STEAM RAILFANNING with the AMAZING HOLGA
For the Lovely Look of Long Ago
(The following is written in a light hearted and even sarcastic manner, but this camera can produce
some seriously nice steam train images if used in an appropriate manner.)

Denver Leadville and Gulf #191 at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden. In this and other photos below, note the Holga's slightly soft image that falls off in sharpness at the edges along with corner vignetting to produce an image with a “lovely look of long ago” that is very appealing.

The Holga is a very simple camera first made in 1981 for the masses in China so they can afford to record family events. The basic Holga camera, the 120N (for 120 medium format size film) features only the very basic necessities for picture taking: two shutter speeds (and one is B), two apertures, no exposure meter, zone focusing, no frame counter, no ISO setting, and nothing automatic. It is made entirely out of plastic, including the lens which has chromatic aberrations. Holga photos exhibit all manner of strange effects, from light leaks to softness of the image, scratches, vignetting, etc. But far from making the camera unpopular, these traits have led to a rather large cult following in Europe and the U.S.

OK, but how does this relate to railfan photography, you may ask? After all, we all want sharp, problem free train photos. For 99% of our subjects, this is true. But when shooting steam locomotives and wanting to effect an “old tyme” look to your photos, the Holga is a good - no, GREAT! - tool to use in addition to the techniques discussed in Step Back in Tyme with Your Camera.


Photo courtesy History Colorado (Denver & Rio Grande Collection, F-11720).
If you have ever noticed with historic steam train photos of a century or more ago, many will be less than perfect in terms of today’s criteria, as seen in these Jukes Tree images. If you were not familiar with the original 1908 Jukes Tree image (left), could you not be able to pick out the Holga image (right) taken in 2012?

Those old cameras of the early 1900s were limited in shutter speeds, with 1/125th as a rule being the top speed. Lenses were pretty good but uncoated and so subject to flair, vignetting, and edge softness unless stopped down several apertures. But with the slow film emulsions of the time, that was not always possible while maintaining a reasonably fast shutter speed needed for moving trains. There were no built-in exposure meters so exposure was determined by experience or a hand held meter. Resulting photos could also be either overly contrasty or muddy looking, as well as grainy.

Not only does the above describe cameras of over a century ago, we have just described the Holga! The Holga’s slightly soft image that falls off in sharpness at the edges along with corner vignetting produces images with a “lovely look of long ago” that is very appealing.

BELOW: Colorado & Southern "Bobber" caboose, in Silver Plume.

Aside from the basic Holga 120N described here, there are over two dozen Holga variants including other 120 film models, 110, 35mm, panoramic, pinhole, fisheye, and twins lens reflex cameras, even a digital Holga. Various "advanced features" of some of these other Holgas include built-in flash, colored flash, a glass lens, a vignetting mask, and a multiple exposure button. Probably the most advanced model, the 35mm 135AFX, has autofocus and film load, pop-up flash and interlocking shutter release. There is even a “Meow Kitty” point & shoot style 35mm camera, with blinking lights and cat sounds to get a cat subject’s attention.

In addition, Holga makes Holga lenses to fit Canon, Nikon, Sony, Samsung, and Olympus and Panasonic SLRs / DSLRs and Four Thirds cameras.

Like a Volkswagen Beetle
But the basic Holga 120N model, the camera of choice for the type of photography described here, is a little like the original VW Beetle of the mid-1940s to 2004 (although not marketed by VW in the U.S. since 1980). The Beetle’s concept was a basic car that was simple to operate and designed for one thing only - to get its passengers from point A to point B. Over the years, small changes were made only to improve the car’s function (larger tail lights, larger rear window, increased horse power, two-speed heater fan, etc.), not year to year changes just for looks.

The original Holga 120S had but one shutter speed of 1/125th of a second; the 120N has two (1/125th and B for “Bulb” to hold the shutter open for several seconds as needed for low light exposures). The original took only 6x4.50cm (“645”) medium format images. The 120N can be switched to take either 645 or 6x6cm images (but not switched in mid-roll). The current 120N also has foam inserts to hold the film spools a little more firmly; the 120S let the film spools flop around somewhat loosely. And the 120N has a tripod mount. Heady stuff!

The name “Volkswagen” translates roughly to “people’s car,” and like the VW, the Holga is a camera for the people.


Cumbres & Toltec Scenic on Cumbres Pass.



Below Coxo on a C&TS photo freight excursion with D&RG 315 and 463, September 2013.



Photo freight excursion with D&RG 315 and 463 pulling into Cumbres Pass.



Gallopin' Goose #6 and D&RG 346 at the Colorado Railroad Museum.



Set for sunny conditions.


Set for cloudy conditions. Note also the focusing symbols - at this time the lens is set on the "Group" symbol indicating 20 ft.


N = 1/125th shutter speed.


B = "Bulb" for time exposures.


To see the frame numbers on the roll film, set the red window for (16) 645 exposures or (12) 6x6 exosures by moving the arrow to point to the appropriate number. This camera has the window marked 16 uncovered but note the arrow is pointing to 12, meaning the camera is really set for (12) 6x6 exposures. Brilliant, huh?

Amazing Tips for Using a Holga
A Holga is also a lot like a vintage manual typewriter, which when using you have to manually move the carriage to the next line, and there are no provisions for correcting mistakes other than manually backing the carriage up, applying whiteout and re-typing. Old typewriters can be operated with a few very basic and easy functions.

Same with the Holga. Nothing is automatic. Only the very basic and very limited and simple functions of picture taking are needed to operate. Focusing is by guess and by golly (you guess at the distance to your subject and turn the lens to one of four pre-set marks to get a sharp image, by golly). Focusing is even so basic that the focus distance for each setting is not listed, rather generic symbols of a single silhouette for portraits (3 1/4 feet); three people for families (6 1/2 ft.); multiple people for groups (20 ft.), and mountains for scenics (33 ft. to infinity) are given for your convenience.

If setting shutter speed and aperture seems bass ackwards, it is! For shutter speed selection, you slide a little tab toward “N” (for 1/125th) or “B” (for long time exposures). Pretty straight forward, heh? But for aperture, you slide another little tab OVER either the full sun or partly sunny symbols for the desired setting. This lets the unused setting show, and logic would dictate that would instead indicate the setting selected. But nooooo....

For example, if the cloudy/partly sunny symbol (for f/8) is showing, you have set the camera to the full sun setting (f/11), and vice-versa. (As if one stop difference is all that is needed for correct exposure when there are two or three stops of light between full sun and cloudy!) And in a further stoke of simplicity motivated genius, the shutter speeds and apertures are not marked. (Maybe there was not enough room to place Chinese language characters indicating the speeds and apertures?)

Important! ALWAYS wind the film first… or else! When you advance the film for each new shot (using a knurled knob that can make your thumb and forefinger feel raw after winding a few frames), remember that the shutter automatically recocks after every use. Since the shutter is always cocked, you must be sure the film has been advanced to a fresh frame before taking another picture. Not doing so will result in multiple exposures on the one frame as the shutter can be fired over and over and over at any time.

A good rule of thumb is to ALWAYS WAIT to wind the film UNTIL READY to TAKE another picture. If you do not wind the film the same way each time you use the camera, when you are ready to shoot again, you may forget if you wound the film or not after shooting, risking a double exposure if you have not wound the film, or a wasted frame if you did and you wind again just to be sure. Oh, and by the way, there is no frame counter, rather you look for the next frame number on the film’s paper backing to appear in the little red window on the camera back as you turn the wind knob.

Reloading fresh film is easy, but a problem to watch out for is putting the back plate back on upside down (it will fit either way). If shooting 6x6 and the film back is replaced upside down, you will be seeing the frame numbers for 645 resulting in overlapped images if you do not realize what has happened, as the film is not wound as much for 645 as it is for the larger 6x6 frames.

Speaking of 645, the Holga 120N can be set to take either 12 6x6 images or 16 645 images, by easily changing an insert that sits behind the lens (of course, this cannot be done in mid-roll). To get the correct film advance for the selected format, be sure you slide the red window tab on the camera back to align with the appropriate mark, else you will be advancing the film for the wrong frame size, again causing overlapping of your images. But confusion again enters here as one would logically push the tab to let the frame numbers for 12 6x6 images show through the red film window marked “12,” and slide the tab away from the red film window marked “16” for 16 645 images.

Noooooo again! Instead, you slide the tab so its little arrow points to the 12 or 16 mark as appropriate. This means the correct frame numbers for the 16 645 images are showing in the red film window marked with a “12,” while the 12 6x6 image frame numbers will show beside the window marked “16.”

Is that clearer than mud, or what!?
Confusion does not stop with the film window! The viewfinder is not through the lens, nor is this a rangefinder. The viewfinder is simply an “aiming” mechanism that does not show you exactly what the lens sees. If you have ever used a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera, you will have also encountered this "parallelex" phenomenon. Except with a Holga, the parallex difference is greater than just not aligning with the lens, as your picture will always have more around the edges than seen in the viewfinder.

This is especially true with the 645 insert, as you are still seeing the same square image as when the 6x6 insert is in place. If shooting the smaller 645 format you have to mentally compose so that your main subject is centered in the viewfinder to get a properly framed image on the narrow 645 frame. One advantage of the 645 format is you can turn the camera sideways to get a horizontal image, or hold the camera up right to get verticals.

The best way to compose a 6x6 image with the Holga is to put your main subject against the edges of the viewfinder window. This will result in an appropriate space between your subject and the edges of the final photo.

The 120N has a tripod screw, but it is about useless as it will not hold tight, and tightening down too much could (probably will!) break the plastic camera casing.

Amazingly Good Quality
Most appropriate sarcasm aside, the Holga, despite its all plastic uncoated lens, takes pretty darn nice photos. The center of the image is maybe sharp enough to make a decent 16x16 inch print, but it is better to stick to smaller prints such as 8x8 inches. The main advantages of the Holga are the corner vignetting (darkening) and the edge image softness, which gradually goes away toward the center of the frame. This emulates the performance of old cameras with lenses with poor resolution and no lens coatings.

One needs to photograph carefully, however, especially being sure to set the focus correctly. For subjects you guesstimate to be 10 feet or more away out to the 33 feet infinity focus setting, one trick is to imagine the 10 feet distance from the floor to a basketball goal and mentally multiply this distance one and one half, two or three times to guesstimate the focus distance for subjects you feel to be 15 feet, 20 feet or 30 feet away. For these resulting focus distances you have determined to be mid-way between the marked settings, position the lens part way between the marked settings as appropriate to your guesstimated distance to the subject.

For the closer 3 1/4 and 6 1/2 feet settings, imagine a yard stick or two held between the lens and your subject. Or step off the distance to your subject (usually, a normal step is about three feet). Again, these tips should really clear up any focusing confusion!

ABOVE: Near Victor, Colorado.  BELOW: Colorado Railroad Museum "Goose Fest" in 2012.
Again, note the edge softness and edge and corner vignetting in both photos.

Then be sure to hold the camera verrrry steady as you press the shutter button. And remember, at the blazing speed of 1/125th a second, your subject should be moving slowly if at all, and a ¾ wedge or near head-on composition is best as there is less motion blurr! Also remember to check the aperture and shutter tabs frequently in case they get bumped to the wrong setting. And wind the film to the next frame only when you are ready to shoot again!

Correct exposure? Fughedaboudit! With no ISO setting to let the meter determine a correct exposure for different speed films in different light conditions (oh yes, there IS no meter!); and with only two aperture choices and one day time shutter speed to choose from anyway, you will rarely get a perfect exposure.

The best procedure is to shoot an ISO 400 negative film and adjust for exposure and corrections in a computer editing program, or in the darkroom. But poor exposure which can lead to muddy (underexposed) or overly contrasty (overexposed) images is part of the old tyme look and charm of a Holga photo.

Like a Hasselblad
Hasselblad very hoity toity-like advertises that its cameras' 6x6 square image is the perfect format as it eliminates having to turn the camera sideways, like "normal" cameras that produce a rectangular image so must be turned to change from horizontal to vertical compositions. It makes no difference how you hold the Holga, the image will always be square. So you get the same easy composing ability of the Hasselblad, but for about $3,000 less!

Holgas are Amazingly Easy and Inexpensive to Repair
Drop one and crack the plastic body, and a spot of super glue will bring a quick fix. Maybe add a piece of black tape to be sure any light leak is covered. Or just use black tape. Or Duct tape.

A common problem are the side clips that hold the back in place. As the camera strap attaches to these, with any downward tug on the camera - even gravity - they can pull loose and the back will fall off, exposing your film. Or if bent even slightly, they will not stay in place. A strong rubber band around the camera - even when the camera is new - is a good bet to keep the back in place. The best fix of all is to always keep at least one extra Holga with you. And extra rubber bands. After all, they can break too!

Digital Camera Makers Take a Clue!
OK, what does this wunderkind cost? All of about $40 brand new! And the 120N camera comes with all the accouterments you will ever hope to need (except film) - a camera strap, 645 and 6x6 inserts, and a nifty, easy to read instruction booklet which in just a few pages of very simple instructions covers the entire camera’s operation. The makers of modern digital cameras should take a clue from the Holga and make their cameras as simple to use and their instruction manuals as short and as easy to read!

What is not to like!!?

HOLGA ALTERNATIVES
The following cameras are good alternatives to the Holga, as their simple lenses can produce images with the same old tyme looks as the Holga, especially, with a fall off of sharpness and vignetting, as well as light leaks and poorly exposed images with bad contrast as there is no built-in exposure meter to set exposure by. In addition, most of these old cameras are limited in apertures and shutter speeds, and may have to be zone or "guesstimate" focused.

Ansco, etc. 6x6 Folders: This is the camera that gave me the idea of using these image "flaws" to effect an old tyme look: the 1940s to 1960s Ansco Speedex 6x6 folder, also made by Agfa, Viking and at a later date, Seagull. The model I have has a top shutter speed of only 1/300th of a second, and without an uncoupled viewfinder, focus is by guesstimating the distance to the subject and setting the lens to that distance! And typical of many cameras of this vintage there is no built in frame counter. Rather, a red window on the back allows you to advance the film using the frame numbers on the 120 film paper backing. Some models can shoot either 645 or 6x6 format and will have two red windows, one for 16 exposures with 645 format, one for 12 exposures with 6x6.

They can be found for as little as $15-$25 for an original camera, or in the $100 range for a refurbished model. And you can literally carry these old folders in your hip pocket!

The Diana+ camera is another neat old tyme tool very much like the Holga, with almost all plastic flimsy construction, shooting 120 film. Guesstimate focusing, three exposure settings (cloudy, partly cloudy, sunny plus a super small pinhole setting) with two shutter speeds, Bulb and a slow for moving trains 1/60th.. Like the Holga, all these quirks have resulted in a cult following, as well as giving us a neat old tyme look. The cost for a new basic Diana+ is around $95.

Lubitel TLR: Much like the Holga being made as an affordable snapshot camera for the Chinese masses, the Lubitel is a low cost, low build quality Russian made 645 format camera (Lubitel is Russian for "amateur") taking 16 exposures on 120 film. There is a range of shutter speeds from Bulb to 1/250th, and apertures of f/4.5 to f/22. Like the Holga, focus is by guesstimate, using distance settings of 0.8 m, 1.5 m, 3 m, (IE: 2 1/2 ft, 5 ft, and 10 ft in American) and infinity. There are two exposure guides (one aperture-priority, one shutter-priority) printed on the back of the camera. Cost for a new Lubitel is about $250.

Seagull WWSC TLR is another low cost 120 film camera (around $100 new) that can give some old tyme effects with steam trains. It's 75mm lens yields that nostalgic vignetting at wider apertures. The Seagull can be set to take (12) 6x6 images or (16) 645 images on 120 film. The top shutter speed is 1/350th.

Kodak Brownies: First introduced in 1900 using 117 film and made in several versions until discontinued in the late 1960s, the Brownie is a camera once used by railfans of years ago (Richard Steinheimer's first camera was a Baby Brownie Special with a single shutter speed), that even with its simple meniscus lens can produce surprisingly sharp steam train photos that have a nice touch of old tyme look. Later versions took 127 film (Brownie 127 and Baby Brownie Special); or 620 film (Brownie Six-20, shooting a 6x9 image), or 120 film (Brownie Cresta). (127 and 620 film is for the most part discontinued, but an internet search will bring up a few remaining suppliers and developing providers.)

Caution! When buying any used cameras, but especially one 20+ years old, check them out carefully. Test all shutter and aperture settings and operation; and check both sides of the lenses for scratches and interior mildew or moisture. Other potential problems can include a warped pressure plate, ground glass out of adjustment for proper focusing, or decayed seals around the film back causing light leaks. Focusing and film advance controls should be smooth and free of binding, slack points or any "grating." On TLRs, the lens should not wiggle when racked all the way out.

And on any camera with a bellows, such as the Ansco 6x6 folders, simply using the camera a couple of times can develop pinholes in an old, brittle bellows that may still be free of pinholes at the time of purchase. To check for pinholes, in a dark room, shine a flashlight through the lens while looking for light leaks coming from the bellows. If there are leaks, you might need to have the camera refurbished with a new bellows by a repair shop. Or if the bellows is in an otherwise good condition overall (not rotting and coming apart), do like I did with my old Ansco: I carefully wrapped the bellows with black plastic electrical tape! While this makes the opening and closing of the lens a little "stiff," my old jewel is again light tight and fun to use.

Also, you will usually not get a camera manual with an old camera. Original and reproduction camera manuals for many old cameras are available from several sources, by doing a web search with "old camera manuals." And some used camera dealers at camera shows will have a stack of old manuals that might include one for your old camera.

And…. If you would like to try these old tyme effects while using your current 35mm or digital SLR camera, Lensbaby offers a series of lenses for Nikon, Canon, Sony, Leica, and Olympus cameras that are designed to shift focus from side to side and up and down by use of your fingers "bending" the lens from side to side or top to bottom. This creates a sharp focus spot that can vary with its placement in the frame and with a fade to very soft edges, much like the focus fall off of cameras like the Holga and Diana. Different variations of Lensbaby lenses cost from around $80 (for the "Spark," which I use) to around $300. Some of the differences include being able to lock the lens shift in place for multiple shots with the same focus placement, interchangeable aperture discs, and interchangeable optics. But for use with steam trains to create a soft vignetting effect in the image, I have found the low cost Spark to be excellent.

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