Olympus XA

Olympus XA

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WELL FOLKS they just don’t get much more compact than this. Smaller than many a point-and-shoot, this is actually a full-featured compact rangefinder with lever-action split-image focusing. ‘Twas designed by Olympus’ famous Yoshihisa Maitani (Olympus Pen, OM) to be a camera among cameras, a professional-quality compact rangefinder in a sea of amateur compact rangefinders (C35?). The 6 element, 5 group f2.8 35mm Zuiko (BTW the F in F.Zuiko means 6 elements, you count it out from A) lens is a pro quality performer, particularly above f8, and supposedly even better in its 4 element 3 group 28mm f3.5 incarnation found on the later and rarer XA4 (which also boasted DX coding and closer focusing). The thing is so small and light it slips right into a pocket! It’s about 4″ x 2 1/2″ x 1 1/2″.

The XA is a quirky combination of well-designed and inconvenient features. The shutter release is a nice electromagnetic feather-touch button to reduce camera shake, the viewfinder shows the auto-selected shutter speed. Not to mention a +1.5EV setting for backlit situations, very nice. However, the ASA is manually set with a tricky tiny lever and the only compatible flashes are the Olympus A11 and A16 in a proprietary non-standard mount, no hotshoe or PC sync. No filters either. And that feathertouch shutter release is a double-edged sword: I have some nice abstracts from when I hit it by accident just holding the camera or changing hands… but you can live with the shortcomings. It’s like a mini pro rangefinder masquerading as a compact point and shoot. Pocket sized and ultra-quiet, it’s like the perfect street photography rangefinder. (Mine was listed on ebay as ‘Pocket Spy Camera’.) The only way it could be easier is if it were actually an autofocus point-and-shoot. Oh right, that would be the Olympus Stylus…

The XA has a bit of a cult following and it’s easy to see why, easier say than that unlikely and absolute triumph of modern marketing, the LOMO Compact Automat (LC-A). That’s another story for another time. Or now. See here for details.


So far just some really gummy and crumbly light seals, apparently a different kind of foam than in a lot of cameras but needing replacement 20 years later nevertheless. Did the same as I did on the XA2 and replaced the seal by the hinge with film canister felt cut to width and laid end to end, glued with Pliobond. The other seals seem ok for now…

I’ve read that a common issue is inconsistent shutter tripping when pressing the red plastic button; apparently if it’s pressed too hard it can deform and if it’s not perfectly flat on the bottom it doesn’t trip the shutter. But it can be removed and lightly sanded, apparently that helps quite a bit.

Tips & Tricks

Tip appropriated from the quirky LOMO LC-A: in low light, don’t move until you hear the *second* shutter click, the first is the shutter opening and the second is it closing. I have some nice available light abstracts I got by not figuring this out quickly enough. It may take a couple of seconds depending on the ASA and the light. In fact the sample above was chosen for its “LOMOesque” quality. Just think, these are cheaper, too! OK I’ll stop.

Super-nice feature: the focus lever only moves about 12mm to focus from 2.8′ to infinity for ultra-fast focusing… better yet, the distance scale shows on top of the camera on a little wheel so you don’t have to look too far for the appropriate distance. The 8′ and f5.6 marks are in red, keep set to these marks for optimum point-and-shoot-ivity.

The sliding cover (‘dust barrier’) must be open to fire the shutter, and must be closed to open the back for film loading/unloading. The two button batteries (note – only silver oxide batteries are recommended, don’t use alkaline) are supposed to last a year before needing replacement.

One last mention about the flash – with 400 speed film and a shutter that goes from 10 seconds to 1/500 there’s hardly any need for a flash at all… (see first tip again)

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