Its images feel like old movies, childhood toys, or fond ex girlfriends. It is riddled with optical flaws and its image circle can’t even cover a cropped sensor, but it takes us back to the roots of photography and camera obscura. It is $15, utterly uncomplicated, and, without a doubt, the funnest lens I’ve used in a very very long time.
The lens is the Holga 25mm f/8. The Holga brand name is synonymous with the plastic fantastic 120 medium format film camera you can purchase in every Urban Outfitters across America. At the core of Lomography’s lo-fidelity philosophy is the idea that photography is meant to be impulsive, spontaneous, and fun. And now, for the first time, it is digital.
We explore the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in downtown LA and then take a short road trip to Pasadena, California. We mount the Holga on our Sony A7 and Sony A5000. No more expensive 120 film and waiting for the it to develop. No more fiddling with plastic cameras without any preview.
What’s a Holga Lens?
Available for the Canon EOS mount, the Nikon F mount, and the micro 4/3rds mount, there are also non-wide 60mm versions for all mounts. It is, by far, the best $15-20 (depending on the mount) you’ll ever spent on a lens.
A Holga lens is either a simple plastic meniscus lens or a pinhole design without optical elements but a single pinhole opening. The light passes through the opening and, based on camera obscura principles, an inverted image forms on the other side as with any other regular lens. Physically, it is akin to squinting your eyes to get a clearer image.
The effect is surprisingly sharp considering it is just a hole in a box. The Holga can be mounted on full frame lenses but it does not cover the full frame sensor (as shown above). Even on APS-C sized sensors, there is serious vignetting. However, the defining feature is the quality of the rendering, something that can’t be replicated by a conventional optical lens.
The Lo-Fi Lomography Look
As we cross the Los Angeles river towards downtown LA, the first thing we notice, aside from the vignetting, is the cinematic quality of the lens. Yes, it is not tack sharp, but it’s very much like watching film rather than video. Christopher Nolan would be proud.
There is an organic-ness to the images, something different from sterile high res pictures. It’s like big band jazz played on an old gramophone rather than a meticulously produced synth pop MP3.
We park at a Joe’s Auto Park on Main and 5th in front of the biggest piece ever done by São Paulo’s Claudio Ethos. We take a $4 Uber to MOCA because we’ll coming back to Main street. Uber drivers are always so nice. I haven’t met a bad one yet.
A white Toyota Prius takes us to MOCA where we test out the lens indoors in low light. With no flash allowed inside the gallery, we let the A5000 spike up to ISO 3200. The noise grain remains attractive and actually fits the lo-fi look very well.
At f/8, there will be some limitations indoors without flash, especially when it comes to shutter speed. However, there is no issue with focusing mostly because there is no accurate focusing. Nor does that matter, but more on this later.
This lens is just so fun. There is such freedom from a lack of precision. Rather than a 17th century highly realistic Rembrant, this lens is the surrealists’ brush. Dali, Warhol, Duchamp would have enjoyed Holgas. You don’t have to focus. You don’t worry about composition. You just see with this lens.
The distortion is mustachioed and uncorrectable, but that’s the way I like it. Even on the cropped sensor A5000, the vignetting is heavy, so you just center your subjects and relax about composition.
Let purists be damned. There has always been and will always be a counter culture to knock the mainstream off balance. The Holga is the L.H.O.O.Q to our L.E.I.C.A.
Real World Handling
Rule #6 of Lomography’s “Don’t Think, Just Shoot” concept is “Don’t Think” and it is central to its philosophy. From their 10 Golden Rules, number six says:
“Remember when you were a kid and everything happened so naturally and instinctively? When all life flowed and wasn’t planned and constructed meticulously? … Let’s go back to those days. Throw your intellectual socialization overboard…Shoot, feel, perceive and shoot, have fun…Your best shots won’t be the ones you plot and plan. They’ll be the ones where you grab your camera and shoot blind, without a care in the world.”
You can hate Lomography for their ridiculously overpriced and rebranded cameras, but there is appeal to their carefree philosophy. There is no distance scale or depth-of-field scale here. There are four logos suggesting unspecific focal distances. Then there is live view for the perfectionists. Thank goodness.
We take another $4 Uber from MOCA to their Geffen Extension and check out William Pope L.’s Trinket exhibit. Dominating this multi-level warehouse space is Trinket, an art installation of a 54 foot tall American flag continuously blown by 4 industrial special effects fans and lit by three arrays of spotlights. The Holga lens is entirely enjoyable to shoot indoor and out.
Light Leaks and Light Streaks
A short thirty minute drive to Pasadena and we reach The Hat Restaurant, with their self-proclaimed World Famous Pastrami Dip. The “world” part must be greatly exaggerated or redefined to East LA because we’ve never heard of it and certainly not as good as Katz’s Deli in New York or Schwartz’s in Montreal.
One prominent feature of shooting Holga cameras is their light leaks. Wide gaps and loose tolerances make Holga medium formats inexpensive to produce at the expense of leaks into the film chamber.
However, the Lomography crowd has embraced this drawback as a feature. Artists control and manipulate these leaks by applying and removing black gaffer tape to various parts of the camera.
Mounting the Holga lens onto a digital body means the lens fits snuggly and securely. But this also means no light leaks. Thus, the light leaks must be taken care of in post (see below).
Shifts towards magentas, greens, and blues are fairly common. Over exposure from one side of the camera can show up as a red/magenta light streak across a side of the frame.
Green and blue casts may come from diffuse light leaking into the camera body and having its shadow cast on the film surface. There is no rhythm or reason with a Holga camera, and that’s part of the charm. But with a digital Holga, at least you have some control.
As usual, much of the magic is in the post processing. The lens itself does not produce light leaks, but we’ve carefully adjusted gradient and radial filters to achieve the right look. The careful adjustments in post really makes all the difference. Instead of having you guess and figure out how each of my photos were processed, I’m simply going to share the presets I’ve created and used for these Holga shoots.
- “Cool Sides Warm Center” – This is my default Holga style presets, suitable for both indoor and outdoor shots. Light leaks on either side of image cuts down on the heavy vignetting with a warm center to bring out the subject’s contrast.
- “Neutral Bottom Green Center” – Great for landscapes and outdoor shots, the bottom light leak draws attention to the ground while the green center adds an unique touch.
- “Neutral Top Blue Center” – Specifically for indoor shots and not recommended for landscapes because it would blow out the sky, this preset help recover underexposed indoor shots into something useable and attractive.
- “Warm Sides Leaks”– A minimal preset with warm light leaks on either side of the frame to cut down on the vignetting. This is for those who prefer a more natural and less processed look.
- “Warm Sides Blue Center” – A heavy variation on the preset above, by adding a large radial Blue filter to the center of the frame to add a strong color and something different to the frame.
The Holga Style presets package includes 10 presets. Each of the 5 presets described also comes with a +1EV version for photographers purposely underexposing their shots for post processing. These are specifically designed for any of the following Holga lenses:
- Holga 25mm f/8 Lens for Sony E-mount
- Holga Pinhole Lens for Sony E-mount
- Holga 60mm f/8, Manual Focus Lens for Canon EOS
- Holga Pinhole Lens for Canon EOS
- Holga 60mm f/8 Lens for Nikon DSLR
- Holga Pinhole Lens for Nikon DSLR
- Holga 25mm f/8 Lens for Olympus and Panasonic
They are also designed for RAW files. Your experience may vary when processing JPGs or when processing images not shot with a Holga lens. These presets work on Lightroom 4/5/6+. Earlier versions of Lightroom are not supported unfortunately.
Your purchase of the $10 presets package help support future in-depth articles and is greatly appreciated. The Buy Now button takes you to Paypal, after which you should automatically receive an email within five minutes with instructions to download the 10 presets in a zip file. If you have any questions about the presets, please feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. I will personally return your email as soon as I can.
The iLHP Guarantee: We want you to be very satisfied with your purchase. We realize sensor profiles can differ between camera brands. So in some rare situation, if you can’t quite achieve the same results as we have illustrated above, send in (1) RAW file with your typical camera settings and full metadata to email@example.com and we will help you customize the presets to your camera sensor within 24 hours. Please buy with confidence.
We will be doing more Holga style portrait shoots in the near future so please stay tuned. It is excited to explore this niche of photography, one with which the costs are so low and the rewards are so high. For $15-20, I would wholeheartedly recommend any photographer to pick up one of these lenses and put it aside their luxury lenses. Your Leica shooting and L glass shooting friends will ask you how you achieved this look.