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.
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?