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5 Reasons You Should Try Digital Holga Portraits

Remember when life wasn’t so complicated, when there wasn’t a million things to remember, and when photography wasn’t a serious hobby but just . . . for fun? Holga remembers.

holga pinhole 25mm f8 lens
A featherweight at 38g. A bargain at $15.

There is freedom in simplicity. You can pour over MTF graphs online and ridiculous DxO Mark scores, or you can do-it-yourself and experiment with something deliciously old school.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I’m in love with this $15-25 plastic Holga lens. We took it out to the LA Arts District, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica Pier for several model test shoots.

The Holga lens is available for a variety of focal lengths and mounts. We used a 25mm f/8 for our Sony A7, but other versions are available as follows:

5. The Lovely 35mm Film Look

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Peyton Lake rocking her AC DCs in the back of a 325i. Makeup by Jordan Takeda. Image processed with the Terry Style Clean preset for Adobe Lightroom.

Digital is clean, precise, and sterile. Film has a texture to it, or as Patrick Bateman might say, “the tasteful thickness of it.” But the problem with 35mm film is the time, expense, and effort of dealing with a physical media, not to mention, the way we consume photography has long changed from printed photo to digital websites.

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Saskia Schramel conjuring her 60s NorCal spirit with gold-brimmed heart-shaped shades, various gold chains, and a leather native headband. Image processed with the Holga Style Warm Sides preset.

So without Adobe trickery or in-camera filters, the Holga lens, on a digital camera, manages the closest approximation of film since, well, 35mm film. It reminds me of Fuji Provia slide film, muted tones and a subdued dynamic range. It is beautifully nostalgic, yet genuine.

4. All About the Lens Flare

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The ethereal Saskia backlit against the Californian sky. The Holga lens’ flare is unique, bold, and unapologetic. Image processed with the Holga Style Warm Sides preset.

Your $2,000 high-powered nano coated lens cannot do what this $15 plastic meniscus lens does. Purists be damned, but it’s a different paintbrush for a different look. The sun showers a beautiful halo of flare in backlit portraits.

Holga style thrives on candid photography, especially since you don’t have to worry about focus with the f/8 aperture. Image processed with the Holga Style Warm Top Blue Center preset.

At certain angles, the oddly shaped aperture reveals itself through the flare. For cameras with live view and EVFs, you can easily play around with the placement of the flare to get a unique look. The lens flare is one of my favorite aspects of this lens.

3. Worry Free Composition and Focusing

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The gorgeous 15 y/o Mikaila Storrs against a green foliage background. The only thing a “digital holga” cannot achieve over a film holga is light leaks. But that can be taken care of in post. Image processed with the Holga Style Warm Sides preset.

Heavy vignetting forces you to center your objects in most situations. This is liberating rather than limiting, because it frees you to concentrate on other aspects of the image. You can communicate with your model better. You can look at her expression more. You don’t have to worry about recomposing after focus lock.

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Kayla Barr, actress, comedian, and fashion writer for, looking beautiful basking in the golden California sun. Image processed with the Holga Style Cool Sides Warm Center preset.

I found myself taking a lot more photos than I normally would. For a three hour on-location shoot, I usually take between 200-400 photos. With this Holga lens, I was averaging 400-500.  I didn’t have to worry about composition. I didn’t have to worry about focus. I paid more attention to the model. I paid more attention to the shot. It was brilliant.

2. It’s Brilliant at Night and with Flash

This was one of those memorable “wow” moments. We were in front of the lit up Pacific Wheel late into a sunset when Saskia suddenly looked softly back over her shoulder.

Sensor noise, in most situations, detract and distract from a modern digital image. However, for these Holga style portraits, noise adds texture and organic-ness to the photograph. In post, I would take away color noise but keep luminance noise to emulate film grain.

A rare and vulnerable moment between strangers. The Holga lens is unobtrusive and lets the photographer focus on the model. The lo-fi Holga style also seems to go hand in hand with the direct flash Terry Richardson style. A beautiful variation on a theme then.

The lens is also absolutely brilliant with direct flash. In fact, most of my shots were taken with a Terry Style direct flash setup, day or night. Since the fixed aperture was f/8, I found that for portraits, the flash added a little extra pop and contrast to the otherwise dark images. I had my manual Meike MK300 flash firing at 1/32 power.

1. No Touchup Post Processing

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Regardless of the fact that Mikaila and Peyton already have flawless skin, the Holga made post processing a simple pleasure. Image processed with the Terry Style Clean preset.

The Holga’s soft rendering makes it an ideal portrait lens. Skin imperfections are minimized while good contrast is retained. All the images here are essentially untouched for skin imperfections, the most tedious and least creative aspect for any veteran retoucher. You are left to play with the colors, tones, and exposure.

For more holga style presets continue here.

By the end of my shoots, I had a lot more keepers and I was able to process them much more quickly because I didn’t have to retouch skin. The results are unique and I am very happy with them. Overall, the lens was a joy to use and shoot.

A big thank you to my lighting assistant Erik N. and makeup artist Jordan Takeda. Special thanks to the models Peyton Lake, Mikaila Storrs, Saskia Schramel, and Kayla Barr for the super fun shoots.

[Featured photo by Erik N. edited by Edward T.]

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