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.
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.
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.