Marvels of miniaturization, the Olympys XA series put great optics into your pocket. The XA came in 1979 with a rangefinder and a six-element f/2.8 lens. The Olympus XA2 followed in 1980 with zone focusing and a four-element f/3.5 lens. There was also an XA1, an XA3, and an XA4, each with different specs but all sharing a clamshell body design. Collectors and photographers alike praise these cameras.
All XA-series cameras are itty bitty, at about 2.6 by 4.1 by 1.6 inches. This is in the realm of small digital point-and-shoot cameras – my svelte Canon PowerShot S95 is only fractionally smaller at 2.3 by 3.9 by 1.2 inches.
Miniaturization had its limits in 1980, though. My Canon’s flash is built in, while the XA series offers a range of attachable flashes. My XA2 came with the common A11 flash, which lengthens the camera by about 1.75 inches.
The XA’s lens is faster than the XA2’s, and the XA offers a rangefinder and aperture-priority autoexposure. But the XA2’s lens is no slouch, and the camera offers fully automatic exposure and zone focusing. The focusing lever is next to the lens, with settings for portrait, group, and landscape. Focus may be mechanical, but everything else about the camera needs two SR44 batteries. Fortunately, you can buy those at the drug store.
The Olympus XA2 accepts films of ISO 25 to 800. Its shutter operates from 1/500 to 2 seconds.
You can check out my review of the XA here, by the way. Other little Olympuses you might be interested in include the Olympus 35RC (here), the Olympus Trip 35 (here), the Olympus Stylus (here), the Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (here), and the Lomo-like Olympus Trip 500 (here).
Given that the XA2 is easily pocketable, barely noticeable to others, and point-and-shoot simple, I thought it’d be a great choice to take along to the Indiana State Fair for some unobtrusive candid people photography. These are on Fujicolor 200.
There are regular tractor parades at the fair. These are Oliver tractors; my dad worked for Oliver at the time these were made. The XA2 let me get in and out fast and unobtrusively.
A green light glows inside the viewfinder when the exposure system needs a slow shutter speed; it’s your cue to use either a tripod or the flash. That was never a problem on this hot and blisteringly bright day. At slower speeds the shutter clicks twice, once when it opens and once when it closes, so wait for the second click before you move the camera!
The XA2’s little lens delivers delicious color.
I shot this roll and then never used the camera again. I found myself gravitating more toward the XA, which must mean I liked it a little better. So I sold the XA2. After a couple years, another XA2 fell into my hands. I’m not one to thumb my nose at fate. Here is a photo of the courthouse in Crown Point, Indiana, on Ultrafine Xtreme 100.
Some complain that the XA2 is clumsy to hold, but I’ve shot thousands of photos with my similarly-sized digital camera and must be used to it. I found the shutter button, which is famously feather light, entirely too easy to press by accident. Here’s the Artsgarden in Downtown Indianapolis on Agfa Vista 200.
The thumbwheel winder feels kind of flimsy. And I had to resist the temptation to open the cover by pressing the front and sliding, which works but not without ugly scraping noises. It’s important to open it only from the top, pressing against the ribs next to the XA2 logo.
On full-sun days, the lens has a tendency to vignette a little. See how the corners of this photo are darker than the center?
The XA2’s exposure system does a nice job of handling challenging light. The meter is said to be center weighted. With most cameras that means metering for the highlights or the shadows and compensating for the choice in post-processing. I never bother with the XA2, as it seems always to know just what to do. These black-and-whites are on Ultrafine Xtreme 100 again.
Such sharpness this lens delivers!
Some people find the XA2’s controls to be too small for fast handling. I don’t get that. This camera is almost point-and-shoot simple. Every time you close the clamshell the camera reverts to the middle focus setting, the two orange people. The camera biases toward heavy depth of field, meaning that everything except close-ups and extremely distant subjects will be in focus. I open the camera, compose, and press the shutter button. Handling doesn’t get faster than that.
I had to lie on my back to compose this photo. Unlike an SLR, the XA2 is not cumbersome when you do that. Also, its viewfinder is accurate enough that you can compose tightly without worrying.
You can see more photos from this camera in my Olympus XA2 gallery.
When I bought my first Olympus XA2, prices hovered around $50. You’ll have little luck finding a working one at that price today — I just checked eBay’s sold XA2s and see prices between $100 and $150. Yowtch. But that’s what happens to a camera that gains a good reputation, as the Olympus XA2 deservedly has.