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Macro Photography with a Holga

One of the challenges of using a medium format rangefinder camera is you do not frame your shot through the lens as you are used to with most cameras. With almost every camera, what you see in the viewfinder is what you'll get digitally or expose on film. A rangefinder is different because you are looking through a viewfinder that is not giving you a view through the lens. The viewfinder is separate and it gives you a close approximation of framing and focusing for your subject, but it's not exactly what will be exposed on the film. This is how most cameras functioned pre-1970s. Some rangefinders like the Fujica 645 don't even have a focus function in the viewfinder, so you have to guess how far you are from the subject (and you have to guess in meters because the camera is from Japan). Because of this and the expense of the specialty lenses for medium format cameras, macro photography with rangefinders is quite difficult for the average person. Unless you have a Holga.

"Without the Holga, we'd have no Instagram" -Verge

For those that aren't familiar with the Holga, it's a very cheap plastic camera (with a plastic lens!) that takes very crude, soft-focus photos that have a heavy 60's/70's retro aesthetic to them. The Holga (along with a host of other medium-format plastic cameras) is made in China and sold around the world by the retro-chic Lomography as an inexpensive way to start shooting and experimenting with medium format film. I bought my first Holga in 2006 and have bought two subsequent replacements, because as you would expect a plastic camera (also called "toy" cameras) is not a precision instrument and doesn't last too long.

But a plastic camera can be a lot of fun if you have access to a lot of cool specialty plastic lenses that are inexpensive and give those retro-looking photos an even more unique aesthetic.  There were many types of cheap plastic accessories and lenses made specifically for the Holga, such as a fisheye lens, a ring flash, and most importantly a set of macro photogrophy lenses.

Two shots of magnificent fungi in Cranesville Swamp Preserve, West Virginia.

Two shots of magnificent fungi in Cranesville Swamp Preserve, West Virginia.

Setting up the shots above with a 120mm lens on the Holga - measuring 4.7" from the subject.

Setting up the shots above with a 120mm lens on the Holga - measuring 4.7" from the subject.

The three pack of macro lenses I bought many years ago contain a 120mm (focus is approx 4.7" from subject), 250mm (focus is approx 10") and 500mm (focus is approx 20") that enable me to photograph the small world of details around us. I use these lenses most often when I'm in the woods, and this past summer I used it quite a few times to create not only single shots of the small world, but some experimental panoramic shots.

Setting up the above shot with a 120mm lens.

Setting up the above shot with a 120mm lens.

Moss and licen on quartz rock in Gambrill State Park, Maryland. taken using a 250mm lens.

Moss and licen on quartz rock in Gambrill State Park, Maryland. taken using a 250mm lens.

One of the best things a Holga can do is take multiple exposures on a single frame. Not only that, but because you advance the film manually (literally winding a knob until you see the next photo number), you can also partially wind the film so you have overlapping shots. I do this quite a bit with the macro lens, taking a shot, then winding one quarter of the way to the next frame, then taking another shot, and another, until I have one continuous panoramic photo that is comprised of many overlapping shots. Check out some of the multiple exposure overlaps below!

I love this process and I love the Holga because it gives me endless possibilities for experimentation that I cannot get with the Fujica or most other medium format cameras. Although the image is not crisp and the colors are muted, I can control the film and exposures in a very artistic way that I can't with any other camera. The film and the lens become a canvas and paintbrushes that allow me to paint with light and shadows! Unfortunately Lomography discontinued producing the Holga last year, but you can still buy them at Ebay and Amazon. I highly recommend them to anyone interested in using film as an artistic medium!

David Bellard