Holga: Hong Kong-made lomo camera goes digital

September 12, 2015 08:03
Lee Ting-mo, now 85, designed and created the first Holga in 1982, which he described as "an affordable toy camera". Photo: HKEJ

The world is flooded with images.

Nowadays you don't have to buy rolls of film and have them developed in a photo shop. All you need is your cellphone and you can go on clicking away with its built-in camera.

And as technology advances, cameras are getting more sophisticated. New models often come with 4K resolution and support interchangeable lens.

However, in order to give a sense of nostalgia to those decisive moments in life, some people have decided to switch to low-tech lomo cameras.

Holga is one of the most renowned brands in lomography. It enjoys huge popularity in the United States and Europe.

But not many people know that Holga was invented by a Hongkonger.

Lee Ting-mo, now 85, designed and created the first — Holga 120X — in 1982, which he described as "an affordable toy camera".

Back then computers were hard to come by. Lee had to draw the designs and annotate each part of the camera in great detail.

Document folders arranged neatly at Lee’s studio contain the blueprints he painstakingly drafted for each model of Holga camera.

Over the years Lee has been asked by both students and experts about techniques, tips or tricks for taking pictures. His answer often surprises them.

“A pen crafter isn't necessarily a calligrapher,” Lee says. The engineer who knows how cameras work may not know anything about photography.

Originally targeted for the Chinese market in the ’80s, the cheap plastic toy camera didn’t sell well initially. Then Lee showed the Holga protocol to overseas buyers.

He didn’t expect it to become a hit, but it did. The Holga 120X camera was featured in a photo exhibition by Lomo Society and foreign photographers immediately took a liking to its artistic creations.

Photographer David Burnett took campaign pictures of Al Gore using the Holga camera. His black-and-white image of the former US vice president stunned the public and earned him a top prize in the 2001 Eyes of History by the White House News Photographers’ Association.

So how unique are Holga photographs?

Alex, a Holga diehard, says the beauty of a Holga picture lies in its mystery and imperfection.

“The vignetting effect of Holga is the best. It keeps us wondering how the contrast would be like in the end,” he explains.

Vignetting and light leaks are caused by the camera's plastic body, which couldn’t be fused completely. Thanks to this shortcoming, it makes photos one of a kind.

“Though we are in the same place seeing the same view, through Holga, pictures coming from different angles with different amounts of light and shade become artistic.”

Alex says it has taken him years of practice and luck to get the right exposure for his photographs. The challenge keeps him going.

To take the right picture one must come up with the right Holga.

For example, the Holga 120S is the best choice for shooting natural landscapes. Those who find it hard to keep the camera steady can choose the Holga 120-3D, which gives little shutter vibrations. The Holga 120 WPC wide pinhole camera provides an exciting depth of field to panoramic pictures.

When companies stopped the production of photographic films, Holga decided to launch the Holga Digital. It has launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

The Holga Digital comes with a vintage design. The pictures it produces remain highly unpredictable as the camera is not equipped with a monitor screen for instant preview.

Lee hopes that with the Holga innovations, more people will enjoy lomography.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 9.

Translation by Darlie Yiu

[Chinese version中文版]

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Alex says it has taken him years of practice and luck to get the right exposure for his photographs. Photo: HKEJ
Holga photographers always look forward to the effects of vignetting and light leaks. David Burnett's prize-winning image of former US vice president Al Gore was taken with a Holga camera. Photos: HKEJ
The vintage lomo camera has gone digital. Holga Digital is now accepting online orders on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Photos: HKEJ, kickstarter.com
Holga 120PC-3D (2008) allows users to create 3D lomo pictures. Photo: HKEJ
Holga K202 (1982-1900) is a cute pink camera that produces the sound of cats meowing. The classic Holga 120S (1982-1990) is popular worldwide. Photo: HKEJ

Writer of the Hong Kong Economic Journal