HOLGA TIPS,  plus Photoshop & Faux Holga Techniques

(The following is written in a light hearted and even sarcastic manner, but seriously, this camera can produce some seriously nice photos if used in a seriously appropriate manner.)

Holga cameras (the basic 120N described here and most of the over two dozen Holga variants, including several 120 film and 35mm film models, panoramic, pinhole, and fisheye Holgas, even a “Meow Kitty” point & shoot style 35mm camera, with blinking lights and cat sounds to get a cat subject’s attention) have severe limitations that can cause glaring faults in a photo (out of focus images, motion blurred images, overlapping and multiple exposed frames, contrasty or "muddy" looking photos and other faults that have led to the Holga's status as a favored "cult camera." But while some or all of these faults are present to some degree in all Holga photos, they can become overpowering at times if careful attention is not given to camera handling and picture taking technique. With proper technique, the Holga can produce some amazingly nice photos that use some of these faults to enhance the image.

Like a Volkswagen Beetle
The basic Holga 120N described here is a little like the original VW Beetle of the mid-1940s to 2004 (although not marketed by VW in the U.S. since 1980). The Beetle’s concept was a basic car that was simple to operate and designed for one thing only - to get its passengers from point A to point B. Over the years, small changes were made only to improve the car’s function (larger tail lights, larger rear window, increased horse power, two-speed heater fan, etc.), not year to year changes just for looks.

The original Holga 120S had but one shutter speed of 1/125th of a second; the 120N has two (1/125th and B for “Bulb” to hold the shutter open for several seconds as needed for low light exposures). The original took only 6x4.50cm (“645”) medium format images. The 120N can be switched to take either 645 or 6x6cm images (but not switched in mid-roll). The current 120N also has foam inserts to hold the film spools a little more firmly; the 120S let the film spools flop around somewhat loosely. And the 120N has a tripod mount. Heady stuff!

The name “Volkswagen” translates roughly to “people’s car,” and like the VW, the Holga is a camera for the people.

Set for sunny conditions.

Set for cloudy conditions. Note also the focusing symbols - at this time the lens is set on the "Group" symbol indicating 20 ft.

N = 1/125th shutter speed.

B = "Bulb" for time exposures.

To see the frame numbers on the roll film, set the red window for (16) 645 exposures or (12) 6x6 exosures by moving the arrow to point to the appropriate number. This camera has the window marked 16 uncovered but note the arrow is pointing to 12, meaning the camera is really set for (12) 6x6 exposures. Brilliant, huh?

Amazing Tips for Using a Holga 120N
A Holga is also a lot like a vintage manual typewriter, which when using you have to manually move the carriage to the next line, and there are no provisions for correcting mistakes other than manually backing the carriage up, applying whiteout and re-typing. Old typewriters can be operated with a few very basic and easy functions.

Same with the Holga. Nothing is automatic. Only the very basic and very limited and simple functions of picture taking are needed to operate. Focusing is by guess and by golly (you guess at the distance to your subject and turn the lens to one of four pre-set marks to get a sharp image, by golly). Focusing is even so basic that the focus distance for each setting is not listed, rather generic symbols of a single silhouette for portraits (3 1/4 feet); three people for families (6 1/2 ft.); multiple people for groups (20 ft.), and mountains for scenics (33 ft. to infinity) are given for your convenience.

If setting shutter speed and aperture seems bass ackwards, it is! For shutter speed selection, you slide a little tab toward “N” (for 1/125th) or “B” (for long time exposures). Pretty straight forward, heh? But for aperture, you slide another little tab OVER either the full sun or partly sunny symbols for the desired setting. This lets the unused setting show, and logic would dictate that would instead indicate the setting selected. But nooooo....

For example, if the cloudy/partly sunny symbol (for f/8) is showing, you have set the camera to the full sun setting (f/11), and vice-versa. (As if one stop difference is all that is needed for correct exposure when there are two or more stops of light between full sun and cloudy!) And in a further stoke of simplicity motivated genius, the shutter speeds and apertures are not marked. (Maybe there was not enough room to place Chinese language characters indicating the speeds and apertures?)

Important! ALWAYS wind the film first, or else! When you advance the film for each new shot (using a knurled knob that can make your thumb and forefinger feel raw after winding a few frames), remember that the shutter automatically recocks after every use. Since the shutter is always ready to fire, you must be sure the film has been advanced to a fresh frame before taking another picture. Not doing so will result in multiple exposures on the one frame as the shutter can be fired over and over and over at any time.

A good rule of thumb is to ALWAYS WAIT to wind the film UNTIL READY to TAKE another picture. If you do not wind the film the same way each time you use the camera, when you are ready to shoot again, you may forget if you wound the film or not after shooting, risking a double exposure if you have not wound the film, or a wasted frame if you did and you wind again just to be sure. Oh, and by the way, there is no frame counter, rather you look for the next frame number on the film’s paper backing to appear in the little red window on the camera back as you turn the wind knob.

Reloading fresh film is easy, but a problem to watch out for is putting the 120N's back plate back on upside down (it will fit either way). If shooting 6x6 and the film back is replaced upside down, you will be seeing the frame numbers for 645 resulting in overlapped images if you do not realize what has happened, as the film is not wound as much for 645 as it is for the larger 6x6 frames.

Speaking of 645, the Holga 120N can be set to take either 12 6x6 images or 16 645 images, by easily changing an insert that sits behind the lens (of course, this cannot be done in mid-roll). To get the correct film advance for the selected format, be sure you slide the red window tab on the camera back to align with the appropriate mark, else you will be advancing the film for the wrong frame size, again causing overlapping of your images.

But confusion again enters here as one would logically push the tab to let the frame numbers for 12 6x6 images show through the red film window marked “12,” and slide the tab away from the red film window marked “16” for 16 645 images.

Noooooo again! Instead, you slide the tab so its little arrow points to the 12 or 16 mark as appropriate. This means the correct frame numbers for the 16 645 images are showing in the red film window marked with a “12,” while the 12 6x6 image frame numbers will show beside the window marked “16.”

Is that clearer than mud, or what!?

An example of overlapping frames due to putting the camera's back on upside down
so the proper frame numbers do not show!

Confusion does not stop with the film window! The viewfinder is not through the lens, nor is this a rangefinder. The viewfinder is simply an “aiming” mechanism that does not show you exactly what the lens sees, as your picture will always have more around the edges than seen in the viewfinder.

This is especially true with the 645 insert, as you are still seeing the same square image as when the 6x6 insert is in place. If shooting the smaller 645 format you have to mentally compose so that your main subject is centered in the viewfinder to get a properly framed image on the narrow 645 frame. One advantage of the 645 format is you can turn the camera sideways to get a horizontal image, or hold the camera up right to get verticals.

The best way to compose a 6x6 image with the Holga is to put your main subject against the edges of the viewfinder window. This will result in an appropriate space between your subject and the edges of the final photo.

Additionally, if you are using one of Holga's 2X telephoto lens adapter, the image on film will be about twice as big as what you see in the viewfinder. Framing tightly in the viewfinder will result in a large portion of your subject missing in the final photo! Similar problems of precise image composition VS what is captured on film may also occur when using a Holga wide angle, close-up or macro adapter. It is advised you shoot a test roll of film to see what viewfinder compositions give the best result on film.

The 120N has a tripod screw, but it is about useless as it will not hold tight, and tightening down too much could (probably will!) break the plastic camera casing.

Amazingly Good Quality
Most appropriate sarcasm aside, the Holga, despite its all plastic uncoated lens, takes pretty darn nice photos. The center of the image is maybe sharp enough to make a decent 16x16 inch print, but it is better to stick to smaller prints such as 8x8 inches. The main advantages of the Holga are the corner vignetting (darkening) and the edge image softness, which gradually goes away toward the center of the frame. This emulates the performance of old cameras with lenses with poor resolution and no lens coatings.

One needs to photograph carefully, however, especially being sure to set the focus correctly. For subjects you guesstimate to be 10 feet or more away out to the 33 feet infinity focus setting, one trick is to imagine the 10 feet distance from the floor to a basketball goal and mentally multiply this distance one and one half, two or three times to guesstimate the focus distance for subjects you feel to be 15 feet, 20 feet or 30 feet away. For these resulting focus distances you have determined to be mid-way between the marked settings, position the lens part way between the marked settings as appropriate to your guesstimated distance to the subject.

For the closer 3 1/4 and 6 1/2 feet settings, imagine a yard stick or two held between the lens and your subject. Or step off the distance to your subject (usually, a normal step is about three feet). Again, these tips should really clear up any focusing confusion!

Then be sure to hold the camera verrrry steady as you press the shutter button. And remember, at the blazing speed of 1/125th a second, your subject should be moving slowly if at all. Also remember to check the aperture and shutter tabs frequently in case they get bumped to the wrong setting. And wind the film to the next frame only when you are ready to shoot again!

Correct exposure? Fughedaboudit! With no ISO setting to let the meter determine a correct exposure for different speed films in different light conditions (oh yes, there IS no meter!); and with only two aperture choices and one day time shutter speed to choose from anyway, you will rarely get a perfect exposure.

The best procedure is to shoot an ISO 400 negative film and adjust for exposure and corrections in a computer editing program, or in the darkroom. But poor exposure which can lead to muddy (underexposed) or overly contrasty (overexposed) images is part of the old tyme look and charm of a Holga photo.

Like a Hasselblad
Hasselblad very hoity toity-like advertises that its cameras' 6x6 square image is the perfect format as it eliminates having to turn the camera sideways, like "normal" cameras that produce a rectangular image so must be turned to change from horizontal to vertical compositions. It makes no difference how you hold the Holga, the image will always be square. So you get the same easy composing ability of the Hasselblad, but for about $3,000 less!

Miscellaneous Tips
  • Photograph unusual subjects.
  • Use “improper” composition such as tilting the camera, or placing your subject at the extreme edge of the composition.
  • Use ISO 1600 or faster film or digital setting in bright light for overly contrasty, very "grainy" images.
  • Or use ISO 100 in dark conditions for "muddy" underexposures.
  • Use outdated film.
  • Use infrared film or a Holga lens on a digital IR SLR.
  • Create multiple exposures.
  • Use techniques listed in the following Photoshop section.

    Above all, use your imagination!

    Holgas are Amazingly Easy and Inexpensive to Repair
    Drop one and crack the plastic body, and a spot of super glue will bring a quick fix. Maybe add a piece of black tape to be sure any light leak is covered. Or just use black tape. Or Duct tape.

    A common problem are the side clips that hold the back in place. As the camera strap attaches to these, with any downward tug on the camera - even gravity - they can pull loose and the back will fall off, exposing your film. Or if bent even slightly, they will not stay in place. A strong rubber band around the camera - even when the camera is new - is a good bet to keep the back in place. The best fix of all is to always keep at least one extra Holga with you. And extra rubber bands. After all, they can break too!

    What is not to like!!?

    Digital Camera Makers Take a Clue!
    The 120N camera comes with all the accouterments you will ever hope to need (except film) - a camera strap, 645 and 6x6 inserts, and a nifty, easy to read instruction booklet which in just a few pages of very simple instructions covers the entire camera’s operation. The makers of modern digital cameras should take a clue from the Holga and make their cameras as simple to use and their instruction manuals as short and as easy to read!

    To Recap.....
  • Be sure to remove the lens cap!
  • Be sure to hold the camera verrrry steady as you press the shutter button.
  • Re-check your focus afore each new shot in case you forgot you changed subject distance.
  • Also remember to check the aperture and shutter tabs frequently in case they get bumped to the wrong setting.
  • And wind the film to the next frame only when you are ready to shoot again!
  • Keep a backup camera with you (remember, Holgas break easily).

    The Holga Lens on a SLR
    There are several advantages to using a Holga lens on a digital SLR, while retaining all the soft, vignetted charm of a photo from a regular Holga camera. There are also a few drawbacks, but as with a regular Holga camera (like the 120N) they too can add to the Holga photography experience!

  • No film handling (developing, filing, printing or scanning).
  • No spotting to remove inevitable dust spots that always seem to settle on film.
  • You can shoot quickly and many times to catch the best action without having to stop and wind or run out of film.
  • You will have a full range of shutter speeds to capture fast moving subjects.
  • You can check your photos as you take them for correct exposure and composition.
  • You can get an accurate composition with through the lens viewing.
  • You can vary the ISO for changing light conditions or to use increased noise for a “grain” effect.
  • You can use Holga's telephoto or wide angle adapters, as well as your camera maker’s tele extenders and macro extension tubes, with through the lens viewing.

  • You must set exposure manually and only by varying the shutter speed and/or ISO setting, so will need an understanding of how ISOs, apertures and shutter speeds combine for correct exposure.
  • While Holga claims their lens made for use on an SLR is f/8, the rear opening is a very small hole surrounded by 8 teeny-tiny holes behind the rear element f/8 opening, effectively rendering this lens as f/22 or smaller which makes the viewfinder way too dim to compose properly in less than near full sunlight, and cutting the exposure you can use by several stops.
  • You can also use a 1.5X or 2X lens extender to do Holga telephoto photography on more distant subjects, or get tighter composition on close subjects, but as the extender looses one or two stops of light loss coupled with the already very small rear opening, your viewfinder will probably be so dim you will have to compose by guessing, and will need ISO 1600 or 3200 to allow even 1/125th shutter speed.
  • You can use one or more extension tubes behind the lens to allow close-ups of small subjects, but again, resulting in a very dim viewfinder with probably “guestimate” focusing and composition.

    What to NOT DO with a Holga!
  • Beware of photography in very low light, where, even with super fast film like ISO 1600 or 3200, you cannot go to a low enough shutter speed or set a wide enough aperture for a proper exposure.
  • With the 120N, do not frame too loosely.
  • Do not tighten the tripod screw too much. The Holga’s tripod screw socket is set in plastic and is easy to break.
  • Do not use a 2X extender with a SLR Holga lens in low light. With the additional loss of two stops of light, the already dim viewfinder may be way too dim to see anything.
  • And the MAIN NO-NO – DO NOT use a Holga camera or lens for subjects where you want sharp, well exposed images!

  • Photoshop & Faux Holga Techniques

    Faux Holga
    Image Softness: If your image is too sharp due to being taken with a modern high quality camera, you can create a “Holgaesque” look of softness using Photoshop's or Elements' GAUSSIAN BLUR filter, with a RADIUS of about 2-4 pixels, to soften the image overall. To create additional image softness “fading” out to the edges, draw a circle down over just the center portion of the image with the circular ELLIPTICAL MARQUEE TOOL with FEATHERING set to 250 px (pixels), then use INVERSE to switch the selection to the background, and use the GAUSSIAN BLUR technique described above. Also you might experiment with the RADIUS amount to get an appropriate degree of blur you like.

    Corner Vignetting: In Photoshop or Elements use the BURN TOOL set to an EXPOSURE of about 25% or less (to give you more control over the amount of darkening) and “burn in” (darken) each corner of the image making the darkening “fade” from light to darker as it gets close to the corners.


    With the circular ELLIPTICAL MARQUEE TOOL with FEATHERING set to about 80 px (pixels), draw a circle or oval down over the subject to the opposite bottom right corner (leaving a small curved section of the image in each corner). (If this gives too large a corner area to match a Holga’s corner vignetting effect, first add 2-3 inches of blank canvas space around the image with CANVAS SIZE and start drawing your circle or oval in the blank border to leave smaller corners of the image for darkening.) Then use INVERSE to switch the selection to the background corners, and use LEVELS and move the center slider to the right to progressively darken the corners.

    Holga Alternatives: Certain other cameras that have low quality lenses can produce images with some or most of the following traits: a fall off of sharpness, vignetting, light leaks, and poorly exposed images with bad contrast as there may be no built-in exposure meter to set exposure by. And some have limited apertures and shutter speeds, and may have to be zone or “guesstimate” focused. A few examples include the all plastic Diana camera; the cheaply made Russian Lubitel twin lens reflex (TLR) and Seagull TLRs and 6x6 folders; small APS and 110 format cameras’ that can start to exhibit image softness when enlarged much over 5x7 inches; and 2 MP digitals that can start to “pixilate” when enlarged for a “textured” form of image softness.

    And Lensbaby offers a series of lenses for most popular SLR digital and film cameras that are designed to shift focus from side to side and up and down by “bending” the lens to create a sharp focus spot that can vary with its placement in the frame and with a fade to very soft edges. Note: If these alternative cameras do not create a holga-like corner vignetting, use the corner vignetting techniques previously described.

    Computer Techniques to Enhance a Holga Photo
    Image Contrast: An image can be converted to a higher or lower contrast to emulate the slightly overly contrasty or low contrast “muddy” look of a Holga image that was not properly exposed, using LEVELS, CURVES, or BRIGHTNESS & CONTRAST sliders. In the Darkroom use graded contrast paper and contrast filters.

    Adding “Grain”: A “grainy” look helps enhance the old tyme feel or dramatic look of a photo. “Grain” is the term given to the minute particles of light sensitive emulsion on a strip of film. This emulsion tends to lump into microscopic sized crystals. High ISO films use more emulsion in larger “lumps” to yield a greater sensitivity to low light. When the image is enlarged, these larger emulsion crystals start to become visible, giving the image a look similar to grains of sand on a beach. Low ISO film will have a thin layer of emulsion with much smaller crystal lumps, yielding less “grain” when enlarged. In digital images, electronic interference between pixels creates an effect known as “noise” which looks a lot like film grain. The smaller the pixels and higher the ISO, the more noise is created.
  • In Camera, use a 1600 or higher ISO film or digital setting. High grain or noise effects can also be had with small format APS or 110 negatives enlarged to 8x10 or larger. A photo from a 2 or 3MP digital camera similarly enlarged can cause a rough “pixilated” look.
  • In Photoshop or Elements use a FILM GRAIN or NOISE filter to add grain or noise to a photo.

    Desautrate or Intensify Color: To simulate a faded or soft pastel look as seen in some vintage photos, create an overly rich look of color, or even change the color to transform a dull image into something whimsical, use the HUE & SATURATION function's SATURATION slider with the EDIT box set to MASTER to reduce or increase the overall color intensity, or the HUE slider to change the overall color. To change only certain colors, use the EDIT box to choose each color (REDS, YELLOWS, GREENS, CYANS, BLUES, MAGENTAS) for changes.

    Individual areas in an image can also be selected to receive the above color changes by use of the POLYGONAL LASSO TOOL select all areas to change, then use the HUE & SATURATION function's HUE and/or SATURATION sliders to change or remove the color in these areas while leaving color in the area not selected.

    Convert a Color Image to B&W and/or Sepia: Black & white photos have an appeal in their simple use of dark and light tones that can be lost in color. In addition, many older vintage photos were taken on black & white film. Converting color photos to B&W is easy, by using the GRAYSCALE mode. Or, desaturate all color in the HUE & SATURATION function. If using a Holga lens on a digital SLR, some digital cameras can be set to capture in a grayscale (B&W) or Sepia mode.

    To add a sepia tone to help effect a nostalgic or “old tyme” vintage look, in Photoshop or Elements first convert a B&W image to RGB color mode (it will still look B&W), or use HUE & SATURATION to desaturate a color image to B&W. Then use the VARIATIONS function to pick a sepia color. To fine tune the sepia, use HUE & SATURATION or LEVELS or CURVES.
  • In the Darkroom: B&W darkroom prints can be sepia toned using a product like Kodak or Berg Sepia toner solutions. Try diluted solutions for a mild sepia tone to better resemble the sepia in vintage photos.

    Removing the Unwanted: At times it may be hard to compose a photo so unwanted surrounding elements are not seen, such as modern signs or vehicles that can intrude on the “lovely look of long ago” with a nostalgic subject.
  • In Photoshop and Elements use the CLONE STAMP TOOL to copy plain areas of the image over the offending areas.
  • To completely remove a background, use the POLYGONAL LASSO TOOL to carefully outline the subject, then DELETE to remove the background. At times it may be easier to do this with small portions of the background one section at a time. For small edge details of areas where the image is a bit soft, to avoid leaving a hard edge with the Lasso Tool, loosely outline this area of the subject leaving a small space of the background adjacent to the subject. Then use the CLONE TOOL with a small brush set to a soft edge to carefully “clone” from the white background along the edge of the subject to preserve the look of a soft edge as much as possible.

    Cropping: At times when you are not able to get close enough to your subject for a good composition, you may want to take the best shot possible then crop out a tighter image. Note that doing so, the resulting cropped and enlarged portion of the image brings out the image softness. You will probably loose any corner vignetting, but this can be reapplied in Photoshop (see the Faux Holga section above). To crop, use the RECTANGULAR MARQUEE TOOL to select the area to crop down to, then use CROP to get the final composition.

    Texture Effects: Similar to using multiple exposures in a Holga camera to create a texture effect, texture can be easily added to an existing image in an image processing program.
  • Take some images of texture, such as a closeup of concrete, brick, cork bulletin board, wrinkled cloth, wood grain, etc. Then in PhotoShop or Elements, open a selected texture image and your main subject image, setting SIZE and DPI of both to be the same. Then drag the texture image onto the subject, creating a new Layer. In the LAYER Pallet, adjust the OPACITY or the texture layer to get the amount of texture you want to show through, then FLATTEN the image and make any needed tonal adjustments with LEVELS or CURVES.
  • In the darkroom: Sandwich a texture negative on top of your subject negative in the negative carrier to make the print.

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