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Holga 120 Twin Lens Reflex Camera Review

STARTING OFF A REVIEW for the Holga 120 TLR by talking about the Canon 5D mark ii may seem totally out of left field but it helps to define my mental state. This story begins almost 2 years ago. The 5D mark ii had been announced and I knew it was time to start saving my pennies in order to upgrade my then brand new 5D mark i. The problem was, with a $2,500 price tag attached to the upgrade, that’s quite a lot of pennies to be saved.

SO now we come to the Holga 120 TLR, a little piece of plastic that only costs $60 and floated into my life by way of a gift from my brother this last Christmas. Knowing my love for digital photography he thought I might like to go analogue for a change. Although I’d been eyeing Holga photographs online for months, when I finally had one I really didn’t know what to make of the thing. It weighed next to nothing in my hand and captured images by way of light being exposed to a film negative. Very strange. I set the Holga on a shelf.

3 months later, I’d finally saved enough money and clicked the add to cart button next to the 5D mark ii on the B&H website. Earlier that week my brother had given me a follow up gift to his Christmas present; more film and another book for inspiration, Plastic Cameras: Toying with Creativity by Michelle Bates. As I waited for my new expensive DSLR to arrive I started reading through the truly great Michelle Bates book. Finally out of curiosity I took the Holga off the shelf.


The first thing I did was modify the camera using suggestions from the Bates’ book. If you’re curious, you can see a step by step Holga modification tutorial HERE on the blog. These changes were made to the camera in order to extend the image on the negative, increase the vignette and fuzziness around the edges, as well as increase the possibility of light leaks. I wanted the light leaks. I figure if you shoot with a toy camera you should squeeze all the happy accidents that you can out of it.

The Holga 120 TLR sports a twin lens pop up view finder. This means that you look down into the camera from about 6 inches above. You frame your shot this way using a secondary lens located just above the one you’ll actually be making your exposure with. This is the first thing I loved about shooting with the 120 TLR. You literally shoot from the gut! After spending two years holding a DLSR up to my eye level, shooting at such a low angle with a toy camera was a revelation. It automatically makes for an interesting photograph when you shoot from the point of view of a child.

The other more obvious difference between capturing digitally vs. using film is the amount of exposures you are limited to. The Holga 120 TLR limits you to either 12 square or 16 rectangular exposures on medium format film. This is what I imagined I would hate about shooting with the Holga. I’m so used to machine gunning images onto a CF card. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. What I found was that being limited to just 12 or 16 exposures is actually liberating. It forces you to think before you shoot. You take more time to choose your shots, compose your image, and wait for that definitive moment to trip the shutter.

If you’re used to shooting digital, the first time you take a picture with a Holga may seem a bit odd. After my first shot I almost instinctively looked at the back of my Holga to check the histogram and to see how my picture turned out. At first it was frustrating not knowing what my images looked like immediately. I’ve since shot many rolls of 120 film with the Holga and this is still the hardest part for me to get used to.

One thing I love in particular about shooting with the Holga is being able to shoot multiple exposures with overlapping frames. This is done by taking a picture and then not advancing the film all the way to the next frame so that your next exposure will overlap with your previous one creating a longer, more rectangular montage of images.

Given that it’s considered a toy camera, the Holga handles quite nicely. It’s light. It fit’s perfectly in your hands. I haven’t had any difficulty with it not functioning properly. Granted, it is a piece of plastic and should be considered as such. It will break if dropped. It will melt if you take a cigarette lighter to it.

Overall, I’ve found my experience with the Holga to be amazing. The day my new 5D finally arrived I ended up not rushing to take it out of it’s box because I had my first roll of Holga pictures to develop. I was off to the lab. When I got home to see the scans of my images I was so excited about what I saw that I reloaded the Holga and went out for another photo adventure. March turned to April. April turned to May. As of writing this review, I have yet to take a single image with my new very expensive DSLR. Granted, I’ve been very busy lately, but somehow not too busy to shoot up rolls of Holga shots.

I’ve promised myself now to put down the Holga for awhile and get to know the camera I’ve been saving for two years to buy but have left sitting on the shelf untouched. I don’t think I’m all that crazy for ignoring my fancy new camera. I feel in the long run, spending these months with this $60 toy camera has made me a better digital photographer. The Holga has helped me to see and shoot in a different way. I’ve become a more thoughtful photographer. Shooting with the Holga 120 TLR has taught me the value of a single exposure. It’s definitely brought the child out in me, and I absolutely love the images that have been coming out of it. Most of all it’s taught me that the price of your camera does not necessarily correlate with your enjoyment of it, or the images it makes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very excited about shooting with my new DSLR, but I know now with certainty that I will never be monogamous with it. Every camera has it’s own personality, and in the case of the Holga, it’s personality is ever present. As I start to shoot now with my 5D  and my Holga 120 TLR, I’ll be keeping my eye out for new personalities, new cheap cameras to play with, and new ways to see the world through them.


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