And now for something completely different! Who’s heard of a Holga camera? This is my Holga, a medium format 120 film camera from Hong Kong.
The Holga is known as a toy camera. It has an incredibly low-cost construction with a plastic meniscus lens (two spherical curved surfaces, convex on one side and concave on the other side).
So, it’s a pretty bad camera. Why would I want to take wedding photos on this thing?
Here’s a video showcase of all my Holga wedding photos taken from September 2019 – June 2023. I’m about to embark on a new journey of using color film for the first time, so this video marks the end of this exclusively black & white era on the two Holgas I’ve owned.
Let’s dive into the art and the freedom of working with restrictions, an ode to analog, of rendering feelings more deeply in celluloid rather than on CMOS sensors; of surrendering to the serendipity of a toy film camera that has limited functionality.
A Holga brings you joy and it also brings soul and unpredictability and nostalgia that you cannot get with digital.
Table of Contents
What you can expect from Holga wedding photos
I felt like seeing what images I could get with truly the crappiest kind of camera – and to see if I could find some romance and beauty in imagery stripped down to the basics.
No fancy editing, no cropping or straightening, not even any color to make things ‘pop’. Film is beautiful, so images from even the most basic film camera oozes more beauty and personality than a decent digital camera or phone.
It’s been a fun journey figuring out how to actually use this thing. There are very few settings on it (unlike a modern-day DSLR). It works entirely mechanically.
First thing you might notice if you’re particularly eagle-eyed: this camera is held together with tape. 🤣
The photos you get from this bad boy have heavy vignettes and sometimes have light leaks and other distortions too.
Some folks really like how this camera captures a vintage, timeless feel. There’s nothing quite like the analog process that film is all about. I think this lends itself really well to the classic nature of weddings.
You get a surprisingly wide tonal range, lots of grain, and an unpredictable element to the finished photos.
Beyond all of this, it’s a challenge for myself. Sure, I could use film cameras that are better suited to the job – and indeed I do have other film cameras, but I keep coming back to this one.
But there is something irresistible about taking beautiful images with something so cheap and simple, it was first intended as a literal child’s toy. It’s very in keeping with my sensibilities from my fine art background that I thought I’d left behind in favor of the ‘perfection’ of digital.
Where and why I picked up a Holga 120 and where you can too
I bought this camera second-hand on eBay in 2019. The price was a steal: $17.39 including postage! It wasn’t quite as advertised though, because sadly the battery container was broken so there is no way of keeping the batteries in (meaning I can never use flash on this camera!). It was technically a Holga 120FN (with the letter F referring to ‘flash’, but I was never able to use the flash so it was to all intents and purposes a Holga 120N).
Also the closure of the camera was broken, meaning I only use tape to close the film door! Not a great look but to me it added to the rough n’ ready appeal of this little beaut.
Here’s where you can pick up a brand new Holga today! I would recommend going with a new one, as they are pretty delicate and easy for something to come loose, so you want to be sure your camera has been treated right, and doesn’t have any pesky issues like my first one did.
I’d recommend getting the one with the flash (the third one below) because sometimes it’s just too dark for the camera to capture ANYTHING with just natural light. It also has a great modification – a glass, rather than plastic, lens. This is what I just upgraded to!
Holga Cameras available on Amazon
Naming conventions for Holga cameras
So, about the various model names with a series of letters after the familiar 120N name.
If you’re wondering what the letters after 120 mean, here it is:
G = glass, C = color (this refers to some color gels you can use with the flash), F = flash, and N being the model name (the base model is simply the 120N). This uses 120 film, rather than 35mm film which is used in the Holga 135 which has been all but replaced by the Holga 135BC (the ‘BC’ literally stands for ‘bent corners’ – yes, this company is clearly a little kooky).
Focusing distances for Holga 120N camera
|One person||3 feet|
|Large group||18 feet|
|Mountain||30 feet +|
It really is so incredibly low-tech, you literally have to crank the film for every exposure you take. The way you focus this camera? Simply stand the appropriate distance away from the subject!
I began bringing it along to weddings just for fun. Soon enough, I began making images that really made me feel something. I began to feel excited about wedding photography again.
I actually started off using film back in high school in the 90’s and I love that I’m coming back to my analog roots! I love that there are only 12 exposures on each roll of film (120 film), so it makes each exposure even more precious.
Holga photos are unpredictable… that’s what makes them fun. The small print.
If you vibe with the serendipity of film, grab yourself some Holga photos!
Please note: Holga photos are delivered digitally only. The film is sent to a lab for processing, and the scans are sent back to me. I will then add these to your existing wedding online gallery and alert you by email.
Expect your Holga additions to take up to 2-3 months to be delivered
This is due to my lab that processes the film taking several weeks as per their expected turnaround time.
Plus, as I will not shoot a whole roll of film at one wedding, I’ll typically shoot 3 or 4 weddings on one roll of Holga. Since not that many clients want Holga photos, it can take a few weeks or so to fill up a roll of 12 exposures.
There is a small fee if you’d like to add Holga photos. This is more of a passion project for me, so the fee is nominal and helps me cover the significant costs associated with purchasing and developing the film.
120 film is hard to come by and expensive to purchase.
Also, I currently am only using black and white 120 film, which, believe it or not, is more costly to purchase and to develop than color film.
While I’ll do my best to come up with something cool, this isn’t a professional camera so the quality or outcome of the images isn’t guaranteed.
It is not subject to the same level of quality and service as the images that form your wedding gallery (i.e taken on professional digital equipment, edited to high level). The Holga camera is a children’s toy.
If nothing usable comes out on the film, I’ll apply the Holga photo fee as credit to your actual wedding gallery print store.
Please check your photography planning document to view the current price of this add-on to your package. Holga photos are only available with Zoe as your photographer, not with any associate photographer.
Holga 120FN wedding photography gallery
2019: completely clueless (point and pray)
First iteration – before I realized there was a switch that changed the length of the shutter speed. I’d been using ‘bulb’ mode, which basically keeps the shutter open. Not my greatest moment, but I came up with some interesting impressionistic images.
Shot on expired Ilford 400. Developed at Photoworks SF.
Early 2021: getting the hang of it (quietly optimistic)
Shot on expired Holga 400. Developed at Photoworks SF. I still take unintentional double-exposures, but I swear one day I’ll do one on purpose.
Later 2021: better focusing, deeper tones (enjoying the analog journey)
Changed suppliers for developing to Process One. Found a bunch of cheap-ish Ilford HP5 Plus film, so bought 3 rolls not knowing what to expect.
Grain was way less pronounced here, much deeper contrasts because of the deeper blacks that render in an almost sepia warm hue.
Nailed in my focusing distances a bit better than before!
Also – spot my first light leak! 👇🏽
Processed by Process One, using Ilford HP5 Plus film from my previous supply.
Loved some of the more up-close-and-intimate shots and how light flare renders (something I do a lot in my digital work).
Realized I vastly prefer this than direct sun – shadows are just as unforgiving with film as with digital images.
I tried adding batteries to get the flash working (I have the Holga 120FN which is the flash model), and had to tape the batteries in due to the battery holder panel being missing.
Sadly, it didn’t hold, and the one exposure I tried indoors didn’t work out because the flash didn’t fire.
Strongly considering offering a whole roll of Holga for each wedding – what would you pay for this?!
I’m using Process One as my film developer – they take a long time, but I love how consistent the images come out, and also the price.
Things to notice: Holga film cameras need LOTS of light (as well as ISO 400 filme ONLY). The image below and on the left is super dark because it was taken right around sunset on a dark street. Compare that with the image on the right, and that beautiful glow from where the light was directly hitting the couple from behind.
I’ve mastered how I want to shoot in terms of lighting!
The middle row below is of a super cute LGBTQ+ couple, captured on their engagement shoot by the water in Oakland. I love how this lighting looks, and let me tell you, it was a super bright location (with light bouncing off the boardwalk and the water that we were surrounded by on all sides).
There’s something SO soft and beautiful about film when done right!
Another month, another roll! Wow, I’m definitely getting more trigger-happy with my Holga, taking more and more shots at each wedding : )
I’m probably not going to showcase as much on here, because there are so many now! I’m sometimes getting two rolls developed at once, like I did this month.
Notable points: I used the toy camera for the first time indoors (at City Hall, of course!) in the brightest area of the building. The photo turned out really dark but I did a some cool imprint of the number and some dots that are printed on the back of the film!
This camera photographs best when there’s even light or there’s a touch of sunflare for that magical je ne sais quoi. This camera LOVES LIGHT.
May – June 2022
Wow, I’m really cranking out rolls of 120 film now! So many weddings have flown by, and more and more couples want to do some Holga photos, which I’m stoked for! I sometimes throw in some free Holga photos for some clients, when I really need to get through a roll.
I also changed my lab to Reformed Film Lab, which promises larger file sizes, amazing customer service, fast turnaround time, and they work really hard to make sure the scans look as good as possible. I love how the dark tones turn out more of a true-black color than dark sepia.
I’m trying to take more documentary-style images with the Holga, rather than solely posed shots of the couple.
I picked up two new film cameras recently, so I can’t wait to add these to my arsenal. Blog post coming soon!
Onward and upward with my toy-camera film journey.
Check out this reel showing some of my most recent Holga shots! And don’t forget to follow along on Instagram @zoelarkinphoto – this is where I showcase my ongoing journey now that this blog post has way too many images in it 🙂