Camera Reviews, Film Photography

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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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus OM-1

Butterfly

Why have I not used my Olympus OM-1 more? This is such a wonderful camera — compact, precise, capable. It sparked the SLR fever that has so heavily influenced my collection. Could my subsequent SLR promiscuity simply have kept me from loving this camera fully?

Olympus OM-1

Probably. But I also know I’ve hedged on using it because I never got used to setting shutter speed on the lens barrel. What a wealth of great gear I have that this one little thing led me to favor other SLRs. But really, this is my only gripe. The OM-1 otherwise feels like a luxury item in my hands. Everything about this camera oozes excellence.

Peppy Grill

I own two OM-1 bodies, this minty silver-topped body (review here) and a slightly worn all-black body (review here). I made the above shot with the silver top on Kodak BW400CN, and the shot below with the black top on Fujicolor 200, both with the 50mm f/1.8 F.Zuiko lens.

Schwinn Collegiate

While I shot the silver-topped one this time, I’m including both bodies in this evaluation. They both stay or they both go. These cameras came to me with a bunch of lenses from the father of a dear friend, and I want his whole kit to be a single unit. With that, I mounted the close-focusing 50mm f/3.5 Zuiko Auto Macro lens that came with the kit, dropped in some Kodak Gold 200, and went looking for little flowers to shoot. I don’t know why this little blue chicory flower came out purple, but I don’t care, I love the photo.

Chicory

I made these photos as summer was ending. There were plenty of little flowers left to photograph.

Fall flowers

I even moved in close to this railroad spike on some abandoned tracks. I love the colors this lens picked up in the blurred background. I’m not sure my Pentax or Nikon lenses would have seen them.

Rail nail

You can use a macro lens for normal work, too. This one acquitted itself well.

L O V E

The 50/1.8 and the 50/3.5 Auto Macro were the only Olympus Zuiko lenses in the kit. He also owned a 70-150mm f/3.8 Vivitar Close Focusing Auto Zoom, a 100mm f/4 Portragon, and a big 500mm f/8 Spiratone Mintel-M mirror lens. I’d never shot some of these lenses, so I tried them this time on a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. First, here’s a big green highway sign that is about a half mile away from where I was standing. I had to put the camera on a tripod to steady it enough for this shot, which shows the 500mm Spiratone’s resolving power. Which is only okay, by the way. But in its day it was an inexpensive way to get a long lens.

East

Spiratone was a mail-order house for inexpensive photographic accessories. The 100mm Portragon lens is also a Spiratone product. It was meant for portraits, obviously, but I didn’t have anybody handy so I just shot stuff with it. It created an out-of-focus effect around the center of the image. The best of my Portragon shots was of this Subie’s snout.

Subie snout

I finished off the roll with the 50/1.8. I placed the OM-1 on my tripod, set the self-timer, and got this photo of me in our front yard.

Posed under the tree

Finally, I moved in close to these blue seed balls for one last 50/1.8 photo.

Blue ballies

To see more work from this camera, check out my Olympus OM-1 gallery.

The OM-1 almost makes up for its awkward shutter-speed ring by placing a rewind release on the camera’s front. You turn it to the side and then crank to rewind. Most SLRs place a release button on the camera bottom, and in most cases you have to hold that button in the entire time you’re rewinding. It’s awkward. The OM-1’s system is so easy in contrast.

While I’m going to focus the SLR portion of my collection on Pentax and Nikon, I won’t part with my OM-1s. I feel like I’m this kit’s chosen steward. And they’re just so lovely to use, weird shutter-speed ring notwithstanding. And so this gear stays in my collection.

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

I’ve achieved the Kodak Pony 135 trifecta, having now owned and shot now all three models: first the original, then the Model C, and now this Model B. I wasn’t exactly striving for this goal, mind you. But an old friend’s father sent me his entire camera collection a couple years ago and this Model B was present. It was only a matter of time before I put film through it and secured this particular hat trick.

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

The 1953-55 Kodak Pony 135 Model B, like the original Pony 135, is a step-up camera from the basic Brownies Kodak sold. Its 51mm f/4.5 Anaston lens, probably a Cooke triplet in design, was a serious improvement on the meniscus lenses in most Brownies. It was set in a Kodak Flash 200 shutter that operates at 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200 seconds.

Kodak Pony 135 Model B

Like the original Kodak Pony 135, you have to extend the lens barrel before you can shoot photos. Twist counterclockwise, pull, twist clockwise until it locks. To collapse it, twist, push, twist.

Kodak Pony 135 Model BKodak Pony 135 Model B

Kodak sold this camera to amateurs who wanted to shoot color slides, Kodachrome and Ektachrome. Kodacolor negative film existed, but not in 35mm format until 1958. These were all seriously slow films — Kodachrome of that day was rated at 12 or 16 ASA, yes twelve or sixteen. Kodak Plus-X was rated at a comparatively blazing 80 ASA then. When using fast modern films, this camera’s camera’s maximum aperture and range of shutter speeds seem limiting. But in context of the time, they were fine.

Ice cube croutons

Kodachrome and Plus-X are discontinued, so I loaded Agfa Vista 200 color negative film into this Pony and took it out onto Indianapolis’s Massachusetts Avenue. My wife and I made it an evening out.

Liberty Street

But first I had to cure a sticky shutter. I’d just learned that on cameras like this carefully flowing a couple drops of lighter fluid into the slot for the shutter cocking lever usually does the trick. It freed the shutter immediately!

Mural

And yes, you have to cock the shutter on this Pony. You also have to guess exposure and set aperture and shutter speed, as well as guess distance and focus manually. The budding early-1950s photographer got no help from the Pony 135 Model B.

Mass Ave

But as that photographer’s skill grew, he or she could get good performance from the Pony. Mine suffers the vagaries of age. I got a lot of haze in most shots, especially when the sun wasn’t perfectly behind me. The lens wasn’t dirty, and I can’t see any haze or fungus among the elements, so I just don’t know what was wrong. Photoshop corrected the problem well enough on many frames but couldn’t cure it on many others, including the one below.

Bench

I also took the roll on a lunchtime walk in Fishers, the town in which I work. With the sun directly overhead my shots suffered from far less haze.

Tree on the path

Because I’m a terrible guesser of distance, I generally shoot cameras like this at f/8 or smaller apertures and shoot distant subjects so good depth of field makes up for my bad guesses. But I did try moving in fairly close to these plants near my home. It went all right.

Foliage

See more from this camera in my Kodak Pony 135 Model B gallery.

These Kodak Pony 135s are all pleasant to shoot. They’re light and easy to use once you get the hang of setting aperture, shutter speed, and focus. My only complaint is that the 51mm lens felt too narrow. I prefer my Model C’s slightly wider 44mm lens. But really, you can make lovely photographs with any Kodak Pony. I hope you won’t dismiss them as junk just because of the Kodak name.

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Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Yashica-12

Marathon

As a frugal film photographer with GAS (gear acquisition syndrome), I buy well-used cameras. Scuffs, dings, and even minor faults are part of that game. Every now and again I enjoy a camera so much I want to include it in my regular-use rotation. That’s when I invest in repairs, or even in buying another one in near-mint condition. That’s what led me to buy this Yashica-12 which had been serviced by premier Yashica repairman Mark Hama. To own it I forked over the most I’ve ever paid for an old camera. It’s not like it sent me to the poor house at just $135. But I’m used to paying under $50.

Yashica-12

I loaded Kodak Tri-X 400 and took it on a road trip. The camera performed well and returned flawless images, such as of this little cafe on the square in Lebanon, Indiana.

Please be seated

For this outing I loaded my last roll of Kodak Ektachrome E100G and brimmed with confidence that I’d get twelve colorful, sharp, and perfectly exposed images. What I got was a light leak. What the what?

Garrett & Damion

The seals can’t be bad, can they? That Mark Hama overhaul happened only a few years ago. Was I careless in spooling the roll into the camera? Was the roll a little loose after it came out of the camera? All I know is that the shots at the beginning of the roll were most affected, and the shots at the end (like the one below) very little.

Thorntown Carnegie Library

I shot this roll over my birthday weekend. My sons came to visit. We hiked some trails in a nearby nature park and I took one son up to Thorntown and told him the story of the time his mom got me out of a speeding ticket there. (Read it here; it’s kind of funny.) That’s the Carnegie library above and the main drag below.

Thorntown

I had such a nice time with the 12 that as I sent the E100G off for processing I loaded some Ilford Pan F Plus and kept going. I bought several rolls of this stuff thinking that at ISO 50 it would be a good match for my old box cameras. It wasn’t. It turns out this film needs precise exposure — not exactly the bailiwick for a camera with one aperture and shutter speed. The 12 was going to be a much better match.

Available

The 12 handled just as clumsily as I remembered. But I say so in the most affectionate way possible, as I just love the TLR experience. It feels deeply satisfying when an image comes into focus in that big ground-glass viewfinder. All of the 12’s controls feel great to use, full of heft and precision.

Entrances

My only gripe with the 12 is that you have to juggle the camera from hand to hand as you use it — the winding crank and the focusing knob are on opposite sides of the camera. I have yet to grow used to it. My Yashica-D places the winding and focusing knobs on the same side of the camera, which avoids the juggling. But the D’s winding knob isn’t as quick and easy as the 12’s winding crank, and the camera lacks a light meter. Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

Carpentry Hall

I suppose another gripe with the 12 — with any TLR, really — is that it’s ungainly to carry. At the nature park I had forgotten to clip on a strap so I just held it in my hands. That got old fast, and I constantly risked dropping it. I clipped on a strap before we left for Thorntown and left it on for this trip to the old Central State Hospital grounds, but the 12’s form factor and weight made it ungainly even at my hip.

Ruins at Central State

The Pan F Plus turned out great. Look, no light leak! I don’t know what the deal was with the roll of E100G. It’s a shame that’s how my last roll of the stuff turned out.

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Yashica-12 gallery.

I wrote most of this review in August, but am just now getting around to posting it because I could not decide whether to keep this camera or not. I really need only one TLR in my life. My Yashica-D is so brilliant that I know I’m keeping it. (Though I might give it a turn in Operation Thin the Herd anyway, because autumn color is just around the corner and I have some Velvia in the freezer…) Yet the 12’s onboard light meter is such a convenience. I’ve decided is to defer this decision, which is a defacto decision to keep this camera. The 12 survives to fight another day.

Verdict: Keep

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Camera Reviews

Another Argus A2B

“Isn’t this roll of film done with yet?” I said aloud suddenly, to nobody. Oh good heavens, is it possible that I didn’t wind the film on right and it hasn’t been advancing? Because I certainly don’t want to shoot the whole roll over again.

That’s when it hit me: I had not at all enjoyed using this camera. It had frustrated me from the first frame.

To hell with any unshot frames. I rewound the film.

Argus A2B

Meet the Argus A2B. That I disliked it surprised me, because I have another A2B (review here) and I enjoyed shooting it. But that was five years ago, when my camera preferences were still forming. Would I hate that camera, too, if I shot it now?

Argus A2B

Before I get to why this camera and I didn’t get on, here’s some history. The 1936-51 Argus A series of cameras has a fascinating story (read it here) as the first affordable camera for Kodak’s 35mm film cartridge, new in 1934. The A2B is from 1941-1950 and added an extinction meter and exposure calculator over the original A.

The various A-series models offered slightly different lens and shutter combinations. Running changes were even made within a series. The original A2B offered a 50mm f/4.5 uncoated lens set in a four-speed Ilex Precise shutter (1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.), with a plunger-style shutter button. In 1945, the shutter became an unknown type, still four speeds (1/150, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.) and the shutter button became a lever. Some postwar A2Bs even featured a coated lens. This A2B’s features make it a prewar model; my other one is from after the war.

Argus A2B

The A2B has some quirks that some find endearing and others find annoying. One quirk is the collapsible lens barrel, which controls focusing. In, the camera focuses between 6 and 18 feet; out, it focuses beyond 18 feet. Twist the barrel to extend or retract it. When retracting, twist so tabs on the barrel fit under flanges on the body. This holds the lens in. The photo above shows the lens extended.

The other quirk is a weird aperture scale with stops at 4.5, 6.3, 9, 12.7, and 18. Whatever aperture my light meter or Sunny 16 guesses told me to use, I set it a hair off the next higher aperture on that scale. The extinction meter on this one looks to be in good shape, but it is tiny and thus difficult for my middle-aged eyes to use. For that matter, the viewfinder is so small as to be almost unusable, too.

I thought old-school Fomapan 100 would be just right for this old-school uncoated lens, so I loaded some and got to shooting. And then all of the A2B’s quirks kept taking me right out of the photographic moment.

I did get a few solid shots from it, such as this one of the public library in tiny Kirklin, a little town on the Michigan Road about 45 minutes north of Indianapolis. This is a Carnegie library; see others from around Indiana here.

Kirklin Pvblic Library

I wished for a carry strap on the A2B. It’s coat-pocket small, but who wears a coat in July? Fortunately, I own a couple pairs of cargo shorts that let me carry even bulky cameras, but I didn’t always already have them on when I went out shooting. So it took me a solid couple months of using it here and there to get through as much of the roll as I did before I threw in the towel. This pavilion is in Elm Street Green, a park in Zionsville.

Elm Street Green

The whole roll came back from the processor suffering from muddy contrast, which is characteristic of these old, uncoated lenses. I tweaked contrast on every frame in Photoshop. On this and a few other frames, I also played with the shadow control to bring out details in dark areas. This shot of Margaret at Elm Street Green is technically the best shot on the roll: decent contrast and passable sharpness at snapshot sizes.

Elm Street Green

I spent an afternoon in Rochester in northern Indiana at a Michigan Road board meeting, and had the A2B along. We met across the street from the Fulton County Courthouse, a grand Romanesque Revival structure. I couldn’t back up far enough to get the whole thing in the frame. And the tiny viewfinder made framing it more challenging than I like. Also, any shot where the sun wasn’t fully behind me suffered from flare. The more sun, the more flare. That’s to be expected from an uncoated lens. The flare made some shots unusable. I suppose if I shot this camera all the time I’d get used to checking the position of the sun.

Fulton County Courthouse

On the way home from Rochester I stopped in Burlington for dinner and shot this scene. I hadn’t looked online yet to discover the ranges to which the two lens positions focused. So I left the lens extended, shot mostly distant subjects, and hoped for the best. I was absolutely within 18 feet for this shot, but it’s reasonably in focus. I did enjoy the plunger shutter button and the self-cocking shutter, which are unusual features on a camera of this era. All I had to think about was exposure. If the viewfinder were more usable, I would have composed this shot better.

On the Michigan Road in Burlington

A handful of shots on the roll came back foggy and blurry, as in this photo of an angel statue in the cemetery near my home. I couldn’t tell you why this happened. Shrug.

Foggy angel

Another quirk of using the A2B: the film won’t wind unless you first slide to the left that little knob below the frame counter atop the camera. The frame counter on mine is so pitted as to be useless, which is part of why I had no idea while shooting whether I’d shot the whole roll yet or not.

Also, the A2B offers no double-exposure protection, so you probably ought to always wind after shooting to ensure the frame you’re shooting is not yet exposed.

See more from this A2B, and from my other A2B, in my Argus A2B gallery.

The Argus A cameras have a small but devoted following. Don’t count me in. But this remains a historically significant series of cameras and therefore worthy of being collected and used.

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Camera Reviews

Agfa Isolette III

Here it is, Agfa’s highest volume camera of the 1940s and 1950s, the Isolette.

Agfa Isolette III

Actually, this is the 1951-60 Isolette III, one of a range of Isolette cameras, all of which folded and took 120 film. Each Isolette was offered with a couple shutters and lenses. Mine comes with the 85mm f/4.5 Apotar lens set in the Prontor SV shutter, which operates from 1 to 1/300 sec. You could get Isolette IIIs with better lenses and shutters, but this lens/shutter combo is no slouch.

Agfa Isolette III

What set the Isolette III apart from other Isolettes was its uncoupled rangefinder. That’s the knurled knob to the right of the accessory shoe. To use it, look through the viewfinder and turn that knob until the image in the rangefinder patch lines up with the viewfinder image. This is where the “uncoupled” part comes in: you then check the distance on that knob and set the lens to the same distance.

Notice that dot to the upper left of the winding knob? When it’s red, you need to wind the film to the next frame. The shutter won’t fire until you do. My experience has been that it’s unusual to find double-exposure prevention on an old folder like this.

When this Isolette was donated to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, the first thing I did was look for pinhole light leaks in it. The left button on the top plate opens the camera, by the way; the right button fires the shutter. I love this symmetry! And glory be: I found a sturdy, light-tight bellows. That’s apparently nothing short of a miracle, as these Isolette bellows were made of patented Crumble-Away™ material. But while I shot my two test rolls, one corner of the bellows did start to flake a little.

And yes, I said two test rolls. In typical Jim Grey fashion, I leapt before I looked: before testing any more of this camera’s functions, I loaded no less than Kodak E100G slide film into it. Upon first press of the shutter button, my folly revealed itself: the shutter didn’t fire. I nudged the cocking lever hoping to trigger the shutter. Success! Sort of — the shutter was clearly slow. And slide film needs such precise exposure.

Bell

The shutter loosened up more and more the farther I went through the roll. This shot of my neighbor’s house and car shows some improvement.

Envoy

Still, facepalm. But figuring that the shutter would loosen way up if I kept firing it, after I finished the E100G I fired the shutter a dozen or so times at each available speed. The shutter sounded pretty good after that. So I loaded a roll of Kodak T-Max 400, which is much more forgiving of exposure error than E100G. But strangely, the shutter immediately became a little sluggish again. This was the first shot on the roll, and it was fairly overexposed. Photoshop corrected some of it but as you can see the sky is still blown out.

Focusing in the driveway

I took the Isolette right over to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a favorite photographic haunt, to hurry through the rest of the roll. I feared the shutter would get stickier if I let it rest. It was a good call: the shutter loosened up with each successive shot. This is my favorite shot from this roll.

St. Paul's

A camera like this slows you down. I used a light-meter app on my iPhone to figure out exposure. And the uncoupled rangefinder isn’t as fast as a coupled one. But the Isolette’s learning curve is shallow. That’s not true of some of the other manual-everything cameras I own.

St. Paul's

Pointed arches are a real theme at St. Paul’s. This congregation has roots to 1866, though all of these buildings are much newer. A quiet residential neighborhood borders the church to the west; busy Meridian Street, the city’s north-south main drag, borders it to the west.

St. Paul's

I enjoy shooting old folders like these. Along with pinhole and box cameras, this is photography at its most elemental. But I like to move in close, and these kinds of cameras seldom let you focus closer than about one meter. As you can see, I shot a lot of walls at St. Paul’s, rather than details.

St. Paul's

Even as the shutter loosened up with use, the shutter button didn’t always fully move the linkage that fired the shutter. I frequently found myself nudging the cocking lever to finish the job. No doubt about it, my Isolette III needs a good clean, lube, and adjustment. It will also eventually need a new bellows. Unfortunately, and I almost hate to admit it publicly, I’m not sure it will ever get either. Not as long as I own it, anyway. My Isolette curiosity is pretty much satisfied.


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