This is a story about love! Untainted love, a love so strong and pure….. oh man, I’ve got to stop this gushing. Just concentrate and get down to the basics about why I came to love this tiny lump of glass and plastic.
The Olympus XA2 is the third in the line started by Yoshihisa Maitani. After the amazing Pen series of cameras, after the outstanding Pen F SLR and the undying OM series, Maitani San wanted to create the ultimate pocketable 35mm full frame camera. And he succeeded wildly.
The first masterwork was the diminutive XA. Tiny but nonetheless a full featured rangefinder with aperture priority automatic exposure and a fabulous lens. The lens alone has been a marvel and a real headache for the optical engineers. How to fit a 35mm lens in a 32mm deep housing? Easy peasy, just build it like a telephoto lens (A 500mm lens is NOT 50cm long, hopefully). This worked, all the time retaining a superb lens quality, sharpness and contrast.
Then came a line of derivatives of the original XA. The XA1 was forgettable… utterly! A fixed focus with a selenium meter like the Olympus Trip 35, full automatic exposure…. nothing to write home about (I’m not putting down the Trip 35 here, that’s a fantastic camera on it’s own). Just that the XA1 did not reach it’s stellar performance.
But there were the other models, the Olympus XA2, an XA without rangefinder but nice zone focus system and a full automatic exposure that gives premium results. The XA3 was an XA2 with DX coding built in and the XA4 had a 28 ‘macro’ lens that focused down to 30cm…. OK, they existed, but my camera of choice is the Olympus XA2. Wonderful sharp lens, smooth operation, near completely silent operation and so small I can stick it in the front pocket of my (tight) jeans. Yes, I’m over 50 and wearing tight jeans….
I prefer this camera so much that over the last 3 years I bought, sold, bought again and sold and bought one again. It’s always in my pocket and it’s the camera that always brought me back to film photography when I foolishly tried to save money by relying on a digital camera. Now it will stay for good! I found a very good one with a perfect lens, a sliding lens cover that does not block the shutter as can happen with this camera – you always have to pay attention that the cover is fully open.
Focus is a bit of trouble, sure, but you just have to try and set the slider to the right position. Sometimes it works out! Well, often it works out as my developed films show. Exposure is normally spot on even in difficult conditions. A wonder as you don’t have many possibilities to tweak it, except for changing ISO.
It’s simply so small and hassle free that it incites me to use it. Then again, did I mention that the lens it very sharp?
Compared to ‘other cameras’ (Hamish will understand the pun ;-), it’s tiny!
Unobtrusive! A spy camera. You can bring it to your eye in a split second and fire off a shot before anyone takes note. I even shoot blind from the hip sometimes, making for ‘interesting’ pictures….
Sometimes it’s hard to find a rational reason. Some cameras just click into place with you, they just work. This one does for sure, though it’s not the only one. Now as an additional bonus it can live in my coat or pants pocket. You can get a clean and perfectly working Olympus XA2 for around 40€ (30£) and might even get the fitting A11 flash with it. The A16 flash is bigger but more powerful, and more expensive too. Even with the flash attached to it’s left side, the XA2 is amazingly compact.
Try one out sometimes, it’s well worth it, and faster to shoot than the XA rangefinder. If you nail focus, it’s just as sharp or even better.
More from the mighty Olympus XA2 on www.franklehnenphotography.com and www.whyfilmcameras.wordpress.com
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33 thoughts on “Olympus XA2 Review – or why I learned to love a camera – by Frank Lehnen”
Nice one frank!
Thanks Sean, I appreciate!
Bought an XA2 when they first came out, and enjoyed using it. The one downside is it would vignette heavily, especially at wider apertures. I returned it to Olympus who tested it and replied saying it was “functioning correctly”, a euphemism for “they all do that sir”. On transparencies it was most noticeable, so I sold it on.
A zone or scale focus camera is still the fastest thing out there for street photography, and for black and white the vignette is less intrusive. And it is tiny!
Yes, it’s vignetting a bit at wide apertures, but that does not bother me. I even like the look – my other regular companion is a Lomo LC-A….
Still have my XA2 ,bought mid 80’s after my XA1 was stolen. ( Rangefinder on 1 was too small , zone is much quicker ) Mine was totally blacked out with permanent marker so as my street pics (in Africa) were easier ,the almost silent shutter and no nasty motor drive ,also helped.
After some time in the desert the lens suffered somewhat,and a new cluster from a faulty one was fitted ( cameratics in Edinburgh l think ). Still in its custom leather pouch, still great
Hi, this site costs me so much money. 3 weeks ago I stumbled upon 35mmc and within half an hour I bought an Olympus Trip 35 and a ton of film on eBay. While waiting for delivery I fell in love with the XA series. After your post I’m going to have to justify another camera. I might go for the XA though for that rangefinder experience. Thanks for the advice!
Hi, this site costs me so much money. 3 weeks ago I stumbled upon 35mmc and within half an hour I bought an Olympus Trip 35 and a ton of film on eBay. While waiting for delivery I fell in love with the XA series. After your post I’m going to have to justify another camera. I might go for the XA though for that rangefinder experience.
Thanks for the advice!
Well Robert, can’t say I’m sorry as I’m in the same situation – new post, new camera!
What I prefer in the XA2 compared to the XA is the speed of operation. – the rangefinder of the XA war too finicky for me, definitely. The viewfinder is not bigger than that of the XA2 but you have to try to focus accurately…. I find it very hard. Try the XA2! Trust me 😉
Good post. I usually end up returning to my XA2 because it is the perfect carry-anywhere small 35mm shooter with a sharp lens, and is very discreet. A brilliant piece of design.
Yes, it’s VERY discreet – that’s what I love about it! And the speed it gives me.
How much do I love my XA2?
My girlfriend said, “it’s me or the camera.”
Being single isn’t so bad.
Lol, Simon, you embarrassed me there. Got a table full of guests right now and I know I should not check my messages but I did. And had to explain to my wife why I laughed out loud.
Perhaps being single is really not so bad….
Haha. I’m sorry I embarrassed you.
Seriously though, I’m constantly amazed by the images I get from the XA2.
Great writeup on a great camera. Back in 2003 I took two of them on a vacation to Prague and Slovakia. I didn’t want to bring a huge SLR kit so I decided to go for a pocketable camera. I looked at buying a Yashica T4 but found it too pricey. I tried bidding for an XA on eBay but kept getting outbid. One day I noticed a very reasonably priced XA2 and bought it. Shortly thereafter I scored a second at an even better price. I couldn’t have picked better travel cameras.
Here’s one of my favorite snaps from the trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/arachide/16416563029
Yes, it’s the ideal travel camera!
Great write-up Frank. Miss my Olympus XA with A11 flash. It went everywhere with me. Talk about compact, discrete and pocketable.
Thanks, I’ll not go anywhere without it in my pocket!
Counterintuitively, the XA1 was actually introduced after the XA and XA2 (but before the XA3 and XA4, just to be extra confusing) as a budget version with an F/4 lens and a selenium meter instead of the CdS meter the others have. It still has the same great design and form factor as the others, but otherwise just isn’t on the same level.
The XA was one of my first ‘must have’ film cameras. I didn’t have a rangefinder at that time and as soon as I read about the XA I knew I had to make it my first. I wasn’t disappointed and it’s taken some of my most pleasing travel and street photographs. Then last year my wife was complaining about not getting the chance to take enough photos, so I resolved to buy her an XA2 so she could always have a good quality camera on her. I actually find myself wanting to borrow hers a lot of the time, because even though the XA’s lens is probably that little bit better, the RF focusing is fiddly and the patch is small and pale. Zone focusing suits the camera better for its likely uses, I think.
I actually bought a non-functional XA2 that I thought I could get going, but after giving it a good clean and retensioning the shutter spring it wasn’t to be. There must be some kind of fine electrical fault between the switch and shutter because it fires just fine when you trip the armature. If anyone wants it for parts or repair you can have it for the price of postage.
Yes Ken, the XA’s and XA2’s etc are a bit sensitive…. Either the sliding cover does not open correctly and blocks the shutter, or the shutter button somply gets blocked up. There’s websites that tell you what to do about it but I never was able to repain one that showed the shutter button problem.
Then there’s a ceramic element in the meter system that can just break – and that’s the end of any XA camera.
But as long as they work, they are truly wonderful things! You are right.
The MjuII fixed most of the XA’s electronic shortcomings, but acquired a few of its own. My ideal would have been a mix of both – manual focus and film advance with the Mju internals and weatherproofing. Olympus needed another generation of clamshell 35mm ultra-compacts to get things right, but technological events intervened.
True, but I have a deep dislike for motorized compacts….
Found a Mju II at an op shop for $5 and thought I would like it better than the XA2, but hated having to always turn the flash off when I didn’t need it (most of the time), hated the noisy autowinder, and hated seeing it chew through expensive CR123A batteries. It also seemed flimsier than the XA2 and decidedly less pocket friendly. I think the XA2 is perhaps the best pocket camera for discreet photography ever made (film or digital) – https://kenrockwell.com/olympus/xa.htm I also love the Olympus Tough TG-4 waterproof and shock resistant digital pocket cameras with their great still and video performance – https://kenrockwell.com/olympus/tg-4.htm
No doubt, it’s a great camera. Even if I do not mind the vignetting @ wide apertures I regularly use the camera with 400 ASA film to stay safe. Just recently I’ve changed all the light seals and I was surprised how easy was to dissasemble it.
I’m also a big XA fan simply because the pictures I get with it are better than with any of my other cameras. If only someone could make a digital version of the XA2! But as we all know, film produces better pictures. My XA2 has been with me all round the world and has never let me down. It makes me go close and unlike most modern cameras just gets the exposure right so you don’t even have to think about it. And that amazing lens! I have all 5 models and although the XA1 should be my favourite, I just love my XA2 the best. Perhaps the perfect camera.
Right you are! Only slight bad point is the close focus which is 1.2m. A bit too long. But you don’t always need to focus that close…
Managed to pick one of these up in a charity shop a couple days ago for £2.50! Came in the plastic case, with the instruction manual and it’s in great condition! Can’t wait to start using it.
Great find!!! Use it well and have fun with it!!
Great photos, could you please elaborate a little more regarding the zone focusing. I just received my first roll back using the xa3 and i am really disappointed. Not very many were in focus. I’m hoping i have just got the focusing zones mixed up. So just how far away do i have to be from my subject in the close, medium and far away zones? Thanks
I’m fact the XA2 (and I think the 3 too) has a close focus limit of 1.2m (4ft). Pretty bad in my opinion but we’ll have to live with it. The medium position focuses at 3m and then there’s infinity.
Your depth of field depends on the light – brighter = smaller aperture = deeper focus zone!
Faster film helps too. I usually use only ISO 400 in the XA2.
So the trick is to evaluate the distance correctly and set the slider accordingly.
Remember, close focus is the lower position and infinity is up!
And don’t hesitate to set intermediate positions.
I can tell you that my first
roll in the XA2 was mostly badly focused too. Mixed up far and near setting (still happens sometimes 😎) and I needed practice.
With fast film and a bit of concentration you will master the beast!
Thanks for all the info, guys. Love the comment about the dinner interruptions.
Ken, if you’ve got that broken Xa2 I’d be willing to take a crack at its shutter circuitry. =)
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I have a love/hate relationship with my XA2 that I’ve had for about four years now. It has produced some really great photos or chance opportunities I’ve come across but mine appears to have a slight shutter problem where the shutter doesn’t always want to trip when I witness the “decisive moment.” Strangely, when I dry-fire the camera without film it seems to work just fine. Can’t figure it out. I am currently traveling with this camera and find that it pairs well with a larger body. I have found that it works well when I am shooting one of my Nikon SLR’s or even now when I am pairing it with my M6.
I mainly just shoot it with B&W film, but often get surprisingly good results. My main hack is to adjust the ASA settings to get my +/- one or two stops depending on the situation.
I think I had found the specs of the default settings of the camera, but didn’t see them when I just did a search. Knowing what different shutter speeds and f/stops the camera will default to in different situations sure could come in handy.
I also use this camera to look the part of a tourist – which I have found can be less intimidating than using a Leica – and depending the weather a better camera for a quick shot. Don’t want to expose an M camera to unnecessary light rain.
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