When I started making photographs again in 2005 I couldn’t afford a new digital camera, so long story short I bought a used Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for $20 and some film and got to shooting. That necessarily meant I’d need to find a lab to process my film.
Walmart still processed and scanned color negative film, for about $6 I think. Money was tight for me then, but I could manage that price if I didn’t shoot too often. So that’s who I used.
I have lamented on this blog (here) the loss of easy, inexpensive film processing at drug and big-box stores. The by-mail labs I use now charge up to three times more than Walmart used to. But perhaps you get what you pay for.
I was looking back through old scans recently to update my review of the Kodak Retina Ia and was surprised and disappointed with the dull color. I didn’t see it then, as I had a lot to learn. I sure see it now. I don’t blame the camera — that Retina’s lens is crackerjack. I also shot Fujicolor 200, a film I know well. So I blame the processing and/or the scanning. I brought the scans into Photoshop hoping to improve them. I got better color at the cost of too much contrast, but I couldn’t tone that down without making the images too hazy.
These aren’t bad images, but they could be better.
I did some quick checking of other images I had processed and scanned by Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS, and think that I get noticeably better work from the by-mail labs I use now. The only in-store lab that did equal work was Costco.
In 2012 I bought a Retina IIa and put it through its paces with another roll of Fujicolor 200. I forget who I used to process and scan the film — probably Dwayne’s Photo or Old School Photo Lab. Can you see it like I do, how much more natural and nuanced the colors and contrast are in these?
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.
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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Agfa Vista 200 is said to have been the same stock as Fujicolor 200. I’ve shot miles of this film under both labels and they look the same to me. It is the color print film I shoot most often by far. It performs well enough for the everyday shooting I do while being inexpensive and easy to get. I can drive to my nearby big-box store right now and buy a four-pack of Fujicolor 200 for about $12.
Its potential demise provokes some anxiety. What will I do when it’s gone?
Switch to Kodak Gold 200, that’s what. It’s nearly as available and only slightly more expensive. It’s just as good.
I’ve only just decided that. For years I strongly preferred Fujicolor’s look, probably because I’m used to it. But when I take those goggles off and look objectively at the photos I’ve made on Kodak Gold 200 I find many that really please me. This is a fine everyday color film. Have a look:
I asked a lot of my Konica C35 Automatic — probably too much, shooting it mostly at and beyond dusk as I did. Late afternoon sun was the best light I gave it. That’s what happens when you shoot mostly after work in late autumn. Given that this autoexposure camera forces wide apertures and slow shutter speeds in dim light, I risked softness and camera shake nearly every time I pressed the shutter button.
Let’s look first at a couple late-afternoon photos. This lens has a character that, to my eye, enhances the film’s grain. It’s a pleasing effect, but it does rob images of a little sharpness.
But as I said, it’s quite pleasant. It could be put to excellent use for the right subject.
The C35 struggled with reflected light. The late-afternoon sun cast this black fence with a delicious glow. I’d admired it for several days on my drive home from work, and this day with the C35 in my pocket I stopped to photograph it. This isn’t a bad shot, especially after I toned down the highlights in Photoshop. It just doesn’t capture the scene’s warmth. I own cameras that could have captured that glow. Of course, those cameras are large, heavy, and complicated compared to the C35.
I made this photo in downtown Fishers on a cloudy afternoon. I focused on the front bench. Shooting Fujicolor 200 in this light, the camera chose a wider aperture and softened the background just a bit, to a pleasing degree.
I was lucky to pick up this little rangefinder camera for about 30 bucks a few years ago, as they routinely go for up to $100 in online auctions. While this camera is pleasant enough to use, I couldn’t remotely justify trading a C-note for one.
I gave the C35 some challenging assignments, such as this light sculpture inside the lobby of the office building where I work. I made a similar shot here with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on Tri-X earlier this year. I like it better. See it here.
I was downtown for a work-related event and had the C35 in my coat pocket. The event wrapped late. I wondered if the spotlight illuminating this sign provided enough light for a photograph. It did.
Of course, it’s hard to focus a rangefinder camera in the dark. I love how the C35 rendered the light within the bells of this clock tower, but man, I wish I hadn’t muffed focus.
If you’d like to see more photos from this camera, check out my Konica C35 Automatic gallery here.
My experience shooting this camera was pleasant enough. It’s certainly a breeze to use: in Auto mode it is a focus-and-shoot camera. But as I shot it, I couldn’t shake a strong feeling that if I kept it, I’d probably never shoot it again. I own other capable compacts that I just like better.
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