5 frames with...

5 Frames With the runt of the litter: The Olympus XA1 – Brian Nicholls

November 24, 2019

The Olympus XA1 was ntroduced in 1982. This little gem of a clamshell 35mm compact was the simplest and cheapest of the XA series. It has a fixed-focus f/4 to f/22 x 4 element Zuiko lens, a shutter range of 1/30 to 1/250 sec and programmed exposure via selenium solar cell (like the Olympus Trip) surrounding the lens. There are two film speeds of 100 and 400 ASA via a switch on the base of the camera. The build quality is identical to its siblings the only difference being their varying degrees of sophisticated features.

The XA1 is still regarded by reviewers as the ‘runt’ of the litter due to its lack of relative sophistication but, I think they have all obviously missed the point! The point being that the XA1, as an optical notebook, is a faster handling tool than its stablemates for the shooter of candids and street photography!

It’s totally mechanical so, no battery concerns and it is the only tool in the XA range to have exposure-lock via the shutter button. Don’t underestimate this essential feature! Whilst I’m on the subject of exposure, if the XA1 detects underexposure the shutter will lock and a red flag will pop up in the viewfinder – again, just like the Trip.

I picked up this XA1 ten tears ago for just £2 from a charity (thrift) shop in my nearby UK town of Bridgnorth, Shropshire. It was languishing in a jumble box so I just had to save it!

Frame One: 1930s Austin 7 Sports Tourer. Not at a classic car event but, just parked up in a Shrewsbury town centre side street whilst the owner popped to the shops. It was behind a row of characterless Euro hatches. I reflected on its inherent beauty and example of superb British design and engineering from a bygone age.

Frame Two: Baled hay at a farm in Morville – just outside Bridgnorth. This shot just yelled… “please take me”…

Frame Three: Church of St Gregory, Morville. When asked “penny for your thoughts?” my son said he was just contemplating the parishioners filing through the doorway in 1118 when the church was consecrated. It still retains all of its Norman features.

Frame Four: The Five Ways pub in the High Street of the once proud Black Country industrial town of Cradley Heath. The pub was closed and up for sale. It was once a social centre of the town where local people drank, smoked, played dominoes, cards, pool, skittles and listened and danced to live music. It is now a carpet shop. The pub will never look like this.

Frame Five: A candid shot of my two sons and their offspring in Bridgnorth High Street. This was taken ten years ago and the boys are now almost as tall as thier dads. I’m particularly interested in candid rear views ie people actually going somewhere rather than approaching.

The film used was Ilford XP2 Super – 400 ASA. Processed by Boots (the chemist) and each frame is presented here unedited.

XA1 Pros: Fast handling, exposure lock, quiet thumbwheel film advance, sharp photos from 1.5m to infinity, pocket-sized body, battery-free mechanical operation, no auto-focus to get fooled, does not need a case.
XA1 Cons: None!

Learn more about the XA1 via here and here

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  • Reply
    John F
    November 24, 2019 at 11:00 am

    From the quality of your shots I’m assuming the selenium cell is still OK. I guess the clamshell construction ensures that the cell is covered – this seems to ensure the longevity of the cells.
    If (and when) it fails, you might be able to fool the camera into think that the flash is connected so that you’ve got a fixed shutter speed – probably with 1/30th or 1/60th like the Olympus Trip

    • Reply
      November 24, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      Thanks for your comment John.Glad you liked the quality of the shots.Yes, the selenium cell is working fine but, if and when it fails as you surmise I guess I could ‘fool’ the XA1 by screwing on the dedicated flash (which turns the flash on and sets the aperture to f4), taping over the flash window and using the camera like a ‘fixed everything’ single use job?

  • Reply
    Eric Norris
    November 24, 2019 at 4:24 pm

    Brian–Thanks for this review! I’m a big XA fan, and you’ve inspired me to try out the XA-1.

    Minor quibble, but I think I would call the XA-1 “battery-free,” rather than mechanical. There’s something electronic going on inside the camera, powered by the selenium cell. Any yes, I would think that keeping the cover closed would help keep the cell fresh.

    Good thing that so many of the cameras fans of this site like have been sitting in drawers or boxes all these years–I’ve had very good luck with selenium cells on my cameras!

    • Reply
      November 24, 2019 at 4:35 pm

      Thanks Eric, I’m flattered that I have inspired you to try the XA1. It really is the no fuss ‘go to’ 35mm compact candid photography tool. Can’t wait to see your post.

  • Reply
    Stephen J
    November 25, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Excellent compositions sir.

    I had both an XA and an XA1, and my observation is that Olympus never seemed to get the shutter button right.

    The first on the XA, was like a hair trigger, and the amount of wasted frames was significant, whilst the throw on the XA1 with that long press, meant that I induced camera shake sometimes.

    In the end the former, which is the far better camera, started leaking significant quantities of light and I traded them both, along with a few more old similar compacts. I now keep an old digital Ricoh in my pocket for the ever ready camera, although if I could find a decent one, a film Ricoh would be just as good.

    • Reply
      November 25, 2019 at 5:17 pm

      Thanks for your kind comments Stephen. Yes, the XA does have an unforgiving hair trigger shutter button but, the XA1 is rather like the Olympus Trip and I personally am able to ‘feel’ the button to the halfway point to lock the exposure (like the Trip) and am quite adept at it.You mention Ricoh. I can’t fault them and used a 500g for some stunning shots.

  • Reply
    November 25, 2019 at 10:40 am

    I’m a fully signed up member of the mighty XA1 fan club, and evangelise by extolling its virtues any opportunity I get. I’m concerned that mine might have given up the ghost, but even though I don’t see the red flag as often as I suspect I should, my copy still produces photos – a case of if it ain’t broke… I haven’t seen many come up for sale either on eBay or anywhere else, so I might have to buy the next one I see to have “just in case…” Beautiful photos demonstrating just how good this little photo taking machine can be in the right hands!

    • Reply
      November 25, 2019 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks Harry, There’s not a lot to go wrong with the XA1. I just wish that I had taken it more seriously when it was introduced and bought a couple of new ones. Thanks also for liking my photos which are completely untouched by digital ‘enhancement’
      Good hunting on eBay, I’m sure you will hit the jackpot.

  • Reply
    steve phillips
    November 27, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    I am another fan of the XA family, but have never tried the XA1. I can certainly see its appeal as a go-anywhere point and shoot, and if I saw one for £2 in a charity shop, I would grab it!

  • Reply
    November 27, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Thanks Steve, yes you really have to check out those jumble boxes usually on the floor of the charity shops and rummage past all the candlesticks and old ash trays etc.Perhaps it takes one in a hundred dips to get lucky. I’ve got other XA series cameras but, the XA1 is the best for point and shoot fast handling and quite frankly, aside from all the bells and whistles from its siblings, you’d never tell the difference in the end results. Happy hunting.

  • Reply
    May 8, 2020 at 1:57 pm

    Some great shots there Brian! The Zuiko lens doing its usual good job of things. The XA1 seems a lot like a re-packaged Trip 35 in it’s specs and simplicity. As you mentioned on the EE3 article, there’s a lot to be said for the type of quick visual note-booking that this type of camera allows. I suppose it depends on why people take photos in the first place. For impressing others, there’ll always be the hunt for the best gear. For recording your own life, for your own purposes – this type of simplicity wins every time. Something that feels right, is always with you, and works without a fuss should be the ideal.

    • Reply
      May 8, 2020 at 2:30 pm

      Thanks for your reply John. Yes, I firmly believe that…”the road of excess leads to the path on enlightenment”…(Blake)

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