Lo-fi is not the new hi-fi

Holga and medium format and lo-fi iPhone and filtered? iPhone, of course

In my hugely unscientific survey on a recent jaunt to London’s tourist traps I can proudly reveal that the No1 camera of the too-cool-for-school crowd is an all-white Olympus Pen, complete with zoom lens. Even though the fast pancake would probably give nicer results. But then the (largely) Japanese tourists wouldn’t manage to squeeze in all of Buck House without stepping back into The Mall and getting run over.

Whichever lens they use, they’ll soon be dialing in one of the Pen’s art filters – everything from pop art, pin hole, diorama, grainy film or whatever – to create their own grainy, soft, impressionistic works of art. Lovely.

Of course, the real No1 camera nowadays is the mobile phone, especially the iPhone with its endless list of downloadable apps like Instagram or Hipstamatic. They also give that “instant art” look of vignetting, scrappy borders, 1960s Technicolor hues and tilt-and-shift style soft focus. But phones are not real cameras, so I didn’t count them. Although you may disagree, if you check out my gallery of iPhone-and-filter shots. It’s a camera you always have with you, of course.

So while  a mainstream audience of hipsters know they need a Pen in their pocket without ever resorting to sensor size tech waffle, the real cool cats are snubbing all that digital technology and going truly retro – with film cameras.

Loads of fashionable shops – from schmutter peddlars like Urban Outfitters in Covent Garden to the strangely highbrow halls of the Photographers Gallery plus Selfridge’s – are flogging bucketloads of pseudo toy cameras like the medium-format Holga and Diana plus 35mm Lomo and Blackbird twin-lens reflex. Then there are pinhole cameras, stereo cameras, refurbished 1970s Polaroid cameras and lots of accessories, like fisheye lenses, Polaroid backs and strange coloured flash gels.

Like a kid in a sweet shop, I was seduced by a basic Holga which, to be honest, actually cost less than the pricey afternoon tea I’d had my arm twisted to splash out on in Fortnum and Mason’s department store.

Yes, it's a real photo on real medium format film taken with a toy camera, a Holga
Yes, it’s a real photo on real medium format film taken with a toy camera, a Holga

The Holga is known for its light leaks, dubious quality plastic or glass lens and virtual absence of exposure or focus control. You bosh in some film, take a guess at the focusing distance and choose one of the two available aperture choices – for sunny or cloudy. Although in reality there’s little difference.

Then you just snap away by roughly pointing the camera at what you want to photograph and hoping for the best. You can’t accurately frame anything, or stop any action, or control depth of field, or fire a flash. Nothing. It’s out-of-control photography – which goes pretty much against everything most keen photographers strive to learn to take great pictures.

Photographers have always been snobby about medium format. But is it true when used in a toy camera like this Holga?
Photographers have always been snobby about medium format. But is it true when used in a toy camera like this Holga?

Fans say the Holga’s imprecision mean you focus on capturing the scene itself, not fiddling with a camera. There’s no techno nonsense to get in the way. It’s almost like instant art – if you don’t mind your art totally hit and miss and rough around the edges. And not actually instant, of course.

Carrying the Holga around the big City, and just snapping away, was great fun. OK, you don’t see the images straight away, but you can always persuade yourself that the wait for the lab increases the anticipation. And the pictures themselves? Well, I actually kind of like them. They somehow make you feel superior to producing iPhone and Pen-clone digitized versions, because they are on proper film and feel real.

Framing is an imprecise art with a toy camera. Are the results better than iPhone shots? You be the judge
Framing is an imprecise art with a toy camera. Are the results better than iPhone shots? You be the judge

So am I convert to the lo-fi way of doing things? Of course not. As an affordable fun toy – until you get to the shock of paying for the developing of the pictures – it’s great. But it’s still a toy. If you want to use your camera in all light levels, want repeatable pictures and controllability so you can choose what you crop in and leave out, then a modern DSLR is the way to go. If you want to “artify” by adding vignettes, strange colours, grain and wonky borders, then do it afterwards in post production. But carry your iPhone with you anyway as the best camera is the one you have with you. You know it makes sense.

*First published in Practical Photography magazine