Benefits of a Holga lens on a digital camera – part 2

The biggest benefit to shooting with a digital camera and a Hogla lens is the fact that you can shoot at much higher ISOs.

There are three ways to adjust the exposure of an image. Shutter speed, (how fast the shutter opens and closes), aperture, (blades inside the lens open and close to allow more or less light in), and ISO, (in the old days it was a measure of how light sensitive the film you were using is).

Shot with a Canon 5d MkIII and a Holga lens.

With a film Holga there is no way to adjust the shutter speed and only two apertures available. The only way to really adjust exposure is through ISO.

The higher the ISO rating of the film you buy , the more light sensitive it is. Most film available in the 120 and 220 formats the Holga uses are in the 100 to 400 ISO range. There are some films that’ll even go as high as 3200 ISO but the quality of the images tends to suffer when you get that high.

The images get grainy and flat. The tonal range, the number of different shades of grey between the blackest of blacks and the whitest white gets very narrow.

This means, most of the time, you’re fairly limited in the situations you can capture on film with a Holga because you need a good amount of bright daylight to fully expose the film. Outdoors, during the brighter times of day, you’re okay but later in the evening, you might as well give up trying to capture the longer shadows and dramatic scenes of the magic hour before sunset.

Digital cameras, however, have made huge advances in the levels of light sensitivity in the last decade. You can shoot a digital camera at ISOs of 6400, 128000 or even 256000 and still capture images with much better quality than you can with the fastest flims.

Throw in the greater flexibility you get when it comes to shutter speed and you have vastly improved control over exposure with a digital camera and a Holga lens. This give a photographer the flexibility of being able to shoot in much lower light situations. I captured the image above at night, under regular household lights in the office of my home. Had I attempted to take the same image with a traditional Holga, even with 3200 film, it would’ve come out black and completely underexposed.

While most of my ghost town images are shot during the day, there are quite a few times when shooting the interior of buildings for example that I;d get frames that were barely more than squares of black.

That’s probably the biggest reason for shooting digital and Holga lens. I can go anytime and shoot anything. I don’t have to wait for high noon and I’m not limited to the out of doors.

Hola – Film vs Digital

The original Holga camera shoots 120 or 220 film – those two film sizes are the same width but the 220 film rolls are twice as long so you can shoot twice as many frames.

Holga film camera

There are a couple of advantages to shooting with the original film Holgas. The first is the light leaks. The camera itself isn’t exactly completely light-tight so the film gets fogged in unique ways every time you run a roll through the camera. Another advantage to shooting on film is the ability to produce prints with a filed negative look. They show not just the image but the surrounding film information as well.

Filing out the negative carrier in an enlarger allows the photographer to show the borders of the image on the negative, usually that includes the film type and the frame number. It’s probably easier to show you what I’m talking about rather than to explain it.

In this image from Harrisburg, you can see the light light leak that creates the white spot in the upper right corner of the frame and you can also see the KODAK TMY in the frame of the image. The TMY identifies the film as being Kodak’s T-Max 400 black and white film. The number to the right of the arrow at the bottom of the image, a 4 in this frame, identifies the frame number on the roll of film.

My Canon 5D digital camera with a Holga lens attached.

Both of those characteristics disappear when you switch to shooting digital images with a Holga lens.

You still get the vignetting (the corners of the image are underexposed to the point where the image looks like it fades into black in all four corners) and the softer focus but you loose the other details.

I suppose these elements could be added in Photoshop but that seems like deception to me. It seems to me the art created through a Holga lens with a digital camera shouldn’t be misrepresented as having been created on film in a traditional Holga.

The advantages of shooting digital with a Holga lens are the ease with which the images can be edited and printed. There’s no need to develop film and no need to scan the negatives. You can also see the images as they’re captured. You know you’ve got what you were hoping to capture because you can see it on the back of the camera rather than having to wait hours or days for the film to be developed before you can see what you’ve captured.

I was very happy with a number of the images I captured in the first phase of this project while shooting film but Im also excited for the prospect of revisiting the project from a purely digital perspective. I’m also excited to see if the advantages of digital outweigh the disadvantages.

The ghost town at Harrisburg, Utah

When my wife and I were first dating, she told me she always loved the spot where you can see Pine Valley Mountain off to your left coupled with the red sandstone of the cliffs near Silver Reef as you drop into the Harrisburg Dip on the drive from St. George to Cedar City.

She was making that commute almost daily as she worked on getting her degree in education at Southern Utah University.

It really is a pretty spot and we both liked it so much we held our wedding ceremony right there in Harrisburg.

There are still a few remains from the pioneer town that stand, there’s also an old movie set from a film made in the 50’s called They Came to Cordura.

It’s a town I’m very familiar with so I made it a point to shoot a few images with my Holga there as well.

Since my first trip to Harrisburg with my Holga, the town’s changed quite a bit. Some of the old buildings have crumbled, yet at the same time, there have been some renovations undertaken so there are a few buildings that look almost as if they were still being called home by pioneers.

In addition to my first trips with my Holga, Harrisburg is another town I’ve had the opportunity to visit and write about as a reporter for the Spectrum.

It’s also another town on my list to revisit with my digital camera and a Holga lens.

More on that in my next post…

Shooting film in a Holga

I’ve always been fascinated by history. Growing up in Pennsylvania, there were houses on my block that were built well before Brigham Young ever declared that “this is the place” but even so, the history here in Utah seems just as rich as that found anywhere else in the world.

I took that fascination with history and combined it with my love of photography when I decided to embark on a project to capture some of Southern Utah’s ghost towns with my Holga.

For a few years I’d bring along a few rolls of film and stop and shoot when ever I stumbled upon a reason to be anywhere near a ghost town.

On a trip to Modena, a nearly deserted old railway town out north and west of Enterprise, I found a particularly rich environment for photographing.

The old BJ Lund Hotel, sagging and nearly falling down, still stands along the railroad tracks.

It’s the crown jewel in what is a fascinating place.

I shot the town on film, developed the images in the bathtub of my home and scanned them into a computer. It was one of my first trips with the Holga and I remember being really excited about the images.

A few years after my first trip out there I returned, without my Holga, but  I wrote a story for the Spectrum about my visit.

The beginning of my experimentation with Holga cameras

As an undergraduate studying photography at New York University, I experimented with a number of alternative processes.

One of my favorite projects involved taking black and white images that I’d shot of some of the power plants in and around New York City and subjecting them to copper toning baths that were hours longer than they were supposed to be.

By the time  I pulled the prints fromthe toner, they were just sheets of paper covered in copper. I then used rags to scrape off some of the copper and expose the image that was still beneath.

It was a commentary on the smokestack scrubbers power plants were being mandated to install at the time to remove pollutants from the exhaust they were emitting.

I also worked with several different types of medium format cameras.

I fell in love with the 6×4.5mm format and went so far as to purchase my own Fuji6x4.5 rangefinder. It was with that camera that I shot many of the documentary projects I worked on as an undergraduate.

I loved that small completely manual camera that was almost completely silent but that produced negatives twice the size of a 35mm camera and allowed me to make much larger prints.

After graduating from NYU and finding a job as a photojournalist, however, much of my experimenting with photography came to an end and I fell into the day to day of shooting 35mm film at photo assignments around Southern Utah.

A few years into my career, in an attempt to recapture that sense of experimentation I decided to buy a couple of Holgas.

In my career as a photojournalist, I was always concerned with exposure, focus, proper developing, shutter speeds, apertures, depth of field, all the technical aspects of the craft. But with a Holga, almost none of that matters.

There is only one shutter speed on a Holga. There are no f-stops, just a switch that has one picture of clouds and another of the sun. Focus is done by guessing. Holgas are one of the most basic means of capturing an image on film.

That simplicity really intrigued me.

I wanted to find a simple way to photograph and to explore the most basic elements of the image.

So I ordered a few Holgas and started to contemplate what I’d do with them once they arrived.

A simpler kind of photography

For over 20 years I’ve worked as a photojournalist utilizing the most high-tech equipment. Digital SLR cameras that offer photographers every possible means to quickly and easily create stunning images and even transmit them to the internet and tag them with GPS coordinates.

As a means to find the joy in a simpler style of photography, one that focuses on the image rather than the technology used to capture it, several years ago I turned to taking images with a 120mm film camera called a Holga.The Holga is just a step above a pin-hole camera in being about as minimalist as a camera can get.

There are no shutter speeds to worry about, no f-stops, even focusing is guesswork at best. For the most part, shooting with a Holga is more about when you push the shutter button and less about all the rest.

I started a project shooting Southern Utah’s ghost towns with my Holga several years ago on film but have recently decided to give shooting with a Holga lens adapter on my digital cameras a try. The next several blog posts will focus on that endeavor.