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.
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.
Finally, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out my entire collection!