Toy cameras and fixed-gears

577px-fixed_gear_cogWith my recent holga fascination and the seeming Renaissance of film that is going on in the photo-blogo-sphere (TM), it got me wondering – Why?

Look, by any technical measure, the Holga is a crappy camera.  It is flimsy, plastic, full of light leaks, blurry,  Basically the *exact opposite* of everything we look for in  a camera.  We will spend thousands of dollars for a little extra bump in that MTF curve,  or a fraction of a stop in increased lens speed – So why is my fancy-shmancy-SLR and High-end glass sitting on the shelf while I gleefully run around with a $25 toy camera with plastic lens?

Allow me to make an analogy (which I have used before, but applicable in this case as well!)  Consider the bicycle – Nowadays your average bike has 27-some odd gears, carbon fiber doohickeys, hydraulic disk brakes, and suspensions which will absorb a city curb or tree root with nary a complaint.  Pretty cool, huh? Gotta love technology (road bike tech is equally, if not more impressive).

Of course with all that, I can still walk into a bike shop and buy a “fixie” or “fixed-gear” bicycle.  Some shops even specialize in ’em!  To explain:  a fixed gear bicycle is a bike with 1 speed/1 gear.  No shifters, no suspension, no brakes (!) – just 2 pedals and 2 wheels.  Not only that, the bike cannot even “coast” as ther gear is “fixed” (hence “fixie”) – the pedals turn the wheel directly, with no freewheeling so you *must* pedal as fast as the bike is going.  To slow down/stop you simply slow your pedaling, or lock your legs and “skid” the bike to a stop.

Now at this point one may ask, why on earth someone would want to ride a bike like that (ahem -Holga) when they could get a 27 speed, freewheeling, brake-having, trigger-shifting racing bike instead? (DSLR)  And ultimately, everyone who rides a fixie has their own reason – but for many, it is *discipline*.

The Fixie keeps you honest.  It *forces* you to work on your riding technique.  It *forces* you to pedal properly, “spinning” as the pros call it.  It doesn’t allow you to slack off – if you don’t pedal, you don’t go – simple as that.

It eliminates everything non-essential, strips the act of riding down to it’s most basic fundamentals and beats you over the head with them until they are mastered.

Similarly, the holga doesn’t have any of the fancy bells and whistles of high end cameras.  It strips the camera down to it’s bare essentials – a box with film and a shutter (ok, so maybe a pinhole is more “bare essentials, but you can get holgas in “pinhole” version too!)  It forces you to work within it’s constraints, and thus compensate by using your other skills – composition, previsualization, etc…  Digital shooting makes you lazy – the Holga makes you *work* for your shot!

Furthermore, most fixed-gear cyclists will tell you that there is a certain “Zen” to riding a fixie.  No clicking freewheel, no worrying about shifting, just you and the bike -directly connected.  Just like the holga, its very primitiveness strips away distractions and complications, leaving us to concentrate on the act in it’s purest form – either riding or shooting.

So if you are feeling in a rut with your shooting, or are dreading over sorting through those 4,000 almost-identical shots you took on your last shoot, try it – grab a holga and a couple of rolls of ASA400 b/w film.   it’s only a few bucks, and can give you a whole new outlook on your photography!

5 thoughts on “Toy cameras and fixed-gears”

  1. I just assumed that Holgas and fixed-gears were used because the people using them were hipsters. There’s so little reason behind what those people do.

    1. @Chris – LOL – true, true. I am about as far from “hipster” as you can get though, and I love ’em both as well.
      @Michael – I like that quote, very true!

  2. I took a photography class at UNL in the 1980’s where the professor made us leave our SLRs at home the first quarter had us go to the thrift store and buy an old Instamatic or other fixed lens camera.

    He wanted us to learn how to frame a good picture using all of the design elements found in art. In fact, a 2-D design class was required before you could get into his class.

    Having a Nikon does not make me a photographer. It makes me a Nikon owner. (I stole that off of a Twitter)

  3. You know. I shot for a long time on crappy cameras. It was because I didn’t have the money to buy anything nicer. It forced me to milk everything I could out of myself and my camera. Eventually, the tools get in the way of capturing your photographic vision. I would hope everyone gets to that point with their camera. There is really no point in getting the next camera if you aren’t limited by you current camera. I am at that point again with my current camera, and I’m needing to get a better camera.

    I have made the argument in my mind do I keep my old camera and keep shooting or move on to the next one. I’ve begun to wonder what keeps me from being a better photographer. Is it the camera or is it me. So I went to a shoot with a couple for an engagement sitting.

    I just switched over to doing wedding photography because of economic reasons. Here I was a commercial photographer doing weddings and engagements. I am used to having all the control. Now, It was a mutual relationship with my subject and me. What did I decide to do. I pulled out my old Fuji S5000. It’s a super-zoom that is 5 years old, I think. It doesn’t have good ISO. It’s a electronic shutter and view finder. It’s buggy as all hell. But I love the color on it. I remembered that skin tones rocked on it. It was essentially the same sensor as in the S3. Oh, and the dynamic range kick some serious rear end. So had my clients meet me at my studio, I drove them to the location, I opened up the back and pulled out this little bag and a reflector. I had taken my the girls bridals the week before with my D300 and D90, and a month before I took her friends wedding pictures with a rented D700. She looked at me funny and then began talking to her fiancee. He then asked me why I was using a stupid point and shoot camera. I asked him to trust me and to just wait for the results. If he didn’t like them, he could have a reshoot.

    Well, the camera made me do a lot of work arounds. I had a lot issues with focus. I hated it every minute. In the end, I thought I was going to be out there a couple days later with them. When we got back to the studio I pulled them into my office and had them look at them right then and there. It was amazing. The composition was awesome, the look was right, and over all a great shoot.

    Sure, these weren’t high resolution and they weren’t going to be printed big, but they were great. I think the holga shooting is the same. You would be amazed what you can get out of them. I don’t think this is a film is dead thing. I still thing film is dead. What it is an exercise in simplicity. One day, you won’t be able to develop it anywhere. I think anytime you use a camera that you are far beyond technically, you have to stretch muscles you didn’t know you had.

    Oh, and I mountain bike. I hate fixed gears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *