Back in the mid-70s, Mr. Yoshihisa Maitani was the chief camera designer and managing director of Olympus Optical Co. Ltd. He personally oversaw the design of an all-new compact rangefinder camera – a small “pocketable” model that would please the growing ranks of serious amateur photographers. That was the Olympus XA.
The XA is his masterpiece and a full realization of this vision. Fitting into the palm of your hand, it offered an attractive mix of features in a tight and affordable body. The lens was sharp and offered a bright f/2.8 aperture. A built-in rangefinder allowed for precise focusing. Automatic Aperture Priority metering served up proper exposures in the brightness of the sun and the darkness of night (with long exposures up to 10 seconds). The clamshell-like plastic body afforded excellent protection to the lens and sensitive bits – and allowed the camera to truly be a pocketable (or toss-in-your-bag-able) item.
Overall, the XA still quite popular today. It’s fairly easy to find a fully nearly-mint model on the used market. And unlike many of its rangefinder contemporaries, it takes regular 1.5 button-cell batteries rather than impossible-to-find and fairly difficult to replace mercury cells.
Shooting with the XA is a delight. The images are quite sharp – and can have a nearly SLR quality at f/8 or f/11. Images shot on f/2.8 have a nice quality of softness and bokeh to them. Both the built-in rangefinder and aperture priority give you a nice degree of analog control over the camera’s settings. It’s not as easy as an autofocus compact like the Yashica T5, but it offers much more control to the photographer.
The only potential downside is the camera’s dedicated A11 flash. Lacking any kind of hot shoe or PC connection, the XA can only be used with this one flash – which is often only sold along with a camera. So, if your flash breaks, finding a replacement can be a pain – and would be pretty much impossible if you’re on holiday somewhere. That said, when the flash works, it works pretty well – and will even tailor its strength to the light in your scene.
We heartily recommend that you give the XA a try. You’ll grow to love its squinty viewfinder, rangefinder-focus, and “knight rider” black plastic body. It’s a true icon of compact camera history.
Tips and tricks
Lighting-Fast Zone Focus: Sure, the XA has got a built-in rangefinder – and we seriously love that! But in some crucial photo situations – especially those fleeting candid street portraits – this can slow down your reaction time. Instead, feel free to ignore the rangefinder and set your zone focus to a workable distance. And then just ensure that your subjects are about that distance from the lens. Voila!
Long Exposure & Flash: When set to the “Flash” aperture, the Olympus XA will fire at a fixed speed of 1/60. But if you set it to another aperture (like 2.8), then your XA will fire the flash AND keep the shutter open for a long exposure – thereby letting that gorgeous streaming background light to come spilling onto your snapshot.
The Self-Timer Low-Light Shot: The XA’s built-in self-timer has an awesome capability above and beyond those daylight self-shots or birthday party portraits of you and your “posse”. Try using it at night to take an absolutely perfect shake-free exposure without a flash. Just place it somewhere flat and safe (maybe even the sidewalk!