For my recent birthday I received something that has been on my wish list for years – A Holga “toy” camera.
The Holga is about as basic as cameras get, with a plastic lens, limited focus, no zoom, no batteries, and just two exposure settings – sunny and cloudy.
But it’s exactly this primitive quality and charm that, in just a few weeks, has taught me many lessons on being creative I’d either forgotten or never known to this extent before.
Here are the ten most valuable.
1. Fewer options means less resistance to starting.
My digital camera has hundreds, myabe thousands, of different options and settings. A glance at the thickness of the manual would be enough to send most of us fleeing and overwhelmed before we even found the power button.
The Holga manual has 12 pages. And about nine of those are about its history, customising and accessories. I read the whole manual in 20 minutes, then loaded a film and started shooting. By radically limiting our options, we make it easy to begin – an instant short cut to greater creativity.
2. Keep moving into the next project.
When I’ve finished a roll of film, as I don’t have a custom built darkroom conveniently at the end of my garden, I take the film to the nearest processing lab about half an hour away. They then send the results back in the post. This means that the time between taking a photograph and actually seeing the result can be 5 -10 days or more.
In this interim, I don’t just sit around and wait. I load up the next film and start shooting again. By the time I get the photographs back I’ve already used another roll or three, so however they came out I’ve already improved and kept the flow. Meaning there’s no danger of creating something, then getting disappointed, hung up and stuck because it doesn’t turn out exactly as I’d hoped. Keep moving, keep creating.
3. Be patient, enjoy the running, not the winning.
Since I’ve had my digital camera, I’ve been taking around 1000 photographs a month. Of those, I keep maybe 75 – 100 as my best work, and of those maybe 20 are the very best. With the Holga, my progression is going to take longer, because the volume of photographs is far less. This is a great reminder in patience, and enjoying the whole process and journey.
The aim is not to become perfect at our chosen craft, then give up, mission accomplished, medal won. Being an artist is a never ending evolution, a slowly unravelling series of discoveries. Immerse yourself in the experience, rather than racing for the finish line (which probably wasn’t put there by you anyway).
4. The beauty is in the flaws.
I knew before I got the Holga that much of its charm was in the unexpected quirks and flaws in the photographs it could produce. Some of my favourite photographs I’d seen made with other Holgas were the ones with light leaks at the edges, visible graininess, and double exposures.
Knowing up front that I could never take the kind of precision perfect photograph I could with a digital camera, meant I was free to embrace the beauty of those flaws. In fact I could even encourage them by experimenting, increasing their likelihood, seeking them out. Knowing you can never create something perfect takes a major weight off and frees you to get on with creating something uniquely beautiful instead.
5. Be purposeful in how you create.
Each roll of 120 film gives 12 shots, used conventionally. On a typical artist’s date with my digital camera I might take 100-150 photographs, then select the best later when I’m home again. With the Holga the amount of shots taken on a photoshoot is greatly less, meaning each one is more considered and composed.
I’m more consciously choosing the best shots, rather than shooting arbitrarily. So the quality of the photographs is as high as I can make it. Although when I set off I don’t know what photographs I will end up taking, I’m shooting with purpose and focus, not just being trigger happy for the sake of using up the film.
6. Discover and master the unique features of your medium.
There are two aspects of shooting with the Holga that have completed charmed me, and both are things I simply cannot do with my fancy digital camera. The long exposure “B” setting means the shutter remains open as long as you hold it open (pretty light trails on night roads ahead!) and the manual wind on means you can take multiple exposures on the same piece film (ghosts in the film, and other dreamy layered effects here we come.)
These are simple features, but ones I cannot do with my digital camera. So I’m focusing on them, and enjoying them all the more. Whatever our creative medium, there are aspects unique to it. Once we pick one or two of them, and strive to master them (as opposed to trying to master one or two dozen aspects), we see our creativity and inventiveness soar.
7. (Re)Discover the wonder.
The Holga is almost entirely plastic, and mechanical. It has no microchip, it needs no batteries. It doesn’t even have a glass lens. All this primitivity you might think would make some give up before they even began, wondering how they could ever be creative with such a basic tool (or “toy”!). But again, I found this not only freeing, but its rawness gets me closer to the wonder and the magic of photography.
It absolutely astounds me how photography works, how the light coming through the lens gets imprinted on the film, then inverted to make a photograph. It literally feels like some kind of sorcery to me. With a digital camera I never thought about any of this, I just lined up the shot and pressed the button. With the Holga, it feels like I’m holding a magic little black box in my hands, which increases my awe and excitement of being a photographer and making photographs immeasurably.
8. Trust what you already know about creating.
When you take on a different creative medium, although the format itself is new to you, expressing yourself through your creativity isn’t it. You’ve been doing it your whole life. This becomes even more true when the medium is an alternative sub-genre within a larger one you’re already familiar with, in my case photography.
When I first got the Holga, I didn’t think “What do I do, I don’t have a clue how to take a good photograph!” because I have experience from taking digital photographs over the last five years plus. I let that experience and that instinct guide me. The core aim with the Holga is exactly the same as with my digital camera – find and capture the beauty that’s already out there waiting for you, in the best and most interesting way you know how.
9. Keep it simple.
If you dismantled the Holga entirely, I reckon there’d only be about a dozen components. Except for a spring, a few screws and the clips that hold the backing plate on, it’s entirely plastic. It cost £25 (~ $40 USD), meaning I could buy a dozen for the same cost as my still fairly affordable Nikon digital compact.
You don’t need an abundance of expensive, fancy materials to be creative. You don’t need to buy notebooks so sumptuous you’re afraid of spoiling them with even a drop of ink. You don’t need a set of 96 tubes of paint to start painting. Keep it simple, just get started. In fact revel in that simplicity, and how it frees you to get closer to the source of your creativity.
10. Enjoy your creativity.
When we get too serious and intense about creating, the enjoyment factor is an inevitable casualty. Instead of looking forward to creating, and feeling excitement in the anticipation, you feel dread and frustration before you’ve even begun. Not ideal conditions to create either your best work, or your most enjoyable (which might often be one and the same thing).
With the Holga I’m enjoying photography like never before, for all the reasons above and more. It feels more primitive, more real, more exciting, and simply more fun. And surely this is a large part of why we create – to enjoy and express ourselves in a way that nothing else we can experience quite provides.
How can you make your creative processes more lo-fi and enjoy some of these benefits?
Join the conversation and let us know.
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