Olympus XA on top of Leica iii
Gear Theory

Olympus XA and other Compacts – Rediscovering Old Flames – By Alan Reich

July 1, 2020

I currently live in London UK, but some years ago I lived in the Middle East working as a journalist. I have a life long habit of street photography and have had many iterations of a favourite every day camera.

I only started taking photos as a student in university but the hobby/obsession and my camera collection has grown since then. My first camera was a Ricoh 500G. It gave me good practice with rangefinder focussing, however I did not know much about composition or even how to get the best out of the lens (which I later realised wasn’t really that sharp).

Use them and abuse them

Over time I learned about the great street photographers who I admired and often imitated. I have always had a thing for small cameras. For over a decade I constantly carried a Contax T2 in it’s pouch/holster so I could shoot from the hip with Tri-X black and white.

I also went through several Olympus Mju-II cameras. I bought 3 for £79 from Jessops; one was left on a bus and the other two were used until they eventually stopped working. Later I sold the T2 and recently gave my teenage son the repaired Olympus Mju-II. They seem to be very popular cameras with the millennials who are discovering film. I tell my son to get in closer to the subject as that camera lens has an incredible close focussing ability, and seems to be at its sharpest close up.

Bansky graffiti of chambermaid

This Bansky graffiti taken in Chalk Farm London in 2007, it is now underneath a new mural that was painted over it – taken with a Panasonic Digital.

two women outside a pub

Lady Gaga at a hen do? – Taken with a Konica Big Mini BM-201

Small but mighty

I have now gone back to using the original inspiration for the Mju-II, my Olympus XA. I love it’s bright viewfinder. This is the original in the XA series. It also has an incredibly sharp 35mm 2.8 lens, paired with aperture priority exposure (with some back light exposure compensation) and a very accurate rangefinder manual focus. All in a tiny compact body. It feels in the hand like a large rounded pebble that has been smoothed by the time and tide of all camera design up to 1979, when it was released.

The only other camera that I owned that is as small, quiet and discreet as the XA, was the Minox 35GT. I used the Minox until it literally fell apart. It has a double stroke wind-on, which you have to remember before missing the crucial shot. In this ultra compact design the lens transports into and out of the body using levers and the folding door. I found that this eventually gets weakened from use (or might be my rough handling).

women crouching down looking at toddler

Tourists finding something interesting at the British Museum – Taken with a Contax G1 28mm lens and Kodak Tri X.

Funny, true story… I was hiking in the woods on the island of Cyprus and inadvertently walked into a hidden military base on the very sensitive border between the Greek and the Turkish part of the divided island. I was jovial with the soldiers joking: “I’m just a tourist not a spy ha ha.” They took me to an empty room and told me to wait. In a bit of a panic I then stupidly put my Minox 35GT into a pack of cigarettes. It’s a perfect fit (remove the cigarettes first). Then a soldier came into the room to “interview” me. I don’t even know why I hid the camera. Only then did I realise that it would look very suspicious if discovered.

They searched my backpack and saw the cigarettes, but never looked inside it. I was allowed to leave with a serious telling off to be more careful in future and obey the ‘No Entry’ signs (which were in Greek!!). But that reminded me that the Minox 35mm compact is the ultimate spy camera and not the Minox subminiature B camera.

Two women in hairdresser under hairdryers

Looks like 1955, but actually taken in 2005. Contax T2 with Kodak Tri-X

I own some excellent SLR and mirrorless cameras, including a Nikon FM3A and a Sony A7iii (paired with some bulky but razor sharp Zeiss lenses). However I have a thing for compact cameras that are easy to throw in a pocket and travel with until they either need repairing or replacing. Yes it is a cliché, but a true principle that the best camera is the one you have on you. I have developed a well-practiced draw and shoot style. I prefer to not attract attention, so a small compact that does not look intimidating and has a quiet shutter does help.

Person with shopping bag on head

Shopping in style! – Taken with Olympus Mju-II

Portreath Cornwall station and toilets

Clotted creamy Cornwall colours. Taken with Olympus XA and Kodak Portra 400

When I was a child my father had a 1933 Leica iii with a collapsible Elmar 5cm F3.5. He took all the family holiday snaps with. I have a few photos that he allowed me to take, after he measured the light with a Weston light meter and set the camera settings. My father passed away last year and I inherited his Leica.

After a CLA (at Aperture in London) I have shot some, albeit slower, colour street photography with it. The Leica iii shows me that the compact camera is not a new invention. It has the perfect slim body with a great balance to it, and easily fits into a jacket or a pouch. It also reminds me of my father, and I now use it to photograph my own children.

I post pictures on Instagram _wandering_camera

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8 Comments

  • Reply
    Huss
    July 1, 2020 at 4:34 pm

    The railway station pic is fantastic!

    • Reply
      Clive W
      July 1, 2020 at 8:03 pm

      It is! I had to look twice to even see the train. Which part of the GWR region has trains clean enough for that?

  • Reply
    Tom
    July 1, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    Nice article and super images as well.

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    July 1, 2020 at 10:50 pm

    That train station reflection . . . what a catch!

  • Reply
    Geoff
    July 31, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    A bit late to tell you this, but I just happen to have the same pair of cameras, an XA and a Leica iii, but mine is an f. Thank you for your post.

  • Reply
    Geoff
    July 31, 2020 at 7:03 pm

    But I do have a 5cm f:2 Summar as well as the f3.5 Elmar. Too much stuff!

    • Reply
      Alan Reich
      August 2, 2020 at 8:42 am

      Never too much stuff! As long as you’re enjoying it

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