Camera review, Classic cameras
Comments 6

Olympus XA review

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Olympus XA, with its equally compact flash (Pic: Dave Fayram)

Cameras don’t come much smaller than the Olympus XA. A compact camera with a clamshell sliding door, this little rangefinder was sold on the strengths of its pocketable size. But its strengths didn’t end there.

Designed by Olympus’s legendary Yoshihisa Maitani and released in 1979, the XA packed a lot of punch for a camera small enough to stuff in your pocket. No Lomo-style zone-focusing here – the XA was a rangefinder like it’s bigger, bulkier cousins such as the Leica and the Contax, but a fraction of the size. The Zuiko lens contained in the XA’s tiny frame was sharp and contrasty (Olympus had an enviable reputation for its lenses thanks to the OM range of SLRs and the Olympus Trip compact).

The XA quickly became a favourite with street photographers – the camera’s tiny size makes it look like a tourist’s happy snapper, rather than something a serious photographer would use; perfect for grabbing shots without anyone noticing.

Why’s the XA so good? It focuses down to less than a metre, the lens opens up to 2.8 – it even has an over-ride so you can take pics with strong backlighting. The shutter button responds to the lightest touch, meaning camera shake in this little gems is kept to a minimum. The XA was only the start of a series of XAs, including the Lomo-like zone-focusing XA2, a selenium-celled version called the XA1 and the macro XA4.

The excellent camera review site Photoethnography described the XA as ” the camera that professional photographers carry on their vacations”. I first realised how good the XA was when Phil Coomes, the BBC News website’s picture editor, used one for his 64×64 project to mark the dying days of Kodachrome 64. Soon after I found one for sale at the RPS’s annual photography fair in London – in perfect working order for£4. You can find them for cheaper on eBay, but being able to prod and poke old film cameras and see if they’re actually working is always a good idea.

I wasn’t disappointed. The XA is an incredibly good camera, packed with features that would usually be found on much more expensive – and much bigger cameras. My XA has travelled with me to Barcelona and Dubrovnik, and a sunny Reading festival. It’s not only a superb street shooter but perfect for Lomo-style shooting – cross-processed slide comes out a treat. With an ISO setting that goes up to 800, there’s plenty of scope for low-light shooting, especially as there’s no mirror to cause camera shake.

I hadn’t shot on the Olympus for 18 months or so, but pulled it out of the camera drawer to take on a recent trip to Brighton. In bright but overcast weather, the XA paired with Fomapan 200 was perfect; punchy pics with hard, contrasty blacks.

The old school photographer’s advice is always have a camera with you. The XA should be that camera.

See pics below, or on my Flickr here.

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Xpro ferris wheel at Reading Festival

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Xpro BT Tower – retro blue, 70s style

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Snapped at the National Theatre on a sunny spring day

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Queen’s Park Xpro foliage

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Somerset House art installation

6 Comments

  1. Great shots! The XA is on my list of cameras to acquire. I already have its later cousin the mju-II, but sometimes all this autofocus, autowind stuff does get in the way.

  2. Design of this camera is truly lovely – it’s small, fast and just fun to use. But i sold mine, because I was disenchanted by the quality of image it provided. It wasn’t very sharp even at f=4-5.6 (I did some 18cmx24cm prints and not impressive sharpness was already visible). Maybe mine XA was faulty, but if it’s normal, then I prefer any other 70s rangefinder camera – a little bigger and harder to hide in your pocket, but sharp and contrasty as hell.

  3. I bought one of these when they first came out and was delighted with it. I used it for a number of years and it was a little marvel for it’s time. I still have it and since reading this article have decided to take it for a spin later this week, for old times sake. I know it isn’t the sharpest of lenses but used for the right purpose i.e. where composition and mood is more important than tack sharpness, it can produce great results. I was always pleased with the quality of the images I made back in the day.

    I carry a camera with me everywhere I go so want something pocketable. I always have. I own a DSLR and a Mirrorless, but also have a Canon S110, and a Lumix LX3 before that, and a Ricoh Caplio 10 before that etc. The XA was the quality affordable pocket camera of it’s day and it gave me the chance to photograph where I wouldn’t have done if I had to rely on carrying an SLR, or not carrying it as was often the case.

    I accept it’s limitations, but it is still a brilliant little camera and one that I am pleased to own.

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