Film Photography

What’s the best compact 35mm film camera to take on vacation?

As I get ready to visit Ireland with Margaret later this year, I’ve been trying to decide which film camera to take with me.

I’d love to shoot nothing but film over there, but ay yi yi the cost of processing the film when I get back! So I’ll pack my digital Canon PowerShot S95. This capable camera slips into any pocket and will let me shoot as much as I want. I just have to charge the battery each night at the hotel.

But I still plan to take one 35mm film camera and a few rolls of black-and-white film. The question is, which one? Frankly, I’d be happiest shooting one of my SLRs, but I want to travel light. This calls for one of my compact cameras. I have a bunch to choose from.

Olympus XA
The Olympus XA: a very nice compact camera

Vacation photography typically involves group family shots and portraits, as well as landscapes and streetscapes. Fortunately, compact 35mm cameras are made for just these kinds of photos. If you know going in that you want to shoot something other than that, such as closeups of local wildflowers or cinematic landscapes, consider taking gear that can do that. Most compact cameras can’t.

Which compact film camera you take on vacation depends on what is important to you.

Size — How small it needs to be depends on how you’ll carry it. Do you want it to slip into your pants pocket? Are you willing to carry it by its strap? Will you carry it in a backpack or purse? I want to slip mine into a jeans pocket, so the smaller the better, and it’s best if its lens is flush with the camera face.

Focus type — Decide whether to bias toward speed and ease, or toward control. If you think you’ll shoot almost exclusively group shots and landscapes, go for speed and choose an autofocus or fixed-focus camera. But if you think you’ll want to tightly control focus, such as for close work, consider a rangefinder camera. You’ll need to focus each shot, which slows you down — but that control will be there when you really need it. A middle-ground choice might be a zone-focusing camera. They generally offer three or four focusing zones. Many of them offer a focus setting that’s good for most shots; just leave it there unless you want to shoot something close up or far away. I shy away from zone-focusing cameras because all too often I forget to set focus at all.

Battery — A camera that doesn’t need a battery is ideal, but fairly rare. Next best: a camera that takes easy-to-buy AA or AAA batteries. But regardless of the battery the camera uses, if you drop in a fresh one before you go, it should easily last the trip.

Lens — Most compact cameras offer either a fixed lens of about 35mm or a zoom lens with about 35mm at its wide end. I think 35mm is just right for vacation photography. Compared to “standard” 50mm, 35mm widens the view up just enough to be useful for landscapes, without being so wide that it’s not useful for closer work. For me, zoom isn’t important; I don’t mind backing up or walking closer to my subject. My experience is that fixed lenses tend to be of better quality.

Annoyances — You want this camera to work fluidly in your hands. Why spend your trip frustrated with your gear? What’s annoying is personal, but here are some things that you might find annoying: a built-in flash that you can’t turn off, a mushy or awkwardly placed shutter button, a tiny viewfinder, no built-in flash, or a protruding lens that makes it hard to pocket the camera.

Cameras have a few other measures I don’t think matter too much in this case, such as range of shutter speeds, or range of film ISOs accepted. Pretty much all compact cameras offer a useful range of shutter speeds and accept the most common film speeds, such as 100, 200 and 400.

I own a number of interesting compact cameras, so the choice has been challenging. I used these criteria to narrow it down. More than anything else, I need a camera I can slip into my jeans pocket, which narrows the field way down. I want the best lens I can get, and I prefer autofocus.

So I went straight to my Olympus Stylus. I dropped some T-Max 400 into it for an audition. And I discovered a fatal flaw: every time you open the lens cover, the flash goes into Auto mode. I almost never want the flash to fire. I will never remember to turn it off every time I open it.

So now I’m auditioning my Olympus XA, even though it is a rangefinder. I don’t mind rangefinder focusing. The XA lacks a built-in flash, but that’s also not a problem for me. I have an external flash for it, but I think I’ll just leave it at home.

What compact film camera do you think you’d take on a long vacation?


45 thoughts on “What’s the best compact 35mm film camera to take on vacation?

  1. One compact? Why not take two? Load one with black and white and the other with colour. They won’t take that much more space in a carry-on bag…

    The XA’s a cracker, and I’d also suggest:

    Lomo LC-A or Cosina CX-2
    Olympus 35RC
    FED 50
    Rollei 35



  2. It’s a bit hard for me to answer your question to be honest, as I’m well aware that I usually bring too much gear when I travel.
    Even so, I just got this Olympus Mju II from my mother in law and would give that one a try if I were to bring only one small point and shoot that would fit easily into a pocket. The downside of that one is it’s need of batteries to even feed the film. I am not a big fan of cameras with powered film feed, but I would have to just throw that concerne away for a few weeks then. And make sure I had as extra battery or two at hand, of course.
    Maybe I would bring my old Minolta Hi-matic G instead as it’s only use of batteries is for the lightmeter which works forever, but then you get the protruding lens problem which could become an issue.
    I know what I most likely would end up carrying anyway, and that would be the rangefinder without any batteries at all needed. Every time I’m asking myself the same question as you just did, I seem to end up with the M3 with a suitable lens… most likely the 35mm.
    But I might just as well bring the Mju II the next time, just to test myself a bit. The truth is, just as you’re saying, that it mostly will be used for a certain kind of snaps anyway.

    • The Mju II (Stylus Epic here in the States) is on my must-try list! I’ll stumble upon one for a good price one day.

      Yes, battery life is a thing to think about. I’ll be gone for just two weeks and plan to shoot maybe 5 rolls of film, so pretty much any battery-powered camera should be all right!

  3. Andy Umbo says:

    Great choice, if you don’t use flash much, and you get to control the focus spot!!

    .I did years of “Record Snaps” for my scrapbooks with the Olympus Stylist Epic, and except for the weird programming where it kept the lens wide open until it got too bright, it was a “pip”. Because of that programming, you could occasionally miss the focus point, a problem you won’t have here. I’m surprise you found a working one of these for cheap, they used ot be a lot of money used after the Stylist came out.

    I wish I could find a mint, working 70’s rangefinder, like the Minolta 7 or 11 series, or the Olympus 35RC. I would go every where with those…

    • I’m planning on avoiding flash altogether with my film camera. I’m not a fan of onboard flash. I also know there’s some technique to using it well, and I haven’t mastered it (largely because I’ve always avoided it).

      By Minolta 7, do you mean the Hi-Matic 7? I have one and like it.

      • Andy Umbo says:

        Yep. I dated a girl in high-school that had either the 7s or the 9s, and I was working in a studio then, and I would use her camera all the time, Got plenty of great pics, and the rangefinder was perfect! If I even found a good one today, it’d have to be CLA’d and probably all the light-trap material redone, and then there’s those pesky button cells: don’t know if I’d want to go around the world with those cells you have to take the tape off of to let air in (Wein?).

        I have a M4/3rds system and it’s actually too small! Why can’t someone make a camera that was the size of these. Not too big or small. Seems like the Chinese could make a 35mm film camera this size with a decent 45mm lens and a rangefinder, auto exposure or manual, running on a modern battery…

  4. Hello Jim, I took my Olympus XA on my holiday to Latvia, it was easy to carry around, and it’s inconspicuous if you want some candid shots. I prefocused for most of the street shots I took, it would have been better to use the rangefinder but I’m really glad I took along. :>)

  5. If you still have it I would take the Retina IIa. Although it is heavy by today’s standards, the lens is incredible.

    Whatever you take, have a great time — both of you.


  6. Bill Bussell says:

    I have one of these, and results on one of many GB trips were disappointing. I think radiation did me in, but I did get pictures. I also need to review the light seals. After that, I bought a digital camera and never looked back at film again where radiation is a potential.

      • I put all film in a seal-able bag that is stowed in my carry on bag. I just ask that it not go through xray and hand the film bag to the attendant. They might look through it but it’s never been a problem.

  7. I have never found any film camera to be truly pocketable. Therefore, given the importance of the photos you’ll be taking on this trip, I’d take the best camera you won’t mind carrying around on a neck or wrist strap. From a packing standpoint, a Nikon FE, FM, Olympus OM or even Pentax ME/MX doesn’t take up all that more room than many compacts. The resulting photos might be worth the few inches more suitcase space.

    • All those T-Max/35mm 2.8 shots I’m posting on Flickr are from an audition of my Nikon N2000 SLR for this. That body is a little bigger than my ME or my OM-1 but isn’t heavy. And it has program mode and winds automatically, both very nice features for easy vacation shooting. I need to check but I don’t think I have a 35mm Pentax lens for my ME. Probably not too late to buy one though.

  8. Jim,

    The Olympus XA is a nice camera with dazzling photo quality. I always wanted one when I was young, now I own two of them (sold the best one).

    The magnetic shutter (I think its electromagnetic) is a bother. Your readers need to test it with a battery to see if it’s working. I don’t know of anyone who fixes a defective Olympus XA shutter.

    Don’t go to the beach. I’ve seen a few too many Olympus XA’s at garage sales that spent one too many days at the beach. Just a grain or two of sand under the sliding cover and they scrape horribly.

    But a working Olympus XA is a pleasure.

    • I got lucky when I scooped up my XA at a bargain price because it performs flawlessly. And thanks for the advice about avoiding the beach! We will be seeing some cliffs at the northern tip of Ireland; not sure whether that’s sandy or not!

  9. I think the XA is the best pocket camera that I have used. It is even easy to carry in a shirt pocket. You are limited to the one focal length, however my experience has been that the image quality is as good as what I would get with my SLRs.

  10. I think the XA is a great choice for a compact, but agree with John, an OM-sized SLR might be advisable for the importance of this trip. People used to take along SLRs on vacation all the time so I’m sure it won’t kill you! The XA’s portability makes it easy to bring along as well, so why not take both?

    My only compact is the Trip 35 but I assume with the protruding lens and zone focusing, it’s not what you’re looking for. It is pretty foolproof, though.

  11. My wife laughs at me because i go through this same exercise whenever we travel even if its a day trip. I have simplified things for myself recently, I sold 80% of my miscellaneous film cameras to fund and complete 2 full systems. Hasselblad for MF and Leica M for 35mm. If i want SLR i have an Olympus pen F to throw in the bag. Eventually i will also get a Nikon F for full frame slr work. Just haven’t found one yet.

    My vote for travel is always a rangefinder. SLR’s tend to make you feel like you are living in the lens and not seeing everything that’s happening. My XA/A16 was part of the camera equipment that was sold. The rangefinder patch was small (I know I’m part of the masses) and it just didn’t feel that sturdy.

    A fast fixed lens RF like your Olympus 35RC/Yashica Electro on a good strap (Domke Gripper or Blackrapid metro) will feel far better than pocketing a small camera. Another win would be your Trip 35 if you still have it. Or go half frame to get more pics per roll and less processing costs, i have a pen s or a fujica half here i can lend you if you want to try them out during vacation.

    I find that i’m shooting less and less digital for my personal pictures. When i do use digital for vacations, its an Olympus E-P5. I love M/43. Beautiful pics with no PP.

    How often do you get to go to across the pond, make sure its a good choice! :) All the best!

    • Despite my eyes aging rapidly, I don’t mind the XA’s small rangefinder patch. I make it work.

      I’m absolutely taking my digital Canon S95 to cut back on processing costs.

      Good thoughts about the bigger rangefinders. All the ones I have are solid performers to be sure — the Lynx 14, the Electro 35 GSN, the Hi-Matic 7.

  12. Richard Scholl says:

    Although I have some newer compact film cameras, I still prefer the Olympus 35-RC.
    Regarding X-rays and film, there used to be available inexpensive small metallic bags designed for taking film through the airport X-rays. I still have some, so I haven’t really pursued getting more, so I don’t know what is available now. My experience was that I never had a problem when I didn’t use one, but perhaps I was just lucky. I suspect that unless you were to take a roll through several airport X-rays, the bags were overkill.

    • I think I’m not going to worry about the X-ray machine at the airport. From what I’ve read, for films of ISO 400 and below, a couple runs through the X-ray shouldn’t harm it.

  13. Usually my wife’s Olympus 35 RC or my son’s XA 2. As my backup the Rollei A110 or the Pentax auto 110 ( although film price & quality is no match to the other ones)

    • I can’t imagine using a 110 camera on a trip today! I did it on my trip to Germany in 1984, largely because it was all I could afford, and I still feel some disappointment when I look at my photos.

      • Actually the grainy looks remind me of look of the photos I took as a kid on our family holidays, so to together with one of 35 mm cameras, I have this mix of adult/kid pictures after a trip

  14. The 110 look reminds me of the photos I used to make as a kid on family vacations, mixed with the 35mm shots I get somehow pictures from my younger and adult self after a holiday. Also, combined with the old plastic cube flashes, the Auto 110 creates just crazy family photos.

  15. Hi Jim, if you are travelling to Northern Tip of Ireland thats not too far away from me…I was actually in Donegal today but spend most days on the North Antrim coast. Anyway, I’d be happy to help with advice for places worth visiting, if you’ve never been this way before. Maybe even meet up if you have time and are passing nearby?

    • Michael, it so happens that we plan to visit County Donegal. We will be spending two nights in Burt, two in Donegal, and two in Sligo. We will dip into Northern Ireland one day to see Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Bridge. I would very much welcome a chance to meet up while we’re so close to where you are, and will drop you an email to coordinate.

  16. Paul Bines says:

    Just found your blog whilst looking for tips on using my newly acquired XA2 – fascinating stuff! Thank you!
    I’m heading off to Berlin for a few days and I’ll be bringing the aforementioned XA2 loaded with colour film, and my trusty Trip 35 with b&w – I’ve had some fantastic results using b&w I the Trip!
    I’m also bringing my Panasonic LUMIX TZ40 digital for zoom work, and my iPhone 7 Plus for backup! I’ll have more photo tech than clothes…

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