The Olympus XA2 has, for decades, been a popular small 35mm film compact you can carry around in your pocket. An excellent piece of design, it’s simple to operate with zone focusing and a respected f/3.5 35mm fixed lens. Having shot many photos with one, I looked for an inexpensive digital equivalent with the same convenient body size and the largest sensor possible.
As far as I am aware, no manufacturer has yet produced a digital full frame camera as small as the XA2. There are fixed lens compacts available with 1″ sensors such as the Sony RX100 series and the Ricoh GR series APS-C sensor cameras, which are pocketable and good, but I was also hoping for the added bonus of being able to fit different lenses. What I found is the Panasonic GM1 with a Micro Four Thirds 16MP sensor.
Released late 2013 and no longer produced, without a lens mounted it’s actually smaller than the XA2. That’s pretty amazing for an MFT interchangeable lens camera. I bought it used on ebay and didn’t appreciate quite how tiny this thing is until it was delivered and in my hand.
Apparently, Panasonic engineers somehow managed to stuff into it most of the features found on the larger GX7. Being a sophisticated modern digital camera it’s a more versatile performer than the point and shoot Olympus XA2. However, it has a fixed LCD panel and no viewfinder. I should mention Panasonic went on to produce the GM5 (also discontinued) which includes an EVF, but it is a somewhat bigger camera although not by a great deal, but these usually sell for significantly more than the GM1. The GM1 does have a pop-up flash with a range of a few metres. The XA2 can be fitted with a flash attachment which is probably more powerful.
I bought the optically stabilised 12-32mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens for flexibility as it’s had positive reviews. It collapses down to what you could almost call pancake dimensions, given it’s an AF zoom, but it does make the GM1 thicker than an XA2. No problem, there’s a very wide range of compatible Panasonic and Olympus MFT lenses, one of them being the Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 (28mm full frame equivalent) which is a small pancake prime, although it has no OIS.
If you don’t mind distortion you could even have some fun with the cheap and cheerful Olympus Fisheye 9mm f/8 body-cap lens which is only 12.8mm thick. Going in the other direction you can fit longer lenses, and illustrated here as an example I’ve mounted an OM system E.Zuiko 135mm using an MFT adaptor. Usefully, focus peaking still works in manual mode with vintage glass like this.
I might invest in the wide angle 14mm lens to benefit from the larger aperture and shallower profile, but also to avoid the slightly inconvenient start-up procedure the kit lens requires which is to manually extend the lens before shooting. Another option would be the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake. Both lenses have very fast AF and manual focus if needed. In short, with one of these primes the GM1 takes up hardly more space than an XA2.
While the Olympus XA2 has a mostly plastic although durable construction, the Panasonic GM1 body is robust magnesium alloy. It has no grip, and Panasonic made a metal one for this model you could screw on. I found it easier and cheaper to by a Flipbac FBG3 silicon grip that sticks on with double-sided tape and so far it’s stayed firmly in place.
I won’t go into all the features the Panasonic GM1 has as there are comprehensive reviews online, and as mentioned above it’s based on the larger GX7 so its capabilities are extensive. Suffice to say there are a multitude of settings and tweaks available using the dials, touchscreen and function button. You can of course shoot completely automatically. I usually have one of the custom settings (C1 & C2 on the dial) as monochrome.
I thought it would be an interesting experiment to carry around both cameras and capture the same scenes. I loaded the XA2 with Fujifilm Neopan Acros 100 for sharpness and lack of grain, and set the Panasonic GM1 on Monochrome. The GM1 also has grainy ‘Rough Monochrome’ and high contrast ‘Dynamic Monochrome’ available, but felt the straight monochrome would be the closest match to the Neopan.
The XA2 has a fixed 35mm lens so replicated this on the 12-32mm zoom by adjusting it to around the 18mm mark (36mm equivalent). Despite the lack of a viewfinder and the relative thickness due to the kit lens I’m currently using, in terms of size, handling and convenience I’ve found the GM1 performs a similar role for me as the XA2 I’ve used as a pocket camera for years. You can almost forget it’s on you until a moment appears worth photographing and whip it out to take a quick shot. Mainly down to inexperience with the GM1, a few times I did accidentally turn the revolving back dial, or touched the screen at the wrong moment which caused a delay to taking the shot while I sorted it out, which isn’t something you experience with the XA2 – a point in favour of the Olympus.
I think my Olympus XA2 from the 1980s put up a reasonable performance in comparison to the 2013 Panasonic GM1. It’s fair to say that, at least in this particular exercise, the GM1 produced cleaner and marginally sharper images, with arguably better metering and retained more detail in the highlights. Being still unfamiliar with the Panasonic GM1, I played safe and set an upper limit of 400 ISO which will have enabled faster shutter speeds than the XA2. In retrospect I should have set it on ISO100 to even things up.
Nevertheless, I feel Neopan Acros 100 has a nice look, and the XA2 is a faster camera to shoot with, plus it has a viewfinder. It has to be said though, the Panasonic GM1 has an advantage in sophistication and versatility, and it’s a very nice little camera. Essentially I’m happy to carry either of these cameras around with me. Let’s just say they’re equal but different.
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