Recently, I got to say a phrase that I hadn’t uttered in at least five years:

“I’ve got a roll of film for processing. Single prints, please, glossy finish.”

As a wee photography-obsessed lad, I would often pore through the ads in a decade’s worth of Popular Photography at my school library and dream of the day I’d finally make the jump to medium format. That’s the kind of film the pros use!

Well, I’m proud to tell you that the day has finally come, some two decades later.

Of course, in the dream, I was taking pictures with a $5000 Hasselblad or a Mamiya. Not a $40 Chinese camera with a knobby plastic lens that looks like it was designed to squirt water instead of focus light.

Many of you are way ahead of me: yes, I acquired a Holga camera. It was an magnificently cool gift from the Washington Apple Pi user group, which they presented to me after I gave a talk at their big holiday meeting.

It’s a legendary piece of gear. This 120 rollfilm camera was and is 1980’s Communist China’s answer to the Kodak Instamatic. A camera that every worker could afford. Easy to operate! Perfect for family snaps!

(This is a sign of the many faults present in the Communist system. In the USA, if you mess up your photo of your kid’s first steps, no problem: buy a better camera and then go and have another baby. Citizens of the worker’s paradise don’t really have that kind of option. You’d think they’d really want to save up for a decent camera, what with having only one shot at these things.)

Fans of the Holga describe the it as a camera with a built-in analog edition of Photoshop, if you can imagine that the software is being operated by someone even drunker and more incompetent than yourself. A cheerful disregard for the hidebound old traditions of camera design and quality-control has resulted in a fairly unique piece of gear. The Holga vignettes all four corners savagely. The single-element plastic lens gives certain wavelengths of light a solid smack in the butt as they skitter through, resulting in odd color flares. The fit of the case parts is so completely the opposite of German precision that the box actually includes a roll of electrical tape, along with an utterly non-ironic advisory that the seam between the film back and the body should be taped up to prevent light leaks.

(Unless you’re totally committing yourself to the Holga’s personality. In which case you’re sort of hoping for a few highly-artistic flares burning across the occasional shot.)

Mine is the deluxe model with the built-in flash. When it fires, the camera smells vaguely like a burning sock.

Suffice to say that whereas most cameras aim to score a perfect ten in the Compulsory section of the accuracy and fidelity competition, the Holga is going for Freestyle points. It’d be an annoying trait in a $1300 SLR but in a $40 camera? Well, it’s just quirky and fun.

Shooting with a Holga is a wonderful exercise for any photographer, specifically because it takes so much of the control out of your hands. With a digital camera, you have the option of not leaving a scene until you’re certain that you’ve taken exactly the shot you want. With film, ya clicks the shutter and ya takes your chances. And with a Holga, you’re taking part in an artistic collaboration between your defects as a photographer and the Holga’s defects as an optical instrument. There’s no preview, no bracketing, no exposure meter. Nothing but the sense that this is the moment to click the shutter and then walk away.

At this stage, I don’t know if this little dialogue should veer into the “maybe we’ve lost our sense of playfulness and fun in our pursuit of greater precision and control” area or if it’s enough just to say how cool it is to be shooting the same way I did as a kid. I’m guessing that the second option will get me to the end faster so I’ll wind this up by saying how much I missed that kind of anticipation you feel when you drop off a roll of film for processing. I really don’t know what I’m going to find in that envelope of prints. It’s been at least two days since I dropped off the exposed roll, and as much as three weeks since I actually shot some of those pictures.

I promise you that most of the 36 frames I’ve exposed with the Holga thus far were utterly wretched.

And not because of the camera, either. I’ve been experimenting with the thing and so far, I seem to have been learning about what not to do with it. The flash has a knob above it which rotates colored filters into position…red, yellow, blue. I keep monkeying around with the idea of using the filters to just splash a little area of “wrong” color into an otherwise ordinary scene.

The above shot of my friends’ dog is the only experiment that actually paid off. I shot four exposures, one for each color plus clear, without advancing the film.

But y’know what? Even the failures are entertainment, both in the taking and in the final revelation. Only three or four photos I’ve shot with the Holga have truly bored and disappointed me: the ones that came out perfectly normal. I’d managed to guess the focus perfectly right, and the subject happened to be exactly the right distance from the flash for terrific exposure.

Result: quite an ordinary photo. Exactly what I had expected. And where the hell is the fun in that?

I still have two more rolls of 120 film in the fridge (oh, dear sweet Lord, it’s been ten years since I’ve had to nudge aside rolls of film to get to the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! I am now the happiest boy in all of Puppetland, for sure) and a fresh roll in the Holga, ready to rock and roll. I’m going to look forward to going out for a photo day with the Holga as my sole camera and just 12 clicks of the shutter in inventory.

I mean, just yesterday, I shot 500 frames with my D80 at my niece’s hockey game. It’s kind of the only way to get a dozen or two terrific shots of fast action. But even apart from that, I’m a firm believer in the “ABC” principle of photography. If you want to get better, then Always Be Shooting.

And in the time it took you to post a scathing reply pointing out that “Shooting” doesn’t start with a “C,” I was taking more pictures and thus became a marginally-better photographer than you…so there.

But Henri Cartier-Bresson didn’t get to leap into a patisserie and spray the crowd with shutter clicks, did he? No. He got “the shot” and then moved on.

I’m glad that I have this cheap-ass plastic toy camera. The Holga has re-introduced me to the Zen aspect of photography. You look, you wait, you contemplate, you clear your mind of impure thoughts and when the Universe is ready for this photo to be taken, all shall fall into place. Then you click the shutter, doff your cap politely, and you take your leave.

With a Holga camera, you can only do this twelve times per roll.

(“…Not true. You can install a special mask and do 16,” you thought, instead of taking more photos. You just never learn, do you?)

Unlimited possibilities are the stuff of daydreams; they’re fun, but they’re often insubstantial. Creative muscles are best developed and strengthened when you work them against hard, heavy limits. The Holga is one hell of a photographic Soloflex.


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