to get lost in a mountain of features and options like you might with other cameras. This is more about getting good shots by avoiding the pitfalls.
So, how to shoot a Holga?
With that fixed shutter speed, I’d recommend loading an ISO 400 film for more leeway with the light. With that viewfinder, I’d recommend thinking of it as a rough guide rather than an accurate representation of what you’ll get.
And with the camera overall, I’d recommend leaving your serious face at home, knowing that you have no idea what results it’s going to give you, and just enjoying it for what it is.
One final thing to mention here is the lens focal length. If you’re not used to shooting medium format and 60mm sounds too long and not very wide, don’t worry.
Because 120 film has a bigger surface area, some maths that I can’t explain means it’s equivalent to around a 37mm lens on 35mm film.
Holga 120N image qualities
Now you know how to load your Holga and what to watch out for when shooting it, what kind of results can you expect if things do indeed go as planned?
As explained earlier, there’s definitely a Holga look that these cameras give your photographs. The softness, the vignettes, and the unpredictable light leaks. For most people who shoot a Holga, that’s the whole point.
There were a couple of other things about the image quality and qualities that surprised me though. And I mean surprised me with how good they were.
First is that there is actually a lot of sharpness in the centre of the frame if you get the focus right. The plastic meniscus lens isn’t completely useless in that respect, although shooting medium format film does help.
The second thing also comes from shooting 120 film rather than the 35mm I’m used to, and that was the feeling of depth you can get in the images.
I shot two types of film in the Holga as I wanted to try both monochrome and colour. Shanghai GP3 100 took care of the first, and Lomography Colour Negative 100 the second.
While these films must take much of the credit, the Holga didn’t let them down when it came to contrast with the Shanghai GP3 and colours with the Lomography.
If you were around for the early days of the platform when you could only upload square images and people actually used their native retro-effect filters, you can probably connect the dots yourself.
And just to bring this little story full circle, it was people posting about the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Holga’s Hong Kong homeland that led to Instagram being blocked in mainland China.
Anyway, here are some of my sample shots. And if you want to see what a Holga is really capable of, go check out this book by Michael Kenna.
Holga 120N accessories
One thing you’re never going to be short of with your Holga is accessories.
First up is a bunch of lens adapters, which are simple attachments that slide over the barrel of the existing lens and change its field of view. These include a wide-angle, a telephoto and a few different fisheye versions. You can also get macro and close-up lens adapter sets.
If you want to shoot 35mm film in your 120N, there are adapters for that also.
Pictured below are some more accessories that were with the Holga I shot. I didn’t use them but they are the shutter release cable – handy for long exposures on bulb mode – and a couple of examples of the filters you can experiment with.
They came in all colours and with a few different prism designs too.
Pros and cons of the Holga 120N
This has been quite a long review so I think a quick rundown on the pros and cons of a Holga could be useful. Let’s start with the good stuff.
Pros of a Holga 120N:
- has a surprisingly sharp lens when you nail the focus
- it’s very easy to shoot once you know the pitfalls to avoid
- it can be a fun break from your serious photography
- you get genuinely unique photographs
- it’s a cheap way to try 120 film
- you can experiment with long exposures
- you can experiment with double exposures
- there’s a tonne of accessories to keep you interested
Cons of a Holga 120N:
- the viewfinder is inaccurate
- the viewfinder remains square if you decide to shoot 6×4.5
- there’s only one ‘normal’ shutter speed
- you need to tape it up to avoid light leaks
- you could easily shoot with the lens cap on
- you could get accidental double exposures
- the camera release lugs might release themselves
- using one might get you called a hipster idiot
Below are a few shots that show what can go wrong when shooting with a Holga. The first is an example of that parallax throwing your composition off. I thought I’d gotten the whole of her wedding dress in there, and the buildings should have been nearer the top of the frame.
The second demonstrates how you get more in your shot than you actually realise. I only really wanted the shop in this one, with far less of the places on either side than I ended up with.
Shots three and four show what can happen if you don’t have enough light for that 1/100 shutter speed and why it might be a good idea to go with an ISO 400 film, in the beginning at least.
They were taken in the daytime and I thought they’d be fine. However, just a little cloud can lead to underexposure, while fading light in late afternoon can make it look like you were shooting under a solar eclipse.
Wrapping up this Holga review
I would hope that after reading all that you’ll have some idea of whether you want to pick up a Holga of your own or not.
If you want to play with a basic plastic box that will give you imperfect photographs, and you think you’ll like those photographs, go for it.
If you prefer technically good photographs and don’t see why anyone would use one of the worst-built cameras ever made, then probably don’t.
Personally, although I enjoyed shooting the one I temporarily had and like the results it gave me, I’ve not wanted to go and buy myself one since I sent it on.
While I can see the obvious benefits of 120 film over 35mm in the image quality even the Holga gave me, I don’t have any real yearning to buy any medium format camera. Not yet. Although I remember saying that about all film cameras not too long ago.
So with that, I’ll always be appreciative that the Littlest Holga allowed me to shoot a roll of 120 Shanghai GP3 in Shanghai before I leave. I wouldn’t have been able to do so otherwise.
Whether you want to shoot any film anywhere in a Holga 120N is up to you. Perhaps Michael Kenna’s book will inspire you enough to take the plunge.
Be sure to let us know if you do and show us all how you get on. 🙂
Get your Holga 120N today
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