Article by Brian Moore
When first released in 1979 the Olympus XA was a marvel of compact and feature-rich design. At just 2 ½ x 4 x 1 ½ inches—sized to fit comfortably in hand or pocket—the XA was the smallest, full-frame 35mm camera available.
The XA’s diminutive stature, however, was achieved without need for a collapsible or folding lens, unlike its competitors in the pocket-sized 35mm category, the Rollei 35 and the Minox 135. No need for a case either, as its “capsule” design incorporated a sliding dust cover that protected the lens and locked the shutter when closed, and turned the camera on when opened.
What’s more, the XA was designed with a rangefinder coupled to its 35mm, f2.8 F.Zuiko lens. Other features included a 1.5-stop backlight compensation, a self timer and an audible battery condition check.
A year after the release of the XA, Olympus brought out the XA2, which was followed in due course by the XA1, XA3 and XA4. Yes, the XA1 came after the XA2. It was a bit confusing to me initially, and perhaps to you also, so I’ve made a little matrix to simplify comparisons. You’ll find it at the end of this article.
Using the XA
Focus is manually-controlled with a lever under the lens, while focal distance is shown on a scale above. Distances on the scale are given in feet, at least on US models, and range from 2.8 feet to infinity.
The F.Zuiko lens is capable of crisp images. Considered a technological accomplishment in its day, it’s made up of 6 elements in 5 groups in a “reverse retrofocus” design. What does that mean? Simply put, it means it was designed like a telephoto lens, and this allowed it to fit in the XA’s narrow body.
The XA uses an aperture-priority system, so you set the aperture you want, ranging from f2.8 to f22, and the camera’s brain, powered by a pair of SR 44 batteries, selects the shutter speed. The XA’s spec sheet rates the slow-end speed at 10 seconds and the high at 1/500th.
Shutter speeds are shown in the viewfinder window, so under normal lighting conditions you’ll have an idea of the speed the camera has selected to compliment your choice of aperture.
While metering and shutter control are automatic functions of the XA, everything else is manual. Film winding is done with a knurled wheel, and rewinding with a lever.
An external flash was designed for use with the XA. It screws neatly into the side of the camera. Actually four models were available. The two that seem most common today are designated A11 and the A16, with the latter being the more powerful of the two.
I find the XA a joy to use,…most of the time. It has quirks, though.
For example the shutter release, a big red rectangle, sits flush with the top of the camera and has a hair trigger release, at least on my XA. I’ve accidentally exposed an unintentional frame more times than I care to admit.
Most vexing to me personally, however, is the rangefinder. Focusing in dim light is almost impossible, so when light is low I inevitably resort to estimating distance and setting it before framing my subject.
Even in broad daylight, though, focusing can be a chore, often requiring high-pressure squinting. I’ll often just set the aperture at f5.6 and the distance scale at 8 feet and allow the resulting depth of field to cover most everything. This is actually ideal for street shooting, but honestly I’d prefer to shoot this way because I want to, not because I have to.
Finally, the XA lacks a bulb setting, so manually-timed exposures are out. I’ve found, though, that the XA’s shutter control does a pretty good job of night time work all by itself.
At the end of the day, however, the XA’s diminutive size and impressive image quality more than make up for its annoying little quirks. It feels good in the hand and pocket alike, and it takes sharp pictures. I’d buy another in a heartbeat.
XA Comparison Matrix