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.
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.
The XA2’s meter and Xtreme 100’s sensitivity came together to handle this challenging exposure situation well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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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.
This shot is probably the best-exposed of the bunch, and I still had to heavily adjust highlights and shadows on it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Marvels of miniaturization, the Olympys XA series put great optics into your pocket. The XA came in 1979 with a rangefinder and a six-element f/2.8 lens. The Olympus XA2 followed in 1980 with zone focusing and a four-element f/3.5 lens. There was also an XA1, an XA3, and an XA4, each with different specs but all sharing a clamshell body design. Collectors and photographers alike praise these cameras.
All XA-series cameras are itty bitty, at about 2.6 by 4.1 by 1.6 inches. This is in the realm of small digital point-and-shoot cameras – my svelte Canon PowerShot S95 is only fractionally smaller at 2.3 by 3.9 by 1.2 inches.
Miniaturization had its limits in 1980, though. My Canon’s flash is built in, while the XA series offers a range of attachable flashes. My XA2 came with the common A11 flash, which lengthens the camera by about 1.75 inches.
The XA’s lens is faster than the XA2’s, and the XA offers a rangefinder and aperture-priority autoexposure. But the XA2’s lens is no slouch, and the camera offers fully automatic exposure and zone focusing. The focusing lever is next to the lens, with settings for portrait, group, and landscape. Focus may be mechanical, but everything else about the camera needs two SR44 batteries. Fortunately, you can buy those at the drug store.
The Olympus XA2 accepts films of ISO 25 to 800. Its shutter operates from 1/500 to 2 seconds.
You can check out my review of the XA here, by the way. Other little Olympuses you might be interested in include the Olympus 35RC (here), the Olympus Trip 35 (here), the Olympus Stylus (here), the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (here), and the Lomo-like Olympus Trip 500 (here).
Given that the XA2 is easily pocketable, barely noticeable to others, and point-and-shoot simple, I thought it’d be a great choice to take along to the Indiana State Fair for some unobtrusive candid people photography. These are on Fujicolor 200.
There are regular tractor parades at the fair. These are Oliver tractors; my dad worked for Oliver at the time these were made. The XA2 let me get in and out fast and unobtrusively.
A green light glows inside the viewfinder when the exposure system needs a slow shutter speed; it’s your cue to use either a tripod or the flash. That was never a problem on this hot and blisteringly bright day. At slower speeds the shutter clicks twice, once when it opens and once when it closes, so wait for the second click before you move the camera!
The XA2’s little lens delivers delicious color.
I shot this roll and then never used the camera again. I found myself gravitating more toward the XA, which must mean I liked it a little better. So I sold the XA2. After a couple years, another XA2 fell into my hands. I’m not one to thumb my nose at fate. Here is a photo of the courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana, on Ultrafine Xtreme 100.
Some complain that the XA2 is clumsy to hold, but I’ve shot thousands of photos with my similarly-sized digital camera and must be used to it. I found the shutter button, which is famously feather light, entirely too easy to press by accident. Here’s the Artsgarden in Downtown Indianapolis on Agfa Vista 200.
The thumbwheel winder feels kind of flimsy. And I had to resist the temptation to open the cover by pressing the front and sliding, which works but not without ugly scraping noises. It’s important to open it only from the top, pressing against the ribs next to the XA2 logo.
On full-sun days, the lens has a tendency to vignette a little. See how the corners of this photo are darker than the center?
The XA2’s exposure system does a nice job of handling challenging light. The meter is said to be center weighted. With most cameras that means metering for the highlights or the shadows and compensating for the choice in post-processing. I never bother with the XA2, as it seems always to know just what to do. These black-and-whites are on Ultrafine Xtreme 100 again.
Such sharpness this lens delivers!
Some people find the XA2’s controls to be too small for fast handling. I don’t get that. This camera is almost point-and-shoot simple. Every time you close the clamshell the camera reverts to the middle focus setting, the two orange people. The camera biases toward heavy depth of field, meaning that everything except close-ups and extremely distant subjects will be in focus. I open the camera, compose, and press the shutter button. Handling doesn’t get faster than that.
I had to lie on my back to compose this photo. Unlike an SLR, the XA2 is not cumbersome when you do that. Also, its viewfinder is accurate enough that you can compose tightly without worrying.
When I bought my first Olympus XA2, prices hovered around $50. You’ll have little luck finding a working one at that price today — I just checked eBay’s sold XA2s and see prices between $100 and $150. Yowtch. But that’s what happens to a camera that gains a good reputation, as the Olympus XA2 deservedly has.
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