film photography

Olympus XA2: An appreciation

I received my Olympus XA2 camera from my friend Paul back in the pre-history known as “February”. Displeased with the idea that I picked up a late film era super-zoom (the Pentax IQZoom 170SL) he gave me his extra XA2 so I’d “see the light”. And I did, though I still dig those IQZooms. The Olympus XA series was the ultimate in a compact 35 mm camera in the early-mid ’80s–a great lens, a sliding cover, easy to use, and small enough to fit into a pocket.

I’ve used my XA2 a lot since then. I love the photos it takes. It’s usually loaded with color film, as my rangefinderesque cameras do the bulk of black and white shooting. Yet it’s still good at monochrome! I was a little scared off at first, when I put a roll of Fomapan 400 through it in March. (Since then, I learned that I get better results when I shoot that stock at 200 or 320.) But in the last few months, I’ve run a few rolls of other b&w stock, mostly Kentmere 400, through the camera. Despite not being able to accept filters, it does a good job.

Self-Portrait, Kenilworth Park. 28 Aug 2020. Camera: Olympus XA2. Film: Ilford HP5+ 400.

This is a big deal, as I sometimes want a super-compact kit for things like long rides or bike tours. I was hoping that the Ricoh 35 ZF would fill the small black and white camera roll for that, but after my bike overnight in the Gorge in August, I realized that wasn’t going to be the case. Now I can load the Olympus XA2 with Kentmere 400 or the like, and bring it alongside my Pentax IQZoom 928 with Kodak ColorPlus 200. I’ll have two small cameras weighing a little over a pound combined. They’d be easy to slip into a handlebar bag. Now of course I’d like to take a bike tour…

I dig that the Olympus XA2 is so basic: All I can do is choose between three focus zones, and shoot. I can’t control shutter speed nor aperture. And no flash to worry about. The IQZoom 928 is good for some things, but I’m always hitting a few different buttons: on/off, zoom (or not), infinity distance mode, disable flash. The XA2 is simple: open the cover, wind film, choose zone to focus (or not if it’s “middle distance”), and shoot. Simple, but it still does so much.

Full moon from Mount Tabor, 1 Sept 2020. I used my Olympus XA2 with a tripod and the Self-Timer. What’s even more impressive: This is 100 speed film! It’s Kodak Pro Image 100, but metered at 400. I don’t know if changing ISO speed on camera really does much in this circumstance: the shutter is still going to open for two seconds.

The one thing that still impresses me is how the Olympus XA2 does in low light. Theoretically this should be a horrible low-light shooter: no bulb mode, no ability to manually control shutter or aperture. But it has two things going for it: a self-timer, and a maximum shutter speed of two seconds. Combine that all with a tripod, and you can take low light shots. I’ve also heard about a “bulb-mode” trick: Cover the sensor, release shutter, and quickly turn the bottom switch to “battery check”. When the camera is in battery check mode, the camera is disabled, so if the shutter is already open, it’ll stay open. I haven’t tried that yet, but soon will.

I’m really lucky that I got gifted an Olympus XA2. But now that I know how great these cameras are, I’d seek out another if I needed to. Should you get one? I can’t answer for you, but you may be pleasantly surprised.

A new-to-me wee lil camera for more #35mm film adventures... #olympusxa2 #filmphotography #filmaintdead

2 thoughts on “Olympus XA2: An appreciation”

  1. The XA2 is a brilliant little camera for sure. So many compact 35mm cameras in my experience just don’t love b/w film. Not so the XA2, which makes it so versatile.

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