I started shooting film 2 years ago, and in the summer of 2017 decided to go all in and sold all my digital gear. 99.99% of what I shoot is black and white Ilford films and I’m quote happy doing that, most of the time. Last May I was preparing for a trip to San Francisco and I had the feeling it would be great to shoot some colour as well. For this I wanted to pick up a small compact camera to always have handy if I see something where colours are important.
My everyday camera is a Leica M6 and I’m absolutely fan of shooting all manual, so that was my preference for the compact, at least from focusing point of view. I heard great things about the XA so I wanted to give a try and ordered one. It’s not a cheap camera, typically you’ll see around 100 Eur but it’s still far from the hyped fancy compacts like the Yashica T4. Once it arrived I inserted the batteries and loaded with film and it was ready! I really liked the size so I took everywhere with me (along with the M6) and started to look for colours as well, it felt great.
Olympus XA looks like a plastic toy, but I have to say it’s quite well built. The front cover shelf is plastic and not the best part of the camera, mine is broken already on the bottom but it still functions. The remaining parts of the camera are built very well and are tough, feels really good. Obviously it’s small which is good, but it also means you need to get used to its size when you actually shoot it, for me that part is really hard, my hands are big. I ended up a lot hiding out the RF window, doing a massive fingerprint on the lens or just feeling awkward like someone who’s trying to shoot with a box of matches with a pinhole on it.
The viewfinder is not bad for a compact, I’m not going to compare it with my M6 though… The rangefinder patch is a different story, in my case it’s barely visible at all. It seems it’s a typical problem for the XA, if you google “olympus xa rangefinder patch” you’ll find a ton of YouTube videos and forum discussions how to improve, mitigate or fix this issue. I tried using tape and sharpie but it’s not much better. However, all the photos below are created slowly, framing and focusing in all cases, and all of them on the roll were focused properly. The frame line is well visible and also there’s a shutter speed scale with a small mark showing your speed so you can adjust aperture if it’s too slow. Even if you wear glasses you can see the full frame without a problem.
Shooting the camera cannot be easier, you select the aperture, focus and shoot. From my experience it nails the exposure every single time, it’s absolutely brilliant. I decided to shoot 800 speed film so I can use f/8 most of the time, which is the sweet spot of the lens. It also has f/22 so even in extremely bright conditions I’m fine. I actually pushed the super cheap Kodak ColorPlus 200 film two stops to 800 for this.
Not only it nails every exposure it also has a +1.5 option on the bottom to be able to compensate if you’re working with a backlit subject, I really liked this feature, look at this example photo:
It can be used as a super fast super compact street camera – I doubt anyone would think you’re a serious photog looking at this almost toy-looking gear. On the street majority of the time I use 1.5 or 3m distance (there’s no ft marks on the scale, sorry for my US friends) and it’s perfectly doable with this little compact. The distance scale is clear and very well visible from the top looking down quickly.
The shutter button is electronic and it’s extremely sensitive. Yes, I do have pictures where I just pulled out of my pocket, moved the shell and boom, I already had a picture by accident:
This part you need to practice so you don’t waste your fine film. The shutter is also absolutely rapid, the metering part takes literally no time, so it’s not slow at all (probably due to the fact it’s manual focus). So shooting it you can be quick, however “working the scene” is not that simple as the advancing takes quite some time. I played with it a bit and it seems I need to turn the advancing wheel at least 3 times to move the frame so it probably takes at least 3-4 seconds to advance – frame – shoot again. I know it’s a compact camera, but shooting on the streets means a lot of times you have to be quick.
Finally I returned from San Francisco with a roll of colour (and 4 rolls of Ilford FP4+ from the M6) which made me happy, I got what I wanted. Do I use this camera now? No, but I did not sell it either; I know I will return to it later. Do I recommend this camera? If you are looking for a compact with manual focus look no further, this will be perfect for you!
- it’s small.
- it’s very small! it is literally a pocket camera with the shell you don’t need to worry throwing it to a bag too
- 35mm f/2.8 lens pretty OK for a compact
- meter/exposure is absolutely brilliant, it’s likely the best feature of the camera
- manual focus. the RF patch is not really visible but even zone focus with f8 is fantastic
- modern easy to buy batteries (please do yourself a favour, get the SR44 not the LR44)
- comes with a detachable flash which is also great
- manual ASA dial
- back light option
- self timer
- small finder. it’s a compact, so not that bad, but you know, my other viewfinder is on an M6
- VERY sensitive shutter button
- flares quite a bit
- aperture blades form a square… so when it flares it will drop squares on your photo
- no filters, no hood
- max 800 ASA
Thanks for reading this mini review!
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17 thoughts on “Olympus XA – Shooting a roll in San Francisco – By Jacint”
Hi Jacint. I really enjoyed this article. You’ve inspired me to have a go pushing that cheaper 200 Kodak film in my XA this weekend. The colours in your shots are really very distinctive and capture that LA light so well. Cheers for sharing.
thanks for the feedback! I tested both Kodak ColorPlus 200 and Fujifilm C200 pushed to 400 and 800 and they work really well if you don’t mind the grain. just keep in mind not all labs develop pushed C41 film.
I love this little camera and feel like it’s totally deserving of all the praise it gets. I think the rangefinder patch issues are pretty hit or miss depending on your individual copy / personal preference. Speaking from myexperience, the patch on my copy is plenty bright and contrasty (suprisingly so even,given everything I had read prior to actually putting my eye to the vf). I can’t personally compare it to the M6 (I unfortunately have not had the pleasure of using one…yet!), But it works for me. I guess, as with anything second hand though, it all depends on how the person before you handled it.
Love your article and your shots!
thank you! I agree, the XA is at least as good as the mjuII, which is hyped a lot more!
One of my favorites and most used fun camera. I use 2 XA cameras currently. One has a reasonable RF patch, the other becomes reasonable with the black viewfinder partial block trick.
mine is somewhat OK with the patch in bright situations.
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My fav compact camera !
I do not agree completly when you mention the aperture and lens quality as OK, for this size camera, in my opinion and with all the rolls I shot, man, I find it absolutely amazing ! It has a very nice color rendition, it’s sharp, has character.
On mine, the patch faded away, so I always zone-focus and shot. It forced me to take pictures in a new way also, like more discretly, without having any look in the viewfinder and the 35mm focal lengh allows this. And finally, as you say, the toy-look of the XA makes people look like a kid hanging around with everything else than a camera. This is a complete joy to use it, keeping it in the Pocket and shoot whatever you will notice down in the Streets.
Thank you for the review and cheers from France
unfortunately ever since I have the 35mm Summicron, I compare every lens to that, bad habit I know 🙂
Hey! You’re shooting in my town!! It’s a very pretty city isn’t it? I’m going to do a five frames piece soon .. just got to figure out which camera to do it with …
I absolutely love SF!
In 1984 on my honeymoon across Europe, I didn’t want to lug around my hasselblad or Nikon gear, and picked up a used XA. I shot mostly Kodachrome, and took some of my best photos up to that point. I started experimenting with HP5 pushed with Microphen and got amazing results. That camera got lost and with the complexity of my E-M5 I’m pining for the elegant simplicity and excellent optics of this tiny camera.
That was an enjoyable read Jacint. The XA was my first camera, quite a few years ago now. I still have one and still use it. It’s so versatile and portable.
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One of the features I like the most about this little gem is the ability to meter to a dozen seconds. I recall being in Argentina it was dusk and I wanted to capture the light path of vehicles rushing on a highway against a sundown scene. The XA delivered without any fuss. I would have gladly paid more for a brighter rangefinder patch but given the constraints of the design I can’t complain. Besides the cosine folks no one has been able to come up with a rangefinder patch as good as the Leicas.
I was absolutely blown away of the metering of this camera. that’s the reason included the broken image of my partial face even though it was accidentally fired the exposure is just brilliant.
I have a love-hate relationship with mine, but it’s mostly love because of the size and relative quality of the images it makes.
My main gripe with this camera is the finder, which is not only small, but incredibly dim. Using the sharpie or black tape hack makes it serviceable, but it’s still the biggest weakness of the camera IMO. It makes focusing really difficult and slow.
I don’t mind the 800 ASA limit so much as most color negative films need overexposure anyway and there are currently no stocks above 800 speed.
The over-sensitive shutter can easily be fixed by taping a thin piece of plastic (I used a clear piece of packaging for an SD card) over it.