Review: Holga HL-N Lens for Nikon DSLR Cameras

I am a sucker when it comes to darn near anything retro. Old cars, older video games, bad sci-fi movies from the 80s, and vintage photos are all on that list of things that will stop me in my tracks too take a moment and enjoy. For this article, I’m focusing on my love of old photos. There is something about a grainy, scratched, vignetted, and overall imperfect photo from the past that really floats my boat. Perhaps this is why so many of my photos are trying to replicate aspects of this retro look.

The camera that tends to be the culprit of growing retro style photo popularity is the Holga film cameras. These are cheap plastic cameras that take some great photos with vignettes, light leaks, multiple exposures, and so much more. The issue is that you always had to buy these “toy” camera bodies and film to enjoy the Holga effect. That is until recently!

Holga has released two lenses that are specifically made to fit the Nikon and Cannon DSLRs. The HL-N is, obviously, for the Nikon while the HL-C fits a Cannon. These lenses promise great Holga effects with the convenience of your digital camera. When I heard about this, I immediately jumped all over the opportunity to snag the HL-N and take it for a spin.

When I received the box with my HL-N, the first thing I noticed was how extremely light the box was. I have ordered small Lego sets that weighed more than this. The reason for this lightness is due to the Holga lens being made out of plastic with the exception of the small front piece of glass. There are a few holes drilled out on the back to send the image to the sensor, but that is it. Even the part that mounts to your cameral is plastic. This truly brings the toy camera feel right to the DSLR world.

While the lens itself maybe all toy like, the images it produces are nothing short of fantastic. If you are going to look for tack sharp images, this is not the lens for you. If you are looking for great vignettes, fuzzy images, and that 1970s feel, then this is your wish come true. The best part about this is that you almost always get a different set of images every time you put the lens on your camera. Seriously, every time I put this on my camera I had different vignettes or imperfections.

There are a few items you need to keep in mind while shooting with this lens. The first is that the lens is stuck at an f/8 aperture. Where the toy camera has a viewfinder that is not affected by this, my D90 is severely impacted. Due to the fact that you cannot open the aperture on the lens itself, it is dang near impossible to use in low light situations. When I did shoot under low lighting, I ended up using a flashlight to help highlight my subject just so I could see it in my view finder. The best time to use this lens is in the middle of the day.

Another snag is the fact that there is no way for your camera to take a light reading from this lens. Those of you with external light meters won’t have issues with this, but I ended up having to fire off a few test shots to accurately get the exposures I was looking for. It is nothing show stopping, but if you only have a few second to catch a shot, this can be a bit of an issue.

One last “challenge” comes with focusing. There are some marking on the lens itself to try and help you judge your distance, but when you combine this with low light situations, you are pretty much firing from the hip. There is no auto focus on this at all. I have gotten so used to manual focusing this is not an issue, but if you’re hoping your 100 point AF system is going to help you here, you will be sorely disappointed.

Despite the obnoxiously toy like feel of the lens, I really do love this lens. I enjoy it so much that I made a permanent spot for it in my camera bag. It was challenging to get used to at first, but once you understand the constraints, it becomes extremely addictive. The lens, along with some great accessory packages, is available from Holga Direct. For a mere $25 ($30 with shipping), you can have a lens that will transform your DSLR into a retro toy camera!

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    • Bright daylight allowed me to use an iso of 400.  But a high iso gives a nice noisy image, which surely is partly what you’re after.

  1. This is just delightful.  While I suppose it’s a little silly to mount a horrendous-quality lens on a multi-thousand dollar DSLR… it’s not quite as silly, I think, as people that buy multi-thousand dollar Nikkor/Canon L glass specifically designed to prevent optical anomalies, and then “simulate” the Holga effect in post-processing.

    This lens would have the delightful effect of getting the advantages of digital (instant feedback/availability, convenience)… and I wouldn’t have to spend money on all that medium format film (and developing it/scanning it).

    For $25… I think I may have to get it.  Not like it’s really any more expensive than the better “Holga Filter” software anyways.

  2. I’ve been reading about these but they don’t list my model the D40 do you know how I could find out if this is compatible?