Now I understand that some people will be appalled, just on general principle, at the idea of attaching a purposely cheap, plastic lens to a high-end, full-frame camera. They just don’t see the point. The Canon 5D MKII can deliver crisp, beautiful images when coupled with ordinary glass, so why go messing things up by putting a defiantly low-tech piece of plastic on there?
I get this objection, but I am just camera-curious. I know what my camera can do with perfect light at f/8 and everything composed just-so. But, I like to mess around with other possibilities. Some will immediately dismiss the Holga Direct HL-C lens as a faddy bit of nostalgic junk. For my part, I get bored with “perfect” images in the classical sense and really enjoy tweaking my shots in post or exploring a new technique that deviates from the standard, photography textbook approach to thing.
For a long while I have been trying to achieve some of the low-fi charm of the Holga (or others like it) using software. But, the chance to make some of those adjustments “in camera” is very appealing. And on top of that, the HL-C will only set you back about $26. In fact, I bought mine with some Amazon points I had accrued, so it basically cost me nothing.
Now, to the lens itself. I already had the Holga Direct Pinhole lens (which I bought accidentally when I thought I was getting the HL-C). In essence, you have the front piece from the both beloved and decried Holga, medium-format camera, it is just built to fit on a Canon EF mount. There is no aperture, but the literature says you are getting about f/8. The focus is manual and reminiscent of disposable cameras where the focal range is marked out in little symbols that correspond to what you are shooting— a single person’s torso means close up, a mountain symbol means far away (or focused to infinity).
The guide that the HL-C ships which tells you what these four focal icons mean in meters but you are better off just guessing based on the icons. This is because you really can’t see a damn thing through the HL-C. Even in decent mid-day light it is hard to detect the subjects in the frame. That is really my only complaint with this cheap little beauty; composition is a bitch. I imagine that this is a legacy of the medium format camera from whence the original lens design came. On the original Holga (a light-leaking, all plastic, Chinese made, mass-market camera) you composed through a view finder where the image did not pas through the lens, much like a rangefinder-style set up. In that configuration, it really isn’t important wether the view though the lens is clear because it just passes light straight to the film.
The HL-C, by design, is a guessing game. And though the manufacturer states that the effective f-stop is f/8, it sure seems lower to me. The shot here was at ISO 1600 to give you an idea of just how little might actually get through. It should almost go without saying that there is no auto focus confirmation with the HL-C. Many manual lenses have a chip that allows the camera’s AF system to determine if your imagine is in focus, but not so with the HL-C. I doubt that Canon’s AF system would work even if their was a chip because of how little light get through, but that is just speculation.
The lead shot on this post is the same image, tweaked in Aperture for color separation, exposure compensation and some highlight recovery. I then played with it in Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4 to give it more of a film look and restore some of the original vignette which had gone sort o green. Then I passed it through Dfine 2 to remove some of the noise the had popped up.
Just for fun, I played with the original shot in Nik’s Snapseed for Mac desktops. Snapseed is a life saver on iOS devices but it is nice to have it on my main computer just for ease of editing. I also wanted to see the differences between Snapseed and the more expensive and complex Color Efex Pro 4. But, that is probably a subject for another post. I’ll say briefly that the desktop version of Snapssed is as good as the iOS version but has the same limitations inherent in a simple piece of post-processing software. I also included a zoomed crop of part of the image just to demonstrate the resolution of the lens.
In conclusion, the HL-C is pretty much what you would expect. It heavily vignettes your shots, produces soft photos and renders colors very palely and skews purplish. However, for $26 bucks you can’t really go wrong. I don’t know of any cheaper lens out there. And, if you appreciate a certain low-fi appearance to your images and want to accomplish some this before you start manipulating your shots then the HL-C is a good option. Plus, it has a certain smoothness that you lose when trying to get an aged effect on crisp original photos.
Overall, the price point makes this lens a good option for just about anyone but it is tough to work with so be prepared for some frustration. If you’re an odd lens fetishist (read, hoarder) then go for it. But, pristine snappy pictures will not be produced by the HL-C.