Cameras, 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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Cameras, 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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Cameras

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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Cameras, Photography

Olympus XA2

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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 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 the same basic clamshell body design. Collectors and photographers alike praise these cameras, so I suppose it was just a matter of time before I got one.

Olympus XA2

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.

Olympus XA2Miniaturization 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.

Even though the XA2 has lower specs than the original XA, there’s much to like about both cameras. The XA’s lens is said to be superior, and the camera 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. The group setting keeps everything beyond 4 feet in focus, making it useful for almost all shots. You’ll seldom need to use portrait, at 3.3 to 5 feet, and landscape, beyond 8.3 feet. The camera itself seems to agree, as when you close it the focus lever moves back to the group setting. Focus may be mechanical, but everything else about the camera needs two SR44 batteries. Fortunately, you can buy those at the drug store.

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 this year. I’ve wanted to try street photography for a long time and I thought the fair’s crowds would make a great first outing.

Deep fried everything

My favorite part of the fair is Pioneer Village, where people dress up all old-timey and do things the way Hoosiers did them in the 1800s. These gentlemen were busy sawing logs into boards.

Sawing

Next to Pioneer Village are rows and rows of antique tractors. Here are some of their noses. I have a soft spot in my heart for Oliver tractors like the green one in front because my father built them in South Bend when I was a boy.

Tractor noses

My sons like to visit the midway – the older one for games, the younger one for rides. I’m not crazy about either, but at least there are plenty of people and colors to photograph.

Rising waters

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!

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. I thought the thumbwheel winder felt 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.

My test-roll photos are acceptably sharp but not stunningly so. Those shot in the brightest sunlight suffered from noticeable vignetting (darker in the corners than in the middle) but I’ve read that this is typical of the camera. I shot my usual Fujicolor 200, but I chose this roll to try out my nearby CVS Pharmacy for processing. They process, scan, and burn to CD for about $6, which is hard to beat. You can see more photos from this camera in my Olympus XA2 gallery.


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Cameras, Photography

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80

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I wonder if the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 ever really had a chance, given that it was introduced in 1999. Within a few years everybody who bought auto-everything 35 mm cameras like these would be ditching them for digital cameras. If the number of these cameras available on eBay at any moment is an indication, Olympus sold a ton of these cameras. That they all seem to be in like-new condition says a lot about their unfortunate place on photography’s timeline. This camera’s time in the sun was so short that many of them show up on eBay with marketing stickers still on their faces.

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80

The Stylus Epic Zoom 80, which was known as the μ[mju:]-II Zoom 80 outside the US, was feature-packed, starting with autofocus and autoexposure. The telescoping lens zooms from 38 to 80 mm. It’s flash can adjust to reduce red eye, fill to brighten shadows, and fire in conjunction with a slow shutter speed for better night shots. It also has “infinity mode” that focuses on infinity for landscape shots, and “backlight mode” that reduces exposure by a stop and a half when your subject is lit from behind. What it lacks is any manual control whatsoever.

Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80

This camera is small; it reminds me of a bar of soap in my hand. Its design is so modern that if you took this camera out in public nobody would give it a second glance because they’d think it was digital.

This is my second Stylus Epic Zoom 80. I gave my first one away several years ago and missed it, so when I came upon another for cheap recently (ahh, supply and demand) I nabbed it. I immediately put a roll of Kodak T-Max 400 through it. When the film came back from the processor, I was reminded of this camera’s two big flaws.

Blown out bushes

Flaw #1: In contrasty situations, the exposure system seems biased toward resolving the darker areas, which has the effect of blowing out the lighter areas.

The Flaw

Flaw #2: The lens has a tendency to produce a curved flare in the image’s corners. I can’t figure out what lighting conditions bring this on, but it happened on at least one shot on every roll with both of my Stylus Epic Zoom 80s. The camera forums are full of stories from other users who experienced this problem.

Another issue that doesn’t quite rise to the level of Flaw: At full zoom, the lens goes a little soft. The zoom isn’t that deep anyway, so I hardly use it. When I want a tighter shot I just move in closer.

What makes me call out these issues is that they stand in such stark contrast to how pleasant this camera is to use and what good results it can otherwise return. I slipped it into my pocket on a recent bike ride – it’s so small and light I hardly noticed it. It feels good in my hands. I can slide the lens cover out of the way with one hand, and by the time I get the camera to my eye the lens has finished extending. The shutter button is right where my finger wants it to be. All I have to do is frame my shots. The viewfinder isn’t very big, but it’s plenty bright and surprisingly accurate. This signed tree is in a wooded lot not far from my home.

No Dumping

It was a day for shooting trees, I guess. I’m super impressed with the tones in this shot.

Tree

It’s fitting that when my previous Stylus Epic Zoom 80 was my go-to camera, I shot plenty of my go-to film, Fujicolor 200, in it. I took it on my early road trips. State Road 45 is a twisty handful to drive between Bean Blossom and Bloomington.

SR 45 WB W of Trevlac

State Road 62 is also twisty fun through some of Indiana’s southernmost counties. Here, the road curves around a rock formation at the entrance to Harrison-Crawford State Forest.

SR 62 at SR 462 6 mi W of Corydon by Harrison Crawford State Forest

This is the Ohio River at the town of Leavenworth, which is also on State Road 62.

Ohio River SR 62 EB W edge of Leavenworth

I took my Stylus Epic Zoom 80 on my third and final mission trip to Mexico in 2006. Vida Nueva Ministries has a large compound outside Piedras Negras in Coahuila. They run a school there; this animated student wouldn’t rest until I took his picture.

Happy student

This is a side street in Piedras Negras near their open market, where they are happy to take gringo dollars.

Piedras Negras

The last road trip I made before I bought my first digital camera included a stop at the Bridgeton covered bridge. It had just been rebuilt after an arsonist destroyed the original 1868 bridge. It was a rare opportunity to photograph brand new wooden Burr arch trusses.

Bridgeton Covered Bridge

Outside, the scene looked like a set from Little House on the Prairie.

Bridgeton Covered Bridge

If this were my only camera I’d find its flaws to be a major bummer, especially that unpredictable flare. It’s a shame, because otherwise there’s so much to like about the Stylus Epic Zoom 80.

See more photos from this camera in my Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 gallery.


Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

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