Holga 135BC review – What is this toy camera for?

While I was rooting around in my house, I found this little film camera that I have long forgotten about. I got it back when I was still in my junior years in secondary school in Hong Kong. It jogged back to the reason for me getting this camera … I was around 12 years old, only just started in my photography journey and still using my dad’s Canon PowerShot. During that time, the heavy vignette look was in vogue and Lomography was selling everywhere and created a cult. With about HKD $200 (~£20), I got myself one that comes with a flash and shot maybe 2 rolls of films on it. Due to the fact it was expensive to buy film and have them developed, especially for a school kid that only had £5 of pocket money a week, it ended up sitting in the corner on the bookshelf as a decorative display. It came with me to the UK and recently with me dipping in and out of the film world, I decided to put some film through it again. And boy, it reminded me of the purest of photography fun.

Appearance

Holga 135BC is a 35mm camera. It is all plastic, including the lens, the only thing that’s metal is probably the shutter thread, tripod thread and the hot shoe and that’s about it. And so, you guessed it, it is incredibly light. Fully mechanical and minimal settings. It uses a zone focused system where the focusing lens has 4 little diagrams to suggest roughly your focusing distance. 2 apertures, F8 or F11 shown as flash/cloudy or sunny, and 2 shutter speed, 1/100s or Bulb. And that’s it. It is designed to be a toy camera and I had fun with it.

Spec

Film35mm
Shutter speed1/100 sec or Bulb
ApertureF8 or F11
FocusZoned focus
Multiple exposuresBy not winding film forward
AccessoriesTripod mountCable release mountHot shoes

What I like about it

First of all, It was very cheap. It does reflect on the quality of the build where everything is cheap plastic but it was part of the charm. You know how you have heard any seasoned photographer said at least once “it is not about your gear, at the end of the day it’s just a black box.”? This is literally a box with a hole, nothing more. The beauty of this limitation is that it allows you to put down the thought of “what aperture/shutter speed” and focus on just creating.

Secondly, the unpredictability. Film photography in general has a little bit of this element in it. Every time you press down your shutter, unlike digital photograph where you can chimp, you only have a rough idea of what the image is going to look like until you have the roll develop maybe a day or two later. Yes, the more you practise, the more accurate that mental image will be. But this toy camera is a different story. The viewfinder is just a window above the lens, so you have to factor in the parallax issue. The plastic lens takes in light whatever the way they feel that day and you can’t even have accurate focus as it’s just 4 different icons at the top of the lens for you to guess your focus range. And depends on what film you have in it, with absolute minimal control, you will probably end up over/underexpose your film the majority of the time. That means you really can’t know for sure if your image is going to turn out right or not. But once in a while, I find it liberating. We all have this expectation where every time we go out to make photographs, we will end up with loads of good photos that we are super happy with. In reality, we don’t always get good results and we can come home with absolutely nothing. That’s very normal but the expectation, over time, can wear us down and make us forget what we set out to enjoy in the first place. I do still practise my photography with other “serious” camera. But once in a while, I will pick this wee thing up, the unpredictability allows me to just go out with absolutely no expectation at all. It sets your mind free to just take the photo without thinking much and just enjoy photography as it is. The excitement of getting your roll back from the lab is different when you have no idea what photographs you have made.

What I am not a fan of

Lomography’s toy camera earned their fame with the heavy vignette that comes with their plastic lens. “Heavy vignette” is just the polite way of saying the lens doesn’t cover the whole 35mm negatives so leaving the 4 corners un-exposed. Luckily my specific one is not too bad compared to what I have seen online. I enjoy a little bit of a vignette sometimes but that 4 black corner look is a bit too dated for me. It makes me cringe just like when I see those black and white images with only the red umbrella coloured in. If that’s your thing, go for it. The extreme of style is just not my taste.

Also, it is not THAT cheap when you consider I got my Olympus AF-1 Super, a second hand 30 years old point and shoot camera that are well-built with a sharp 35mm F2.8 lens, for only £30 from eBay.

Verdict

Holga 135BC is a toy 35mm film camera. An all-plastic, cheaply build black box that takes pictures. It is like those plastic toys that pretend to be a camera. The build quality of the camera is unpredictable, the pictures that come out are even more unpredictable. But that reminds me why I loved photography. The simplicity of the camera takes away all the stress that you put on yourself trying to make the next masterpiece for your Instagram feed. It leaves only the purest joy of photography.  It allows you to be “unintentional”. Press the shutter because you want to remember that moment. 

One of my all time favourite photos is taken with this little toy camera

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