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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
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!