OCA preloader logo
Plastic Fantastic - The Open College of the Arts
To find out more details about the transfer to The Open University see A New Chapter for OCA.
Explore #WeAreOCA
Skip Navigation
Plastic Fantastic thumb

Plastic Fantastic

It’s not everyday that you ruin £260 worth of digital camera. But that’s exactly what I did to my Nikon P7000 in a winter blizzard on Rhinog Fach, in North Wales, a couple of weeks ago. It was a long time since a camera had died on me, the whole £25 of it: my Holga camera. One day something mysteriously started rattling inside it and the camera stopped working.  It was a plastic toy camera after all.
The sheer frustration of losing expensive Nikon gear that I only bought five months ago is making me think that, perhaps, my next mountaineering camera will be another Holga. At least they make them with a glass lens now – which is a shame, really. Yes, the classic medium format Holga film camera has a plastic lens that renders the world is such an imperfect and distorted way that, actually, it shows it very much as it often is.

© Jose Navarro

Lomography cult followers swear by the dreamy, surreal image quality delivered by Holga lenses. The camera also has poorly engineered light seals that let light leak into the film plane, adding some ‘visual interest’ to the image. Every camera leaks in a different and unique way.
It may well be plasticky but you can also do pretty serious work with the Holga. I have had Holga work that tackles issues of identity and place published and even exhibited. Thomas Michael Alleman took some Holgas to Inner Mongolia and produced a remarkable set of images. And a few years back  David Burnett took a whole series of images of Al Gore with a Holga camera. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to turn up on a magazine commission branding a plastic toy camera though.
Toy camera or not the Holga does something remarkably well. It liberates the photographer from the responsibility of having to transcribe the world in a visually accurate way. In other words, it does away with the tension between aesthetics and subject matter. By not being able to fully control the look of the resulting image, the Holga photographer has no option but to concentrate on content. Surprisingly, the Holga can make you a better photographer.
© David Burnett

Having said that, the Holga image  can also be all about aesthetics, regardless of content. The plastic camera has the potential to foster pure instinctive photography based exclusively on aesthetic appeal and visual perception. Inforescence-art sells large format canvas prints of Holga photographs based on this principle.
Or it can be primarily a visual experience but still have a certain documentary flavour, as the work of Susan Bowen demonstrates. Working with a Holga camera, Bowen purposefully overlaps exposures to create quasi-cinematic photographic images.
I know what you will be thinking, that there is no point having a medium format plastic toy camera with a plastic lens when you can simulate the effect in Photoshop. Admittedly, you can achieve very convincing Holga-like results with digital manipulations. But that would be missing the point, because the Holga experience is not just about achieving the soft, vignetted, scratched and light-leaked trademark Holga look. The point of the Holga experience is precisely using the Holga camera itself, in all its plastic wonderfulness.
Mind you, if you want the best of both worlds, as in the digital world and the classic poor quality of the plastic fantastic Holga lens, now you can buy the actual Holga lens with an adapter to fit most DSLR mounts.
In fact, I’m tempted to buy the Holga lens for Nikon mount myself.

Posted by author: Jose
Share this post:

22 thoughts on “Plastic Fantastic

  • I wonder if I will ever be able to understand such things like the ‘Holga experience’. To me it is like buying a plastic computer that fails every now and then, has a display with bad quality, and a keyboard where the labels do not match the actual keys….but it looks cool…….Why would I ever want this computer if I can have a better quality one (unless I can not pay for this latter one). The next step would be to buy a camera break the lenses, the autofocus and partially the sensor, and argue that the photographs obtained are cool…………

    • It is its inherent imperfections that makes it such an unpredictable and beautiful photographic tool Leopin. I also strive for technical excellence but using a Holga can be very liberating.

  • But on your new computer you may not have pacman and jetset willy… And we may as well get rid of vinyl (and CD and even SACD for that matter) for uncompressed audio files. Even Super8, without which we might not have a host of top directors, has no worth.
    Horses for courses, naturally. And yes, if the camera still worked after making your alterations, they might well be interesting artefacts that are born from it. The latest digital trickery is not necessarily the best though, and I’m a geek of the highest order. And yes, I have a holga, and even a clockwork Russian Lomo 135. Fun and full of charm.

  • I have been thinking of getting a Holga for a while – you’ve sold the idea to me Jose! To me there is something problematic about digitally altering an image to achieve the ‘Holga effect.’ The Holga process surely is all about unpredictably and creating a one off picture, I see many examples of images that have been played around with and altered where the manipulation is the point of interest not the content of the photograph.
    One of my new year resolutions is to have more fun with my photography, buying a Holga and having a play seems a perfect way to achieve this!

  • I love the idea of having a Holga, but while I started out working with film, I just find the convenience and low cost of digital much more appealing. However I do adore the quirkyness of the images, and i’m seriously tempted to get a holga lens for my dslr or my PEN.

    • That’s an idea…I’d love to see the photographs that you take with the Holga lens. Please do share some of them with the OCA community.

  • My pretty poor efforts with a Lensbaby lens have put me off really from trying out a Holga which I imagine to be ten times worse and then you have to wait for the prints to come back. I didn’t know you could get the lens for DSLRs so maybe I’ll give it a try after all.

  • I have enough trouble getting decent pictures from my brand new SLR – I’ve no chance with a Holga! However, if I did use a Holga perhaps I could claim that my occasionally lucky outcome was really Art with a capital A.
    Now wait a minute, isn’t that what I’m doing with my SLR ….?

  • I was very interested in this as I was thinking about using an old Diana plastic camera to get some ‘sense of place’ photos. I may try some shots using my Diana and if the style works then order the digital lens. All this is still in the ‘ruminating’ stage but I’d love to see the results of the digital lens.

  • I’m one that’s been in the cult for sometime. I have a Diana, a Holga and I have recently acquire a Recesky, thanks to Dewald. The Recesky is a DIY toy camera so it is double the fun ( for some like me )and I’m using 35mm colour film in it, so I’ll send it away to be developed. I normally develop my own B&W film from Holga and Diana and the surprises are just fantastic. When I have got it “right” the feeling I get from it is much more than with my digital horse.
    It does’t matter how many thousands of images I can take with my digital camera, it cannot be compared, the 12 frames from the 120 film gives me more satisfaction even if I get only 1 or 2 decent pics.

    • Yiann, I have to agree. I have no idea – just hopes – when I unload the film from my wooden Zero 200 camera – £25 second hand – Jose, I dropped it from 30 feet onto a cobbled street and it broke into 5 piece! I took it to a carpenter and he repaired it for me – mahogany and ebony. Twelve neg’s – sometimes I double expose (usually a mistake) sometimes I miss a complete frame (just being careful). But it has produced some of my favourite personal photographs. I am thinking about a Holga (but only with a plastic lens) – but there is so much other stuff to do!

  • I got the holga lens for my G3. Trouble is that on a digital camera you have too much control. I found myself checking focus, changing ISO and using the focus ring to adjust the vignette. Plus you don’t get any light leaks. The result of too much control is pictures that aren’t quite holgary enough. They’ve lost their mystery. Stick with the film cameras.

  • Thanks for that Ben, I’m going to experiment with my very old Diana, then perhaps scan them and upload the results 🙂

  • Thanks for this fab article, having now Googled ‘Holga’ and read some of the great stuff I have ordered myself a 120N with plasitc lens (in bright yellow!) and some rolls of film … can’t wait to give it a go!

  • Hi Jose, I’ve really enjoyed your article and the pics shown there. I had never heard of Holga before. It reminded me of the reliant robin, or my old twin tub. Maybe they’ve escaped from a parallel universe? In any case the idea that something is unique in our serial world is just lovely!

  • Interesting to read this… coming in a bit late…
    I’ve returned this afternoon with 8 rolls of Shanghai GP3 ISO 100 B&W films, shot in 3 Japanese cities… all with my plastic lens Holga 120CFN.
    There is so much I can add here about the self processing and stuff, but ultimately, the reason I like mine, is because it makes me stop and look at what is in front of me. And it is a different seeing that when looking with my Canon in hand.
    One should probably never say never, but I can’t see myself getting the lens for my dSLR though…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

> Next Post Blog of the week: Nigel Roberson
< Previous Post Untitled Post
Back to blog listings