Compact Cult Camera, the Olympus XA-4

Posted: 04/09/2012

Olympus XA-4 with A11 Flash Unit, courtesy of Camerapedia.

Near the end of 2011, a great review on this very own site by contributor Brian Moore sparked me to look a little deeper into the Olympus XA system of compact 35mm cameras. The more I looked into these pocket-sized wonders, the more intrigued I became. By spring break of 2012, I couldn’t take it anymore! The weather was getting too warm, too fast, and hauling the 8x10 around wasn’t going to cut it for much longer.

Like any film enthusiast in Findlay, OH, I went to the local source of all things photographic, Leslie Hunsberger at Imagine That! Not only did Leslie have experience with the entire Olympus XA series, she had all four cameras sitting on her shelf of 35mm cameras! And that settled it, I was going to test out the rare one of the series, the Olympus XA-4.

Lauren & Strudel - "macro" focused at 1.7 ft., Kodak Ektar 100

Unlike the rest of the XA series, the XA-4 was the only body featuring a wide 28mm lens, macro focusing (12”), full compatibility with all the A series Olympus flashes, and accepts DX coded films.. The XA-4 didn’t take off as well as the others due to its short manufacture range of 1 year (1985-’86), leaving it a little bit harder to find, and subsequently a little more expensive on the second-hand market. Now, just how does this compact 35mm fair in the hands of a large format photographer? The results seemed pretty good for a first-timer. ;)

Strudel from the Leash - "macro" focused 1 foot, Kodak Ektar 100

Surprisingly, there are aspects of shooting with this little 35mm that outshine both my Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1. For starters, this camera’s shutter is amazingly quiet! The first few frames through my roll of Ektar 100, I couldn’t even believe an image was taken. Never having owned a rangefinder or similar camera, I’m used to a sharp “thwack” of the mirror or large format shutter closing in after the exposure. In the XA-4, it sounds more like a faint “swip”. Couple this with the quick zone focusing, which defaults to 10 ft. focus, and you’ve got yourself a great little camera for street work.

Beware of Dog! Quick shot from the hip, opened up, click, closed.

There were two options the camera offers that I didn’t get around to using with the 36 exposures I played around with; both of which can be found on a switch on the bottom right hand side of the camera. Though metering is pretty much automatic, there is the option to compensate 1.5 stops for backlight. In most of my shooting, I tried to keep the lighting evenly lit. Additionally, the bottom switch allows you test the battery and put the camera into self-timer mode. The goal of trying out this camera was to shoot it handheld on the fly, and self-timer was a little counterproductive to that.  One other quick note, for the night shooters out there, the maximum shutter speed of the XA-4 is only 2 seconds, and with no bulb mode, may be a bit of a turnoff for that style.

Back of the Laundromat - Another shot from the hip, Kodak Ektar 100

All in all, usuing the XA-4 was a breath of fresh air. It's incredibly light in the hand, ready to use almost instantly, and has a comfortable level of automation that helps the photographer care about what's in front of the camera, and not what setting he/she should be fiddling around with. Having almost burned out in the darkroom and in the field with an 8x10, this was exactly what the doctor ordered. If there's anything I'm going to use one of these compacts for in the future, it's definitely going to be coupled with fast film, and parties! Having limited my first roll to relatively low speed film, I can't imagine the kind of cool things I'll be able to shoot with some Portra 400 (pushed of course) or Ilford Delta 3200 in this camera. Again, this is a light, portable, fast 35mm compact to have around, and with it's unique wide angle and great image quality,the XA-4 will most certainly make its way into my camera bag in the near future.

Chili Dog Zen - "macro" focused at 1 foot, Kodak Ektar 100

Happy shooting, and as always, long live film!

- Mat Marrash


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