Collecting Cameras, Film Photography, Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus XA

Lafayette Theater

I knew I was going to keep this camera the moment I picked it up. The Olympus XA is just that wonderful.

Olympus XA

This tiny rangefinder camera returns stunning images every time I load film into it. Any film, really — black-and-white or color, consumer-grade or professional. It always performs brilliantly. Here are a couple photos I really love from past rolls.

Chrome teeth

Above: the grille of a Dodge Charger on Arista Premium 400. Below: the midway entrance at the Indiana State Fair on Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800.

State Fair at dusk

For Operation Thin the Herd I loaded a roll of Agfa Vista 200, which is just my beloved Fujicolor 200 in disguise. A sidebar: thanks to UK photoblogger Dan James for sending me, at cost, a giant box full of this stuff just before Poundland stopped selling it. Even after I paid for shipping, I got this film cheaper than I can get Fujicolor 200 anywhere in the US.

West Park

While I began the roll shooting a few images around my church, I shot most of it in Lafayette and West Lafayette just after Thanksgiving last year as I returned my son Damion to Purdue to finish the semester. This is part of a mural on the side of a building in Lafayette.

Your Face Here

Though its controls are small, they work easily. Its rangefinder is small but plenty bright; it’s easy to focus. Its coupled light meter handles even complicated lighting situations with surprising aplomb. Shot after shot, the XA returned brilliant color and good sharpness.

Long Center

We had a little dinner in this burger-and-root-beer joint in West Lafayette. If you’re ever on I-65 between Indy and Chicago you’ll see billboards for it. The giant XXX on them is not advertising for an adult bookstore, so don’t look past them too fast.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple-X used to be a drive in, but if you want to eat in your car today you need to order inside and bring it out yourself.

XXX Root Beer

The Triple X is on State Street, which appears to be West Lafayette’s main drag. Given that this is where Purdue is, this street is given over to bars and restaurants that cater to the college crowd. Honestly, I feel a little out of place here.

State St., West Lafayette

The tile accents on this State Street building have captured my attention for years. It was late afternoon and the shadows were strong.

State St., West Lafayette

I was amused to find this unintended selfie on the film tail. I don’t remember taking it.

Inadvertent tail selfie

It’s no wonder the Olympus XA has been so loved since its introduction. It’s simply a wonderful camera. As I continue to thin the herd and work through my small rangefinder cameras, it will be challenging for any of them to approach this camera’s wonderful mix of pocketable size, good usability, and excellent results. I’m sure I’ll part with some otherwise very nice cameras because they don’t measure up to the Olympus XA.

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Olympus μ[mju:] Zoom 140

Is that a zoom lens in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist. It’s just that the Olympus μ[mju:] Zoom 140 packs an awful lot of zoom lens into a pocketable camera.

Olympus µ(mju:) Zoom 140

But you’ll need a roomy pocket for this chunky camera. I suppose they couldn’t cram a 140mm zoom lens into a skinnier body. The Zoom 140 is much thicker than any of the other μ[mju:] cameras I’ve owned. (Actually, I’ve owned a few Stylus cameras, which is what the series is called in North America. This is my first one labeled μ.)

Olympus µ(mju:) Zoom 140

This camera came to me in a camera swap with Peggy Anne, who writes the Camera Go Camera blog. I feature her film-camera experience reports all the time in my Saturday Recommended Reading posts. I sent her my Olympus 35RC in exchange.

Olympus µ(mju:) Zoom 140

The Zoom 140 is as fully featured as you’d expect from any Stylus or µ camera. It begins with a 38-140mm f/4-11 lens, of 10 elements in 8 groups. It reads the DX code on the film canister to set ISO from 50 to 3200. It automatically focuses using an phase-detection system, advanced for its time and a first among µ/Stylus cameras. It also automatically sets exposure, as you’d expect; you can choose between a three-zone pattern or spot metering. The built-in flash is on by default, although it fires only when the camera needs more light. You can turn it off or set it to any of five other modes, including red eye and fill. The Zoom 140 includes a self-timer and — very nice for my aging eyes — a viewfinder dioptric correction dial. It really brought subjects into crisp view. The camera is also weather resistant; a little light rain won’t harm it. A CR123A battery powers everything.

Olympus µ(mju:) Zoom 140

I’ve been a black-and-white mood lately, so I loaded some Fomapan 200. Film loading is automatic: stretch the film across to the takeup spool and close the door. The camera takes it from there, winding to the first frame, advancing the film when you press the shutter button, and rewinding the film at the end.

I went to some of my usual haunts with the Zoom 140, including Washington Park North Cemetery.

Roman numerals

Little point-and-shoot cameras are great for walking-around photography, especially when they pack a lens as sharp and contrasty as this one.

Fountain before the fire department

The Zoom 140 was good at recognizing what I meant the subject to be. For distant subjects it brought everything into focus; for close subjects, it tried its best to create a blurred background.

Proclaim Liberty

Typical of always-on flashes, the Zoom 140’s flash sometimes fired when I preferred it didn’t. And typical of zoom point-and-shoots, the lens goes soft at maximum zoom, as the photo below shows.

Chunky SUV

Back it off maximum and the lens just keeps delivering. This is a camera worth getting to know much better.

Church entrance

I took the Zoom 140 with me on my bike ride up the Michigan Road. This is where I found the camera’s chunkiness to be a problem: it simply would not fit into the back pocket of my jeans. So I switched to cargo shorts and slipped it into a side pocket.

School No. 7

Zoom lenses are wonderful on road trips. It’s not always practical to cross a busy road to get near a subject. The zoom lens does the walking.

Discount Tire

But the versatile Zoom 140 knows how to play any game I have in mind. Documentary photography from a distance? Absolutely. Something more creative? Well, sure! If I didn’t know better, from the test roll’s results I’d say the camera was reading my mind on each shot.

Reflective Posts

Would you guess this scene is in the city of Indianapolis? I photographed this just a short distance off Michigan Road in Augusta, a former town.

Horses in Augusta

Finally, one Saturday morning I awoke to interesting light outside my bedroom window. I grabbed the Zoom 140 and stepped into the yard in my sleeping clothes to try to capture it.

Sunlight on the fence

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Olympus μ[mju:] Zoom 140 gallery.

Olympus made a bunch of models in its μ/Stylus series. After shooting several of them, I feel sure all of them must boast very nice lenses. If you’re looking for a capable point-and-shoot 35mm camera, try a μ/Stylus — any μ/Stylus.

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Photography

Shooting the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for the last time

I’m breaking up with my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80.

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80It’s been my favorite point-and-shoot camera. It’s so small and easy to use, and I love the contrast and sharpness it always delivers. No matter what film I drop in, I’m always thrilled with the results.

Except for its fatal flaw. And I’ve finally had enough of it.

It’s this weird curved light leak, which this photograph shows. I shot a roll in this camera recently, some Kodak Tri-X 400, and half the images suffered from it. I’ve owned two of these cameras and both had this problem. And reading the forums, it’s not just me; this appears to be a problem with this camera, period.

Rock Bottom

One forum participant said to cover the window on the back that shows the film canister inside. He thought this was the leak’s source. I tried it and it didn’t work. I assume now that the leak comes from around the lens barrel, and I don’t know how anyone would fix that.

It’s a shame. This lens is so capable. And the 35-80mm zoom range is useful, even though the camera zooms slowly. And the flash is pretty good for an onboard flash, lighting remarkably evenly, as this throwaway shot of my kitchen shows.

Air drying

Typical of this kind of point and shoot, the camera decides when to use the flash. But the camera uses it well. I didn’t intend for the flash to fire on this shot, so I turned it off and shot it again. The flash-enabled shot looked much better. Could this camera be smarter than me?

Park-O-Meter

But anyway, back to the light leak. I’ve always cropped the leak out of the afflicted photos, as I did on this shot of some mailboxes in my neighborhood. But I’m tired of having to do it. And sometimes the leak covers up some of the subject.

Mailboxes

I’m sad that it’s time to break up with this camera. It’s just perfect to carry around with me everywhere. I’ve started taking 15-minute walks around my neighborhood before going to work, and after a skiff of snow fell one morning I snapped these tire tracks on the street. It’s great to whip this light little camera out of an inner coat pocket and quickly grab the shot.

Tire tracks in the snow skiff

On an evening when I met Margaret for a pint I photographed this fence across the street. Truly, except for this flaw this is a quality point and shoot camera that’s easy to carry and use enables photographs I might not otherwise make.

Fence

But now the search begins for an easily pocketable point-and-shoot 35mm camera with a great lens. Is it too much to ask of it to take a battery I can buy at the drug store, and will zoom across the 35-80mm range?

What pocketable point-and-shoot cameras do you like? Tell me in the comments.

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Photography

Vacation camera audition: Olympus XA

I’ve decided to take the Nikon N2000 to Ireland. The results were just too, too good. You all swayed me heavily in your comments on that audition post, by the way. But when I made that decision I hadn’t finished the audition roll in my Olympus XA yet, so I kept shooting. Not that this was a hardship; the XA is delightful.

Olympus XAThis little camera seemed like it would be the perfect vacation companion. Indeed, Moni Smith got great shots from hers in Italy and Ireland this year.

And did it ever handle beautifully for me! It really was everything I thought I wanted in a camera for this trip: small, light, capable.

But shooting an SLR just feels right to me, righter than even the most delightful tiny rangefinder camera. And when the images from the XA came back from the processor, it sealed the deal. I wasn’t quite as happy with them as I was with those from my N2000. I’ll point out why as I share photos from this roll of Kodak T-Max 400.

Margaret and I walked the Old Northside and adjacent Herron-Morton here in Indianapolis one hot August evening while I had the XA along.

1219

It resolved detail well, and returned the fine tones I’ve come to expect from T-Max. I bought five rolls of the stuff for my trip, by the way.

Old Northside

But some of the shots on the roll suffered from a serious lack of shadow detail. I don’t get why; the light wasn’t especially challenging. Could it have been the processing? Different soup, different results? I sent the T-Max I shot in the N2000 to Old School Photo Lab; I sent this roll of T-Max to Dwayne’s.

Old church, Old Northside

Fiddling with these photos in Photoshop I kept seeing blobs of blue in the dark areas. That means those areas resolve to full black. No amount of sliding sliders or curving curves could fix it, meaning the detail just wasn’t there. That was never a problem on the roll of T-Max I shot in the N2000.

Apartment House Entrance

There were also the usual challenges with the viewfinder not exactly lining up with what the lens sees, which is a pet peeve. When I framed this shot, the “Foundry” logo on the right was completely in frame.

The Foundry

The XA and Margaret and I went on a walk through the cemetery near my house. This Liberty Bell replica is a favorite subject.

Liberty Bell replica

I stepped way back for this landscape shot of the bell within its housing.

Washington Park North Cemetery

I finished the roll with a few la de da shots at home. Am I one of the last men alive who irons his own shirts? Who wears ironed shirts at all? I wait for the unironed shirts to pile up and then polish them all off in marathon sessions in my bedroom while I watch shows on Netflix. You can sort of make out, there near the top of the photo up and left of the iron, some plastic boxes under the dark area that is my dresser. Those boxes contain the old cameras I haven’t shot yet.

Ironing

Really, I could do just fine with the XA in Ireland. If some of you hadn’t so strongly suggested taking an SLR, which led me to try the N2000, I would be taking the XA to Ireland!

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Film Photography

Vacation camera audition: Olympus Stylus

In deciding which film camera to take with me to Ireland, I’ve been auditioning some of the contenders in my collection. I’m taking the camera with me and pretending I’m on the trip, shooting the kinds of things I plan to shoot, to see how the camera feels and performs. First up: the Olympus Stylus.

Olympus StylusI thought surely this would be The One, given how it slips easily into my jeans pocket, is dead simple to use, and packs a sharp 35mm f/3.5 lens.

Overall I had a great time shooting the Stylus, enough that I put two rolls through it: Kodak Gold 400 and an expired roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. But a couple flaws, one fatal, caused it to fail the audition.

Readers with long memories will remember that my Stylus failed the last time I used it. It was so messed up I just dumped it into the trash and bought another. This one came with date imprint function. I left it off except for one trial shot in my living room.

My living room, dated

Margaret and I have been taking a lot of walks lately to get into better shape for the trip. A favorite destination is the streets of Zionsville. Here’s a typical home in town.

Zionsville Village

Just dig the birdhouse built into the roof gable on this house.

Zionsville Village

Here’s a shot from Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The camera was performing so well, letting me get all the kinds of shots I expect to take in Ireland, landscapes and architectural shots leading the way.

Circle Theatre

I’m especially pleased with this dusk shot in Garfield Park in Indianapolis. I did have to bring this shot into Photoshop and boost shadows, however, to bring out the fountains.

Garfield Park

But the camera is not without issues. First, a few shots had a strange light area in the upper-right corner.

Lit

Second, the Stylus seems to focus on whatever is at the center of the frame. The cars in the background of this photo are perfectly sharp, but the tree is a little fuzzy. You can see it at larger sizes.

Lit

Margaret was the intended subject here, but is so out of focus the shot isn’t usable. I’ll bet if I put the subject in the center of the frame, press halfway down to focus, and then reframe, I’d get the shot. But I’d always be anxious the camera would muff focus anyway.

Margaret out of focus

But here’s the Stylus’s fatal flaw: every time you open the camera, the flash defaults to “auto” and fires in low light. I almost never want flash; every time it went off I muttered a bad word under my breath. There’s no way I’m going to remember to shut the flash off every time I open this camera.

Garfield Park
Garfield Park

So I’ve been auditioning other cameras. I put a roll through my Nikon N2000 SLR with a 35mm lens attached, just to see whether I’d find lugging an SLR around to be too much. (Answer: not as much as I thought.) Photos from that session on Monday. At the moment I have film in my Olympus XA, and that’s going well, too.

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Camera Reviews

Olympus XA

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The Olympus XA has been called the little camera that the pros grab when they want to travel light. After shooting with one, I can see why – it’s light and easy to use, and yields standout results. Yet as I researched to write this post, I was surprised to find so many complaints about it.

Olympus XA

The XA’s centerpiece is its fine 35 mm f/2.8 lens, of six elements in five groups. It is only 31 mm long, shorter than its focal length – just imagine the engineering necessary to pull that off! Yet some complain that this design yields barrel distortion and light falloff (darkening) in the corners.

Some also complain about the XA’s rangefinder, saying that the focusing patch is too small, and the lever is awkwardly placed and has a very short throw. They have a point about the lever’s placement – it’s below the lens and film-speed scale, and its entire range of motion is about a half inch.

Olympus XAFinally, I read complaints about the range of attachable flashes, that they’re all too big. I’ll grant that complaint, as even the smallest of them ruin this camera’s eminent pocketability. The A11 flash may add only an inch and a half to the XA’s four-inch length, but it sure manages to make it too long for my jeans pocket.

I dropped a roll of Fujicolor 200 and two SR44 batteries into my XA and got to shooting. The complainers, I quickly decided, must only be picking at nits. The rangefinder is remarkably easy to focus. The lens returned superb results. But I removed the A11 flash. I did want to carry the camera in my pocket, after all.

Because of the need to set aperture and focus, the XA isn’t quite as instantly ready as its brother, the almost point-and-shoot XA2. But using either camera begins the same way: by sliding the clamshell open to reveal the lens. Be sure to do it by pressing against the ribs on top of the camera.

At a skosh under eight ounces, it was easy to slip the XA into my pocket for a bicycle ride to Juan Solomon Park and its brand new playground. I can’t figure out what this piece of equipment is fun for, but I sure liked the subtle shadow it threw in the evening sunlight. The XA is an aperture-priority camera, meaning you set the aperture and the camera chooses a shutter speed based on what the light meter tells it. The XA can focus as close as 2.8 feet. I set the aperture wide, moved in close, and focused on the nearest blue disc, and got good sharpness up close and a creamy softness father away.

At the playground

The f/2.8 lens can be stopped all the way down to f/22, which is pinhole tiny and in good light would provide sharp results for a mile. This bench wasn’t quite that far away, of course.

Bench

The XA’s electronic shutter operates from 1/500 to 10 seconds. A display inside the viewfinder shows the shutter speed the camera mates to the aperture you choose. I set the lens to f/2.8 for this shot of my old friend, and it was bright enough out for a fast shutter.

Gracie on the deck

I took the XA with me on a day trip that brought me through tiny Kirklin on the Michigan Road. For once I had time to stop and look through the many antique shops in town. I came away from one with a great bargain on a clean Polaroid SX-70 camera! I paused for this photo along the main drag and am very impressed with the shade of blue in the sky.

Kirklin

Sadly, many of Kirklin’s buildings need considerable TLC. This tired building provided a good opportunity to see how the XA renders detail. The XA acquitted itself well.

Kirklin doorway

You can see several other photos in my Olympus XA gallery.

I picked up my XA at a fire-sale price because the seller listed it as an “Olympus A11” after the attached flash. But when this camera was new in 1979, its price was no fire sale: $233, which is a hefty $735 in 2012 dollars. Olympus made XAs through 1985, so even at that price it must have been popular. No wonder; it is a wonderful camera.


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