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 awkwardly placed lever 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. 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.
If you like quality 35mm compacts, also check out my review of the Olympus XA2 here. Other small, but not quite this small, 35mm Olympuses I’ve reviewed include the Stylus (here), the Stylus Epic Zoom 80 (here), and the μ[mju:] Zoom 140 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
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. It was perfect for this long shot of tiny Kirklin, Indiana.
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 really took to the Olympus XA. It became one of my go-to cameras. I’ve shot all sorts of subjects with it, on all sorts of film. Here’s an old Chrysler I photographed on Arista Premium 400.
Also, the teeth of an old Dodge Charger. The rangefinder patch is small, but it’s bright enough and I’ve always been able to easily focus it accurately.
I made one of my favorite photos of all time with the Olympus XA: approaching the midway of the Indiana State Fair as the sun was almost set. I was shooting Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800.
The controls are all tiny, especially the rangefinder lever. They feel slight, as if too much pressure could break them off. Just go gently and all will be well. But do go, as this camera is such an easy companion to bring along. I brought it along to visit my son at Purdue and we walked along Lafayette’s main street, where I photographed the Lafayette Theater marquee on Agfa Vista 200.
It also came along on a frigid December weekend to Chicago, shooting Kosmo Foto Mono. I kept it in my inner coat pocket when I wasn’t using it so it would stay warm. It performed flawlessly when I brought it out into the chilled air.
My one complaint with the XA is that the shutter button requires only the slightest of pressure to fire. I’ve wasted a few shots that way. Not this one, however. I think it turned out fine.
You can see several other photos in my Olympus XA gallery.
I picked up my XA at a fire-sale price because the eBay seller mistakenly 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 equivalent to well north of $800 today. Olympus made XAs through 1985, so even at that price it must have been popular. No wonder; it is a wonderful camera.