In part II of the series Manny Santiago looks at Modern Japan via the Holga 120S. The Holga is a medium format 120 film camera, made in Hong Kong, known for its low-fidelity aesthetic. The Holga 120S – The original Holga, since discontinued. Fixed shutter speed, adjustable focus, plastic 60mm f/8 meniscus lens, two-position f-stop switch, hot shoe, and 6×4.5 cm film mask.

Most Holga cameras use a single-piece plastic meniscus lens with a focal length of 60 millimeters and utilize a zone-focus system that can adjust from about 1 meter (3 feet) to infinity. Like any simple meniscus lens, the Holga lens exhibits soft focus and chromatic aberration. Other Holga variants, denoted either by the letter ‘G’ in their model name, or the name WOCA, feature a simple glass lens, but are otherwise identical in construction. The manufacturer has since outsourced supply of the varying plastic and glass lenses to contractors in Japan and China

There is an aperture setting switch on the camera with two positions indicated by pictorial ideograms: sunny and cloudy, with a nominal value of f/11 and f/8, respectively. Due to a manufacturing oversight, this switch has no effect on pre-2009 production cameras, and the actual aperture is around f/13, giving the Holga just one aperture. The problem is reported as having been fixed in cameras post-2009, providing two working aperture settings of f/13 and f/20, and earlier cameras are modifiable to provide two usable settings. Apertures of f/10 and f/13 work well for ISO200 speed films, while settings of f/13 and f/19 tend to suit faster films of around ISO400.

The Holga was originally designed to accept either a 6×4.5 format or a 6×6 (square) format. However, once the camera went into production, vignetting (darkening of the corners of the finished photograph) occurred when the camera was modified to a 6×6 format. Hence, early Holgas had their film size switches tightly fixed to shoot only 6×4.5 format. Many owners removed both this restriction and the 6×4.5 film mask as well, finding the resultant vignetting a desirable effect.[6] Later Holgas such as the 120N come with two masks for both the 6×4.5 and 6×6 format. Holgas can even be modified to use 35mm film.

The Holga has one shutter speed – approximately 1/100th of a second. The camera can shoot 16 exposures per 120 roll in 6×4.5 cm format or 12 exposures in 6×6 format. Film is advanced by a knob on the top of the camera, and frame numbers printed on the backing paper of the film can be viewed through a red window on the back of the Holga. The number of frames chosen is indicated by the black arrow.

The Holga’s low-cost construction and simple meniscus lens often yields pictures that display vignetting, blur, light leaks, and other distortions. The camera’s limitations have brought it a cult following among some photographers, and Holga photos have won awards and competitions in art and news photography.

The Holga camera was designed by T. M. Lee in 1981. It first appeared outside China in 1982 in Hong Kong. At the time, 120 roll film in black-and-white was the most widely available film in mainland China. The Holga was intended to provide an inexpensive mass-market camera for working-class Chinese in order to record family portraits and events. However, the rapid adoption of the 35mm film format, due to new foreign camera and film imports, virtually eliminated the consumer market for 120 roll film in China. Seeking new markets, the manufacturer sought to distribute the Holga outside mainland China.

Within a few years after the Holga’s introduction to foreign markets, some photographers began using the Holga for its surrealistic, impressionistic scenes for landscape, still life, portrait, and especially street photography. These owners prized the Holga for its lack of precision, light leaks, and inexpensive qualities, which forced the photographer to concentrate on innovation and creative vision in place of increasingly expensive camera technology. In this respect, the Holga became the successor to the Diana and other toy cameras previously used in such work. A Holga photograph by photojournalist David Burnett of former vice-president Al Gore during a 2000 campaign appearance earned a top prize in a 2001 White House News Photographers’ Association Eyes of History award ceremony.

Recently the Holga has experienced renewed consumer interest outside China due to the increasing popularity of toy cameras, and a continuing counterculture response to the increasing complexity of modern cameras.

Modern Japan with Holga 120S

The Modern Japan Gallery