Introducing the Olympus XA into my camera stable

I already went ahead and got the fancy Gordy’s camera strap for my Olympus XA!

This month marks three years back into film photography. When I got back into it, I thought I’d be only attracted to big, bulky, metallic cameras like my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s and Minolta SR-T 101. And I am still attracted to them. But at the same time, I could see the utility of a compact camera–small enough that it’s easily stowed in a bag, and great for discreet use.

Over the last three years, I’ve played around with a number of compacts. Most of these came from the 1980s through 2000s, when motor drives, auto-exposure, and auto-focus were the name of the game. They all had integrated flashes, and the ones from the 90’s onward had zooms. I had fun with them and got some decent shots. But in the end, I found all of them unsatisfying. I hated having to remember to turn off the flash if I didn’t want it to overwhelm an image or bring attention to me. The motor sounds were also annoying. One by one, I sold them off, leaving only one compact: the Olympus XA2.

This particular XA2 was gifted to me by my friend Paul in February 2020, just a month after I got the Hi-Matic (and a month before pandemic.) I had read about the XA series, the revolutionary compacts introduced in 1979 and designed by Yoshihisa Maitani. The cameras are small, weigh about 8 oz, have a built in clamshell “dust cover” protecting the lens (no need for a separate case), and take great photos. Once I got the XA2, I was in love. It’s been my most used camera, mostly because of its form factor–small enough to carry when I don’t want to carry anything else, or bring as a second camera, usually loaded with color film while the big camera had black and white.

My Olympus XA2 hasn’t given me any issues since I got it. But I realize that there can be issues with it at some point. This camera is about forty years old. I can get it CLA’d, but that won’t do anything about electronics that can go. And if those electronics go, I would be really bummed, not just because I like the XA2, but I don’t have anything in my collection like it. (The closest would be my Olympus Pen EES-2, but it’s still a bit heavier and larger in size, and doesn’t have some of the neat features of the XA2.) And I realize that I don’t want to get another compact similar to the ones I didn’t care for as a replacement. The XA series had become my ideal for a compact camera.

So I decided to be proactive. I would get another XA series camera now, so I’d have a backup. But which one to get? I didn’t want to get another XA2, nor its fraternal twin, the XA3, which has the plus of the backlight feature and metering to ISO 1600, but the minus of DX coding. 1 I’ve been lusting after the XA4, the last of the series–it’s got the same plus/minus as the XA3, but the 28mm wide-angle lens and the ability to focus as close as a foot really negates the DX code issue in my book. The problem is that the XA4 is the rarest of the bunch (only produced for a year or so), and rarely go for sale at a reasonable price. 2 On top of all that, the word on the street is that most of these cameras are not really repairable due to the aging electronics. 3 No, the only one that I’ve heard is actually repairable is the original XA. So I started searching for a reasonably priced specimen.

Of course, that’s gotten harder. I got my hands on one, but it was broken, so I sent it back. I got a second one where the seller claimed that it worked, but it was pretty obvious when the red shutter button fell off in my hands that it wasn’t. I still put a battery in it–the “check battery” worked, the meter needle moved when the light source change. I managed to get a few “dry” (no film) shots out of it. I told the seller that the camera was broken, and they basically refunded me the money I paid minus some for shipping.

So now I had a mostly-free but not really functional Olympus XA. I sent it to the shop for repairs. I figured that even if I spent more money and got a working XA, I’d be sending it away for a CLA anyways, so the smarter thing to do is resuscitate this camera. Four months later and a few false starts (there was an issue with the shutter magnet which caused the camera to lock-up, requiring a return for warranty repairs several times), I had a new-to-me XA!

Of course I couldn’t wait to test it. The great thing about the XA series is that they’re so small and portable, it’s very easy to bring with you all the time, even when you don’t think you’d need it. And I was already used to the XA2, so I was pretty much ready for the experience of shooting the XA.

Shooting with the Olympus XA was fun, but it is a subtly different beast than the XA2. The XA2 was primarily designed as a snapshot camera, and some of the features are “dumbed-down” from the XA. On the XA2 there’s a choice of three focusing zones, and the camera defaults to the middle “group” setting by resetting to that zone whenever the clamshell is closed. And the XA2’s exposure is weighted towards deep depth of field, so things are rarely out of focus, even if you don’t ever change the zone focus. (As it is, I don’t think the “close-up” zone does much of anything.) And since the XA2 has programmed (automatic) exposure, the only control over exposure is by changing the ISO setting. All of this is a long way of saying that the Olympus XA2 is a true point-and-shoot camera that doesn’t require much thinking to use.

The XA? You do need to think a bit. It uses aperture priority exposure control, so you have to know a little about apertures and depth of field, and also be aware of what aperture you set, as it is not displayed in the viewfinder. Unlike the XA2, the aperture switch on the XA does not “reset” when the clamshell is closed, so you can keep it in your preferred aperture without worrying that it’ll change accidentally. There is a shutter speed display on the left side of the viewfinder. It’s a classic needle display, so in lower light it’s not always easy to see where it’s pointing, nor is there a “slow speed” light like on the XA2. And yes, the XA is actually a rangefinder. Much has been said about the dim focus patch on this camera, and even after a CLA, my XA patch isn’t exactly bright, but it is noticeable.

So it’s taken a little bit to get used to the XA. I have to remember to check aperture, speed, and focus. I can see that it could be tricky if I’m using both the XA2 and XA and switching back and forth–I might not pay attention to the differences with the XA, which could mean some bunk shots.4 Thankfully, there’s an “easy shoot” mode with the XA, indicated by orange (instead of white) characters: Set the aperture to f/5.6 and the focus to 8 feet, and things should be fine. I’ve been using this setting as the “default” when I close the clamshell.

But having control over aperture and focus is great. With a shallow depth of field, the subject (foreground) is emphasized because it’s sharp and in focus, while the background is blurred. I could never achieve this with the XA2, but I can with the XA. For example, here’s a pic of frozen roses from the December snow.

I’ll be using this camera a lot in the coming months, and give the XA2 a well-deserved break. With the A11 flash attached, there won’t be much I can’t do with this compact machine!

For photos from the Olympus XA, please see the dynamic flickr album below or click here.

My Olympus XA
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1 There is an ISO switch on the front, just like the XA2. But the switch won’t override the DX coding–the cameras will read the ISO off the DX code on film cartridge and meter appropriately. The only way to override is by blocking the DX coding on the roll itself.

2 Of course now saying that, I saw a working condition, US seller specimen go for just $133 plus shipping on eBay.

3 I’ve left out the “runt-of-the-litter” XA1 in my list, as it was never under serious review. If I found one for dirt cheap, I might get it, but even the prices of the lowly XA1 have gone up in the past few years.

4 Not only that, but the “distance” slider on the XA2 stays locked when the clamshell is closed, while the “aperture” slider on the XA can be moved. Both are in the same place on the respective camera. I don’t want to forget that when I’m using the XA2 and then try to force the distance slider when the camera is closed, I might break it!


5 thoughts on “Introducing the Olympus XA into my camera stable

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  1. I loved my XA and I still have it. From my website: “Since my 1978 Konica and telephoto were heavy and not well suited for my backcountry AWS trips, I purchased a compact Olympus XA 35mm Rangefinder. The Rangefinder was bombproof during our harsh Alaska weather conditions.” On the webpage, I give a link to “bombproof” so folks understanding the meaning of the term with regard to climbing.

  2. Great story! I’ve ended up with 2 XA’s thanks to a random stop at an estate sale – at $30 apiece with original cases and boxes I couldn’t pass them up. Other than needing light seal replacement they work great👍 It’s a fun little camera, and I appreciate the light weight and pocketability.

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