Both these little cameras get a lot of love and I think they deserve it. They both fit the role of a simple travel camera – but if you had to choose between them for a trip, which would it be?
That’s the question I’m hoping to answer here.
There are lots of thorough, detailed reviews of each of these cameras online. This will not one of them and nor does it intend to be. If you want tech specs, check out the links above. What I have done is use my recent experience shooting them side-by-side to form and collate my thoughts on which does what best. Naturally, this is highly subjective but I’m hoping that the context provided here will help to put you in my shoes, as it were.
Let’s start with a totally different question: what is a travel camera?
The term will hold a different meaning for different people, but I think it’s fair to say that these two were designed to be compact, light, simple and robust cameras that would “do it all” on a trip. You would expect them to shoot landscapes, portraits and candid street photography without being specialists in any one of these areas. And obviously, as well as getting the desired results, they need to do it with a minimum of fuss.
The world has changed since these two cameras were designed of course, and today their target market would not shoot film at all but would use either their digital compacts or perhaps just a smartphone. Film shooters today will be a little more interested in the shooting experience that these two have to offer, and will expect the results to be rewarding.
So what unites these two cameras and where do they differ? The Olympus Trip 35 is the elder of course, and the Olympus XA2 seems in a way its logical successor.
The cameras share much – a fixed prime lens, zone focus, auto exposure and a thumbwheel film advance. Film loading and rewind is also similar. Where then, do they differ? On paper, the two biggies are plastics and electronics. The XA2 has a plastic clamshell body and electronic shutter while the metal Trip 35 is famously battery-free.
What I don’t want to do though, is a side-by-side list of features. I want to use my experience with them to highlight the differences that do and don’t matter in practical use. My main use is shooting landscapes while hiking or bike riding, so be aware that this strongly colours my preferences – your results may vary.
Let’s dive straight in.
This is the biggie, and more than anything else may very well be deal-breaker for the elder Trip 35. For me, the XA2 wins here by a country mile.
Not only is it smaller, but it’s sleeker, and the clamshell means it slides in and out of pockets and bags easily. The XA2 is lighter, too; not that you’ll get tired lugging the Trip, but it is noticeable if it’s in a pocket. I feel the Trip 35 really needs a soft case to protect it and keep its lens cap on, and that adds a whole level of size and complexity. More on that later.
Both are just fine. The Olympus Trip 35 has a 40mm f/2.8 lens. It has a great reputation but so what? Looking at a recent roll from each camera I’d have to give the sharpness award to the Trip 35, but to me, the main point is that it’s sharp enough and it’s f/2.8. This speed impacts on the light levels for shooting at 1/40s. A bonus is that you can get a bit of separation with close subjects.
The XA2, on the other hand, has a 35mm f/3.5 lens. While that’s 2/3 of a stop slower than the Trip 35, I don’t find that significant for my use. Again, for me, the main differentiator is whether you prefer the 35mm or 40mm focal length, and how much this matters to you for your style of shooting.
Personally, 40mm is bang-on for me as my travel focal length. I find 35mm a touch too wide, and while I could get by with a 50mm, the 40mm allows me perfect reach for landscapes – but that’s just my taste. While I’d prefer it if the XA2 had a 40mm lens, it’s not a deal breaker.
They both have two-blade diaphragms, so no winner there either.
The Olympus XA2 wins again.
Its stepless electronic shutter runs from 2s to 1/500s – that’s “stepless” as in, it’ll choose the most appropriate shutter speed, regardless of if that happens to be 1/250 second or 1/137 second. This is important for me, as under my preferred light for landscapes (dawn and dusk) I may underexpose with the Trip 35’s exposure system. I know this is not a huge issue, but it is significant.
The Trip has two shutter speeds,1/40s and 1/200s, so if I’m shooting in low light I might get a “red flag”. Let me explain: if the Trip 35 meter decides that there’s not enough light, it pops a little red flag into the viewfinder when you press the shutter button and it won’t fire. The way around this is by taking the aperture ring off Auto and putting on to f2.8 (this is also how you set aperture if you want to shoot with flash). You can then take the shot at f/2.8 and 1/40s and use a light meter app on your phone to get an idea of how underexposed you’ll be.
In practice with Portra 400, I’m generally good for landscapes around the magic hours, so it’s not a deal breaker. And of course, conventional wisdom would say 1/40s is a sensible minimum speed for handholding a 40mm lens. On the XA2, its sensitive electronic shutter release takes some getting used to, but I do really like the shutter. When you press the release the shutter has a nice electronic “snick” sound to it which you can use to gauge what the shutter speed was. The XA2 also has a little green light in the viewfinder that comes on if the metered speed is 1/30s or slower, so when the light comes on you can be prepared, and listen when you make the frame, thinking “Hmmm, that sounded like 1/8s; should be okay.“
You get the idea.
Even if there were shutter speeds in the XA2’s viewfinder, I doubt you could read them in low light. I also feel that the electronic release and shutter allows me to hold the XA2 a little more steady and that wipes out the disadvantage of the slightly slower lens.
This also highlights why you need a lens cap for the Trip.
If you’ve wound on, putting the cap on will stop it from firing in your pocket or bag (provided you’ve remembered to put the aperture back to “A”) The lens cap always seems to fall off though, so even if you tether the cap I think a soft case is a good idea. As an aside, the XA2 shutter has a self-timer to help with those inevitable travel selfies.
[EM: I used to keep a pinch cap on mine]
Both cameras utilise zone focus: you line up the focus ring with a rough distance guide. The XA2 has three zones and the Trip 35 shows four but both go from a metre to infinity.
No clear winner here; The XA2 has a feature where it resets itself to the middle zone each time you close the clamshell. The middle zone should see you right in decent light from four feet to infinity.
If I’m shooting landscapes in low light, I wind on, open the clamshell and at the same time flick the focus switch up to infinity. The Trip 35 adds a nice engraved distance scale on the bottom of the lens barrel which can give you a bit more confidence shooting portraits.
Both are fine for what they are. The Trip 35 is slightly bigger but the XA2 is OK.
The nicer viewfinder of the Trip 35 combined with the camera’s larger size makes it nicer to shoot I feel, but as I’m left eye dominant, the central viewfinder of the XA2 compensates because I’m not pushing my nose into the back of the camera.
I find it a bit hard to see the bottom frame line in the XA2 finder in low light though, which is a bit of a bugger for getting the horizon level in a landscape shot. The Trip 35 focus zones are visible in the viewfinder, but they’re not prominent enough to guarantee against (a couple of my) blunders.
Batteries and reliability
The Trip 35 is battery-free, as its meter uses a selenium photovoltaic cell. This is great, as cameras of its vintage often used mercury batteries which now cause angst and endless forum debate as what to use instead and whether the meters will now be inaccurate.
The XA2 manual says that button LR44 alkali batteries are fine, so no drama with that either. Are they reliable? Reliable enough for me to take either one on a trip and not worry would be my answer, but of course, neither are exactly young.
I will not mention flash, as I have no interest in it. The XA2 often comes bundled with its dedicated A11 flash module if that floats your boat (it is compatible with other versions in the XA family). You’ll see this if you start checking eBay prices. You can use the Trip 35 with a flash, but read the manual online if you want to see how that works. I wouldn’t be considering either of these cameras if flash was important to me.
So which one?
I hope my little comparisons help. They’re both great cameras so it depends on what matters to you. It might be the focal length. I prefer a 40mm lens, but 35mm is not a deal-breaker.
In low light, the XA2 is clearly superior. For walking around Venice at dawn it’s easy to pop the XA2 on a wall and shoot a 2s exposure – five stops ahead of the Trip. On the other hand, if you’re not an early riser, the Trip 35 is a nicer shooting experience and when pulled from the pocket of your sports jacket it looks cooler.
I much prefer the Trip 35 for portraits. The slightly longer and faster lens plus its David Bailey coolness make it a clear winner. The simplicity of a no-battery camera is another plus.
To sum up
Form factor and electronic shutter make the XA2 my 135 film travel camera of choice.
I shot the Trip 35 on a recent two week trip to New Zealand and I really liked the shots, but found packing it and unpacking it a pain. Looking after the lens cap is another hassle worth mentioning.
The XA2, on the other hand, slips easily into the pocket of a pair of shorts. Carrying it is easy, and that means I’m more likely to have it with me.
I’m glad I have both the XA2 and the Trip 35. If I’m hiking or on a bike tour I would take the XA2. If walking around a city I’d probably use the Trip 35. For a stroll on the beach it’s simple: the XA2 slips into my shorts pocket and the Trip 35 does not.
They are both classics, so grab one of each. If you buy wisely I’d say it’s unlikely that you’ll be out of pocket if you decide you don’t like one and decide to flip it.
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