street 218: The Olympus XA


street 218

This was shot using an Olympus XA, which I picked up in a moment of Ebay-madness for a mere £60. This really tiny 35mm camera, made between 1978 and 1985, somehow manages to contain a roll of full-frame film (in this case Tri-X 400).

Despite it’s size the XA is a fully functional rangefinder, though it’s easy to zone-focus if required. Exposure is semi-automatic, offering aperture priority as the only option. I’ve found this to be more than adequate for me, and the metering seems to be spot-on, but there’s always the option of taking more control by adjusting the ISO speed setting. The shutter is a near-silent leaf shutter with ultra-light release, which certainly keeps camera shake to a minimum. The miniature lens is actually pretty high-quality with reasonable sharpness and contrast. Aperture is from F2.8 to F22.

All of this makes it just about the perfect street camera. It’s a triumph of design, both functionally and aesthetically, and is joy to shoot with.

Interestingly the XA only has a couple of aperture blades so the aperture is nearly square. It’s not exactly designed for beautiful bokeh then, but that’s hardly a reasonable expectation of this sort of camera.

Processed with VSCOcam

Having said all that, and despite the fun I’d had shooting with it, when I sat down to scan the first test roll I’d pretty much decided that I would sell the XA. Why, I thought, would I want to go through the rigmarole and expense of developing and scanning 35mm film? Why should I bother with all this process when the results would be virtually indistinguishable from digital? Medium format is one thing – but a compact 35mm camera – it didn’t seem worth the effort.

What a surprise I was in for!

Firstly I was amazed to find that scanning a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film was much easier than 12 medium format frames. This is because I can load two strips of 35mm film, with six frames each, simultaneously into the film-holder. The Epson Scan software then automatically recognises the individual shots and scans them into separate files without any further intervention being required. Why it doesn’t do this for medium format is beyond me. The whole process is quick and easy.

Secondly, I’d expected dust to be more of a problem with 35 mm. I figured, due to the smaller area, that whatever dust there was would be far more damaging to the image and harder to clone away. This does not seem to be the case.

The real surprise however came when I looked at the scans. It was obvious, even after being digitised, that 35mm film does have a visible special quality that is very different to digital sensors. It’s hard to define but there’s a better gradation of tone and a different handling of the highlights. It’s both more grainy but paradoxically, somehow more smooth. It’s perhaps debatable how much of this special quality is left once the files are are compressed and then viewed over the internet on tiny smartphone screens, but I can see it when I’m working on the files – and that matters.

Of course this could be a case of confirmation bias, where because I know it’s film I fool myself that I’m seeing something that in actuality isn’t there… but I’m clearly not the only one who catches something going on with film, even after scanning.

Processed with VSCOcam

To be honest I think I was hoping that I wouldn’t see a difference, that I could simply return to the convenience of using digital cameras for most of my work (with just the occasional medium-format roll or two when the mood takes me). Instead, on the basis of what came out of the Olympus XA today, it obviously isn’t going to be that simple. Even in smaller formats film is getting its claws into me.


9 thoughts on “street 218: The Olympus XA

  1. hi Chris, i really like what you have here and wonder what i am doing wrong with my scanner. i am never able to get satisfying results when scanning 35mm negatives. even the medium format film that i scanned – while considerably better than the 35mm stuff – never really got me very excited. but i see so much great stuff done with film that i’m sure it must be user error… i have to admit that i have given up and rely on the drug store scans that i order together with the film development. (and these scans are not really great, too).
    i’m looking forward to see more of these!

    • I’m far from being an expert and it’s possible I just got lucky today. I was a little surprised, to be honest, because the scans of these 35mm Olympus XA shots seem to be better than some of my recent medium-format scans.

      I’m sure there’s very little I can tell you that you don’t already know but here’s a few things I’ve picked up from research and experiment:

      (1) Basic lab and drug-store scans do seem to have a poor reputation – typically they seem to over-sharpen the files and/or screw up the colour profile.
      (2) Your scanner doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive (I use a pretty basic Epson V500) but you do definitely need a dedicated film scanner with film holders, etc.
      (3) You need to look after the scanner, keep it clean, and possibly experiment with the height of the film holders. I’ve already had to replace one scanner due to poor results.
      (4) Dust is the enemy. Vacuum the room, blow and clean the negs and the scanner… then do it again if necessary.
      (5) Don’t be afraid to post-process the scans. I think some people get hung-up about the special quality of film and come over all purist about doing any digital processing. This is mistaken because the scanning process, and the inevitable curvature of the film, causes a significant loss of quality and you need to put back what has been lost. I routinely add sharpness, contrast, and sometimes a little bit of clarity (just a little – otherwise things will start to look digital). I also adjust the black and white points and maybe also the tone curve. Even if you do end up processing to the point where you feel you are getting seriously digital, it’s worth remembering that scanning film immediately makes the end result a hybrid, so it’s pointless to get hung-up about processing
      (6) Don’t use your scanner’s software to sharpen or otherwise adjust the scans. You will get better results in Lightroom or Photoshop because the software will be superior and more up to date.
      (7) Scanning can create an unpleasant emphasis on the film’s grain which is not natural. Applying noise reduction can significantly improve the look of the final scan – but don’t push it too hard.
      (8) Scan with good resolution and bit-depth. You can always reduce later.

      • hi chris, thanks so much for your very helpful and very elaborate response. that does sound encouraging. i think i will give it a try again sometime soon. i have a quite old canon 9900f which is a flatbed scanner with dedicated support for scanning film.
        thanks again!

  2. Hi Chris
    Thanks for posting this article. It makes me wonder if we overate the output of digital cameras. The photo has lovely grey graduations and I wonder how this would have turned out with a digital camera after similar post processing. Of course I may be ignoring the input from your professional touch so perhaps no difference at all in the end. If you were to do another film camera test shot it would be great if you could add a shot of the same subject from the same spot with a digital camera with the same comparative settings. A great photo incidentally; I love the relative scale between the pedestrians and the grandure of the buildings. Definitely one for the wall imho.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words.

      I think we probably do overrate the output of digital sensors compared to film. Side-by-side film vs digital test shots, especially if film simulation software is used on the digital files, will probably look similar, certainly at web resolutions – but they won’t be exactly the same.

      End results are also not the whole story, the whole process of using film is different.

      It’s interesting to note the size and cost of the full-frame Olympus XA when compared to the size and cost of a full-frame digital such as a sony RX1 or A7. Sure, you need to pay for development (unless you do it yourself) but the nature of film means that you shoot less, so the cost is not as much as you might think. Shooting less is often a good thing, because instead of pointing the camera at anything and everything, and often firing the shutter multiple times, you actually THINK. If I go street shooting in London I will often come home with hundreds of digital shots, most of which are throw-aways; when I recently took the XA I shot less than a roll of film and ended up with way more keepers.

      • I concur with your thoughts about enjoying the process and slowing down. I aspire to slow down the process by using a tripod (and a camera with a flip up screen) and really enjoy ‘looking carefully’ at the picture I’m about to take, composition, histogram, depth of field etc. even to the extent of taking ages. Even taking ages for a single exposure is still hundreds of times faster than drawing and painting it. I have to be in the right mental zone for this and for when I have more than enough time to do it in a relaxed state. Upgraded time planning required here! I have just volunteered as a photographer on an ‘as and when needed’ basis for a local gardens so hope to put theory into practice fairly soon.
        Your cost comparison is interesting too. I am about to sell my Canon 5D2 and other cameras for a new Nikon D750. If I have any cash left over I might just try film again. It sounds fun if one has the time. But if it means more keepers then it has to be the right way to go. Perhaps there will be a resurgence of film like vinyl from CDs!
        Thanks for your initiative; not many like you around.

      • Just placed a fun bid on eBay for an Olympus XA2 (Ken Rockwell speaks highly of it) for £18.00 incl. postage. Mine was only the second bid and I logged out and forgot about it. Guess what? I just received an email to say I won and its going to be delivered on Thursday!!! Might be just in time to save me shelling out for a new Nikon D750. Do you buy your film on the Internet? Is it safe to do so or best to buy from a high St shop?

      • Enjoy the XA2. As I’m sure you already found out it doesn’t have the full rangefinder of the XA but it’s still a great camera. For £18 you can’t really go wrong!
        I’ve never had trouble buying film over the internet.

  3. I’m just going to ‘suck it and see’. There are some interesting new buildings around the St Pancreas redevelopment area so will head there to experiment with it. If I can’t perform with it, it will head back on eBay! Thanks for the film info.

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