Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shooting Cemeteries with a Holga

Cross-processed Ektachrome image, made with a Holga
Looking for a new photographic tool with which to capture those great cemetery images?  Want to realize even more of your creative genius? Well, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to spend a boatload of money to do this. Instead of acquiring expensive hi-tech gear and software, go lo!

I guess it’s not surprising to see so many serious photographers these days experimenting with lo-tech, lo-fi cameras (e.g. cell phone cameras, pinhole film cameras, and vintage digital point-and-shoots). Even back in the 1960s when Richard Avedon was making magnificent portraits with 8x10 film cameras, Andy Warhol was creating arguably more notable ones with a simple Polaroid camera. Given today’s super-sophisticated photographic technology, I sometimes get fed up with the precision and accuracy of digital.  I need to go lo--which is why my thirty-dollar Holga is always packed next to my ridiculously expensive DSLR.

Thought you’d never ask. It’s essentially a toy camera, an all plastic, all manual 120mm film camera. (Yes, you can still buy film and yes, you can still have it developed—see links below). The photo at left shows a basic Holga, which measures about 5x4x3 inches and weighs next to nothing.  After exposing a roll of film, you can have the individual image frames scanned so you can work with them as Jpegs (also enables any photofinishing lab to easily print them). The Holga is deceptively simple, having one shutter speed, limited focus, and two aperture settings (which is a joke, since it’s “Sun” and “Shade” settings are virtually the same, around f11). While it’s often used as an intro camera in art school photography classes, the Holga is really not that easy to use. Having been a photographer since the earth’s crust started cooling, I’m of the opinion that it would be much easier to learn the principles of photography with a basic film SLR. With a Holga, you really have NO IDEA how successful your photographs will be, until you get a load of practice under your belt!

THEN WHY USE A HOLGA? (or more to the point, why use it for cemetery photography?)

  • Well, for one thing, the Holga’s imperfections bestow upon your images an unparalleled flawed elegance, a very organic shroud of analog mystery that is distinctly non-digital. It’s cheap plastic lens vignettes and loses focus around the edges (as you see at right). These slightly blurred and distorted dreamlike images have a cult following the world over. The effect is so popular that one manufacturer sells sawed-off Holga lenses to use on your DSLR and another makes expensive lens attachments that allow DSLRs to produce images like those from a Holga! (See links below.)
  • The Holga is cheap and lightweight. Easy to carry around and who cares if you damage it? Here’s a shot of one of my Holgas I dropped in the snow.

  • Since film is relatively more expensive than digital, the Holga forces you to concentrate on every shot. With only twelve 2.25 inch square images per roll (which will cost maybe $7.00 to process, see link below), you need to carefully consider the focus, light, and composition of each frame. With digital, we’re used to the excess of ripping off twenty shots of the same subject, from different angles, color and monochrome, with bracketed exposures and varying depths of field. The Holga forces you to frugally concentrate on achieving the one final image you want to achieve (a la Ansel Adams).
    Light leak effect
  • With a shutter speed of 1/100 sec in bright light, a Holga is better-suited to still lifes.  And what’s more still-life than a tombstone?
  • The images are square (unless you use a special adaptor inside the camera to make them rectangular), which opens up a new world of composition rules (to break) for those of us shooting rectangular digital format. You’ve seen thousands of square photos in galleries, magazines, and books. Well, this is where they come from—cameras that use 120mm film! (This is known as medium format, by the way.)
  • Unpredictability! From happenstance light leaks to the intentional effects achieved by using out-dated or alternatively-processed film, analog weirdness simply cannot be duplicated in the digital world! The photo at the top of this article is a product of the unholy alliance between the Holga and cross-processed slide film. Try it! You’ll surprise yourself with your creative prowess.
In my new book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, I talk about mastering even the most complex digital cameras through an understanding of how to use the four basic settings (of any camera)—Light intensity (ISO), Aperture, Focus, and Shutter speed. The Holga forces you to be aware of these settings, though it really only allows you to vary two of them—focus and the ISO of the film you load. What could be simpler? Well, you’ll find the camera to be rather inflexible, for all its simplicity, especially if you’ve begun your illustrious photographic career shooting digital, with its myriad technological capabilities. You can’t just whip out a Holga and freeze-frame the world with it. You essentially have to decide whether it can successfully capture your subject before you shoot. A creepy old cemetery on a sunny day, for example, is perfect.

One of the things I try to get across in my book is that any camera can take great pictures outside in the sun. The true test of a camera happens in low light situations, because with most cameras, that’s where the wheels fall off. Kind of like a disposable cardboard camera, the Holga is only useful in daylight, when you can hold it relatively still (its single shutter speed is 1/100th of a second). It’s lens vignettes and distorts, its back allows light leaks (which is why they pack a roll of black electrical tape in the box when you buy the camera new!). Cemetery photography lends itself well to the Holga, but you do need to work in bright sun. Even with ISO 400 film, things just don’t look very good in the shade. The Holga you see at right is one of the fancier models ($60)—fancy because it’s got a built-in flash. So this should solve the problem of only being able to shoot outdoors in bright sun, right? Ah, but you are so wrong! The flash is virtually useless.

Precisely because it’s that quirky and unpredictable! If you’re getting bored with your digital images, tired of manipulating them with software, give lo-fi a chance! While many photographers (or should we say, ‘digital artists?’) create great new after-capture images with Photoshop, others prefer to let chance play a larger role in their creative process. So even if you’re a seasoned DSLR user—consider slumming with the Holga. Really, its okay, I won’t tell. Keep in mind that that many graffiti artists are actually very capable fine art painters whose medium of choice just happens to be spray paint. Somewhere around 2005, a photographer friend of mine loaned me one of her Holgas. I never looked back.  I hope this article makes you curious enough to try one!

Pretty much anywhere—on the Web, in art supply places, camera stores. The “Lomographic Community” has many variations of many cheap plastic cameras.

Even if you’ve used a 35mm film camera, the Holga is different enough to cause some consternation. If you’ve never loaded and unloaded 120mm film before, you’d be well advised to have someone show you, or watch a YouTube video to help you along (see link below). Focus is a roughly adjustable rangefinder on the lens, offering portrait (about 3 feet), group, or landscape focal zones. The lens is a moderate wide angle, about a 30mm focal length in 35mm camera terms (yeah, I know it says 60mm on the Holga above, but that’s in medium format terms, and the Holga is a medium format camera). I’ll be the first to admit that the Holga can be challenging and frustrating. Here’s an example: probably the most amazing feature of this camera is it’s handy carrying strap, which is tied to the slide latch that holds the back on the camera. So if you let the Holga dangle by its strap, the latch comes undone, the back pops off, and your film falls out and unravels on the ground! Though not a Buddhist, I am frankly a big fan of the third of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, “The suppression of suffering can be achieved.” Therefore, I always employ what I like to call the Kinsman Strap when carrying a Holga. After lamenting about the backs coming off and exposing my film to a friend, she suggested keeping a rubber band around the body at all times. Genius!

"Broken Hearts and Faded Colors"
When shooting black and white film in a Holga, bear in mind that the results are pretty normal-looking (even if you purposely use outdated film). Therefore with monochrome, your compositions need to rely more on shapes and composition. If you REALLY want to throw caution to the wind, use outdated color negative film or cross-process your slide film. This is how I achieve my “special effects.” The image at the top of this article is cross-processed, the one immediately above right is out-dated negative film. If you want faded colors and high grain, shoot outdated color negative (which you can usually buy for half price at camera stores, on eBay, and even on the Lomography site listed below). The more outdated the film, the more the color layers break down, producing more unpredictable results! Cross-processing means to use C-41 (color negative) chemistry to process E-6 (color slide) film. The result can be vibrant contrasty images like the image at the beginning of this article. The local drug store probably won’t understand what you want to do, so it’s best to have this done at a professional photo lab (see Philadelphia Photographics link below).

This blog gave me a chance to extol the virtues of toy film cameras, something I couldn’t do at all in the book I’ve just published, Digital Photography for the Impatient (although I did sneak in this Holga image at the end of the book!). Beside the fact that impatient people could never use a Holga, the book focuses on digital photography. Its really a shame that new photographers are immersing themselves in megapixels and fancy software, while ignoring the creative pleasures of analog film imaging. Don’t get me wrong—there’s a place for both in your bag of tricks. I just happen to love the mystery of the Holga photographic process, compared to the exacting precision of digital.  And for all you pixel counters out there—one frame of 120mm film has resolution about equivalent to a 300MP image sensor!

Further Reading:

There are many YouTube videos available to show you how to load and unload a Holga, but this is one of the better ones.

There are many Flickr sites devoted to the Holga, images created with it, and other lo-fi photographic devices and techniques. (here are some of my Flickr images).

Check the Lomography site for a great variety of choices of cheap film cameras. In fact, the Lomo brand has become so popular that in 2010 they started selling their own brand film, both 35mm and 120mm.

Accessories available for the Holga
Be a “Lomographer!
Where to process your film: Philadelphia Photographics
Holga accessories for your Holga and to make your DSLR behave like a Holga
Mimic the optical effects of a Holga lens with a Lensbaby for your digital camera!
The short Holga history