When testing a camera, let the camera be the only unknown

I recently put a roll of film through an Olympus XA2 that someone gave to me. I’ve owned another XA2 so I know that this is a lovely camera — very compact, with a great lens and easy zone focusing. But then I made a series of rookie mistakes shooting this one and it reminded me of a key lesson: when testing something, let the thing you test be the only unknown.

I didn’t follow that maxim when testing this XA2:

  • I grabbed a battery out of another camera I’d just shot, which I had pulled out of another camera, and another before it, and who knows how many other cameras before that. That battery could have been tired.
  • I used a film I’m still getting to know, Ultrafine Xtreme 100. I’ve liked it a lot every other time I’ve shot it, but I don’t know how it behaves in all conditions yet.
  • I used a lab that is fairly new to me to process and scan the roll, and I’m still learning their capabilities.

The scans looked terrible, with both blown-out highlights and very dark shadows. I couldn’t tell how much of that was the lab’s fault and how much was the fault of bad exposures. No amount of Photoshopping could save them. I rescanned the negatives on my flatbed scanner (a Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II) using the software that came with the scanner. That improved them enough that Photoshop could make the images usable.

Here are a few photographs that show what came off my scanner. This was the worst of the photographs as the bridge was badly blown out. I severely squashed the highs and lows out of the shot in Photoshop to make it sort of usable.

Starkey Park, Zionsville

This shot is probably the best-exposed of the bunch, and I still had to heavily adjust highlights and shadows on it.

Starkey Park, Zionsville

The just-before-dusk light in the nature park was challenging. I had another camera along, one I’ve shot many times. Its meter got the highlights right but left the shadows very dark. So perhaps this was an extreme test of an unknown camera. Fortunately, I took this XA2 along on a day trip to a distant town. It was near the middle of the day and the sun was fully out.

On the square in Crown Point

Even on these shots the shadows were very dark. The highlights weren’t as blown, however. But these shots miss the mark in sharpness and detail.

On the square in Crown Point

These photos clearly do not represent what this camera or film can do. Here’s a photo I took with my other Olympus XA2, beautifully exposed and full of life.

Blow-up dolphins

And here are a few photos on Ultrafine Xtreme 100 from other cameras. First, from my Zeiss Ikon Contessa LK:


And now from a Minolta XG 1 with the 50/1.4 MD Rokkor-X lens.


That frame was processed and scanned by the same lab as did the roll from the XA2, so I know the lab is capable of good work.

I have put a fresh battery and the film I know best, Agfa Vista 200, in the XA2 for another try. I must have missed it before, but the in-viewfinder underexposure light comes on in situations when I would expect it not to. All may not be well with the meter. So the lab appears not to be the problem — instead, it’s probably the camera itself, the one thing that should always have been the only unknown in this equation.


18 responses to “When testing a camera, let the camera be the only unknown”

  1. Joe shoots resurrected cameras Avatar

    Alright I’ve never used Ultrafine film so I don’t know exactly how contrasty it usually is and how quickly the highlights block up when overexposed, but the easiest way is to look at the negatives, that will tell you a lot. Besides that, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of a lot of lab scanning, just because there can be a lot of variation depending on who is running the machine, and so many aren’t willing to do any customization of their workflow for different scanners. Which makes scans for black & white particularly hard, because they won’t give you anything approaching flat scans. So of course you won’t get what you need to edit the photos.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve always shot Ultrafine 100 at box speed in known good cameras before, so I don’t personally know its exposure latitude. The distributor’s site says it has “tremendous” latitude but who knows how many stops that is.

      I wish I didn’t find scanning to be so tedious or I’d just do more of my own, and control the results more.

  2. mike Avatar

    I’ve had similar problems with my XA2 even though I do my own developing and scanning. Mine may have a faulty meter. I’m reluctant to give up on the camera as it is such a delight to shoot, so I’m going to run one more roll of Fuji 200 through it. Among the inconsistent results from past attempts I’ve gotten some pictures I really like, so that knowledge of the XA2’s capabilities is probably worth the two bucks I paid for it at a thrift store.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This site offers reasonable instructions for adjusting the meter. It might be worth a try for both of us.


      I have another camera sitting here needing a repair I can do — it’s been there for months, waiting. So it’ll be interesting to see whether I try those instructions, or just give up on this XA2. The roll of Fuji I shot is at the processor’s now (as of yesterday afternoon) and so we’ll see what we get.

  3. Dan James Avatar

    Excellent advice! Too many times in my excessive camera consumption days I would be trying to test a camera, lens and film all at once, and as you have found, if it doesn’t work out, you have no idea which element(s) we’re the culprit.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s a basic tenet of experimentation: change one thing at a time!

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Takes me back to secondary school science lessons… : )

  4. Mike Avatar

    I have been guilty of this more times than not. Except, usually, for the lab part. But I have been known to throw expired film into a new to me camera. And then be surprised when it comes back from the lab, not looking the way I think it should. Only fresh film now in the cameras I am testing.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m committing to fresh and well-known to me: Fuji 200/Agfa Vista 200 is hereby and henceforth my first choice to because I’ve shot miles of the stuff and know it well.

  5. Doug Anderson Avatar

    The real downside, for me, of changing multiple variables in a test is not when I don’t like the result and can’t figure out what went wrong, but rather when, once in a great while, I really like the result and can’t figure out how to duplicate it with just one change to my standard materials and process.

    The most recent example was a frame of FP4+ that I badly underexposed and developed in a stronger concentration of the Rodinal. The result almost exactly duplicates the chalk and soot appearance of some of my 60’s Tri-X negatives but with much finer grain. I’ve never produced a negative like that before and I’ve now gone through half a dozen rolls of film trying to do it again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Oh now that IS frustrating! I suppose sometimes we have to take a particular great image as a happy accident and move on.

      1. Doug Anderson Avatar

        That’s pretty much the conclusion I’ve come to.

  6. dionyb Avatar

    I get you. Took a new to me Pentax ME Super on vacation this past summer and shot two rolls, had them developed and discovered the meter is faulty nearly all my snaps were underexposed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That is absolutely another valuable lesson of old cameras: don’t shoot anything important until you’re certain everything works properly!

  7. Sam Avatar

    Great post Jim! And even with the blown highlights, still some great pics!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m happy you like them! I’m not so enamored of them. The second roll through the XA should be done at the processor today so I’ll go pick them up and see what I get.

  8. Dan Cluley Avatar
    Dan Cluley

    My favorite was trying to get the focus right on a camera where it is easy to adjust the lenses, the mount, and the rangefinder. You know one of them has be right first, but which one?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeahhhhhh. Those kinds of cameras take a special kind of patience to learn.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: