How to get great photos with an inexpensive Holga film camera


October 6, 2021

Michael Kenna is hailed the world over for his serene square images shot on Hasselblads, but did you also know he’s a Holga fan? Michael explains how to get great results with these lo-fi cameras

White Bird Flying, Paris 2007. Perfectly timed, given Holga’s limitations and excellent framing

Not everyone will know the name of Michael Kenna, but they will probably know his style, which in recent years has been massively influential and massively copied. Although he never claimed to have invented the look, Kenna’s preference for beautifully toned square format prints; zen-flavoured peaceful scenes; and long exposure water has made him one of the most recognizable photographers in the world.

He’s also well known for shooting with inexpensive Holga cameras and producing a self-titled book, so AP found out the ins and outs. “I started shooting with Holga cameras because they were light, fun and unpredictable,” says the Lancashire native who has been living in the United States for a long time.

“I’ve been using Hasselblad cameras for 30 years, and Holga cameras haven’t replaced them – they just added a little extra touch to my work. Photographs taken with a Holga camera are much more unpredictable, which I rather like. They took me out of my comfort zone, and the overall experience was one of surprise and discovery.

That said, Michael appreciates that in our digital age, where high-quality footage captured on powerful but reasonably priced equipment can be shared instantly, some people might find it hard to understand the appeal of low-cost plastic cameras. tech.

Umbrella, Shexian, Anhui, China, 2007. Kenna travels a lot but is able to find inspiration in everyday objects

Far from instant gratification
As he explains, shooting old Holgas isn’t for the faint-hearted. “There is no instant gratification and it is impossible to predict results with great accuracy. The very act of developing film on display in a darkroom is fraught with anticipation and anxiety.

Images may be blurry, under or overexposed, scratched and/or vignetted. Or, they can be magical in ways that could never be previewed. Fortunately, Michael stuck to it, and the quality and atmosphere of his Holga images, printed in his trademark square format, blows many images shot with state-of-the-art digital equipment out of the water. So what were the biggest technical limitations he faced and how did he get around them?

Simtai Great Wall, Study 2, Beijing, China 2007. A unique Kenna touch on one of the most photographed buildings in the world

“To be honest, I just picked them up and broke them with little regard for any technical limitations. A lot of my photos didn’t come out very well…some were underexposed, some were overexposed. It didn’t do long exposures, and I never used them on a tripod, although I know it’s possible with some models. So all my images were taken freehand.

If I had been a more serious practitioner, I’m sure I could have made the cameras more convenient and controllable, but that was never my goal.’

New lo-fi adventures
Rather than the Holga’s lo-fi technology influencing Michael’s choice of composition and subject matter, he feels it was more about having him experiment. “Most Holga cameras have plastic lenses, so you can’t expect extremely fine resolution and crisp detail.

Perhaps this unconsciously influenced the choice of subject. For me, it was a constant experimentation. I’ve used Holga cameras whenever I didn’t have the Hasselblads, and sometimes when I did. As mentioned, many of the resulting negatives were imperfect – blurry and poorly exposed – but I had expected that in advance, so that didn’t bother me.

Pavilion Building, Summer Palace, Beijing, China, 2007. The ‘fringing’ tree renders the image, with the beautiful vignette

He also turned some of the Holga’s “flaws”, such as light leaks, to his advantage. “Sometimes the ‘flaws’ of the negative made the image much more interesting than if it had been shot with another more predictable camera. Printing negatives made from Holga cameras was particularly fun, challenging, and sometimes infuriating.

It is not possible to accurately predict how the negative will look. Several times I had to forgo the print because the subject was out of focus. Sometimes there were scratches that made the negative unrecoverable. But it’s all part of the Holga experience. You have to keep an open mind and go with the flow.

Is it possible to do this digitally?
Not everyone will have access to old Holgas movies, or want to bother with their faff and unpredictability. We wondered if the same type of approach used here could also be applied with a smartphone – and does Michael think this type of look can ever be successfully replicated digitally?

“Smartphones are great for recording everyday experiences and events,” he thinks. ‘The Holga “vignette look” can certainly be replicated quite easily and instantly with the billions and one apps available to everyone. However, I don’t think the experience will be the same.

Deva Offering, Lantau Island, Hong Kong, 2011. Kenna is influenced by Eastern philosophy and the minimalism of much East Asian Buddhist art.

Part of Holga’s charm is her unpredictable nature. Smartphones are becoming more predictable and instantaneous. You know what you have when you do the exposure. This is not the Holga experience. I compare the images of Holga to opening Christmas presents. Waiting is a big part of the process.

What you get isn’t always what you want, but sometimes it’s so much better!

Snowy fields, Hokkaido, 2004. Japan is a permanent source of inspiration for Kenna

Any student of Kenna’s work will know that he tries to avoid over-complication in everything he does, and that extends to his choice of equipment – so in that sense his yen for Holgas is quite understandable. “The equipment I use now is quite simple. I don’t like complicated cameras with bells and whistles.

I basically use the same equipment that I have had for 30 years. As you know, it’s not digital. I might consider using lighter gear in the future. My Hasselblad cameras seem to be getting heavier and heavier! I have to go to the gym more often to carry all this equipment.

On the shoulders of giants
Michael must be one of the most emulated photographers in the world, whether by other pros or amateurs taking part in competitions. Does he find it embarrassing? “I get asked that question a lot, so be patient if I give you a longer answer. Frankly, at my age, very little annoys me more.

I sincerely believe that it is normal and healthy to study the work of other artists, and even to imitate the efforts of others, as a means of exploring one’s personal vision. It has been so throughout history in all mediums of creative expression. We move forward standing on the shoulders of giants.

The perspective becomes much clearer from such high ground. If I can help other photographers in any way I am very happy and of course imitation is considered the best form of flattery (although it is a bit overrated in my humble opinion.” Basically, I believe photographers are worth their salt should and will work with passionate intensity to find its own voice.

It’s always been difficult to come up with something original, and it doesn’t get any easier with smartphones. True creativity does not come quickly, or at all. We are all individuals, and it is the search to discover ourselves, in our own personal vision and journey, that we find satisfaction.

The choice of Michael de Holga
Even when he’s on a break, Michael continues to snap photos and keeps a range of Holga cameras handy. “To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to the Holga cameras I used. Looking around the darkroom, here are a few that are currently in use.

One is a Holga 120 GN, another a Holga 120 GFN. For me, part of the charm of Holga is that they are completely disposable and replaceable. Personally, I never spent the time figuring out which camera did what. They are all a bit unique!

Discover Michael’s book
Holga, by Michael Kenna, is published by Prestel/Penguin/Random House. It’s full of more of his great photos taken on a Holga and we highly recommend it. Watch out for another interview with Michael later in the year.

Further reading
Michael Kenna’s guide to minimalist photography


Comments are closed.