Holga 120GN Film Camera

Holga120N Medium Format Film Camera

To compliment my ZeroImage Zero 2000 Pinhole Camera, I decided to buy a Holga Medium Format Film camera. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the camera so rather than buying a new one for around £30, I chose to hunt a second hand one down on eBay.

The model I really wanted was Holga 120N, which has a plastic lens, but the only one I could find used at the time was a Holga 120GN which has a glass lens. From what I had read, optically, it was extremely difficult to see any differences between the glass and plastic lens. My only concern was that a glass lens might be more prone to lens flare.

For those who are not familiar with the Holga range of Medium Format Film cameras, they are all plastic apart from the hot-shoe and the strap holders which also double up as a faster for the back cover. There is no precision to these cameras what so ever, each one  is going to be slightly different. There are two plastic inserts supplied with the camera which act as a mask allowing you to choose between either 645 or 6×6 formats.

The Holga 120N series was made by the original Holga company but they are no longer trading. Another company has since taken over the factory and are still producing the Holga range under their Sunrise brand. If I was. going to by new, then I would purchase it from Amazon.

Holga 120N focus settingsThe lens has a fixed focal length of 60 mm and focus is achieved my rotating the outer ring across four positions.

Just how accurate these settings are, I don’t know. The lens produces pretty sharp images in the centre and then there is this nice soft fall off towards the edges which is something that appeals to me. 

Holga 120N Light Leaks
The Holga cameras can be renown for their light leaks, some are worse than others but I think its fair to say the majority of them will have a small amount of leaking. I knew this before I made the purchase and although the light leaks appeal to some people, I am not that fond of them so I decided to do everything I could to block any light entering the camera.

Holga 120N Gloss Black Interior
The inside of the camera is all black but it’s a very shiny black so I decided to get a small artist brush and paint everywhere with matt black paint being careful not to interfere with small springs which are used to control the shutter. I also taped up the joints where the rear panel meets the body but I no longer do that as I haven’t seen any evidence of any leaking from that area at all.

Holga 120N Rear Panel Cover
Holga 120n Velcro modThe rear panel cover is held in position by two metal sliding clips which also acts as a support for the camera strap. These sliding clips can work loose and if you not careful, they can disengage and I have read that it is possible for the rear panel to drop off exposing the film.

Although I haven’t experienced this, I decided not to take any chances so I place a small piece of Velcro to keep the back cover in place. The photograph shows the velcro in place. A larger view can be seen by clicking on the image.

Holga 120N Film Counter Window
The film frame counter window is also located on the rear panel. There is a small plastic sliding door which is used to line up against whether you want to use the 645 mask or 6×6 mask. Using the 645 mask, you will get 16 images and when using the 6×6 mask, you will get 12 images.

I only use the 6×6 mask as I like the square format. Underneath the sliding plastic door is a red piece of plastic which helps stopping light getting through when advancing onto the next frame.

For me, this was a nightmare. I am red green colour blind and I was having big issues in seeing the numbers through the red window. It was that bad that I was stopping people and asking them to physically wind the camera onto the next frame for me.

This also happened with my Pinhole camera so I should have been more aware really but what I ended up doing in the end was to cut a small piece of the red plastic away with a craft knife. From the rear of the cover, I then taped a piece of clear film which just stops any dust from entering through the hole.

To stop any light from leaking in, I made a flap from black duck tape and folded the top over so I can easily open and close it between frames.

So far this has worked out  for me, I can now see the frame numbers, and no light leaks. Although it’s not elegant to look at, it was the only solution I could think of.

Holga 120N Aperture And Shutter
This is where things can start to get a bit tricky. The camera only has one fixed shutter speed and two aperture settings. The shutter speed is said to range between 1/60th and 1/125th of a second and the two aperture settings are supposed to be f/8 and f/11 which is controlled by a switch on the top of the camera.

My first tests were a disaster to be honest. I used FomaPan 200 film which I rate at ISO 100 and nearly all the frames came out under-exposed because I tested the film on a very overcast cloudy day. This made me realise that unless you’re going to use the camera on a tripod, ISO 400 film would be a better choice.

Holga120 Remote Shutter wooden clothes pegHolga 120N Bulb Mode
Despite the simplicity of the camera, I was quite surprised to see that it came equipped with a Bulb setting which is activated by a small plastic lever underneath the camera. Sliding the lever to the B position means that the shutter remains open for as long as you keep the shutter lever pressed down.

Having a Bulb mode is great but what about preventing camera shake when you have to keep your finger on the shutter lever. I did a bit of research and found a company in Japan making an adapter which just fits nicely over the lens barrel and comes complete with a remote shutter cable.

The price of this device with import duties and tax was going to exceed what I bought the camera for so after doing some online research, I came across a video on Youtube showing how to use a wooden clothes peg. It turned out to be extremely easy to make and so far does the job perfectly.

Choice Of Film For The Holga 120N
As mentioned earlier, my first choice of film was Fomapan 200 which turned out to be a disaster mainly due to the speed of the film. My next choice of film was some Kodak TRI-X 400. When I went out to test this film, the weather had changed, it was a bright sunny day and in the shade according to the light meter, I was getting readings of 1/25 at f/11 which was perfect.

I quickly exposed 12 frames and then developed them in HC110 and the results compared to the FomaPan were like chalk and cheese. Its obvious this camera likes plenty of light and 400 ISO film especially here in the UK. Since using the Kodak TRI-X, I have tried a roll of Kodak TMAX 400 and again, the results are nice.

Longer Exposures With The Holga 120N
To some degree, we can control the shutter speed by using a higher ISO rated film but for me, ISO 400 was probably the highest I really wanted to go. In-fact, my number one goto film for this format is Fuji Acros 100 because of its excellent reciprocity times.

For situations where the light levels are less than say 1/60th of second, I needed to come up with a solution so I started to look at adding ND filters. My first test was to make an adapter for my Lee big stopper but this caused heavy vignetting.

I measured the diameter of the front of the lens and it measured 46 mm so I bought a 46 mm to 52 mm step-up ring from eBay. I chose 52 mm because I already owned a set of 52 mm ND filters which I use on the Pinhole camera.

As the front of the lens has no thread, I had to carefully screw the filter onto the front which made its own thread. Now I can simply attach any of my 52 mm filters to the front to cut the light back even further into the split seconds so I have more control over the final exposure.

Just to give an example, let’s say the light is measured at 1/15th of a second, I can place the camera on the tripod, screw on the 6 stop ND and make an exposure of 4 seconds using the wooden clothes peg to keep the shutter open. So far I always carry my light meter with me and use it with the Sekonic L-758 EV Mode.

My Thoughts On the Holga 120N Medium Format Camera
For the price, even if you bought it new, this camera is a joy to use if you don’t mind all the quirks. If you are type of person who is frantic about sharpness and clarity then this is not the camera for you.

The Holga 120N sometimes referred to as the plastic toy camera is well built and is capable of producing some very nice photographs. Yes, it can be challenging having to work with such limited controls but to me this is all part of learning the craft, having to think before pressing the shutter.

There is something about the look which I am liking from this camera. The photographs have this organic feel to them, they have their own imperfections unlike the smooth clinical look you seem to get from a digital sensor.

The following photographs were made around Doncaster where I live whilst I was testing the Kodak TRI-X 400,  Kodak TMax 400 and the wooden clothes peg shutter release mod. Click any of the thumb nails to see a larger view. All films were developed in Kodak HC110 for 8 minutes.

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