Though I love the ergonomics and the features of some of the larger film cameras, I’m most drawn to the pocketable designs. Most of the time, that means sacrificing control (Olympus Mju), quality (Diana Mini), or it’s not a rangefinder — my favourite means of focusing. However, that is not the case with Olympus XA.
On paper, Olympus XA is a dream camera — if you’re anything like me: a film photographer who wants to have a rangefinder camera in a pocket. I’m not talking about squeezing a 1.5lb brick that is Vitessa A into a winter jacket. I’m talking about a truly pocketable camera that can fit in a jeans pocket, like an iPhone.
The smallest rangefinder ever made.
Olympus XA is the smallest rangefinder camera ever made. It weighs just 240g (8½oz) with batteries and film while measuring a mere 102mm × 64.5mm × 40mm (4” × 2.5” × 1.6”). Better yet, it comes with an excellent Olympus F.Zuiko 35mm 𝒇2.8-22 lens and an aperture priority autoexposure 10sec-1/500sec shutter.
These cameras feel and look well-built in their all-black metal/plastic chassis with white and orange accents. Unfortunately, many of these cameras would not last their 40+ years in storage or in use, and their design comes with a few drawbacks. In this review, I will cover all the great and not-so-great experiences I’ve had with this camera, as well as quirks, features, and some repair suggestions.
A brief history of the Olympus XA series.
Olympus XA was designed by Maitani Yoshihisa and introduced in 1979. Maitani is one of the best-known names when it comes to camera design; his work includes the incredible Olympus PEN and the Olympus OM cameras, and his influence spreads beyond his years to other products, such as [Mju:] series.
Maitani’s philosophy has always been a balance of quality and affordability. His cameras often stood out as relatively minimalist, compact, high quality, and affordable machines.
The XA’s revolutionary design gave way to a series of slightly less impressive cameras that lacked the rangefinder and 𝒇2.8 lens: XA 2, XA 1 (not to be confused with the “original” being reviewed here), and XA 3. The only exception to the rule of diminishing returns is XA 4, which brings .3m close focusing. The original XA is the only camera in the series with a rangefinder. Although, the later versions come in special colours.
Olympus F.Zuiko 35mm 𝒇2.8-22 lens and image quality.
Simply put, it is lovely.
Being a predominantly 50mm shooter, I found XA’s 35mm lens surprisingly comfortable and liberating when trying to capture landscapes and shooting indoors.
Other than some noticeable softness at the wide aperture in the corners, the lens on this little camera created defined, crisp photographs with all the detail one could ever wish from on 35mm film.
The lens’ impressive design allows it to remain close to the film plane without implementing an extension tube or bellows Rollei 35 and many other compact cameras had. This made preparing the XA for a picture a very simple and quick single-hand motion of sliding the cover open. This also made the camera a more robust compact as there was no need for moving parts as part of the lens barrel.
Despite its relatively wide angle of view, a modest maximum aperture of 𝑓2.8, and rhombus-shaped aperture blades, Olympus XA’s lens is capable of creating airy, beautiful bokeh. When stopped down, it is very sharp with a decent amount of contrast and minimal vignetting. I didn’t find any noticeable barrel distortion on my photographs although some chromatic aberration can sometimes be seen if you take photos of branches against white light — typical for lenses of that period.
Focusing with the Olympus XA rangefinder.
The rangefinder mechanism makes focusing fast and accurate, even in the dim light — amazing, considering the gadget’s size. If you wear glasses, however, you may have difficulties with finding the frame lines. The viewfinder window is reasonably comfortable and features an exposure needle and parallax markings. The viewfinder is blocked when the camera cover is closed.
Being the smallest rangefinder ever made, XA makes focusing in situations where autofocus or zone focusing won’t do a welcome relief. Close-up shots with loads of blur and detail accents are particularly difficult without a precision manual control — not a problem with the XA. Great for portraits, though the minimum distance of .9m on a 35mm lens will make filling the frame with somebody’s face without cropping practically impossible (unless they wear a huge hat).
I’ve owned two XAs, one of which had its frame lines and exposure indicator fade to the point of being invisible. Unfortunately, this is not where the troubles ended, as calibrating the rangefinder is difficult on this model. Being the key feature of the camera, having it malfunction turned the experience into a chore. If you’re looking to buy one of your own, I highly recommend you ensure that the rangefinder is properly functioning before making the payment.
Aperture priority auto-exposure.
XA’s aperture priority adds some creative flexibility many point-and-shoots lack. Bokeh? No problem. 𝑓2.8 on a full-frame looks lovely in low light.
When it comes to exposure, the camera’s metering system seems to be doing a great job most of the time. Should there be a situation where your scene is backlit, and you’d like to get some extra details in the shadows, a small plastic tab at the bottom can be pulled one notch to add 1.5 EV of light. Turning it one more notch will indicate battery charge; finally, its last setting will set your camera into a self-timer mode (with a twelve-second delay).
You may even fudge your camera to behave even further by altering your ISO dial. And should the 𝒇2.8 lens not be enough for those dusk scenes, an external flash, A11, unit may be attached.
An 𝒇22 aperture can be quite useful if you plan to photograph in a wide range of lighting conditions with ISO400+ film. But, as I mentioned above, you need to ensure that your light exposure indicator is visible and functioning.
Olympus XA ergonomics, design, and operation.
The camera’s remarkable dimensions, weight, and ergonomics make it as pocketable as a small smartphone. Its slightly wide-angled lens with a uniquely small footprint for a full-frame can take better than most smartphones. Like most quality vintage glass, it’s tack-sharp in the centre with some light aberrations and soft focus in the corners at wider apertures.
Its leaf shutter is quiet and lightweight. The camera requires 2 × SR44 batteries to activate the electronics that control it, which can last months or years.
Unfortunately, Olympus XA’s trigger feels like a touchscreen; there’s no feedback. The only way to know that pressing it did anything is to listen for the very quiet leaf shutter blades open and close. A challenge in a noisy environment. It is also an impediment to opening the camera that needs to be ripped off and then glued back on during each disassembly cycle. And even the slightest mistake in the glue application can render the button unusable.
Another point of slight annoyance is the film winder, which is a plastic wheel you’d have to thumb as you progress to the next frame. I found it tolerable with Kodak films, but Fuji canisters are wound a little tighter, which makes the process laborious/abrasive for fingers.
The build quality of Olympus XA is better than most other plastic bodies, though it is mostly just that, with an exception of the film door, glass lens, and some internal components. The material is justified, of course, as at the time, there was no way to mould titanium to create light, durable bodies like the one of Minolta TC-1. However, I would say that Revue 35XE probably did a better job with their plastic body — given that it was produced a few years after the XA.
In my experience, I found that Olympus XAs are prone to some sort of malfunction at their current age. And because turning them on and off does not indicate their working conditions, there are some copies out there that are being sold that aren’t functional or need repair. This is why I recommend you look for a reputable seller with some sort of promise that what you’ll be getting still works.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Olympus XA camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!