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Holga's (Now-Unblinking) Plastic Eye

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

There's no reason that big time photojournalists like David Burnett, fine art photographers like Craig Sterling or commercial shooters like Walter Calahan should have all the fun using the plastic Chinese-made Holga camera.

These photographers and legions of others have turned the cheap little point and shoot that was intended to be little more than a toy into a creative tool that can produce gorgeous pictures, some of which I have run here in the column.

And now, through the intercession of an inspired group of photo gear-heads, Holga's creative range has been extended even more.

I first wrote about Holgas years ago, when I finally used one, with forgettable results. It was only after I saw what some of my colleagues were getting with the camera that I gave it a second chance. Does it tell you something that, on our recent trip to Venice – that post 9/11 jaunt during which I jettisoned all but the most vital carry-on camera gear – I tucked my newest Holga right next to my Leica M6 and my medium format rangefinder Mamiya?

For this trip, I was very anxious to make Holga time exposures, but had been reluctant to take needle-nose pliers to the camera's cheesy insides and yank out the little metal spring that controlled the shutter – for years the recommended method of "modifying" the camera for this kind of work.

For a very brief instance I even had this brain wave:

Since I would be on a tripod anyway, I reasoned, and since Holgas do not advance the film automatically after each exposure, I simply would carefully press the shutter repeatedly until I had the equivalent of, say, a three-second late night time exposure.

[You can tell I was not a math major, right? Finally, it dawned on me that, since the Holga's one-and-only shutter speed was roughly 1/100th of a second, a three-second exposure would require me to trip the shutter THREE HUNDRED TIMES, you idiot!]

Enter Randy Smith, the Holga-holic gear head who runs arguably the best Holga website around, and who sells modified Holgas so that they actually are light-tight and – dare I say it? – dependable.

Several months ago, Randy offered for sale a specially modified Holga that allowed the owner to simply push a tiny metal rod near the base of the lens and turn the camera into a Time-exposure Holga. [Actually a "Bulb" exposure Holga. That now-ancient term means the shutter will stay open as long as you depress the shutter release. A true Time exposure setting simply locks the shutter open and does not require you or your finger to be engaged during a long exposure. But, hey, what do you want from a camera that costs $31.95 in basic mode, with shipping, and hardly more than 40 bucks with the modification?]

The beauty part of Randy's modification is that when you pull the little metal rod out, the Holga turns itself back into a regular camera, or as regular a camera as a Holga ever can be. Pulling the rod out lets the camera revert to its normal (and only) shutter speed of approximately 1/100th of a second.

I first used the time-exposure setting last summer up in Maine, on one of those brilliantly moonlit nights when you literally could read by moonlight. The neat thing about the rural area of Down East where we have a summer place is that the night sky is undimmed by competition from below [i.e.: city lights, high-intensity mercury vapor lights, etc.] so that, when a full moon is out on a clear starlit night the nocturnal light show is like something in a planetarium.

I wasn't looking to make art, or even a recognizable picture – which is why you're not seeing one here. What I did do was hold the shutter open for about 15-20 seconds while pointing up at the moon, waving the camera around to see if I actually could "paint" with moonlight.

Damned if I couldn't. I felt like a kid with a new toy. Those well-defined light trails on my negatives told me that I could play with the camera to a fare-thee-well when Judy and I next went to Venice the following winter.

I already knew from the summer that one modification I had Randy make for me did not work on my lightweight traveling tripod. For a few bucks he will countersink a 1/4-inch tripod-mounting socket into your Holga, but I found that the male screw on the traveling Gitzo tripod was too short to get a purchase. [The screw on my big Gitzo, which can hold all cameras up to and including 4x5 view cameras, worked fine.]

This meant that I either could jury-rig a solution with rubber bands and gaffer's tape, as I did in Maine (see pic), or I could say the hell with it, use really high-speed film, hold my breath and hand-hold my one-to three-second exposures. I chose the latter route with very pleasing results.

Remember: these cheap little toy cameras are not meant to give you tack-sharp pictures. Their awful plastic lenses, and severe vignetting both contribute to atmospheric pictures. So a little bit of camera shake during a hand-held exposure is OK. In fact, depending on the photograph, a whole lot of camera shake may be great too. The best thing about a camera that is basically a toy is that you the photographer are supposed to act like a kid with a toy and use it however your imagination – not some stodgy old textbook or manual – dictates.

I used the Holga a bunch in Venice, mostly during our late-night walking tours of the city, when we looked for moody pictures. The images shown here were made just outside the public gardens, Il Giardini, on a night when the streets glistened from an evening rain and when the streetlights gave off a wonderful glow in the fog and the mist.

An added benefit on nights like these is that, given the cost of your equipment, you couldn't care less if your camera gets wet.

Randy Smith's Modified Holga website.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Don't try this with a Leica. I used rubber bands and gaffer's tape to secure my Holga to my traveling tripod. The special tripod socket was too deep for the small tripod, but worked fine with my big one.

©Frank Van Riper
View from a Holga contact sheet. These shots were made hand-held near the Venetian public gardens. The film was Delta 3200 and the exposures were between one and three seconds.

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