Ok, the Olympus XA isn’t perfect, but Yoshihisa Miatani’s design is still impressive, even 34 years on. A small, affordable, pocketable, 35mm f2.8 lens camera, with a wickedly sharp lens, with real rangefinder focusing? Where do I get one you say? Good examples can be found on eBay and Etsy for between $50-$150, depending on condition and whather or not a flash unit is included.
I found my Olympus XA, after a Google Search, from a fine gentleman on Craigslist, several hundred miles away, for $45 shipped. He told me it was a bit used looking, as he had traveled the world with it, but that it functioned perfectly, and even though the battery was about 10 years old, still metered perfectly!
The very day after I received it I loaded it with a roll of RedScaled Kodak Ultramax 400, set the ASA @25, and got busy. The camera is aperture priority, so you set the aperture via a small slider next to the lens, and the dual sensor meter determines the correct shutter speed and indicates it with a small needle on the left side of the viewfinder. Sure, 25ASA gives some fairly low shutter speeds, but the little Olympus is so easy to hold steady, with a hair-trigger shutter button that decently sharp images can be taken as low as 1/15-1/30 sec.
I’ve blogged this to death on 52rolls.net as well as Flickr and Ipernity, but if I had to pick just one camera out of my vast collection to use for the rest of my life, it might be the XA. Sure, it’s limited to one lens with no provision for filters, but it’s just such a joy to use. I love the 35mm perspective for street and candid work, as well as architecture. It just wide enough to get dramatic results, without looking freaky wide.
The 6 element Zuiko lens is made much like a zoom lens, with an inverted design that allows the lens to fit behind the clamshell cover, but provide for amazingly sharp and contrasty images. I’ve noticed some slight vignetting with high contrast scenes and films, like Xpro work, but I actually find it to be appealing in most situations. Shutter speeds between 10 seconds and 1/500 can be achieved, as well as a 1 ½ stop backlight compensation switch that doubles as the battery check and self timer. As a bonus, the self timer lever also functions as a support foot when setting the camera on a flat surface.
The rangefinder is a pretty small, but I find it works really well in all but the absolute lowest lit environments. If you do have a problem setting the focus through the viewfinder, you can simply use the zone focus scale on the top of the lens. With a medium speed film, the aperture set to between f5.6-f8, and the focusing set to around 10-15 feet, the camera is almost foolproof.
So, what does one need to look out for when buying a used XA? First, make sure you get one without a corroded battery compartment. Sometimes this can be cleaned up with a cotton swab and a little white vinegar, but other times the leakage and corrosion can creep further into the camera, damaging the electronics, or even the lens. Second, make sure the meter works, as a dead XA is a worthless XA. Third, unless the door seals have been replaced, they most likely will need to be soon. Mine are pretty rough looking, but I haven’t seen any light leaks yet, so I’ll probably put off replacement as long as I can.
Did you notice I failed to mention a flash? Honestly, I have the A11 flash unit, which is a really nifty little piece of kit in it’s own right, but I’ve never actually used it. If I need a little 35mm compact with a flash, I’ll grab my Stylus. Did that sound naughty? Probably, sorry.