Posts Tagged ‘cameras’

Olympus XA

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

Olympus XA

For a while now, I’ve been wanting a compact camera to replace the Sony point and shoot that’s currently on extended loan to my sister — extended loan, meaning I’ll probably never see it again. : )

But, knowing somewhat more about photography than I did when I got that camera, and in particular knowing that I often want to shoot in available light conditions, without flash, I was wary of buying a digital compact of the kind currently on the market. High ISO performance is simply too lame. This is a problem which is directly related to the size of the sensors used in these cameras, and until there is a major improvement in the design of sensor, or until the use of larger sensors in compact cameras (like the buggy and fiendishly expensive Sigma DP-1) becomes more common, I decided I would need to start looking more toward compact film cameras. Shooting film at high ISOs is not exactly a grain-free exercise, of course, but I find film grain to be generally unobjectionable (if not desirable), whereas digital noise in color images has to be massaged quite a bit before I find it presentable.

When looking for a film compact, I mostly steered clear of autofocus film cameras. Not that there’s anything wrong with autofocus per se, but I’ve become so accustomed to manual focus that I really don’t like the idea of doing without it — weird, I know, because it’s a step backward in functionality, but we all have our quirks.

So, I recently purchased a fascinating little piece of 70’s-era camera history: The Olympus XA. It looks like one of thouse silly plastic fixed-focus cameras, the sort of thing you might have bought for a particularly stupid and/or clumsy niece of nephew about to go on a trip. But what it really is, is one of the smallest coupled rangefinder cameras ever made.

For those not in the know, “coupled rangefinder” means that you’re not viewing the image through the lens, as in an SLR, but through a separate viewfinder, but that there’s a focusing aid coupled to the lens, to let you know when you’re in focus. How this works is there’s a little square projected into the middle of the viewfinder with a second, overlay image, and you adjust the focus until the images match.

This method of focusing allows rangefinder cameras to be designed more compactly than SLRs — no need for mirrors and prisms to redirect the light path. Rangefinder cameras can also be much quieter, and there are other benefits, like the absence of mirror slap — the motion of the mirror being lifted out of the way, which can cause problems at certain shutter speeds. These factors — in particular the compact size and the quiet — have made Leicas a favorite of street photographers and journalists.

Rangefinders have limitations; they aren’t much good for shooting at long focal lengths, at macro magnifications. They also can present problems because of parallax error. This is why I won’t be switching to Leica for birding any time soon.

Now, I’d love to use something like a Leica as my new point and shoot replacement, but I don’t have that kind of cash. Heck, even used Leica clones can be disconcertingly expensive. There are less expensive rangefinders with fixed lenses — like the Canonet — that nonetheless look and handle and shoot more like a “real” camera, and I looked at these, but I eventually settled on the XA, because, while it’s more limited in terms of its optics and functionality than some of those alternatives, it’s also by far the most pocketable. Given that my goal here is not to replace either my DSLR or my SLR, but rather to supplement them with a very compact, very portable backup, it makes the most sense.

Form factor and controls

The form factor is interesting. The design is quite impressive — tiny, lightweight, reasonably ergonomic. There is a “dust cover” that conceals the lens and viewfinder; sliding this aside turns the camera on and lets you take pictures.

Because the lens is pretty much flush with the body — a big part of the design feat — focusing is done with a small lever at the bottom of the camera. The aperture (it’s basically a full-time aperture priority camera) is set with a small slider on the right side of the camera. The shutter release is a big red button that you sort of brush with your finger — the release is electronic. The rest is fairly conventional.

It really is, by the way, fully pocketable. Shirt pocket, pants pocket, whatever. Because of its relative thickness, it does tend to bulge slightly, so wearers of extremely tight jeans should be appropriately wary.

Use and usability

So, how’s it working? First off, focusing using the double-image rangefinder is really cool, and when it works, it’s really quite fast compared to focusing using a split prism. There are two caveats, though:

  • Focus and recompose is tricky. With an SLR, even if the focusing aid (prism, AF point, whatever) can’t be positioned over the subject, it is still possible to gauge focus using the matte areas of the focusing screen. With a rangefinder, you only have visual feedback about focus within the area of the doubled image. This means you have to be extra cautious when recomposing, so as not to disturb the relationship between the subject and the film plane.
  • Overlay brightness. It can be hard to see the overlay, depending on what the light is like that you’re shooting in. This also applies to the shutter speed readout. I seem to recall somewhere that some folks put something translucent over the viewfinder to compensate for this.

I was surprised at how comfortable the camera is to hold. It doesn’t really work to support it from below, as you would an SLR. With an SLR, the weight of the camera is, in itself, a big part of what keeps things steady; with the XA, that simply isn’t a factor. I find I basically have to hold it from both sides — stupid tourist style — with perhaps a thumb thrown underneath. Having pressure applied from multiple angles seems to be essential.

Fortunately, I don’t mind looking like a stupid tourist. : )

Test shots

I’ve only shot one roll through the XA so far, a roll of Fuji Superia 800. I don’t much care for Fuji film, so far — but it’s just a test roll, and I wanted an 800-speed film (The XA’s max ISO) so that I could shoot in available light when needed. My second roll, the one in the camera now, is Kodak Portra 800. After that I’ll try running another roll of Superia through at a lower rating.

FujiPress800-001-01

FujiPress800-001-25

Up Live Plants

FujiPress800-001-32

Obligatory Bathroom Self-Portrait

Setting aside questions of emulsion, there are aspects of image quality which have to do with the camera, and especially its lens. It’s definitely not like shooting with my Nikkor lenses; there’s a definite softness to the XA, and I noticed some impressive chromatic aberration in one of my test shots.

But that’s not a deal-breaker. The XA’s lens gives it a certain quality, a character, that is peculiar to it and not unpleasant. We’re not in Holga territory, here, but there is an XA “look” that is rather appealing not just despite but at least partly because of its slightly off IQ. I just need to figure out how to use it to best effect.