Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Olympus XA3

My only hope is that the nightmares will cease when I die. But what if they continue? What if, without the moderating influence of my conscious mind, the nightmares are set free? So I have resolved to reverse the wheel and ram the ship through Cthulhu. I will activate every neuron in my mind, generating a furnace of anti-death so potent that it burn the nightmares out. To this end I'm going to have a look at the Olympus XA3, a compact camera from 1985. In my hands it has looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror and there is no escape for you.

For this post I decided to photograph blue things and red things.

I've written about the original Olympus XA before. It was a neat little rangefinder camera from 1979 with aperture-priority autoexposure and a proper split-image rangefinder housed in a tiny body, with a really good 35mm f/2.8 lens. The XA was sold alongside the budget-priced XA2, which had three-zone focusing and a 35mm f/3.5 lens, and the confusingly-named XA1, which had a fixed-focus 35mm f/4 lens and a selenium light meter. The XA1 was a bit naff.

They were all the brainchild of top God-genius Yoshihisa Maitani. While you're reading this post please listen to OOIOO's "Umo", which came out a while back but didn't we all:

Writing in 1928, H P Lovecraft imagined a future in which the scientific method's piecing together of dissociated knowledge would open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Lovecraft underestimated the human spirit, however, and when Yoshihisa Maitani was confronted with the vast black emptiness of the universe he did not succumb to cosmic horror and go mad. Instead he produced a string of excellent cameras. I like to imagine that Lovecraft would have been pleased; pleased that he was wrong.

All of the XA cameras were manual focus, which was anachronistic by the mid-1980s. Nonetheless they sold well, and Olympus launched a second wave in 1985. The XA3 was essentially an XA2 with DX film encoding and a special quick-loading system; the XA4 was similar but had a 28mm f/2.8 wideangle lens that could focus down to a foot, with a special lanyard that could be used as a measuring aid or makeshift garrote.

London is full of billboards like this, on construction sites, where investment vehicles are constructed for people who won't live there.

Alas the XA3 and XA4 were not enough, and Olympus discontinued the range a year or so later. Olympus' early autofocus compacts didn't have much of an impact, but the Olympus Stylus and particularly the Olympus Stylus Epic of the 1990s were very popular and still have a following today. Over the last decade Olympus has revived many of its old brands to good effect, and it will be interesting to see if they ever dig up the old XA.

Of the lot I haven't tried the XA1, XA4, or original Stylus; their dead bodies told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. Of the others I prefer the XA, if only because the viewfinder is huge and it has more controls.

I actually shot all these pictures last year, when I went to see Barry Lyndon. I was so busy writing about Barry Lyndon that I completely forgot about them. When I am writing I forget about everything else, including food and sleep.

I don't know if it's the V500 scanner or Ektachrome or slide film in general, but it has a distinctive glow.

Compared to the XA the Stylus Epic has a slightly better lens - it vignettes much less - and used examples are much newer and less likely to go wrong. Furthermore the XA's soft-touch shutter button is an acquired taste.

The XA3 also has a soft-touch shutter button, but it has a bit of give so it's not too bad. As with the other XAs the shutter is really quiet - long exposures go snick (long pause) snick - but the thumbwheel winder is quite noisy, albeit that you can hide it in a jacket pocket while you advance the film, whereas with the later motorised cameras you have no choice.

The images in this post were shot with some Kodak Ektachrome that expired in 2007. Slide film tends to go purple as it ages, but the colours can be corrected with Photoshop. At the top, how it came out of the scanner (with the levels fixed); at the bottom, Photoshop.

Writing about the XA3 is difficult, firstly because it's basically the same as the XA2, secondly because I live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that I should voyage far.

The combination of 35mm and f/2.8 is more or less perfect; wide enough, narrow enough, fast enough, and it's easy to hold the XA3 steady. Exposures are spot-on. It is compatible with the standard XA flashes, which I will probably never use unless someone invites me to a party, which is unlikely, especially after the last time. It shares with the XA2 a design issue whereby whenever you open the sliding cover, the focus slider defaults to the mid-distance instead of the last position you selected. On a physical level the XA3 is slightly but noticeably larger than the XA. It's also harder to come by, as it was only sold for a short period and was overshadowed by the XA2 (cheaper) and the XA4 (wider).

You can't override the DX setting, but if the film doesn't have a DX code there is however a full range of ISO settings (from ISO 25 to ISO 1600). It shares with the XA a +1.5 stop backlight correction setting, which is selected with a little self-timer/battery check/miniature tripod good lever on the bottom of the camera, breathe out