Camera Reviews

This is a brilliant little 35mm camera, full stop. It’s almost point-and-shoot simple, but it returns images that rival what you can get from your 35mm SLRs. Read my heavily revised review here.

Olympus XA2

Updated review: Olympus XA2

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Courthouse and Regions Tower

United States Court House and Post Office
Olympus XA2
Ultrafine Xtreme 100
2019

I sometimes wonder if anyone notices me photographing this building. I’ve done it a lot lately. It is, after all, a federal courthouse — the threat of terrorism has all federal buildings on alert. I’m sure security officers are always watching.

But I’m a middle-aged man in business casual dress carrying an old film camera. I hope that signals I’m a threat to nobody.

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Film Photography

single frame: United States Court House and Post Office

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Film Photography

Shooting Ultrafine Xtreme 100 in the Olympus XA2

My last go-round with Ultrafine Xtreme 100 in my Olympus XA2 went badly. You can see some of the photos here. I have no idea what went wrong.

I wanted to take a compact film camera along on the trip my wife and I made to New Harmony in July. The XA2 was handy and, not remembering my unfortunate results from last time, I loaded my last roll of this film and went on my way.

Everything worked fine.

Open

I didn’t make any particularly inspiring photographs with the XA2 in New Harmony. I was also shooting my digital Canon S95, and it just felt like a color weekend. I made only eight photos in New Harmony with the XA2. Here’s a double log cabin on the grounds of the Lenz House.

Cabin

The XA2’s meter and Xtreme 100’s sensitivity came together to handle this challenging exposure situation well.

Looking out

I took the XA2 to work and left it in my desk drawer for a few weeks, taking it on lunchtime photo walks whenever I felt like it. This Indianapolis street scene looks northbound up Delaware Street toward what everybody calls the Gold Building, as those mirrored glass panes are so tinted. I worked for a company in the Gold Building when my now 22-year-old son was born.

Gold building

I’ve been fascinated lately with the federal courthouse and have photographed it with several camera/film combinations lately. It was completed in 1905. This building was once also a post office, I believe the main one for Indianapolis. It hasn’t been that in a very long time, but the engraved words above the entry still announce it as such.

Courthouse

I photographed the AT&T building from the courthouse. I like the look of a desolate street, so I waited several minutes for traffic to clear.

AT&T

I like Ultrafine Xtreme 100. It captures a good range of tones, its blacks are deep, and it seems to have good exposure latitude. That last bit is especially important for a photographer like me who shoots old gear with light meters of unknown accuracy.

Rumor has it that this film is repackaged Kentmere 100. Here are posts from every roll of Kentmere 100 I’ve shot; compare and judge for yourself.

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Film Photography

Industry, agriculture, literature, justice

The Birch Bayh Federal Building and Courthouse in Indianapolis, completed in 1905, features four allegorical statues by John Massey Rhind: Industry, Agriculture, Literature, and Justice.

Statue at Courthouse, 4
Statue at Courthouse, 3
Statue at Courthouse, 2
Statue at Courthouse, 1

I made these with my Olympus XA on Ultrafine Xtreme 100. More on that tomorrow.

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Film Photography

More 35mm color negative work from the CanoScan 9000F MkII and ScanGear

The advice some of you gave me in this post helped me get decent black-and-white scans from my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II and its bundled ScanGear software. I used the same advice to scan a little more color film.

I made these photos last fall with my Olympus XA2 on Agfa Vista 200. Roberts Camera in Indianapolis processed and scanned them. Their scans are 3130 pixels on the long side. I used ScanGear to scan them at 4800 dpi with all built-in image enhancement turned off, resulting in scans of between 6750 and 6800 pixels on the long side. I resized my scans to 1200 pixels long to upload them here.

I edited scans from both sources as best I could in Photoshop, including adding unsharp masking to the ScanGear scans.

My first test was of this shot of old US 52 and a great abandoned neon sign near my home. It shows considerable vignetting, which I believe is endemic to the camera. While I like the depth of blue in the sky, I don’t like how mottled it is. I tried various Photoshop settings and tools to smooth it out but wasn’t happy with any of the results. I wonder if the film profiles and multi-exposure scanning in Silverfast would resolve these challenges.

The Roberts scan captured more turquoise in a perfectly smooth sky. The Wrecks sign shows far better definition and detail. I suppose the Roberts scan might have a touch of green caste to it. Roberts also reduced the vignetting. I prefer the Roberts scan.

Wrecks

The CanoScan/ScanGear scan of this abandoned farm co-op building shows the same mottled deep blue sky, but plenty of great detail in the corrugated walls. This building is all that’s left of the onetime town of Traders Point, Indiana, by the way. See 1950s film footage of this town, including a brief look at this co-op building, here.

Here’s a crop of the image at 100%. It could be sharper, but it’s fully usable.

In the Roberts scan the colors aren’t as vibrant, and the sky is again more turquoise. In retrospect, I could have helped this photo by reducing exposure a little in Photoshop.

Co-op

From here on out, the winner isn’t as clear between the Roberts and ScanGear scans. This ScanGear scan from downtown Indianapolis shows a scene that’s changed, as the Hard Rock Cafe has since closed and its signs are gone.

The Roberts scan looks like it got more exposure than my scan. My scan highlights the vignetting the XA2’s lens tends to deliver.

Down Maryland St.

These arches are around the corner from the previous scene. Here’s my scan.

Here’s the Roberts scan. Each has its charms; I can’t call one better than the other.

Arches

Still downtown in Indianapolis, I shot this outdoor cafe scene. The day was drizzly and chilly and so not ideal for outdoor dining.

Here’s the Roberts scan. I like my scan’s blue umbrella and the overall color temperature better.

Blue umbrella

Finally, here’s a forlorn building. My scan gives its gray painted brick a bit of a blue caste.

The Roberts scan is more of a straight gray. Like all of the Roberts scans, it got a touch more exposure. Either scan is good enough for my purposes, but I believe I slightly prefer my CanoScan/ScanGear scan.

Gray building

I believe I’ve figured out a good base 35mm scanning technique and can refine it from here. Perhaps I can get a little more sharpness, a little better color. I do have to solve that terrible mottling problem, though; the two scans with blue sky in them aren’t that great.

Next, I’ll try scanning some medium-format negatives with the CanoScan and ScanGear. This is perhaps the most important test, as my goal is to shoot my lovely TLRs and my simple box cameras more often, and process and scan the film myself.

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Camera Reviews

Another Olympus XA2

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.

Olympus XA2

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.

Olympus XA2

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.

Starkey Park, Zionsville

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.

Indianapolis Artsgarden

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.

Co-op

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.

Suburban autumn

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.

Red

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.

Yellow tree on Old 334

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.

Wrecks

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.

Maryland St.

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.

Blue umbrella

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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