This is probably a strange subject for a first article, but let’s go with it. Lomography. What the heck is it anyway? Honestly, I hadn’t even heard the term until one of my friends asked me for advice because they were interested in starting photography. They’d heard about this lomography thing and were “just minutes away from buying a Diana Mini.” These words meant nothing to me, so I went to the official lomography website to try to figure out what they were talking about. Turns out, it was just hipster code for “film photography with a really, really bad camera.” So why, based on the title of this article, do I think photography is a completely separate entity from lomography?
1. Lomography has been around for as long as photography has, people just don’t know it
The official lomography website says the whole field was discovered when some college students found an old, Russian, Lomo Kompakt Automat in 1990. Of course, the keyword here is old; my dad was playing around with another Lomo, the Smena 8, when he was a kid in the 60’s. He also remembers a similar Hungarian camera, the Pajtas. Back in the day, these machines were built as toy cameras with the defining feature that absolutely everything, including the lens, was made of plastic, making them incredibly cheap. Back then, their purpose was to put the crude estimation of photography into the hands of children and amateurs.
Then, maybe in 1990, maybe later, maybe earlier, these cameras were “rediscovered.” By this point in time, most disposable cameras were of better quality than the Lomos, and even amateurs could afford a functional camera by Pentax or Olympus. People had grown so accustomed to decent photo gear that the technical problems caused by plastic componentry were now seen as novel, experimental, and original. They had a unique feel to them that couldn’t really be recreated in a darkroom, or in the 2000’s, in Photoshop. So Lomos and the like were placed in the lomography subdivision of photography, and the toy cameras capable of such feats were re-labelled “iconic” and “groundbreaking.” Unfortunately, it seems the cheapest “iconic” plastic camera you can get now is the Chinese Holga 135, seen above, at $50.
So, the field of lomography was born. No longer were these toy cameras simply imitations of the real thing, now they were their own entity. But WHY would anyone actually own both a Holga and a professional camera like the Nikon D3?
2. Nikons simply don’t leak light
Although I, like most other people, have moved on to digital photography, the first and only film camera I ever owned was the Nikon F3, made in 1980. I used this camera through high school because I still had access to a darkroom there. It worked fine then, and it works great now. Another friend has an even older Ricoh KR-5, and still no light leaks. The (rather obvious) reason for this is that you get a metal body that seals tightly as soon as you spend over a hundred dollars on a camera.
The protection against light leaks is most easily seen as a benefit: your film is exposed evenly, and you don’t have to deal with unwanted vignettes or burned areas. You can have faith that your own skill as a photographer is enough to ensure the production of a quality photograph. Shoddy craftsmanship will never ruin your film, only you can do something stupid like open your back panel before rewinding your film (yes, I’ve done this. But only because the film fell off the spool and wouldn’t rewind. I swear!)
But there are also drawbacks to this. You can’t choose to loosen the camera’s seal and let in light leaks on purpose; the back panel is either closed tightly or completely open, ruining your film. And remember, light leaks are so rare now that they could actually be considered a neat and interesting effect, rather than simply an accident. So let’s say you want to add this nostalgic effect to a photo you captured of your kid playing with his Radio Flyer wagon instead of his XBox. There’s probably a Photoshop effect that’ll do it, but that’s almost hypoctrical, isn’t it? Your only real option is to go out and get that lomography camera and pray it is a POS in the right way.
3. F-stops are not measured in smiley faces and groups of trees
I already told you I had a Nikon F3 in high school. The lens I used most frequently with it was a 35-135mm f/3.5-22. I also played around with one of those Holga 135’s I was telling you about. It had a fixed 47mm lens with two aperture settings: smiley face and bunch of trees. Note that this is different from f/face-tree, because such a thing does not exist.
Now, the intended effect of the limited options on a Holga is probably to make it easier to use and understand. If someone hasn’t explained what f/5.6 means to you, then it might as well be some weird code. But pretty much anyone can decide “Am I shooting a nearby person right now, or a stand of trees in the distance?” and choose the right setting. So with a Holga, you won’t be able to learn proper photographic technique (you will never learn about aperture and proper exposure, for example). However, you will also never be able to go out with a Nikon and take usable photos while completely ignoring aperture and shutter speed.
But remember, plastic camera. I’m not sure changing between face and tree even did anything. The true effect of these options, and the one some people eventually learned to appreciate, is that it puts a lot of the control out of your reach. When you pick up a Holga, unless you want to end up “putting it down” by smashing it to the ground, you have to accept that it may not work the way you want it to, that it almost has a mind of its own, and it is largely out of your control. Using it is a crapshoot (…yeah, I went there).
But if you can embrace the wild, unruly nature of the Holga, then you’ll find not only photos you expect to be great turn out as unexpected failures, but that your successes can be just as surprising and unexpected. Which brings me to my final point…
4. Nikons are so boring. There is nothing unexpected about a Nikon
When you go out and take a photo at f/16, there’s probably a button on your SLR that lets you preview what your depth of field will be like. You know that you just had 3 cups of coffee, so you probably can’t hand hold an exposure slower than 1/200th of a second. Sure, you can use the Photoshop light leak filter, but you know exactly where you’re putting it and why, and you can take it out if you decide you don’t like it. With the advent of digital photography, shoot in RAW and you can even fix your photos if you over/underexposed or didn’t bother with getting the white balance right at all. Get CS4 and content aware processing and you can even take out that building/tree/person/piece of trash/national monument that you don’t like having in the middle of your photo.
What I’m saying is, with a real camera, you can tell as soon as you hit the shutter whether or not a photo will turn out. And if it doesn’t, you can control, alter, and fix just about every element of the image. There are times when I can’t help but feel this is all depressingly artificial.
Now consider the Holga. There is no real way to adjust aperture, and you never know what will be in focus. Did you hit the shutter button twice without remembering to advance the film? Double exposure! (You can do this on a Canon too, but it takes some more fancy footwork). There’s no way to predict where the light leak will show up today, and ultimately, there’s no way to predict which photos will be ruined and which will turn out amazing. And give me the best darkroom in the world, I’m still not sure I’ll be able to fix the ruined ones.
In short, the Holga could be compared to a force of nature: completely unpredictable, for better or for worse.
Whether this unpredictability is liberating or mind-numbingly frustrating depends on how you approach it. My advice: keep practicing photography, and keep taking those perfectly metered portraits with your Canon. But once in a while, consider setting your worries aside for a day and just having some fun.
I only played around with a Holga a very little bit in high school, so if you’ve spent any time with the machine (or any of its brothers and sisters), I’d love it if you shared your experiences or thoughts in the comments! Until then, enjoy these examples of lomography: