If you take a look at my flickr, you’ll see that the album with Olympus XA2 photos has (as of 26 Sept 2022) has 1,882 photos, more than any other camera I’ve owned. It is the second oldest (to me, not in actual age) camera in my collection, so I’d shoot it more than cameras I’ve only had for a few months. And I really like the photos I get from the XA2, so I use it a lot.
But the biggest reason why the amount of XA2 photos beats out any other camera is the form factor. It’s quick to use: open the clamshell, adjust the zone focus setting (but most often, don’t, because the middle setting is usually just right), and shoot. It is also a very small camera, small enough that I can bring it “in addition to” a more serious camera. Or bring it when I don’t know if I want to bring a film camera with me. It’s so inconspicuous that it gets out of the way.
Oh yes, I’ve tried other compacts, the ones that came later in the 80’s and through the 90’s. But none of them satisfy in the same way the XA series cameras do–either they’re too big, or too expensive (I’m looking at you, “premium compacts”). And the ones that aren’t? They feature zooms with slow lenses, noisy motors, and the desire to Flash. All. The. Time. No, cameras like the XA series is my ideal for compact 35mm machines.
But my XA2 is no spring chicken. It was manufactured sometime between 1980 and 1985, going on forty years ago. They are heavily reliant on electronics. No electronics, no camera. I’ve heard that only the original XA in the series is truly repairable. So I worry about my Olympus XA2 going kaput. If it does, not only will I be sad, I wouldn’t have anything similar to it in my camera inventory to take over. So the thought of getting another XA series camera, or something similar, has been in the back of my head for awhile.
Back when I was looking at watches to replace my broken Timex, I briefly considered the Russian “Vostok” line of mechanical timepieces. I had one before, several years ago, but it didn’t excite me. Maybe I should give another one a shot? Searching via Etsy, most of them are found in Ukraine. Searching one seller’s site, I noticed that they had a working Lomo LC-A camera for about $100. A Lomo! Hmmm. I know they are small and some people like them, so it got me thinking about one. But I didn’t feel like spending $100, so I took a quick spin through US eBay. One was listed in working condition. It was starting at a reasonable price, so I put in my bid. A few days later, no one else had bid, and I got the LC-A.
For those not familiar with this camera, a brief history: The Lomo Kompakt Automat (LC-A) was introduced by the Leningrad Optics and Mechanics Association (LOMO) in 1984. Basically a bootleg of another camera, the Japanese-made Cosina CX-2, the LC-A was intended as a “camera for the people” to be used for holidays and capturing family events. Primarily reserved for the Warsaw Pact market, it was virtually unknown to the western world until 1991, when Viennese university students discovered them in a Prague camera shop. These students liked the “quirky” results and how the camera inspired a spontaneous, “shoot from the hip” style of photography. The Lomography Society was born. The society quicky grabbed up any LC-As they could find. When production abruptly ended in 1994, they convinced the St. Petersburg-based factory to make them again. When the Russian factory finally stopped all production around 2005, Lomography slightly improved the design (LC-A+) and had the cameras made in China. They are still making LC-As to this day, one of the few “new” 35mm cameras you can still buy.
People have strong opinions about Lomography. Some photographers don’t like the lo-fi, “I don’t know what I’m doing” aesthetic that is embraced. (The term “hipster” gets thrown around a lot.) And there are claims that Lomography’s products are either gimmicky and/or overpriced. But even if you don’t like them, you have to give Lomography some credit for getting people interested in film photography again, especially in the aughts when film photography seemed all but dead. It can be claimed that they helped save film photography. Whether you like the end result or not is beside the point.
Anyways, the Lomo LC-A wasn’t a camera that I had on my radar. But it is small and compact, and is pretty similar to my XA2 in a lot of ways. There’s a sliding lens cover. Winding and rewinding are manual. No autofocus, just four zones to choose (one more than the XA2.) Exposure is automatic, though there is an exposure override switch, where one can choose an aperture between f/16 and f/2.8, though the shutter speed is set at 1/60th of a second. (Mine looks to be an earlier, pre-1992 one, as later models lost this feature.) The big differences from the XA2, besides that exposure override, is a lack of self-timer and a standard hot shoe for flash.
There’s two big complaints with XA series flashes: The flash is proprietary, and adding the flash makes the camera body noticeably bigger. 1 I don’t mind the proprietary nature, and I don’t feel the extra couple inches in length when the flash is added to be detrimental. Since my XA2 usually lives in a pouch on the bike, I keep the flash mostly attached, only “going commando” when I’m putting it in my pocket. I do admit the concept of using basically any flash on the LC-A is tantalizing. Not so tantalizing: how lopsided and top-heavy even a small flash feels on the diminutive LC-A body. You don’t want the flash mounted to the camera unless you need it.
I took the LOMO LC-A on a ride to Rocky Butte in early September to test it. Using the camera was pretty easy. I kept the zone focus set mostly at 3m (10 ft), figuring that sunny conditions and depth of field would get the focus mostly right. It took a little bit to get used to “opening” the lens cover for use, as the switch is at the bottom, vs. the clamshell of the XA2 which can be accessed from the top.
I got the results back and they were…good? Despite the LC-A’s storied reputation, my photos weren’t “quirky”, “peering into another world”, or even “lo-fi”. They seemed pretty decent. I wouldn’t say the 32mm f/2.8 triplet lens is as sharp as the lens on my XA2 (which is reasonably sharp, but not “tack” sharp), but it was sharp enough. Yes, the sharpness decreased around the edges. There was some vignetting, more so than the XA2, but not as severe as expected. The only images that seemed “dreamy” were the ones where I focused closer than the 3m/10ft setting–the backgrounds were definitely blurry and swirly.
I didn’t know what to feel about the camera. Yes, it’s compact, yes, it’s easy to use. But I didn’t feel like I got the “true LOMO experience” that I’ve heard about for the last couple years since I got back into film. Should I do what a lot of Lomographers do, like use expired film, or shoot E-6/slide film and get it processed as C-41? Expired film has gotten harder to find, and more expensive. Slide film is just expensive, and I never cared much for “cross-processed” images. 2 Maybe I should just get over it, and try something different? I haven’t even used the flash with night exposures. The flash flashes at the “end” of the exposure, vs. the more common beginning. It’s supposed to give “quirky” images.
I was much happier with the second roll I shot. Maybe it’s because the initial feelings had worn off, and I was now more familiar with what the camera can do. And it’s perfectly fine, a good companion to my XA2. I don’t know if I’ll like it as much as the XA2, or if I want to keep the LC-A indefinitely. For now I’ll put a few more rolls through it and see how I feel.
1 The third one, rarely mentioned, is the slow charge/recharge time for the flash. I find it par for the course for a flash like this, and since I rarely use the flash, it’s not a big deal to me.
2 Back in the early-mid nineties there was a trend in magazine photography (at least in the “rock” publications I frequented) for images that looked “off”, like everything was bleached out. I hated it. I realize now that it was probably cross-processed photos, though there may have been other things done as well.