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This $50 Camera Changed My Photography Forever

The Olympus XA2 is everything that my more serious digital camera is not, and there are about a thousand things to love about its brilliant design.

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I am, charitably, a moderately competent hobbyist photographer. I owe pretty much every ounce of that competence to the instant, guess-and-check shooting style that modern digital cameras make possible. When the shutter-bug first bit me in earnest, I spent hours taking literally thousands of absolute garbage pictures with a borrowed DSLR, fiddling with all the settings and inching my way to a handful of decent shots, gigabytes of trash in my wake. My technique has improved since then, but the path to my favorite shots remains a trigger-happy tumble. When you have a digital camera, why not?

Then, I came across the Olympus XA2.

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#ces2020 through a camera from 1980

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First sold in 1980, the XA2 is everything that my more serious digital camera, an Olympus OM-D EM10 MK II, is not. For starters, it’s a film camera, obviously. But it’s also a point-and-shoot, with mandatory automatic exposure and zone-based focusing you set manually based on your best guess as to the distance to your subject.

There are about a thousand things to love about the XA2’s design. It’s tiny, barely bigger than a deck of cards, making my already small Micro Four Thirds mainstay look like a goliath by comparison. And with the integrated dust-cover that snaps shut over the lens, it’s eminently pocketable and loads of fun to fidget with when you aren’t shooting. With its all-black design and legendarily quiet shutter, it’s extremely discreet. And with automatic exposure and focus distance you set before you fire, it’s lightning-fast to operate once you have it primed, far speedier than my phone. Last, but not least, it just looks extremely striking, which is how I found myself hunting one down on eBay after merely scrolling past a picture of the handsome little guy on Twitter.

But what I think I love most about this camera is that its combination of features puts it in a unique position between the digital camera I grab for premeditated sessions of Doing Artsy Photography, and my phone camera that I always have on hand and use for basic, documentation purposes. It’s got about the ease-of-use of an iPhone camera but also the convenience of… film. And that’s making me think about my photography in an entirely new way.

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When loaded with black and white film, the XA2 prevents me from leaning on color to carry my shots. Its complete lack of zoom makes me get creative with my framing, while the lack of exposure settings or ability to just jack up the ISO makes me carefully consider my environment. Its handiness and speed make me keep my eyes out for even split-second shots while, simultaneously, limited exposures and the time (and cost) of development encourage me to carefully pick my battles. The result is that stellar results are, for now, much rarer to come by, but even the merely decent ones tend to be pretty well-composed (at least to my eye). And the ones that are actually great? They’re a hard-won victory showcasing genuine technical skill, not just brute-force burst fire.

I’m sure some of this experience is more about the medium than the camera itself, but with its dead-simple, zippy operation and everyday-carry size, the XA2 has won my heart through far more than just shooting film. And better yet, it can be had for fairly cheap. You’ll find plenty of buy-it-now eBay listings for ostensibly pristine units in the $100 range, but I was able to snag my beat up but functional baby in an auction for $50 all told. (Albeit without the optional flash module.) Who knows how long it will last, but I will be using it until I find out.

So if you’re looking for the perfect first film camera for you, well, don’t look at me! I don’t know you! This is the only film camera I’ve ever seriously used! But what I can say is that this puppy has been living in my pocket non-stop for weeks, and I expect it to continue holing up there for months to come, making me a better photographer no matter what camera I’m using.

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