JoziFolk - images of everyday life in South Africa


Street Photography with a $1 Olympus XA2 camera


By Hilton Hamann

One of the first requirements of successful street photography is that the photographer blend in with the environment. To produce truly authentic work means shooting images not influenced by the person who is taking the picture.

People change their behaviour when they realise they are being photographed, they subconsciously alter their pose, smile when they weren't or, become angry, turn away, gesture, look can be any number of responses but they change - and the moment that drew the photographer to the scene, is no longer the same.

New street photographers often believe slapping a long telephoto lens onto the camera body and shooting from afar, solves the problem. It does not! Those photos invariably appear detached, flat and boring. They are exactly what they are, voyeuristic...the work of a sleazy 'Peeping Tom'. The viewer has no emotional connection and no feeling involvement.


 Successful street photographers are found at the coal-face, in the midst of the action, with lenses that have short focal lengths and a wide angles of view.

 I remain convinced, manually-focussed, specifically film cameras, rule the roost in the field. I have worked with a Fuji X100 I have on loan but find the focussing to be hit-and-miss and, even using it as a zone-focus camera, I've missed shots through shutter-lag and because the real depth-of-field seems not match that shown in the viewfinder.

 I'm not knocking the camera! I absolutely love it and would buy it - or it's newer model the X100S - in a heartbeat if I could afford it. Image quality, as is its low-light ability, is astounding. But it's just not the best tool for this particular job - in my opinion.

 A Leica M9, with a manually-focussed Summicron, would do the trick but is way out of my price-bracket.

Olympus XA2

 It was with this in mind that I dug out an old Olympus XA2 that I've had for years but never used. This little gem can be found for under $20 on eBay and I've heard of people picking them up for $1 in thrift stores.

 The Olympus XA2 can be considered the idiot brother of the cult classic, Olympus XA, one of the smallest rangefinders ever made. The XA2 differs from the XA in that it uses scale focussing instead of a rangefinder. It has three distance settings, "Near" (where the subject is situated from 1,2 to 1,8m away), "Normal" (1,8 - 6,2m) and "Far" (anything beyond 6,2 metres.)

 It also comes with a 35mm f3.5 lens, as opposed to the XA's 35mm f2.8 lens. 

 Operation is simple. Set the film ASA film-speed, point, frame and shoot. When the clam-shell, dust cover is opened the camera automatically sets to the "Normal" distance - almost always the correct setting for "involved" street photography.

 So how does it perform?

 Very well, actually. The lens is remarkably good. It's sharp and contrasty - not Leica-sharp but good nonetheless. The camera is that small that no-one seems to even notice it and, if they do, they dismiss it as some sort of toy operated (in my case) by an old git.

 There is no shutter-lag and it fits easily and comfortably into the front pocket of a pair of jeans.


 I took it to a country auction near Randfontein. The guys there are hard-assed farmers, many of whom will take offence at a sneaky photographer pointing a camera at them or their kids.

 The XA2 was loaded with a roll of Ilford XP2 that expired nine months previously but was kept in the fridge. I think the pictures speak for themselves. Sure they are gritty but they tell a story and that, after all, is what street photography is about. I doubt I would have been able to get these shots armed with a DSLR, without getting my ass kicked.

 I am mighty pleased with the little Olympus XA2. It's the camera I will always have in my pocket.

Other articles on street photography you will enjoy:

The Rules of Composition for Street Photographers

The Picture Christians Project

Olympus XA2, street photography

Little gem. The Olympus XA2

Olympus XA2 with a matchbox for scale