5 frames of low-light photography with an Olympus XA2 – by Shawn Granton

When people think about night or low light film photography, I imagine they picture SLRs, TLRs, or large-format cameras, tripods, cable releases, and oh yes, a light meter. That’s all well and good. But sometimes you want to do a low light shot and you’re out and about without fancy gear–you just have your humble pocket camera with you. Can you get a decent low light photo with just that?

In some cases, you can, especially if your daily pocket carry happens to be an Olympus XA2. Originally released in 1980, the XA2 is the little brother to series champ XA, a stripped down machine aimed for the general consumer who just wanted a snapshot camera. It features a four element D.Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 lens, zone focus, and automatic exposure. It’s a camera that you don’t have to think too much about when you shoot–open the dust cover, wind the film, set zone (though leaving it on the middle position usually gets good results), and fire the shutter. This “shoot from the hip” ability plus compact size means it’s an easy camera to bring with you, everywhere, just like designer Yoshihisa Maitani intended.

On paper, none of the above makes it an appealing machine for when things get dark. There’s no exposure control beyond setting the ASA/ISO (which only goes up to 800), the electronic shutter does not allow a cable release, and even if it did, there’s no “bulb” mode. How the heck can you pull off a low light shot with an Olympus XA2?

Whiskey bar, Houston. 21 Nov 2022. Olympus XA2/Fuji C200

Well, the XA2 has three tricks up its sleeve to make long exposures possible:

  1. The programmed shutter allows for shutter speeds as long as 2 seconds. Not as long as the XA’s 10 seconds, but it’s still something.
  2. The XA2 features a self-timer.
  3. When you turn the switch on the bottom of the XA2 to self-timer mode, the switch sticks out from the camera, acting as a stabilizer.

All of the low light shots I’m sharing with you were enabled by these three tricks above. I find a place to put the Olympus XA2 (sometimes I even remember a small tripod), set the ISO/ASA to 800, wind the film, turn on the self-timer, and hit the shutter.

I’ll admit, there’s no methodology in making these photos–no point in trying to meter or anything, no trying to figure out reciprocity failure or any other “serious photography” business. Heck, since it’s my daily carry camera, often it’s loaded with ISO 200 film, no Cinestill 800T or Portra 800! I take a chance and hope something good comes out. And often times something does! I’m amazed at how capable this humble little machine is.

Please enjoy some low light photos from my Olympus XA2.

San Francisco at night, as seen from the top of the Marriot Marquis Hotel in SoMa. 22 June 2022. Olympus XA2/Fuji C200
The Washington State Ferry at Orcas Island landing, San Juan Islands, 4 August 2022, Olympus XA2/Fuji C200
Amtrak’s Empire Builder train (Portland Section) at Spokane, Washington Depot, waiting for the Seattle section. 11 May 2022. Olympus XA2/Kodak Portra 160
Wilhelm’s Mausoleum in Portland, Oregon, 29 May 2022. Once a year, during the US Memorial Day holiday weekend, the mausoleum opens to the general public. allowing people like me to wander the four miles (6.5 km) of corridors! This stained glass is a idealized rendition of Multnomah Falls. Olympus XA2/Fuji Superia 400 (expired)

Thanks for reading! -Shawn

For more photos from my Olympus XA2, low light or no, click here.

For more of me on the internet, click here.

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16 thoughts on “5 frames of low-light photography with an Olympus XA2 – by Shawn Granton”

  1. Interesting read and great photos! One question: Why do you set it to 800 ISO? To reduce shutter speed and blur?
    Thanks and regards
    Martin in Austria

    1. Thank you, Martin! Yeah, I up the meter setting to reduce shutter speed and blur. It’s not as big of a deal with these photos, since I use the self timer and put the camera on a sturdy surface. But I’m a creature of habit!

  2. Good shots, although not sure why you’re setting the meter to 800 when that will force shorter exposures that would otherwise be the case. With a slowest shutter speed of 2 seconds this may be more of a notional concern, but setting the meter to above box speed doesn’t seem to have any advantages.

    1. Hello Paul, I normally set the meter higher on my cameras in low light to aid me in getting shots and hopefully alleviate blur due to low shutter speeds. With the self-timer it’s not that big of a deal, true. And the high latitude of print film means that it washes out in the end.

  3. Great stuff, Shawn, I find the bar and the train the best. The selftimer thing is something I use with my fully mechanical Kameras as well though both the Leica M3 and the Hasselblad 500 C/M are limited to 1 sec. But often that’s good enough.

  4. Pingback: New 35mmc post: Night/Low light shots with the Olympus XA2 – Bikes and Film Cameras Club

  5. The XA-4 is a very similar camera, with the addition of a 28mm wide-angle lens. Less common and a bit pricier, but you can find them at a reasonable price if you’re patient. I’ve taken many of my favorite vacation photos with the XA-4.

    1. True. You can do this kind of low-light photography with most of the cameras in the XA lineup, the XA1 being the exception. One thing to note with the XA3 and XA4: While they can meter to 1600 ISO, they also read the DX code of the film to determine ISO setting. The “ISO Switch” on the front, similar to those on the XA and XA2, is there to override if no DX is detected. So if you intend to push the ISO with the XA3 and XA4, you’ll need to cover up the DX code on the film cartridge before loading.

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