Olympus XA2: A cute li’l compact camera to add to the stable.

Last time we checked in about my burgeoning film camera habit, I had just gotten a Pentax IQZoom 170SL (Espio 170SL). I had a bulky but great rangefinder from the ’60’s (Minolta Hi-Matic 7S), and a compact dad cam from the end of the film era. Two should do, eh? So how come I have another new-to-me camera? I’ve only been “into” film for two months!

Let me explain…

Around the same time I was looking for a late-era auto-zoom “dad cam”, I was also thinking about a small, uncomplicated camera with a good lens. I was aiming that way when I got the Fujica DL-100, but it turned out to be bulkier than I had hoped. Plus, those early-mid ’80’s auto-focus machines featured noisy autowind and autorewind for film. Besides the noise, if the motor goes, the camera is useless. I was hoping for something a little more mechanical.

All roads pointed to one type of camera: The Olympus XA series. This was a very compact “point and shoot” introduced in 1978. At the time, the XA was the pinnacle of functional miniaturization for a 35 mm camera–the original was an aperture priority rangefinder with auto exposure. Other than the exposure metering and shutter release (and optional flash), the advance and rewind of film is manual. It was a brilliant piece of engineering. There were other cameras in the series that were not as “nice” as the XA, but still good.

Of course, because of that, these cameras are cult objects. Functional ones sell for near $100 on eBay. This was beyond my budget. I had a lowly XA1, the runt of the series,* in my “watch list” for awhile, half-heartedly thinking about it because it was cheap but untested. So I put the idea of owning a decent XA series camera in the back of my head, for now.

Then a few weeks ago, I was hanging out with my friend Paul. Paul is a lover of film cameras, and we were chatting about cameras while looking at his awesome collection. I mentioned how I had gotten the Pentax, which did not excite him. He tried to steer me towards something like an 80’s auto-focus, but after some internet searching, he had an answer: He happened to have a couple XA2 cameras.** He didn’t need two, so he asked if I’d like one?

Well, heck yeah!

The XA2 was the next step down in the series. Introduced in 1980, it still had the functional form and design of the XA, with the sliding clamshell cover. But instead of aperture priority with manual focus, the XA2 was completely auto-exposure and used a “zone focusing” system: close, medium distance, and landscape. It still has a really nice lens (Zuiko 35mm 1:3.5) and is dead simple to use: set film speed, set focus distance, shoot. And it’s small enough to fit in my shirt pocket!

I took the camera out on the Slough Country Ramble on Saturday February 22. Since I was leading the ride, it would be much more difficult to try to use the Hi-Matic 7S when it requires a little more attention when taking pictures. The XA2 I kept in my shirt pocket and pulled it out quickly during several times on the tour.

I got the pictures back on March 4. I was really taken with the pics. The lens isn’t as sharp as the Rokkor on the Minolta, but it still captured detail. There was vignetting and it seems like a few shots were underexposed, but I really liked the warmth. It had a vintage feel without going over to the out-of-focus Lomography effect. The pictures felt like they had more character than what I’d take with my iPhone,*** or what I was hoping for with the Fujica DL-100.

Not only that, but I was amazed how in-focus most of the shots were. The XA2 is essentially a fixed-focus camera with three presets of focusing. The only shots that weren’t in focus were the ones in low-light situations. Anything with decent light came out good. This is definitely an improvement over some auto-focus systems, where the camera is struggling to get the shot. (This happened a few times with the Fujica.)

So I’ll definitely be using this camera a bunch in the coming months. Its compact size and weight (just eight ounces!) plus protective clamshell cover means I can throw it in a bag and not worry. It’ll be useful when I’m not wanting to take the Minolta out, like on a bike tour, or if I want to shoot black and white on the Hi-Matic 7S and want another film camera for color work. Plus, the camera is fun to use, cute to look at, and makes pictures with a nice feel.

*There are quite a few XA enthusiasts who love most of the cameras of the XA series, but reserve a special spite for the XA1. The way they make it sound it was like the XA1 mugged their mother or something.

**He also has an XA.

***I’d have to do some post-processing for my iPhone pics to get a similar aesthetic.

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