I fell out of photography a number of years ago with work and family life getting in the way. I used to be a professional photographer and I found that what sells wasn’t always what I enjoyed capturing so that compounded my move away. So I sold off most of the photographic equipment partly down to moving house but also the guilt of seeing money tied up in gear that wasn’t being used.
As the children grew older I started to have more time to spend on myself and my wife! So I decided to treat myself to a new digital camera. Wow, how things had changed in those years. I found the choice totally bewildering and constantly being replaced on a crazy timescale making it difficult to choose. Gone are the days when you bought a Nikon F3 knowing that the chances are Nikon wouldn’t replace it for at least another 5 years.
So I decided to dust off my old Nikon FM3A that I’d bought when travelling the world for a year on our honeymoon. I bought it brand new as it had just come out. My Olympus OM4 had broken in India so I wanted something that I could rely on for the rest of the trip. I had quite a lot of photos published with it on my return so it held a real sentimental value and was not something I would have sold. Every ding, dent and brassing of the case reminded me of what we’d been through together. This really ignited my interest in photography again but I needed something smaller that I could just throw in a jacket pocket.
So I bought an Olympus XA.
I used to be a bit of an Olympus fanboy having an OM1, OM2n and OM4 back in the day. In fact, I think over the years I’ve had 3 XAs and a couple of XA2s but they also got sold off. I managed to find one a good condition in a great camera shop in Newcastle Upon Tyne. It gave me the opportunity to test it out there and also have a 6 months guarantee.
I won’t go too much into the camera as there is already a ton of reviews on the web. But I did forget just how small these things are. It certainly packs a lot of features into a tiny footprint. Maitani was a true design and engineering genius having brought out such icons as the OM1, Pen and XA line of cameras.
I had a long weekend trip to Budapest for myself and my wife was coming up so it gave me a great chance to put it to the test.
I’ll be honest at this point and confess that I didn’t just buy one camera after getting back into photography. Gear Acquisition Syndrome (GAS) really kicked in and in fact, I’d purchased about 15 film cameras or over 10-year-old digital cameras at this point so I wasn’t spoilt for choice. Although I prefer using film now so it would have to be one of these.
But, I had to remind myself that this was a trip away to spend time with my wife, not for me to lug around a tonne of equipment.
So I “just” took a Lomo LC-A, Reno Slim and Wide for black and white and a Ricoh FF-3 for colour. All small(ish) light and easy to spread around pockets in a jacket.
But the main shooter was the XA. The focal range of 35mm was great for the stunning architecture in the city but also allowed me to get in closer when needed. Also, having finer control over the setting that the camera was using along with the point of focus helped in more challenging environments. The Reto and Lomo are fun but more fire and hope to some extent, but that brings a certain charm and serendipity to the results.
For these 5 shots, I used Agent Shadow. I wasn’t too sure how the weather would be so 400 ISO gave me more wiggle room.
In fact, I shouldn’t have worried for the first two days as we had fantastic sunny weather. However, the final day started with thick fog anywhere around the river Danube. Luckily, the XA has an ingenious little +1.5 stop backlight compensation that also doubles up as a left timer switch and foot for steadying it when using the timer.
One thing I did find tricky at times is the focusing, the rangefinder patch is not the largest or highest contrast so in dimmer light it can be a challenge. But you can still do zone focusing which I did for quite a lot of the shots. Cleverley, the aperture 5.6 and 3m focus distance are highlighted in red to provide a decent hyperfocal distance for quick snapshots.
As I was using 400 films and it was pretty bright I left the aperture around the f11 mark for most of the time.
I developed the films at home pretty quickly as I was excited to see the results. This roll was developed using 510-Pyro that I’ve just started to use.
I must say I was really satisfied with the results, the 35m Zuiko lens on the camera is superb, razor-sharp and has nice contrast. The Agent Shadow film also performed very well with not too much grain considering its speed but this may be down to 510-Pyro as well.
All of the shots were well exposed, although I think there is sometimes a mismatch between the meter reading in the viewfinder and the actual values when you take the shot. After a bit of research, it appears there are two meters, one for the viewfinder and one for the shot and it’s not unusual for the viewfinder to be out a bit. I think mine is a stop or so out from a handheld meter but this doesn’t really bother me, you just need to bear that in mind occasionally.
The great thing is this was a successful camera in its day so it’s not too difficult to find a decent working one, plus they haven’t attracted crazy stupid prices that some film compacts have garnered, yet!
I may well treat myself to an XA2 or XA3 soon.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.
You can find more of my images on my own blog or over on the Flickr
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9 thoughts on “5 frames with an Olympus XA and Agent Shadow Film – By Shaun Edwards”
Very nice article. I really like the the picture of the shoes and the bridge. I “discovered” the XA about 6months ago. Outside of the obvious benefits of the many features in a small package I love how this camera renders. While the lens is sharp it still has a certain softness to it combined with a nice vignette at larger apertures. I find the the images look more like a memory or a dream than an exact copy of reality.
Thanks Brian. Budapest is a really nice city it’s not too big and you can get around on foot easily, the main sites are quite close to each other.
I know what you mean about the rendering and the vignette. I’ve always been quite partial to a good vignette, my Diana and Lomo LCA are very good for that.
The XA is a marvel and as it’s so small you can take it anywhere. I’ve also got a really nice Rollei 35 but that’s a bit more “fiddly”, let’s be kind and call it “deliberate” than the XA. That’s what I love about old film cameras, there are so many and a high diversity that you just don’t get with digital.
Lovely shots with your XA! You have the best one of the series right now. The lenses of the others are not the same. The letter in front of Zuiko on the lens lets you know the number of elements each lens has. This is not to say that the others won’t also yield some great shots, just to say you already have the best one. I wish I had not sold mine decades ago. Enjoy!
Hi Clive. I know what you mean about selling cameras! I could have saved a fortune by keeping the cameras I got rid of about 6 years ago. But I’m really glad that I picked this one up and I think £60 was an excellent price considering it came from a camera reapairer.
I’ll have to get an Olympus SLR at some point again as I used to have OM1,2n and a 4. The 4 broke in India, but that’s another story!
These are great shots Shaun! Also I love your writing style, I can’t wait to hear more about your journey back into film photography. Keep up the good work!
Thanks very much, Ted.
In 2001 we got married and spent 13 months backpacking around the world. I shot a ton of slide film on a Nikon FM3a and colour negs on an Olympus MJU II.
I came second in the Sunday Telegraph’s travel photographer of the year from some of those images and used the funds to go professional.
I went back into IT about 8 years ago and embarrassingly never got around to scanning many of the images! I’ve got a large crate full and have just started in earnest now that I have my DSLR scanning honed.
I’ve started to post some of these on Flickr and will also write a few articles here. There is one on the MJU II I’m planning over Christmas, once I’ve finished scanning the last 10 rolls of colour negatives.
Oh wow that’s a great story Shaun! How lucky to have been able to go backpacking, and yes it sounds like there’s plenty to be scanning – I hope you have a Merry Christmas in between those 10 rolls of film! All the best
Great article Shaun and excellent pics. I can totally identify with your observation that the photos that sell aren’t necessarily what you like capturing. I was never a professional photographer but engaged as a side hustle in the stock photography market for over 15 years, mostly with Lonely Planet Images (their main market was, predictably, ‘travel’), until they were swallowed up by Getty in 2012. After that I pretty much lost interest, as I could see that the stuff that sold for Getty was pretty different from what I like to shoot. Even Lonely Planet wasn’t a great match but it was near enough (and the contractual arrangement was reasonable enough) to keep me contributing. Getty have a much more exploitative business model which is probably why they continute to dominate. I would be interested in your comparative notes regarding the XA and the Mju II. I used the latter for some time but never tried the former.
Thanks very much Simon. I also went down the stock photography route at one point but used Alamy. We went around the word for 12 months for our honeymoon so I had quite a few images. But I also went pro doing portraits and weddings and that are into the limited time I had for scanning. This I did on an Epson which was slow.
I now so DSLR which is way quicker and I’m slowly going through these negatives and slides.
Quite a lot we’re shot on the Mju II which is also a very good camera but quite different in operation.
Personally, I prefer the XA as you have a lot more control over focus and exposure.
I should be doing an article on the MJU II in the next few weeks.
The XA can be more difficult to critical focus as the viewfinder and rangefinder patch are quite small and now I’m in my 50’s my eyes are not what they used to be!
I’d definitely recommend you give one a try, either the original XA or try the XA2/3 for even easier zone focus point and shoot.
For more images take a look at my Flickr stream as I’ve recently uploaded some there.