Olympus XA

Mini-Review

4 min read by Dmitri and Betty. Published in Film & Photography.

My well-used Olympus XA rangefinder had an iffy light meter needle and a loose door that kept on getting in the way. But it’s the red shutter button that pushed me to sell the little gem.

Olympus XA is the smallest full-frame rangefinder camera. It comes with a fast 35mm F.Zuiko 𝑓2.8-22 lens that can focus between 0.9m and infinity. Its quiet variable speed shutter can stay open anywhere between 10 and 1/500th of a second. Released in 1979, it measures 102 mm × 64.5 mm × 40 mm and weighs 225 gram.

By comparison, the smallest full-frame digital camera in 2019 is Sigma fp, weighing at 370 gram without a lens or a battery. Sigma measures 112.6 mm × 69.9 mm × 45.3 mm. Forty years passed, still, the smallest digital alternative is larger and heavier than the XA.

Shot on expired Kodak Portra 400UC.

The camera’s remarkable dimensions, weight, and ergonomics make it more pocketable than an iPhone. With its sharp lens and a decent selection of film still available in 35mm, it can take much better photos too.

The rangefinder mechanism makes focusing fast and accurate. The viewfinder window is reasonably comfortable to look though; it features exposure needle and parallax markings.

Aperture priority settings make for an easy way to creatively control your photography. Bokeh? No problem. 𝑓2.8 on a full-frame looks lovely in low light. There is simply no other camera out there that can make images like that. At least not in this size.

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. Although I would have preferred it to be fully mechanical.

Most of the cameras I shoot today are the older variants from the 60s like Voigtländer Vitessa L and FED 5b. They’re slower to operate, with greater control over exposure and fewer parts to break. The shutter triggers made back then have a considerable travel distance between the resting and activated positions. For me, being able to feel the little metal knob sink with light mechanical resistance until the moment it goes off is essential. This type of action suits my trained expectation of having an extra slack between touching the button and having the shutter click.

Olympus XA’s trigger feels like a touchscreen. No feedback. The only way to know that pressing it did anything is to listen for the very quiet leaf shutter open and close. I found this particular experience wholly unsatisfying.

So I decided to let it go.

Whenever a manufacturer tries to create something that would suit everyone, it just does not work. In case of Olympus, the trade-offs which I was willing to live with happily were the thumb winder, a lens that’s a little too wide for my liking, and the camera’s need to consume batteries.

The relatively wide-angle lens, combined with high-density film, could work as well for landscapes as any 35mm shooter. Its sharp glass with decent background separation is acceptable for portraiture, although with a minimal distance of one meter there won’t be any close-ups. As for street photography, you’d be hard-pressed to find many options that can do a better job. Still, the trigger button confused and annoyed my spoiled self.

It only took one roll for me to realize that this little beaut is not for me.