Olympus XA

A Tiny Rangefinder Review

6 min read by Dmitri and Betty.
Olympus XA is a fixed 35mm f/2.8 lens 35mm rangefinder. Released in 1979 (Japan).

A tiny camera weighing a mere 225g and just over 100cm/4” on its longest side, Olympus XA fits an impressive 35mm F.Zuiko 𝑓2.8-22 lens that can focus between 0.9m and infinity. To this day, the original XA remains the smallest full-frame rangefinder camera. Olympus XA is an aperture priority, battery-powered shooter with a shutter that actuates anywhere between 10s and 1/500.

Olympus XA bokeh.

The camera’s remarkable dimensions, weight, and ergonomics make it more pocketable than an iPhone. Its slightly wide-angled lens with a uniquely small footprint for a full-frame can probably take better photos too. 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.

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.

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.

Its leaf shutter is quiet and lightweight. The camera requires 2 × SR44 batteries to activate the electronics that control it. They last a long time.

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.

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 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.

Olympus XA. Shot on expired Kodak Portra 400UC.

A 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 slightly more laborious/abrasive.

Being a predominantly 50mm shooter, I found XA’s 35mm lens surprisingly comfortable and liberating when trying to capture landscapes and shooting indoors. I love its weight and portability. The controls, aside from the pesky shutter button, generally feel good in my average-sized man hands.

Noticeable softness and aberration in the top-left corner with plenty of sharpness in the middle. Olympus XA on expired Kodak Portra 400UC. Note that this is a cropped image.

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 for on 35mm film. It’s rather impressive how well it performs, considering that it needs no extension tube like the Rollei, making readying the camera as easy as sliding the cover open.

Being the smallest rangefinder, 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 practically impossible (unless they wear a huge hat).

Olympus XA. Shot on expired Kodak Portra 400UC.

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.

The XA’s revolutionary-for-the-time design later gave birth to a series of increasingly less impressive cameras: 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. However, the other models can be found in some funky colours (white, blue, red, pink) — not that such things can serve as a consolation for such an important feature’s absence. The original XA is also the only camera in the series that features a fast 𝒇2.8 lens.

Olympus XAs are known to break occasionally, though considering their age, I’d say they last pretty well.

Olympus XA. Shot on expired Kodak Portra 400UC.

Olympus XA is a brilliant camera for the right person. It features portability and a great little lens that can be quite sharp at most apertures. Even the bokeh is nice on the XA, and there’s plenty of options to control the exposure.

But beware: the shutter button is a common complaint. I found it particularly difficult to use in the street settings or even in the plain outdoors when I wanted to make sure that the shutter fires at the right moment. You may find a way to get used to it, but for me, unfortunately, this was a dealbreaker.