Olympus XA

The Olympus XA is pretty much the most sought after camera for photographers looking for a semi-manual pocketable film camera. 

Why is it so special? There are dozens of reviews on the internet that go into great detail on the specs of the XA, so I won’t do that here. Essentially, the XA manages to fit an incredibly sharp Zuiko 35mm f2.8 lens into one of the smallest and lightest 35mm bodies ever made. It also has a pretty cool flash attachment that screws onto the side, which is great because you can remove it when you don’t need a flash. 

Portra 400. Shot at f5.6

Aesthetics and feel. The size and weight of this camera make it perfect for travel. It’s made of plastic, which keeps the weight down. The clamshell design provides plenty of protection for the lens. Amongst “pocketable” 35mm cameras it is one that can actually fit in a pants pocket. The camera is an aesthetically pleasing rectangular shape, but the edges are rounded enough so that it doesn’t get caught on things. One thing to note is that the camera quickly loses its pocketability when the flash is attached. I like the ability to use a flash, but I hardly use it because it’s so big and a bit awkward looking.

Portra 400. Shot at f2.8

Reliability. The XA is fully electronic; it will not operate without a battery. With how expensive these cameras are today, I was put off by the fear that it would suddenly stop working one day for reasons unknown. My first XA had the dreaded self-timer malfunction, where the camera would only fire after a 10 second countdown. Despite how well-made the XA is, everything stops working eventually, and these cameras are about 40 years old by now. So, it’s important to get a working model from the start – if it’s cheap, there’s probably a reason why. 

Fuji 100. Shot at f2.8

Image character. Wow, this lens is sharp (when you get it in focus). I generally shoot wide open because I like a shallow depth of field, so my XA is set to f2.8 90% of the time. I find f2.8 to be plenty sharp, and it seems to get even sharper towards f5.6. The pictures in this post will probably give you a better idea of image character than I can explain here.

Fuji 100. Shot at f8
Portra 400. Shot at f2.8

Operation. The XA is not the easiest camera to use, nor is it the quickest. For on the fly street photography, there are better options – perhaps the XA2. I have the most difficulty with focusing and composition. I’ve never been good at focusing rangefinders, and the XA is no exception. The focusing patch on mine is fading – apparently a common problem with older rangefinders and the XA in particular. This makes it much harder to align the double images. To remedy this, I’ve put a small sticker on the middle of the viewfinder to give the focus patch more contrast.

The XA viewfinder. Notice the shutter speed indicator on the left and my DIY focus patch fix in the middle.
The XA2 slightly out of focus because I had trouble seeing the focus patch. Fuji 100 shot at f2.8.

Composition is also hard due to the fact that you aren’t actually looking through the lens, but rather a viewfinder right above it. With most point and shoots I’m more focused on capturing the moment rather than composition. But because the XA is capable of producing very high quality images, I find myself caring more about the technical aspects of each shot.  

I composed this picture with the telephone pole in the center and townhouses on either side, but obviously I was way off. Fuji 100 shot at f.5.6.

Now onto the positives. The XA is probably the quietest camera I’ve ever used. The shutter release is more of an electronic pressure sensor rather than a button, which is a bit weird at first. The clamshell completely protects the fragile parts of the camera when not in use. I much prefer this design over a extending/retracting lens, such as the Ricoh R1, as there are fewer mechnical pieces that can break, especially if accidentally turned on in my pocket.  

Conclusion. The XA is definitely one of my favorite cameras. It’s not the most fun to use for me personally, mainly due to the difficulty I have with focusing, but I’m hoping I’ll get better with practice. So far I haven’t been able to find another camera that combines the size, lens quality, and features that the XA has. 

Portra 400. Shot at f8

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