Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

Olympus XA – Mighty Micro Machine – Guest review by Michael Rennie

The Olympus XA, what can I say about this legendary little camera that hasn’t been said before? The XA is like a pebble that just sits perfectly in your hand, it just feels right; it was the future as seen in 1979 and now we’re here, in the future, it suits me perfectly.  The Olympus XA is the original in a series of cameras (XA1, XA2, XA3 and XA4) but I’m not going to talk about them as I’ve never used them. And internet wisdom says the original is best; everyone knows if it’s on the internet, it’s the truth.

Experienced in her field

A mini rangefinder

As well as being a beautiful lesson in fitness for purpose, the Olympus XA is a great introduction to rangefinder cameras as it only operates in aperture priority mode and has an uncannily accurate meter. It’s also one of the cheapest rangefinders available at the moment, although many seem to be suffering from electrical issues and are listed as spares/repair, often the repair is as simple as fitting new batteries (2 x SR44 if you’re interested) or dismantling the shutter button and cleaning the contacts.

The design and ergonomics are perfectly functional; with the all the optics protected under a neat little clam shell / sliding cover that also doubles as the on/off switch, a multi position switch to set the film speed and a 3 position switch to check the battery, set the self-timer and dial in +1.5 back light compensation.

My most common use for the Olympus XA is action shots when I’m on the bike, it’s the perfect size to fit in a cycle jersey pocket.

XA on the bike 4

XA-31

Two up in the sun

I can grab the strap from my back pocket (I use a para cord wrist strap attached to the hinge for the film door) and haul it out, pop open the cover and I can shoot one handed from the bike with a fantastic hit rate.

My favoured film for this type of use is Fuji Superia 400, it is great for the greens of the Scottish country lanes where we ride,  400 ISO keeps the shutter speed in a good range for one handed use. F8 and zone focus around 1.5m all pre-set, I just estimate framing and press the shutter.

XA on the bike 3

XA-52

The shutter

Oh that shutter button, it must have been a futuristic marvel in 1979 and when it’s working I love it but right now I’m without a shutter button as I snapped mine attempting a cack-handed repair,(the only type of repair I’m capable of I think!)

The pressure switch shutter button combined with the clam shell cover and overall size of the Olympus XA make you feel like a spy if you’re shooting inconspicuously. The leaf shutter itself is super discrete and almost silent, certainly difficult to hear sometimes with the wind in my ears on the bike. Sometimes the shutter switch can almost be over sensitive and I have accidentally triggered it quite a few times. I combat this by keeping the cover closed until I’m nearly ready to shoot.

The shutter button action is so light I can comfortable hand hold on a 1/15th shutter speed anyway, below this shutter speed I brace the camera on something solid and use the self-timer. If I’m going slower yet I use a tripod or flat surface (the base of the camera is flat and the self-timer lever acts like a little leg so this works well). You’re not going to be making star trails with this bad boy as the shutter speed is limited to 10 seconds, but again for a camera this size 10 seconds is plenty, certainly enough to capture most night time scenes and even some urban light trails.

XA-81

Focusing

Critical focusing on the Olympus XA’s micro rangefinder is pretty user friendly considering the small size of the camera. The ergonomics are spot on, the finder patch is pretty bright and the viewfinder is a decent size. OK, the range finder patch pretty much disappears in very bright conditions if you are facing the sun, but this isn’t such a problem as you might think. For landscape’s I just focus a touch short of infinity and for close ups there is usually enough contrast between the subject and the background anyway, I have actually tried coloured filters on the range finder window but found they just cut the light lever rather than giving more contrast.

Sittin on the dock of the bay

The Olympus XA Lens

The lens is a pretty special little thing, especially considering its size, it may vignette and fall off a little in the corners but makes lovely images. The contrast and sharpness it produces are great (to my eye anyway) and the vignette adds to them rather than ruining them; they have character! Put it this way, when I look through the two and a half thousands odd photos I’ve taken over the last few years, images from the XA are consistently my favourites.

Agfa colours

So green

Little explorer

Talking of favourites, Agfa Vista 200 (Poundland Vista) and the XA also work well together. In good light and with the punchy contrast from the 32mm F2.8 lens this combo makes great images – see Rob Law’s work for more evidence of this! https://www.instagram.com/with_the_grain_photo/

 

Bathroom with a view

Final thoughts

A camera this pocketable (is this a word?) and capable is not common, so there really is no excuse for not carrying it everywhere. It may not have the optical or build quality of some of the more pro level rangefinders but the packaging and size mean it really can go everywhere with me, either in a jacket pocket or stuffed in the side of my camera bag, the well-worn cliché of the best camera being the one you have with you applies perfectly to the Olympus XA.  This is a fantastically capable camera you really can carry 24/7, I thoroughly recommend you pick one up soon!


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33 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Rob Law
    July 7, 2016 at 1:33 pm

    Wow! A superb review of a great little camera that just performs again and again. Very well written, Michael and a lovely set of images to boot. My favourite is the very last one. Thanks for the referral too – my Instagram images are 50-50 Leica M6 and Olympus XA. The XA ones are easy to spot on the grid! Well done again and thanks to Hamish for running this fantastic site!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 7, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      It’s a pleasure!
      Your turn to contribute next then…? 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Michael Rennie
    July 7, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my work and my words Hamish, writing is hard! Photography comes a bit more naturally that’s for sure!

    You can see more of my XA work here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskeo4YDe

    I’d love any CC on the images and writing for the 35mmc.com readers.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 7, 2016 at 2:54 pm

      A pleasure, honestly – and there is no problem with your writing – it made for an enjoyable read!!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 7, 2016 at 2:55 pm

      Incidentally, I love the shot of the dog!!

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Michael Rennie
        July 7, 2016 at 3:36 pm

        Haha, she’s my muse. Very easy to pay (biscuits or even better liver cake) and super cute (I would say that!)

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Alex Hakimi
    July 7, 2016 at 6:34 pm

    great read, great pics. nicely done Michael. i own a minty XA myself, it just doesn’t see much use due to the maximum ISO rating of 800. it is great for those sunny days though.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Terry B
      July 9, 2016 at 9:43 am

      What’s this, Alex? You seldom use it because it “only” has a maximum rating of 800 ISO? It seems like digital ISO’s have grabbed you by the short and curlies. :D)

      I bought mine new with the now slightly rare A16 flash. The clam shell design did make it fast to bring into use and slip into a pocket without the need for a case. Sadly it now resides, somewhat forlornly but not forgotten, along with many of my other “user” cameras that I didn’t dispose of but added to my collection. When it was being used it was a joy.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Alex Hakimi
        July 10, 2016 at 6:03 pm

        Hi Terry – my penchant for high ISO shooting really has nothing to do with digital cameras. In fact, I don’t even own a proper digital camera. The primary reason is that I’ve become so pleased with results of pushing particular B&W films by 2 to 3 stops that I rarely shoot them at box speed. In fact, I’m working on an article now for 35mmc that pertains to this very subject. Keep your eyes peeled. : )

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          July 10, 2016 at 8:16 pm

          I’m so with you on that Alex – I havent shot hp5 at box for probably a year

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Terry B
          July 10, 2016 at 8:39 pm

          Alex, I look forward to you article very much. It’s something that I dabbled in when needed, especially with Tri-X which I found very amenable to push processing.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          David
          July 17, 2016 at 11:40 am

          Personally I agree that 800 is limiting, but I think it all comes down to personal work-flow. I use Diafine which means that most films have an IE rating of more than double the box speed, without even really being considered a push. Tri-x is rated at 1200-1600 in Diafine for normal contrast negs, for example. Fompan 400 seems to be an exception, since it doesn’t really get an iso boost in Diafine, in which case iso 800 is not a limitation. If I want to shoot Tri-x I either have to switch camera or switch developer. The reason I use Diafine is the same reason I use my XA2: minimalism and simplicity, since Diafine does away with variables like temperature and time, and basically lasts for ever without having to be replenished. The reduction of variables is what I love so much about the XA2.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:32 pm

      Thanks very much Alex! I never really push film so never considered this as a limit. Glad you liked my images.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    tani P
    July 7, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    Great write-up & fantastic images! I’ll have to try more zone focusing, your results are great. I got my XA for a steal (35 USD) and it quickly became one of my favorite cameras—not just favorite compact or film camera, but camera in general. It’s truly a marvel.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:35 pm

      Thanks Tani, it really is an awesome wee bit of kit. I love the image quality and character it can produce.

  • Dan Castelli
    Reply
    Dan Castelli
    July 7, 2016 at 9:03 pm

    My then fiancé (now my wife) bought the XA w/the A11 flash back in 1979. We still have it and it’s taken out on occasion just to exercise it’s old bones. I shoot B&W in it. BTW, the XA series became standard issue for New York Times photographers back in the early ’80’s…Nice article and well illustrated.
    Also, thanks Bellamy for providing a great site.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:36 pm

      Great story, I’d love to see some of your shots. I’d love to think I’m anywhere near the standard of a NYT photographer.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Alex Hakimi
      July 11, 2016 at 12:44 am

      This is 35mmc, not JCH. ; ) – Both great sites.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      July 12, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      Haha, Bellamy?
      Though I’ll take the compliment about the site, and have no issue with the confusion 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Marco C
    July 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm

    I always thought that the XA was a fantastic camera, I have also the XA2, and it is brilliant in its own ways too!
    The only thing that bugged me about the XA is that the aperture priority at night is a bit annoying for me as it tends to use speeds longer than 1/15s.
    However, after reading here on 35mmc the contax T2 review from Ric Capucho, I discovered the flash setting: it keeps an aperture comparable to ~f/4 and uses a time exposure no longer than 1/15s.
    With ISO 400+ film it allows you to avoid (too) blurry pictures in the dark 😉
    A truly terrific camera after all! 😛

  • Avatar
    Reply
    rollbahn
    July 7, 2016 at 11:06 pm

    Very nice shots and great review – I have been wanting to try one of these for ages and I think this article might have just taken me past the tipping point 🙂 I have an Olympus Mju II as a take anywhere camera and the clamshell setup works very well and is nice and easy to put in your pocket. The best thing is the lens which is just amazing. Unfortunately it’s AF so it’s the normal Russian roulette when you get your negs back, which is why I shoot rangefinders I guess. Anyway off to eBay….

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:38 pm

      It’s got to be a good alternative. Glad you like the shots.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Dexter
    July 8, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Great shots – I use my Olympus MJU 1 on the bike and it seems to work pretty well. I might have to pick up an XA to try though, the bridge at dusk/dawn and the portrait of the dog are excellent.

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    Reply
    Ken Hindle-May
    July 8, 2016 at 10:37 am

    Wow, you’re brave taking the XA out on the bike! I exclusively use its modern, sweatproof, cousin, the Mju II, for that purpose. The XA is one of my very favourite cameras. As I’m fond of pointing out to friends who invest eye-watering sums into current digital gear, it’s a pin sharp 35mm f/2.8, full frame, that fits in the palm of your hand and costs under £100.

    You’ve described the feeling of shooting with an XA perfectly. It sits just right in the hand and requires a delicacy in handling that I’ve not experienced in another camera. Even the XA2, with its three-zone focus and lack of aperture control, feels quite different. Because of that delicateness, I use mine more sparingly than I probably should. My other main super compact shooters, the Mju II and Lomo LC-A, feel like they can be tossed in a bag or jacket pocket but I worry the XA won’t tolerate such rough treatment. As a result, I tend to use it when I’m either having a dedicated street photography day or as a high quality holiday shooter. I have a cool Lomography shoulder case with room for an LC-A (so the XA also fits nicely), money, apartment keys and (coolest of all) slots in the strap where spare films can be threaded through like Rambo’s bullet belt! It’s perfect for holiday shooting and the XA and Ektar 100 are a dream combination.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:43 pm

      I have had a few wet and sweaty rides where I’ve wondered if I the XA would survive, but so far it’s kept working! I’ve not shot Ektar in the XA yet but just got a load of it developed that I shot on a Leica M4 I have on loan. Lovely stuff!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Terry B
    July 9, 2016 at 10:09 am

    In today’s age when we have become somewhat immune to lens designs (folding optics and miniature zooms) we can oftentimes overlook the problems faced by earlier lens designers. The lens of the XA is a good example. Not knowing anything about it today and why it was so special hides the fact that it was a very special lens indeed, and one such design that I believe neither Olmpus was ever to follow again nor any other manufacturer to take up.

    Around the time of its launch I read quite a detailed overview of the lens and what the problems were that the Olympus designers had to overcome and which was why the lens was so special. Coming to it today, one tends to ask is it sharp and does it vignette? The answer is yes on both counts. But how often does one consider its actual design, or why it was so special in its day? The chance of coming across that review now are very slim, but a slightly less comprehensive, but still detailed, review can be found here and makes for an interesting read for those who have not seen it:

    http://www.diaxa.com/xa.htm

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      July 10, 2016 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks for that Terry, I’ll have a read of that tonight! I love all these technical and engineering details.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    David
    July 17, 2016 at 10:40 am

    I end up using my XA2 more than any other camera. Even though you can zone focus with the XA, the fact that the XA2 defaults to the middle setting every time, and that the viewfinder is completely free of information suits me perfectly. It has helped me shoot more spontaneously and more freely than ever. Even the addition of one small variable or detail (like having to remember to check the focus lever on the XA) makes a psychological difference to the way I shoot. I have a Contax T which is superior when it comes to build and image quality and basically replaces my XA, but even the fact that you have to open the Minox-style flap, rather than slide open the clam shell, means that I pick the XA2 when I know I need speed. The only thing I lack is the ability to shoot above iso 800. Even though the XA is a great camera, I’m looking to swap my XA for an XA3 to shoot at 1600.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    poppaneedsanap
    August 1, 2016 at 2:33 am

    Just grabbed an XA for $2.99 CDN today at a thrift store, with case and flash. Knowing nothing about it, I bought it because it looked a lot like the MJU. This is going to replace my Big Mini for a while I guess. I also push HP5 / TriX to 1600 for almost all of my day to day stuff with my SLR’s, but I’ve kept the Big Mini (and soon the XA) as my 24/7 cam, shooting box speed.

    gonna try this sucker out tonight

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Michael Rennie
      August 3, 2016 at 1:18 pm

      Great price for a working XA! Hope you enjoy using it.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Alessandro
    March 12, 2018 at 10:31 am

    Hi,
    I noticed that my xa’s photos are not as sharp as yours. Even if the focusing is correct (and even in f8/11/16 shots) the frames are softer. How it can be possible? Lens are clear and clean 🙁
    I love this camera but… I’ll love more if it will be more sharp!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Martin Johnson
    February 28, 2019 at 3:31 pm

    Love this article. I first purchased an Olympus XA from new way back in 1984, and for many years it was my go everywhere camera: hikes, bike rides, holidays abroad – you name it, I took it there! Then, just a few years ago, I did the craziest thing I’ve ever done, and sold my beloved little XA – why, I do not know, other than that I allowed myself to jump onto the digital bandwagon. Heavens above – my XA took photographs that were used as A4 magazine covers and I was blown away by the quality when I saw those covers on the newsagents’ stands. One image I took on it – a landscape – even made it on to a postcard, and was also reproduced full bleed A4 in Amateur Photographer 30 years ago.

    We all do these daft things that we later regret, but, fast forward to 2019 and I am now the bround owner of not one, but two XAs – and an XA3 – and I love them. Beautifully designed and so simple to use with none of the mind-blowing menus and functions that just get in the way of concentrating on the subject, as you get with digital cameras.

    That original XA I bought from new never ever let me down, and travelled miles with me. My only consolation is knowing that hopefully someone somewhere is enjoying it and keeping it alive.

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