Olympus XA: The pocket professional by Stephen Dowling
This article was featured on Stephen’s site, and I liked it so much that I asked to have it on this site for you all to enjoy.
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 his64×64 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.
Thanks to Stephen Dowling for sharing this article with us. All the pictures are his and cannot be reproduced without his permission.
If you would like to see the original article, click here or visit Stephen’s site zorkiphoto.co.uk.
What a hoot! I still have one or two of these ancient analogue workhorses. One I believe still on the box. Strobe and all.
Haven’t thought of them let alone looked for then in over ten years!
But they were pretty fun. Until I went to the Contax T series…
Alas they too are ignored…
I am 82 and still going strong. When I graduated from grade school at age 14, I teacher in the one room school house in southern Wisconsin, would take her summer vacation to various interesting places and along with her went her ARGUS C-3 “The Brick”. When she returned to school that fall, she would have around 3 hundred color slides to show us in school….all thirty six of us. She knew I had my eye on her C-3, so when I graduated that spring and this was also her last year of teaching, she GAVE me her C-3. I have had it ever since along with about 20 others that I have collected from time to time. Then in the late 70’s, as I was working for a cross country charter bus company out of Los Angeles, I ran across an Olympus XA. My wife, 2 daughters, and 1 son ALL have one. Now I am in dire need of a reliable, knowledgeable, skilled, trustworthy, Olympus repairman. My e mail is below somewhere. Thanks and KEEP THE FAITH.
this is my one of favorite camera.
Olympus XA4 was not a real macro camera. It sported an excellent Zuiko 28mm f.3.5 lens that focused down to 30cm. I have one and it`s a wonderful street cam that could be operated with one hand. When closing, its camshell cover set the lens at 3m. You could set the distance without looking at scale, just by counting the clicks, inf, 3m, 1,5m, 1m, 0.7m , 0.5m , 0.3m. A truly design ikon thought for the photographer.
Nice article. Love my XA although mine cost a bit more than £4. Like all good designs it has a timeless quality – it just works really well. The metering is surprisingly good even in high contract situations and the +1.5 stop lever is genius. The lens is not at all shabby, either, even today. I use mine regularly and have stockpiled a couple of cheaper XA3’s for my kids. With the first XA that I bought, I found that the lower clam-shell runner had split and come away from the body. I suspect that this might be a common problem to check for.
This article is good. Being a relatively young photographer most of the older cameras are well over my head but working at a local camera shop has really broadened my camera knowledge. Since starting at the shop about three years ago the XA has very quickly become one of my all time favorite cameras to shoot for the simple reason that it doesn’t look like a serious camera. It’s THE perfect street photography camera as stated in the article above. Being that I like this series of cameras from Olympus so much I have now have two XAs and one XA2.
Great article and I have just dug my XA out!
When I first starting using my XA I found the focus a bit fiddly and the rangefinder lacked contrast. Focusing was basically guesswork or infinity. Then I found the rangefinder Sharpie tip from Rick Oleson and this has great;y helped my focusing with this camera.
I own this camera for about 3 years now. again. Had one many years ago. I own the flash too. Great everyday performer, great option with the flash and b/w film.
Now i go on and enjoy the “whats in your bag” series. thanx.
greets from germany.
Sometimes before go outside I ask myself “why today I should choose XA instead of my Contax T2?” For the moment no answer, I know it is different price range but a T2 is still ahead the small olympus gem.
Just bought a pair of these, I’m gonna harvest one of the lenses for my M! (Canon M unfortunately, not a Leica)
Indeed a great camera. Parents bought me one in 1980. Why did I sell it?
I’ve loved this little gem from the moment I bought it (mint in box). I’m not too fond of the flash module though..it makes it too wide and cumbersome to operate (for me). But the quality of the lens..wow. Simple and straight forward controls..there’s very little left to want with this camera. Nowadays I carry it on me 24/7 for a one-pic-every-day series I’ve started a few months ago. And when I got the first scanned results back, just blown away. At f/2.8 and f/4 there’s some interesting softness in the corners..something a lot of photographers apparently don’t appreciate..but I do. Very much so. Great article!
I just bought two of the XA’s and I want to put new batteries in them. Can anyone tell me exactly kind of battery they take? I want to get on Adorama/BH and get a few ordered right away :) Much appreciated
Michael B those are the batteries you want to be looking for: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LR44_battery They should be easy to find.
It uses two of the common SR44, available all over the place.
You can still download the XA manual from Olympus too ( http://www.olympusamerica.com/files/oima_cckb/XA_Instructions_EN.pdf )
Jag har en Olympus XA4 Macro till försäljning… hur mycket kan man få får den…
den är i mycket fint skick o har Electronic Flash A11 till den …
tacksam för svar :)…
I’ve had my XA’s & XA-2s for a number of years now. Reading the great testimonies has made me renew my desire to go out & take some photos. These are terrific little cameras, & I enjoy just looking at them.