Olympus XA2: Zen perfection

For the uninitiated: The Olympus XA2 is a 35mm compact camera produced by Olympus in Japan from 1980 through to about 1986 or so. This small camera was designed by Maitani Yoshihisa. It was the second of the XA line which introduced “clamshell” style cameras to the world, as a sliding cover served as the camera’s case and protected the D.Zuiko four-element 35mm f/3.5 lens. The XA2 featured automatic exposure, zone focusing, and manual film advance and rewind, the end of the era for those things (well, except auto-exposure) in a “premium” camera. For more technical details and reviews, see posts by Mike Eckman, Matt’s Classic Cameras, and Jim Grey.

Last week Emee and I headed to the coast for a few days. (More about that trip soon.) Since I’ve gotten back into film photography I bring at least one, if not two, cameras with me when I travel. I had already determined that I’d bring my Olympus 35RD rangefinder loaded with Kodak Portra 400. (I was feeling fancy, and Blue Moon had a sale.) Since I had one camera dedicated to color, I wanted another for black and white. Without thinking too hard I grabbed the Olympus XA2 and went.

The XA2 was already loaded with Kodak Tri-X so that helped in the decision making process. But over the past year the diminutive clamshell Olympus camera has become the “go-to” camera for me, especially when I want to bring an “other” camera to whatever “primary” camera I’d be shooting with. And since it’s become the default other camera, it means it has been my most used camera! Despite it fulfilling the “Camera No. 2” slot, there’s a lot going for the XA2 and other cameras of the XA series.

Form factor. The big reason why it often travels with me is due to its size and form. It’s small, weighing 8 ounces and is 4″x2″x1″. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket! And the fact that it’s nice and rounded with nothing poking out (not even the shutter release) means when it’s in a pocket it doesn’t jab or catch against things. No other camera I own is as compact. My Olympus Pen EES-2 is fairly small, but still heavier and bigger. I love the economy of the half-frame, but there’s also something about the economy of package size. (Man, if only Olympus made a half-frame XA camera!)

It’s a testament to the brilliance of Maitani Yoshihisa, the designer of the XA series and other iconic Olympus cameras. He wanted a camera small enough to go anywhere, and he got it. There are compromises to a small camera like this: no lugs for a strap (though a small wrist strap can be used) nor accessory shoe or ability to use conventional filters. But it doesn’t really matter when you have a camera that can easily slip in and out of a pocket!

Point and shoot. Some photographers want complete control over the process of taking a picture. Nothing in the XA series will give one this, not even the top-of-the line XA.* What you get instead with the XA2 is simplicity: simply frame the shot and shoot. The only real control you have is with focus via three zones and ASA/ISO control. The meter gets the shot right pretty much all of the time, and the lack of either full manual focus or autofocus means you can shoot pretty quickly (as long as you remember to wind the film!) The “default” setting for the focus is on “group”, which focuses roughly from about four feet to infinity if in sunlight. This means you’re probably not going to bungle pics if you forget to change the zone.

I do like using cameras with manual control, like my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, Minolta SR-T 101, and Olympus 35RD. These cameras make me think about what I’m shooting. But it’s also nice to have a simple camera, and being able to trade between the two is great. I don’t need to think much when using the Olympus XA2, and that’s neat.

Punches above its weight. Besides the fact that the camera is dead simple to use, it also produces great results. There’s definitely a bias amongst certain types of photographers over simple point-and-shoots and the assumption they must be “crap” if even “an idiot” can use it. Those same photographers may also be unimpressed with the specs: a four element Zuiko lens and a ho-hum maximum aperture of f/3.5. But there’s beauty in limitations, and the XA2 knows how to work with it. The shutter can fire anywhere from 1/650 second to two full seconds! I’ve done a lot of low-light shots using that two-second shutter speed. There’s no threading for a shutter release, so I use the self-timer when I do a low-light shot.

The regular daylight shots come out great, too! There’s a little bit of vignetting, but I don’t mind that. And despite the lack of a way to add a conventional filter, black and white shots are also superb. In fact, most of the black and white shots I’ve done over the past few months have been with the XA2.

A great camera to bring when you’re being indecisive or want something unobtrusive. There are times that I want to bring a film camera with me but get hung up on which one exactly. Sometimes I don’t want the bulk or hassle of a bigger camera, and that’s where the XA2 shines due to the form factor and other points mentioned above. I can easily slip into a shirt pocket or bike bag and go. No camera dangling from a shoulder strap if I don’t want to be obvious, no wondering where I put the lens cap, no sweating which extra lens to bring.

I brought it with me on the last bike ride I led, the Slough Country Ramble in February of 2020. When I’m leading a ride I don’t have time to take lots of shots, so having something I can easily slip in and out of a shirt pocket came in useful. I can anticipate using the Olympus XA2 again when I start leading rides again hopefully this summer.

The pocketability and clamshell design are also great for adverse conditions. During the snow we had in February, the XA2 was the camera I primarily used. Slipping on ice with a big ol’ camera strapped around me would not have been fun for either me or the camera. And an ice-coated camera due to sleet would also suck. But with the XA2 I could quickly take it out for a shot when needed.

*****

As you can see, the Olympus XA2 is a great camera. As someone commented somewhere else, it’s a very zen machine–simple and only what you need, when you need it. The only thing that could make it better is to have a flash.

And whaddya know?

My friend Paul (a different Paul than the one who gave me the XA2) was selling a Olympus A11 flash unit, one of the ones designed for the XA cameras, so I got it. I barely ever use flash, but it’s nice to have it if I need it. It will make this camera even more useful, and prevent me from seeking out some other compact point-and-shoot with flash built in.

For photos from (and of) the Olympus XA2, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or, click here.

A new-to-me wee lil camera for more #35mm film adventures... #olympusxa2 #filmphotography #filmaintdead

*It has a rangefinder and aperture priority exposure control, but no full manual control. If the light meter dies, the camera is useless.

2 thoughts on “Olympus XA2: Zen perfection

Add yours

  1. Yep – the XA2 is one of the greats. What I wonder is who will service mine when it eventually needs it. I know of a fellow who will service my XA, but he doesn’t do the XA1-2-3-4.

    1. I know that Advance Camera here in Portland will CLA an XA2. They are good, but have been on a 2-3 month turnaround. Portland Camera Service also could probably service it. I’m thinking about getting my XA2 serviced after I get my Hi-Matic 7s back.

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