Digital Holga – Yashica EZ F521 Review

EZF521-03813.jpgYashica released a cool little camera called the EZ F521. It’s been released in Japan and I ordered one from Japan Exposures, this is a review of the camera and additionally of the Digital Holga concept. The Yashica F521 has been labeled the Digital Holga. I think this makes sense on some levels and is preposterous nonsense in other ways. The Holga camera is a simple 120 medium format camera produced in China. You can set the negative size to 6×4.5 or 6×7. The body is plastic as is the lens (the Woca version I use has a glass lens) and comes in variations with or without a flash and now different colors. There’s no way to focus with any precision, the lens has three positions, two apertures, and a fixed shutter speed. Of course you can modify the Holga to do bulb exposure and extra shutter clicks can build up an exposure so you can get cool abstract layers overlaid in one image. Basically the Holga is a cheap and fun way to get into medium format photography. The bodies originally cost about 20 dollars, although since they’ve achieved cult status and been produced in various colors, you might pay between 50-100 USD for a new body (maybe with a flash) which is a lot for some pressed plastic.


The Holga Concept


The Holga concept is to just focus on taking pictures with a cheap camera where you need to focus on the subect, as the performance of the camera sucks. The term Digitla Holga has been thrown around a lot since the rise of digital camera technology, but in my mind the only thing that comes close is sticking a medium format back on a Holga or Woca body. I know you can put a Holga lens on a DSLR, and no, I see no fucking point in putting a 2 cent lens on my Sony A900 body. And no, I don’t want a Lens Baby either. Why? Because the Holga look is a combination of substandard manufacturing and horrible body design coupled with cheap plastic.  It’s insane to put actual time or money into trying to replicate the look in any other way.


EZF521-13170004.jpgThe look of images from the Holga/Woca is characterized as unique, as it comes from light leaks and nearly impossible to determine exposure and focus issues. The image to the left was taken in a coffee shop in Zurich with my Woca. You can see scratch marks from the Woca body and it has a very dark and grungy feel to it. Why try to replicate this look in any other way? Sticking a shitty plastic medium formant lens on your Nikon D3 is not being creative. Additionally, trying to replicate the Holga look in Photoshop using PS actions and filters with programmed algorithms using repeated patterns accomplishes nothing short of making your images look like over processed crap. So in this sense, the Yashica F521 is nothing like a Holga. It doesn’t have light leaks and I think it’s safe to say that pictures from one will look closely like those of another, with little variation from camera to camera. However, the substandard lens and funky exposure properties are retained in the F521 design.


The F521 is too well-built to be a Holga. I’m pretty confident my Holga/Woca would explode if dropped on the ground. Holgas are made from cheap plastic with poor fracture toughness, alowing brittle cracks to propagate easily through the body. The F521 actually has build quality on par with my Ricoh GRD and Canon G10. It’s built like a little tank and sort of resembles a miniature Fuji GA645. The finish on the body looks and feels like anodized aluminum and the faux leather on the grip looks well affixed to the body.


Creative Short-Cut


Anyways, what does it mean to be a Holga? The philosophy behind Holga is that you just shoot, without trying to perfect exposure or focus. Resolution is shit because the lens is crap. The point is just to have fun, and if a cool picture is the results, then sweet. Some will say that these limitations make you more creative, like choosing to use a 50mm instead of a 24-70 zoom. I think this is bullshit, limiting your ability to create an image doesn’t improve creativity, it simply limits your options. Want to be creative? Take up painting and challenge yourself to create something in a completely different way from your normal routine. Photography is the easiest “art form” ever developed, the creative part comes from realizing the non-intuitive attributes of a subject. With a crappy camera like the F521 or Holga you just focus on the subject, not on focus or exposure because you have very little control over either one. So you could say these cameras make you more visually aware, but it’s not a short-cut to overdosing on creative expression.


EZF521-03784-Edit.jpgShooting with the F521


Here are the basic details, the Yashica F521 is light, sized to the palm of your hand, runs on three AAA batteries and takes SD cards. A 1 Gig SD card gives you like 180 images if you use the 12 megapixels interpolated image setting. The normal image size is 5 megapixels. I figure it can’t hurt, so I use the 12 megapixel setting. Look, it’s a toy camera, but the F521 actually has decent control over parameters. You can set the exposure compensation, white balance, image size, there’s macro capability (the lens has two focus positions), on-board flash, and some color modes. The automatic white balance is really horrible, so I set that myself.


My first outing with the F521 was a short trip from Zurich to Basel.  I took the camera along and shot a bunch of abstract motion images in the Zurich and Basel train stations. This is the type of imagery I like producing with this type of camera. I’ve done the same in Tokyo with my Ricoh GRD (GRD Frozen Motion Photography). Basically I walk around shooting while I’m walking and the long shutter speeds due to the low light of the Bahnhof produces the blurred abstract images I see in my head as I’m moving through the night. The F521 scans the sensor from top to bottom (I believe) when taking pictures, so if you’re moving the camera you can get a wavy line patterns due to the sensor scan rate.


Due to it’s small size the F521 is a very non-threatening camera and can be useful for creative street photography. It fits in any bag and the lens has a rubber cap, so it’s very compact to take around and you can throw in a coat pocket without worrying that you might be damaging the front element.


Picture Output


F521_Images-0044.jpgPicture quality is as you would expect from a digital Holga, absolutely horrible, but that’s part of the charm and experience. I mainly use these types of cameras to produce abstract images, more akin to my Artcast paintings than a traditional photo image. You end up with pictures with unpredictable exposure, focus issues, and eventually with non-intuitive results, which is exactly in line with the Holga spirit. Concerning digital workflow, I download the images from the SD card directly into Adobe Lightroom for organizing and processing. The F521 image hold up well to processing, including exposure compensation, shadow adjustments, clarity, etc. Shooting with the F521 is a nice balance to shooting with the A900, and I’m planning to shoot with the 521 and my Elnichrom BxRi lights as soon as I get a photodiode to trigger the Skyports from the on-board flash. Maybe I’ll take off the lens and figure out a way to mount a Mamiya 150 f/3.5 portrait lens to it.


Is It Worth It?


The EZ F521 is cheap and definitely worth a look. It’s available for the international market via Japan Exposures and costs 9,990 Yen (about 100 USD). A few years ago Japan Exposures was selling the Fuji Natura S camera with the fixed 24mm f1.9 lens, I hesitated and then they stopped producing them. It’s my biggest purchasing regret of my camera buying life. So I bought the F521 without really thinking about it and so far I’m loving it. Does it live up to the name Digital Holga? Yes, I’m of the opinion that it totally does.


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28 thoughts on “Digital Holga – Yashica EZ F521 Review

  1. alex-virt says:

    Thanks for the interesting and helpful review! Looks like a pretty cool camera, ordered one for myself. Actually, image quality isn't that bad:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterlueck/409047400… http://www.flickr.com/photos/peterlueck/409453308…

    Better than I expected and definitely better than analog Holga πŸ™‚ Are you sure the body is metal? I thought it would be made of cheapest and crappiest plastic.

  2. Mark says:

    Hi Alex,

    True, the image quatily can be quite nice, I like the shots you put up on Flickr. I don't think the body is metal, but it seems to feel that way to me. It could be some high density plastic with a nice finish.

  3. alex-virt says:

    Hi Mark,

    Those shots aren't mine, but I hope to take something similar. I wonder about ISO: in all EXIF it says ISO 100, but it doesn't look like that. Is it automatic or can be set manually? I haven't got my camera yet. Thanks!

  4. Mark says:

    Hi Alex,

    You only have control over Exposure Compensation, but not the ability to select a specific ISO, that's all automatic.

  5. alex-virt: I did some very informal testing with mine and it does appear that it's stuck in ISO 100. The slowest shutter speed I have recorded is 1/17 second; I took some test shots inside where it was relatively dark and found ISO 100, 1/17 second on every one; then set my 50D to the same settings (and f/2.8) and got just about the same result as far as brightness. So I am wondering if there really is auto ISO or if it's always stuck at 100…

    As for build quality, I'll have to respectfully disagree, I think my $18 Virgin Mobile cellphone is built tougher. πŸ™‚

    By the way, you can add some Holga-esque vignetting pretty easily, check my blog for some posts on that—5 mins with a screwdriver is all it takes.

  6. alex-virt says:

    Storpotaten, why spoil the state of the art lens carefully engineered by Yashica and made of the best Zeiss plastic with some stupid washer?! If I want vignetting (why would I?) I'll do it in photoshop.

  7. dsi r4 says:

    Great review. This is a good camera for the price. It is simple to use and takes clear, crisp pictures. Also, the battery life is good. And the price makes it affordable to take good pictures.

  8. I took some test shots inside where it was relatively dark and found ISO 100, 1/17 second on every one; then set my 50D to the same settings (and f/2.8) and got just about the same result as far as brightness.

  9. Dala says:

    Hey, May i know where can i get this camera in singapore??? Need it fro a gift. Please reply asap. Thank you. > πŸ™‚

  10. Mark says:

    In Singapore? I'm not sure, I've only heard of it being distributed through Japan so far.

  11. ted chapman says:

    Anyone know how I can get it to use the SD card? I put one in but it doesn’t seem to be recognized or something.

  12. Mark says:

    Ted,
    Did you format the card in the camera? I dropped a 1 Gig SanDisk Ultra II in my camera, formatted, and haven’t had any problems.

  13. Great review… I’ve just ordered mine, can’t wait to get my hands on it!

    Can see it as one of them cameras that I take everywhere with me for a bit of fun when I can’t be bothered lugging my 7D.

  14. Aileen says:

    I’m selling mine, largely unused (it was a gift to my bf, he didn’t like it) for $60, plus shipping to wherever. zneelia at gmail. thanks.

  15. Aileen says:

    my camera has a new owner now πŸ™‚

  16. Lucy says:

    Can the camera be shipped to The Netherlands?

  17. Mark says:

    I’m sure The Netherlands wouldn’t be a problem, they shipped to me in Switzerland.

  18. carlos horrillo says:

    hi there…thanks for your review, informative and like the way it was written. before i jump in and buy one, is it definitely medium format?

    cheers

    carlos

  19. Mark says:

    Hi Carlos,

    No, it’s a small sensor digital camera. I call it a digital Holga since it gives image quality similar to what I experience with those cameras, but this is far from a medium format camera.

  20. Yip Bop says:

    Thanks for the review. I just purchased one from ebay.

  21. Brittany says:

    I got the Yashica EZ F521 for my birthday off ebay. And i must say, im not very impressed with it. The pictures I have taken haven`t turned out the way 90% of these reviews say they do. I have an imac computer from apple and i cant even put the pictures onto my computer since the cd doesn`t work on imacs. I do like playing around with it for fun, but i would send it back in an instant if ebay did refunds. Wait, does ebay do refunds? someone please let me know!!

  22. Mark says:

    I also have a Mac, I’ve been downloading the images directly from the SD card. From there you can open them easily, I didn’t try out the software at all that came with the camera. Perhaps you can get a refund via the eBay seller, just email them, or just sell it yourself on eBay. But first, I would play with it more, and use an SD card reader to get the images on to your Mac.

    -mark

  23. Brittany,I will gladly buy it from you you can contact me through flickr or the above email
    i hardly make it to this site unfortunatly

    best

    brett

  24. Anonymous says:

    For God’s sake learn to spell aperture.. it’s NOT aperature!

  25. Mark says:

    God is not here, only me and there’s no budget for a proofreader. Thanks for catching my spelling error, I just went back through the article and found four others.

  26. Carlos says:

    This camera is well capable of producing seriously great images.
    Check out my photos at rangefinderimages.com
    User name: Carlos.

  27. Tyng Tan says:

    The best camera Yashica ever produced was a Rollie TLR knock-of called the Yashica Mat 124. Although they had partnerships with Leica and others who designed or manufactured optics for them, Yashica's own branded lenses were usually sub par, relegating most of their cameras to the casual amateur's market. Except for the high price (Fifty bucks retail would be more like it), this new digital camera is very much in the spirit of the old Yashicas

  28. The best camera Yashica ever produced was a Rollie TLR knock-of called the Yashica Mat 124. Although they had partnerships with Leica and others who designed or manufactured optics for them, Yashica's own branded lenses were usually sub par, relegating most of their cameras to the casual amateur's market. Except for the high price (Fifty bucks retail would be more like it), this new digital camera is very much in the spirit of the old Yashicas;

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