How to create a toy camera look, digitally

Get the Holga/Diana look in digital cameras and your digital darkroom

The Holga camera was first made in Hong Kong in 1982 and uses 120 roll film because that was the most widely available film in China at the time. It’s name, disputed by some, purportedly comes from the Chinese phrase ho gwong meaning “very bright.”

Unpredictable results and a toy-like price ($22.99) have made it popular with the photographic cognoscenti around the world. In a day in which cameras are technological wonders, the modest Holga is the anti-camera.

The Holga is most famous for its optical imperfections. A combination of the camera’s basic construction and 60mm plastic (meniscus) lens produces the vignetting, blur, light leaks, and distortions that have endeared Holga to the world. Yes, kiddies, it has light leaks. The lens--if you can call that--has aberrations and vignettes like crazy--and these are "features" which practitioners of Holgaraphy prize greatly. HolgaMod’s Randy Smith says, “Each Holga is like a fingerprint, no two are alike.”

Cult of Holga: This is my personal Holga 120N that I purchased from Adorama. A cult favorite with a global following, the Holga camera produces low-tech works of art with the minimum of mechanical functionality. Soft focusing, vignetting, and light leaks all contribute to the Holga’s bag of tricks. ©2007 Joe Farace

Some Holga models include a 6x4.5cm frame insert and some newer models include a 6x6cm insert giving you a chance to choose whatever aspect ratio works for you. Shooting without any insert produces 6x6cm images, although this could lead to problems holding the film flat against the film plane. In my experience, any discussion of the Holga’s image sharpness and keeping the film flat almost never comes up.

While a Holga--there are several models available--is inexpensive to purchase, the cost of film, processing, and scanning time make the camera best suited for film aficionados, but if you would like to experience the Holga Effect” in the digital realm, read on.

The Digital Holga

One of the easiest ways to create digital Holga images is to buy a Holga lens for your digital SLR. Yes, boys and girls, HolgaModsdigital SLR. Prices vary based on the cost and complexity of making them work (I guess) but figure around fifty bucks to turn your digital SLR into a Holga.

Holga hack: This is a real Holga lens mounted on my Canon EOS Rebel Xti body. HolgaMods sell Holga Digital Body Cap Lenses ($40.45 for Canon) that are real Holga lenses mounted on Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax body caps. You can, in a fashion, focus the lenses, and the results are pure digital Holga but without any light leaks caused by the body. ©2007 Joe Farace


Perfectly imperfect: How do HolgaMod’s Digital Body Cap Lenses work? Pretty good. Here is a portrait of my wife Mary made using the EOS Rebel Xti. Camera was set in Aperture Priority mode and since the lens is about f/8, I set the ISO at 800. That produced a shutter speed of 1/25 sec. Since the Holga lens lacks contrast I boosted the black (without increasing contrast) by using Power Retouche’s Black Definition plug-in and lightly burned the four corners of the photograph with Photoshop’s Burn tool. ©2007 Joe Farace

Another way to capture a digital Holga-like photograph is by using a Lensbaby! The Original Lensbaby is a flexible camera lens that creates an image with an area of sharp--or not--focus that’s surrounded by a graduated blur. This lens is available in different camera mounts and brings the Holga look to single lens reflex cameras while adding more creative control. When used with digital SLRs you’ll see the effects right away, so if you don’t get exactly what you want the first time, you can try and try again...

It came from outer space: Looking all the world like a prop from a 1950’s Ed Wood sci-fi epic, Lensbaby 3G makes capturing images more precise if that's a word that can be applied to soft-focus imagery. The Original Lensbaby and Lensbaby 2.0 require the photographer to manually hold the lens in a bent position while pressing the shutter release. Lensbaby 3G allows photographers to lock the Lensbaby in a desired position by simply pressing a button. Then using a barrel focus mechanism, you can do fine focusing and place an area of sharp focus before pressing the shutter release.

When using a Lensbaby, you shift the in-focus area by bending the flexible lens tube in any direction using a technique than can vary from photographer to photographer but involves wrapping your fingers around the lens like you were smoking a cigar. (I quit 20 years ago.) The further you move the lens up, down, left or right, this area of sharpness shifts producing blurring and prismatic color distortions in the rest of the image. You can control the size of the sharpest area and the overall blur with one of four aperture settings by replacing the aperture ring--it looks like a washer--and replacing it with another one. Four aperture rings are provided but like me you’ll find one you like and just leave it in there.

Oh, baby! This photograph was made with a Lensbaby 2.0 attached to a Canon EOS D30. Exposure in Aperture Preferred mode was 1/800 sec with the f/5.6 aperture installed at ISO 400. Since the Holga shoots 6x6 and 6x4.5 shaped images, I used Photoshop’s Crop tool to crop this photograph into a 6x4.5 ratio. The dark framed edges were added with the Soft Black Rule Fat effect that’s part of Pixel Genius PhotoKit Photoshop-compatible plug-in. Using the B&W Toning Set, that’s also part of PhotoKit, I added a brown tone. ©2005 Joe Farace

The Digital Darkroom

One of the best ways to add the Holga effect in the digital darkroom is by using a Photoshop Plug-in or Action. One of Adobe Photoshop’s most useful features is an open architecture that accommodates small software applications, called plug-ins, that extend the program’s capabilities. But don’t let the name fool you. You don’t need Adobe Photoshop or even Photoshop Elements to use plug-ins. Many other image editing program accept Photoshop-compatible plug-in. Check your manual under “Filters.”

What a pear: My favorite plug-in for emulating Holga photographs is Flaming Pear Software’s Melancholytron that provides lots of controls to make your pictures moody and nostalgic. You can use a full set of sliders to subdue hue and focus and produce full-color, mid-color, and sepia-like effects. The latest version (1.3) is faster, recordable, and works with 16-bit color in Photoshop. ©2007 Mary Farace

Photoshop Actions are not applications or even plug-ins; they are simply a series of instructions that direct the host program to produce a desired effect. The Photoshop Actions palette lets you record a sequence of image editing steps that can be applied to a selection in an image, another image file, and with a batch operation to hundreds of image files. Read my article on the AIRC for more about Photoshop Actions.

The best way to digitally replicate a Holga photograph may be Alberto Campione’s Holga Simulator Action. When running his Action, the author recommends you use a camera with at least four-megapixel resolution. Holga Simulator even crops the photo into a square, although this function is interactive and you can move the Crop lines to suit the subject. Using a complete set of layers, it adds all of the stuff you love about Holga including blur, light leaks, vignetting, and even film grain. Each layer may be tweaked to produce the final effect. Holga Simulator is available through the Adobe Exchange

Udderly fascinating: This Cow photograph was originally shot in color using an Olympus Evolt 330; what you see here was the result of a one-click operation after downloading and installing Alberto Campione’s Holga Simulator Action. ©2006 Mary Farace

The "Old Toy Camera Action gives photos a look similar to shots made with a Diana, Holga, or an antique camera. This Action adds some of the general elements that make photos captured with toy and antique cameras so beautiful. The .ATN file also includes two additional Actions that imitate the borders and edged often produced by vintage and toy camera images.

Toying around: This photograph was originally captured in color with a Canon EOS 30D. Exposure was 1/80 sec at f/7.1 at ISO 250. It was a cool morning and was still overcast from a light rain that stopped just moments before I made the original photograph. The Holga version looks like the real deal, an old photo of an old car, something the color version gives up. ©2006 Joe Farace

Joe Farace is the author of a new book called “Getting Started in Digital Imaging” published by Focal Press (ISBN 024080838X.) It’s available in all the best bookstores as well as


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