Olympus XA1 samples

I have three examples from the Olympus XA(n) series – an XA, an XA1 and an XA2. The XA1 is pretty much ignored by “serious photographers” apparently – it doesn’t have the nice electronic shutter (being completely battery-free) and has absolutely no focussing controls at all, just automatic exposure.

There is something about this that makes it an excellent street photo camera. Here are some pictures from a recent roll that I took, using Fomapan 100 (I’m now very fond of Fomapan film but that’s a separate issue). Yes, it has fixed focus, but at just the distance that you would actually want to focus when taking snapshots on the street. These Olympus people weren’t stupid. Plus, do note that you can get an XA1 for about a fiver on eBay.

Odd patterns on colour negatives

Scanning some colour negatives that I got back this afternoon, I find that several of them have faint blurry white spots in a diagonal grid pattern on them. This mostly seems to appear on bright ones which have a lot of blue sky on them, but then that could just be because I only notice the spots against a bright blue – a couple indoors have noticeable ones too.

This is with the Olympus XA, so it could be something to do with the camera – I noticed that the bit which presses on the film inside the back of the camera, whatever that’s called, has holes in it – but I’ve not noticed it on any shots I’ve taken on black and white film and developed myself. (Admittedly, shots on other rolls were all in fairly poor light, as opposed to Thursday’s brightness.) I’ve never seen it on other scans using the same film, either. It could be development… this is just at the local Snappy Snaps, and while they are nice there I’m not that sure about their development process. Most of my colour films from there have looked rather washed out, from a number of cameras.

Any thoughts?

Quick camera purchase update

I got the Olympus XA that I bid for in the post earlier today, incidentally, for all those thousands of you who are fascinated with my eBay activity. So now I have an XA, an XA1 and an XA2. That’s probably enough to be getting on with.

They all look extremely similar, but are really quite different in operation. I took the XA out today and wandered around snapping with it for a bit; it is much more of a “compact 35mm rangefinder” than a “camera you keep in your pocket in case aliens land next to you”. It has optical focusing, an ƒ2.8 lens, aperture-based exposure and an indicator of the current shutter speed in the viewfinder (from 1/500 to 2s). These are all quite simple to use, but one will be tempted to spend more time fiddling with them to get a perfect picture I suspect, rather than just pointing and taking the picture and seeing how it comes out later.

The XA1, in contrast, has automatic exposure and basically no controls at all apart from setting the film speed and whether you want to use the flash – not even focusing. It doesn’t have a battery; the lightmeter works with a selenium photoelectric cell. I have some surprisingly good pictures from it though. The XA2 is in-between, with three focus zones and the same light-touch electronic shutter release as the XA.

I suppose the relative use of them for “street photography” depends on exactly how you think of this concept as working.

The Holga 120N and me

As I noted previously, my recent interest in photography started with the purchase of a Holga 120N. Actual photographic types reading this may well be familiar with said camera, and may also have let out a groan. I’m not going to make excuses for myself here, and in fact might make things worse by saying that I bought that because:

  1. I’d been using the iPhone app Hipstamatic, and liked the novelty of unpredictable “lenses” and “films”, but had got a bit bored of the poor quality camera on my old 3GS;
  2. I purchased an iPhone 4S and found that its far better camera made me a lot more interested in taking casual photos;
  3. My 4S was stolen in the Starbucks on New Oxford Street on Christmas Eve. With no insurance. Ho ho ho. So now I had no camera, apart from a serviceable but unremarkable Nikon Coolpix.
  4. The experience of Hipstamatic made me think “why don’t I look at getting one of the real cameras that this app is trying to emulate?” You know, unpredictable toys.
  5. The first one that I saw advertised and written about was the Holga.

I had never even heard of medium-format film before that, but bought some along with my order of the Holga from Amazon. I did, however, look up some of the prices for developing 120 rolls, blanched slightly and thought “might as well get the kit to develop this myself, plus it will keep me busy and out of the pub”. (I still have four colour 120 rolls undeveloped, something which I’m putting off until I finish the fifth, to get a 5% discount from Peak Imaging whom I have been recommended.)

I appreciate the positive aspects of the “lomography” philosophy, and would defend toy cameras from photo snobbery forever, but let’s not pretend that the Holga isn’t mostly a tool for taking crap photos that would have been better with something else. I’ve taken some decent pictures with it, but the imprecise focusing and bad lens have mostly just been frustrating. Vignetting is fine, irregular focus is fine, but I tend to look at pictures I’ve taken with the Holga and think one or more of

  1. “That’s just a bad photo”
  2. “That would have been a good photo if only it had been in focus”
  3. “That would have been a good photo if it wasn’t underexposed because the aperture is either ƒ11 or ƒ13”
  4. “That would have been a good photo if it wasn’t overexposed because I loaded it with a 400 film to cope with the small aperture and then took a photo in bright sunlight”
  5. (very occasionally) “That’s quite a nice photo actually, even if it is a little blurry and under- or overexposed”
  6. (or, frequently) “I wish I’d taken the lens cap off / not had it in bulb mode”

If you have a lot of 120 film which you need to get rid of in a hurry and can’t just throw away, perhaps as part of some sort of Brewster’s Millions deal, then by all means shoot a lot of 6×6 frames with a Holga. I have put mine on 4.5×6 indefinitely, partly because I always mess up half the frames so having 16 is better and partly because I’ve had to tape it up a bit internally to stop light from the flash leaking in.

But without the Holga I wouldn’t have thought “yes, I quite enjoy this film photography thing, but you know I’d quite like to have the odd picture that’s actually in focus once in a while”. I would not have then bought a decent Praktica MTL3 SLR on eBay for about the same amount, coming with standard, zoom and macro lenses, case, flash etc – or, for medium format, a Lubitel 2 TLR, which (even though it is a workmanlike Soviet clone) takes pictures that are just absurdly better than those from the Holga.

And I do find it fun to use, still, which is important with a toy. It is not particularly small, but it is the lightest camera that I own, and the toy-ness means that I never feel at all anxious about carrying or using it. If I have nothing better to do and am just wasting time wandering around and taking pictures, the Holga is a perfect companion – it’s just as pointless as me.

I couldn’t say that, if I had to pick just one camera to take with me on a desert island, I would pick the Holga. But at the stage I was in at the start of the process, I just wouldn’t have picked something in a different category. For that it will always have affection.

Smena Cosmic Symbol

At some point I will probably do a post just listing the small collection of cameras that I currently have – which will hopefully not grow at the same rate as the fountain one did – but this post is about a cheap camera that I recently picked up on eBay for around six quid, mostly because of the name and the look of the lens.

It is, fairly obviously, called a Cosmic Symbol, and it is some variety of Russian Smena camera. It is suggested that it is the UK export version of the USSR Smena Symbol, manufactured potentially between 1971 and 1991, though from the look of it it has been around quite a while. I think I will try to match the colour of the front panels and tidy up the scratches on the silverish parts.

I have taken it out with me a couple of times and even developed one roll of film, so clearly am qualified to write a comprehensive review.

Continue reading