I’ve never read a negative review of Olympus’s XA2, a remarkably compact 35mm camera. Everybody seems to like it. eBay bears it out: prices hover around $100 for working and complete examples. I am fortunate, as this one came to me for free from the collection of an old friend’s father.
The tiny XA2, introduced in 1980, was based on the 1979 XA but replaced its rangefinder with zone focusing and its f/2.8 lens with an f/3.5 lens. And when I say this camera is tiny, I mean tiny — it’s only fractionally larger than my Canon S95 or my wife’s Sony RX100, both compact digital point-and-shoot cameras that don’t have to hold a 35mm film cartridge.
I loaded a roll of Ultrafine Xtreme 100 black-and-white film, pulled a battery out of another camera I’d just finished using, slipped this XA2 into my coat pocket, and took it everywhere for a couple weeks. And then, as I explained in this post, I got black shadows, blown-out highlights, poor sharpness, and lack of detail. Here’s a shot from inside a nature park near my home, heavily Photoshopped to make it usable.
I know better than to test a new-to-me old camera with an old battery and film I don’t know well yet, and then to send the film to a lab I’m still getting to know. So I declared the first test roll null and void, and loaded a fresh battery and tried-and-true Agfa Vista 200 into the camera. I had the camera shop downtown process and scan the film. Glory be, I got good stuff back from the XA2 this time.
The little green light inside the viewfinder came on a lot, meaning that the XA2 needed a slow shutter speed to get a good exposure and that you should consider using flash or a tripod. Bollocks, I said each time. Every day but one I shot this camera I enjoyed full sun. I should have been getting plenty fast shutter speeds.
I can’t tell what is making that green light come on so often. The XA2 doesn’t tell you what aperture and shutter speed it’s choosing based on the meter’s reading, so I don’t know how I would check this meter’s functioning against a known-good meter. But these results speak for themselves: it didn’t matter.
Autumn came late in central Indiana this year. It served to deepen the eventual colors, but to shorten their life span. It seemed like all the trees changed color and dumped all their leaves inside two weeks. I was fortunate to be able to take several good walks with the XA2 in my coat pocket during those days. That’s the XA2’s killer feature, by the way: you can carry it everywhere so easily.
These full-sun photos were all noticeably vignetted, so much so that in the centers, light colors tended toward white. I was able to fix that pretty well in Photoshop. I had the same effect with an XA2 I used to own, so I assume this is endemic to the camera.
I experienced the common (and minor) challenges with the XA2 as I used it: the clamshell cover hangs up unless you slide it open in exactly the right direction, and the shutter button is super sensitive and likely to fire when you don’t mean it. If this were my only camera I’d get past those quirks after three or four more rolls.
I finished the roll before meeting a friend for lunch Downtown on a gray, chilly day. That green slow-shutter light was on for every shot, but as you can see the camera did fine.
When you close the XA2 it moves the focus to the middle zone, which brings into focus everything 4 feet or more away. Because the camera biases toward big depth of field, for most subjects you can just open the camera, frame, and press the button. For truly far-away subjects you can use the landscape setting, and for close subjects (no closer than three feet, though) you can use the portrait setting. I did that here, and in this light got a narrow-enough in-focus patch that the background blurred a little.
To see more from both XA2s I’ve owned, check out my Olympus XA2 gallery.
Many film photographers say they prefer the XA2 to the XA. I’m not in that camp. I like the XA’s rangefinder and I prefer the characteristics of its lens. That said, the XA2 is almost point-and-shoot simple with plenty great optics. If I shot people on the street, this would be a great camera for it: open it, frame, snap, done.
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