Anyone who is still a card-carrying member of the self-flagellatory brotherhood of film photographers will know that cameras have a way of appearing in your life unbidden, or at least unexpectedly. Cameras you definitely don’t need are a big part of this. Friends and family are often the source of these, but sometimes it’s simply a function of a bargain too ridiculous to pass up.
Thus we have here two cameras that Your Humble Filmosaur most assuredly did not need, one a gift – part of an online camera exchange of sorts – and the other obtained for less than the cost of a cup of coffee, albeit in wholly unknown condition. Both tiny, both built of glorious 1980s plastic, both with 35mm lenses, both lacking rangefinders, both with automatic (or at least semi-automatic) exposure…comparison was inevitable.
First the Olympus. It’s an XA2, meaning scale focus, a four element/three group lens, and a maximum ISO of 800, and lacking some of the features of the rangefinder-equipped XA. Astute readers may recall that a close relative, a much rarer 28mm-lensed XA4, once graced these pages; it’s been gone for a while now. If I wasn’t compelled to keep that camera around, why should I think this one will be any different? I have no idea.
All the XAs are the same size – minuscule – and use the same basic sliding clamshell design to protect the vital bits. Focusing is via a vertical slider to the right of the lens, offering three zones marked by detents. The small but relatively bright viewfinder features a single LED that warns of long exposure time. Film ISO across a range of 25 to 800 is set with a lever under the lens. The hypersensitive, zero-travel shutter release is toward the center of the top plate. The back hinges on the left in the conventional manner, released by lifting the rewind knob. Winding on is accomplished with a thumb wheel on the back right corner. It’s a very well-thought-out package, characteristic of the best of Japanese 1980s industrial design. They are considered generally quite reliable. Huge numbers were made, and they remain popular today.
The unit-focusing D.Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 Tessar-type lens is quite sharp, some say sharper than the six-element f/2.8 XA lens – I don’t really care. It’s more than adequately sharp, which is really all that matters to me. It’s an unusual reversed-retrofocal type that makes it extraordinarily compact, but as a trade-off it vignettes to some degree at almost all apertures. Out-of-focus areas, which are few and far between in normal use, are unremarkable and inoffensive. Exposure (which is program-only) was seemingly accurate on my example (unlike my XA4, which was about two stops off and needed some fiddling with the ISO selector to get things where they needed to be), though I only ran B&W negative film through mine, so the film’s latitude may have covered up some sins. The lack of a backlight compensation option was noted in a couple of instances.
There’s really nothing to dislike about the XA2. It performs its designed function admirably. It’s easy to carry anywhere. The photos look good. Notice the lack of superlatives – while the XA cameras remain as the effective realization of a brilliant design, that design was one aimed clearly at a broad consumer market and a price point. Photographers with access to better cameras and lenses might have had one as a backup, but for best results they would stick with their high-end gear. Once you’ve seen what truly great lenses can produce, or felt the tactile pleasures of a piece of machine art in camera form, the merely good becomes harder to properly appreciate.
Many of the same things can be said about the Minox, but the two are different enough to make comparison worthwhile. The Minox 35 line began in 1974, predating the XA series by four years (the XA2 debuted in 1980). Both went through design changes, but where the XAs simply evolved some slightly different models (scale focus versus rangefinder, aperture priority versus program, slightly different lens design, DX coding, that sort of thing) the Minox evolved constantly over close to 30 years, eventually developing two distinct body styles and adding features along the way in a bewildering array of subtypes (distinguished by different colored shutter buttons, of all things). The lens changed names and added a built-in skylight filter, but remained a 35mm f/2.8 throughout production.
The Minox that ended up in my hands is a 35ML, emerging in 1985 as the first of the branch of the Minox 35 family to use the revised body style, and the recipient of a number of improvements over the earlier versions. This makes this little comparison less than perfect, as I’m comparing the feature-limited XA2 with the feature-rich 35ML. I didn’t acquire the cameras specifically to compare them; if I had I would have sought out a closer match. Such is life – deal with it.
Where the Olympus sliding clamshell opens with ease, the Minox’s folding door requires pushing the release button, then folding and locking the door in position, an action which requires two hands and more pressure than you might expect. The lens extends as the door opens, revealing two distinct differences to the XA2: measured focusing and aperture control. Two narrow rings on the lens body allow front-cell focusing down to 0.9m and the selection of apertures between 2.8 and 16, as well as Program mode; the latter was new to the 35ML. Also worth noting is that the battery compartment, immediately adjacent to the front viewfinder window, takes a commonly available PX28 battery, unlike earlier versions that require a now hard-to-find PX27.
The raised shutter button feels more traditional than the XAs, and includes the provision for use of a standard cable release. The back must be removed to load the film, similar to the Rollei 35. Winding on is via a short lever in the usual location that requires a double stroke to advance the film and cock the shutter. The top plate has several unlabeled buttons and switches on the central hump. These comprise a battery test button, a backlight compensation switch, and a self-timer switch. There is also a proper hotshoe with a cover. ISO is set on the bottom of the camera with a dial that offers 1/3-stop increments between 25 and 1600. It’s worth noting the slow shutter speeds are restricted at high ISO settings, limiting the utility of the camera in low light situations.
The viewfinder on the 35ML reveals yet another difference: exposure information via LEDs; previous versions made do with a needle. Shutter speed is indicated across the top edge of the finder window, as long as it’s between 1/30 and 1/500; above or below these speeds you simply see an over- or under-exposure indication. Program mode gets its own LED, offering no further information. A half-press of the shutter button triggers these LEDs, and allows the user to lock the exposure, then reframe if necessary. This is a major advance over the XA series and previous Minox 35 variants.
The lens, a Color Minotar 35mm f/2.8, is a conventional front-focusing Tessar-type, with aperture control by a ring on the barrel. Aperture is a two-blade affair with a diamond-shaped hole. Performance is quite good, perhaps not quite a sharp as the XA2’s, but without the omnipresent vignetting. There is one odd behavioral characteristic to note: when in Program mode, the aperture is locked fully open, and instead the aperture is controlled by regulating the opening of the three-bladed shutter. I haven’t been able to locate a chart indicating how the Program mode exposures are calculated, nor have I had the camera long enough to experiment with it, but from cursory examination it seems as if it prefers open apertures over slow shutter speeds.
The differences between these two cameras reveal design philosophies that immediately remind me of the differences seen in cars from their respective countries of origin, particularly clear as they were in the 1980s. The Japanese Olympus is designed to do a job, and it does it very well, very unobtrusively, and without demanding undue attention from its user. In doing so, it is utilitarian and seeks to be nothing more. Its users, knowing what they have purchased, should find nothing about which to complain. Perfection through sufficiency. It’s very zen.
The Minox, hailing from West Germany, is in an unrelenting arms race. Higher performance and more features must be developed constantly or the risk of being overrun by competitors will become too great. If this means that certain sacrifices like greater servicing requirements, a certain lack of reliability, and higher costs are part of the deal, so be it. Its owners will value it for its performance, reveling in the fact that they have chosen the very best tool for the job, and accepting (or perhaps rationalizing) the costs and limitations as the price of such performance. Simple adequacy is for peasants.