The holga, a magical hunk of plastic, is usually used in a more casual fashion than a heavier-duty camera. It has just one shutter speed, and depending on the model, one or two aperture settings (one for sunny and one for cloudy). You’re supposed to just load it up and go, carefree and shooting from the hip, which is easy to do because, since the holga viewfinder doesn’t actually show you the same area encompassed by the lens, there’s not much point in looking through it. Lots of the time, this is a fun approach – you just load the camera with a fast enough film and click away like there’s no tomorrow. The holga does some pretty special things when left to its own devices, and I’m definitely an advocate of using it this way (you can read more about basic holga functions on this site, which is the definitive guide to all things holga). But there are a number of occasions where you might want to be a little more diligent about exposing film in a holga camera. The plastic lens can create dreamy effects, and certain situations call for a guaranteed holga image or bust. Or, if you haven’t yet learned to order your film online, maybe you just paid $14.99 (!!) for a single roll of slide film and you don’t want to waste one frame because, well, hopefully that’s obvious. (If not, maybe you can buy my next order of slide film?)
In such cases, I cheat a little with my holga (the 120N) so that I can use it in a much wider range of situations than just “sunny” or “cloudy but not that dark”. It has a shutter speed of about 1/100 sec, but this varies a little across cameras – that’s part of what makes them so quirky and fun! I’ve found that for my holga, pictures look about the same if I pretend that its shutter speed is 1/125 sec rather than 1/100, and since 1/125 is a standard speed, it’s just easier. First, you’ll need a light meter. Also the resolve to be seen in public using a light meter to take pictures with a plastic box. You can download a light meter app if you have an iphone. Other smart phones are also capable of this, I just haven’t used any non-iphone apps. You could also just use a digital SLR camera in manual mode, but be warned: it feels even sillier to use a whole camera as a light meter for a plastic box.
I usually load 400-speed film in my holga – my favourite holga film is Fuji Pro 400H. It’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll see something on your frames if you shoot this film during the daytime, but you could use any speed you want. I’d tend to go with a lower speed (100, 200, 400), because you can always keep the shutter open for longer. On the other hand, if it’s too bright out for your film, there’s not a whole lot you can do to control the exposure unless you use a neutral density filter, which I’ve done but it seems even more antithetical to the holga experience than using a light meter. So, you set your light meter with your film speed and aperture settings, and it will tell you what your shutter speed should be for a proper exposure. This trick works if the shutter speed you need is longer than your holga’s standard speed.
All you have to do is set your holga on something steady (a tripod, a ledge, your friend’s shoulder, whatever), and click the shutter a few times to let more light in. How many times? Here’s a handy chart:
Beyond this, exposure times become long enough that it’s easier to use the camera’s “Bulb” mode. At 1/2 sec, or even 1/4 or 1/8, you could probably get away with just clicking quickly in Bulb (who really wants to sit there pressing the button 30+ times?). The math here is pretty simple if you like fractions. To get the equivalent of 1/60 sec shutter speed, you click the shutter twice because 2 x 1/125 = 2/125, which reduces to 1/62.5. Similarly, 4/125 reduces to 1/31.25, 8/125 reduces to about 1/17 and so on. Or you can just take my word for it that this works and be on your merry way. Below are some example images taken with this approach. The bottom two are what happens when you think you’ve got steady enough hands to just hold the camera in the air while you shoot, which is fun to play around with too.