Cameras

Olympus XA

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The Olympus XA has been called the little camera that the pros grab when they want to travel light. After shooting with one, I can see why – it’s light and easy to use, and yields standout results. Yet as I researched to write this post, I was surprised to find so many complaints about it.

Olympus XA

The XA’s centerpiece is its fine 35 mm f/2.8 lens, of six elements in five groups. It is only 31 mm long, shorter than its focal length – just imagine the engineering necessary to pull that off! Yet some complain that this design yields barrel distortion and light falloff (darkening) in the corners.

Some also complain about the XA’s rangefinder, saying that the focusing patch is too small, and the lever is awkwardly placed and has a very short throw. They have a point about the lever’s placement – it’s below the lens and film-speed scale, and its entire range of motion is about a half inch.

Olympus XAFinally, I read complaints about the range of attachable flashes, that they’re all too big. I’ll grant that complaint, as even the smallest of them ruin this camera’s eminent pocketability. The A11 flash may add only an inch and a half to the XA’s four-inch length, but it sure manages to make it too long for my jeans pocket.

I dropped a roll of Fujicolor 200 and two SR44 batteries into my XA and got to shooting. The complainers, I quickly decided, must only be picking at nits. The rangefinder is remarkably easy to focus. The lens returned superb results. But I removed the A11 flash. I did want to carry the camera in my pocket, after all.

Because of the need to set aperture and focus, the XA isn’t quite as instantly ready as its brother, the almost point-and-shoot XA2. But using either camera begins the same way: by sliding the clamshell open to reveal the lens. Be sure to do it by pressing against the ribs on top of the camera.

At a skosh under eight ounces, it was easy to slip the XA into my pocket for a bicycle ride to Juan Solomon Park and its brand new playground. I can’t figure out what this piece of equipment is fun for, but I sure liked the subtle shadow it threw in the evening sunlight. The XA is an aperture-priority camera, meaning you set the aperture and the camera chooses a shutter speed based on what the light meter tells it. The XA can focus as close as 2.8 feet. I set the aperture wide, moved in close, and focused on the nearest blue disc, and got good sharpness up close and a creamy softness father away.

At the playground

The f/2.8 lens can be stopped all the way down to f/22, which is pinhole tiny and in good light would provide sharp results for a mile. This bench wasn’t quite that far away, of course.

Bench

The XA’s electronic shutter operates from 1/500 to 10 seconds. A display inside the viewfinder shows the shutter speed the camera mates to the aperture you choose. I set the lens to f/2.8 for this shot of my old friend, and it was bright enough out for a fast shutter.

Gracie on the deck

I took the XA with me on a day trip that brought me through tiny Kirklin on the Michigan Road. For once I had time to stop and look through the many antique shops in town. I came away from one with a great bargain on a clean Polaroid SX-70 camera! I paused for this photo along the main drag and am very impressed with the shade of blue in the sky.

Kirklin

Sadly, many of Kirklin’s buildings need considerable TLC. This tired building provided a good opportunity to see how the XA renders detail. The XA acquitted itself well.

Kirklin doorway

You can see several other photos in my Olympus XA gallery.

I picked up my XA at a fire-sale price because the seller listed it as an “Olympus A11” after the attached flash. But when this camera was new in 1979, its price was no fire sale: $233, which is a hefty $735 in 2012 dollars. Olympus made XAs through 1985, so even at that price it must have been popular. No wonder; it is a wonderful camera.


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15 thoughts on “Olympus XA

  1. Looks like you got a good one. I haven’t used mine much, but it has made some nice pictures for me. The auto-exposure does a particularly good job under a wide variety of conditions. I would probably use my XA more if I didn’t have 15 other rangefinder cameras.

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    • This is a camera I must remember to use sometimes, like my Canonet QL17. I really enjoyed the experience, and got some very nice shots from it, But there isn’t a photographic situation where this is the obvious camera to use. My XA2, on the other hand, appeals to me for street photography because it’s so simple to use and small enough to be invisible. It is the camera I will likely deliberately reach for next time I go out among random people with the object of photographing them.

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  2. Brandon Campbell says:

    Wow, we’ve had so many cameras in common! The XA is one of my favorite cameras of all time, and one of only two that I insisted on keeping (the other being the Minolta X-700) when I sold all my other film cameras. I’d still be carrying it with me every day if I could afford the film and processing, there are still no digital cameras that come near its combination of size, quality, features, and affordability. Closest I’ve seen so far is my Olympus E-PM1 which with the equivalent lens would be about the size of a Canonet.

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    • I shoot a Canon PowerShot S95 as my everyday digital camera, and it’s pretty darn good. I could shoot only it for the rest of my life and get great photos every day. But my favorite film camera is my Pentax ME. I have a bunch of K-mount lenses for it but almost always shoot my 50mm f/2 lens on it. It’s an easy handler, compact and light. And the Pentax glass is first rate.

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  3. Nik.C says:

    Just picked up an XA, as I prefer shooting in Aperture priority this was at a really good price I couldn’t ignore on Ebay. I want to get more into street photography, and rather than lug around a big DSLR or even my smaller OM-1,or for that matter my Electro 35 GTN, this is perfect, looks like a toy camera, and wouldn’t threaten a fly with its petite size!
    Apart from it being a design classic, it’s got a great lens, and while its not going win any prizes in the Bokeh stakes, at 2.8, you will get some nice depth.
    I’ve used Ektar 100 in my Electro 35, and just loved the depth of colour , so with another great lens to put thru it’s paces, I’m sure it will live up to the hype!
    Being a recent re-convert to film, it’s so much fun picking up great cameras for so little, and experimenting, my 3 year old often asks for a try when I’m using my Electro 35, obviously he struggles with its size ( and I have to refocus!) but managed to take a self decent shot, I should think he’ll love to get his hands on this!! Just like me!

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    • It’s hard to go wrong with the XA and I agree, it should be a wonderful street-photography camera. Ektar 100 would be fun in this camera. You’re so right about how fun it is to pick up good vintage glass for a pittance.

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  4. slow joe crow says:

    By way of introduction, I found your blog from Curbside Classics. I wanted an XA in high school because I thought a teeny rangefinder camera was cool. Patience is rewarded, I got an XA in a plastic presentation case with a A11 flash for $5 at a garage sale in 2007. Ironically I paid more for the batteries. I will confess to only running one roll of film through it since I got a Nikon D60 shortly afterwards and I had some trouble recalibrating my eye to shooting with a 35mm lens. I should have been better at that since I used my Nikon FM with just a 35mm and a 105mm for years. Anyway thanks for reawakening memories and maybe it’s time to show the kids how we used to do it.

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    • Thanks for jumping over here! The XA is a great little camera. I like the XA2 about as much; I’ve reviewed it somewhere on here too. You can get Fujicolor 200 for less than two bucks a roll in a lot of places. And processing is reasonable at http://www.thedarkroom.com. No excuse not to shoot a little film!!

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  5. Pingback: What’s the best compact 35mm film camera to take on vacation? | Down the Road

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