The Olympus XA is compact rangefinder camera with a built-in 35mm f2.8 lens. It is probably the smallest rangefinder camera ever made and a masterpiece of camera design. Launched in 1979, it was designed by Yoshihisa Maitani, the genius behind all of the Olympus’s great cameras, the Pen F, the OM1 and the XA itself.
The philosophy was simple. The Olympus XA was designed as a camera you could always have with you. It is small, about the same size as a pack of cigarettes, yet has a bright prime lens, a rangefinder and full control over the aperture. Instead of a lens cap it introduced the clamshell design. Slide open the clamshell cover and the camera is powered on and ready for action.
I came across the Olympus XA in a secondhand camera shop quite by chance. I was looking for a cheap compact camera for my daughter’s French trip and came across this camera among the more ubiquitous fully automated zoom compacts that seem to be in every charity shop and car boot sale. I am very instinctive when it comes to cameras. My first test is pick a camera up and hold it to my eye. Before everything else I think a camera should feel good in the hand. The XA is small but handles well, it feels solid and the controls come easily to hand.
The Olympus XA has lots of great advantages for street photography.
- You can access the aperture controls and the focussing tab while the camera is off, and it is easy to set them without looking at them. This means you can set the camera before you bring it to you eye, a big plus if you want to work fast and be extra stealthy. Being manual focus you can also zone focus the camera for optimum speed
- The camera is extremely quiet, helped by the fact that it isn’t full of whirring electric motors that most later compact cameras have. ISO is set manually, so pushing or pulling your film is straightforward, and there is a +1.5 backlight compensation and self timer lever in the base.
- Best of all this camera is so small and light you can put it in your coat pocket and forget it is there until you need it. It is as close as you can get to smartphone convenience in a film camera.
Often overlooked by more brand conscious photographers, the Olympus XA is still relatively cheap. You can pick one up for £50-£70 on Ebay, whereas many other premium compacts attract much higher prices in the used market. This is especially true of the Contax T series and the Ricoh GR’s. Both these models can go for over £200, sometimes nearer £300. Problem is these cameras are often not repairable now if they go wrong so buying one is always a risk. Price of compacts often has more to do with how fashionable or collectible the camera is rather than how capable, particularly in the case of some favoured lomography cameras, and compacts used by famous (or infamous) photographers. Olympus XA’s are cheap enough that it won’t be quite so painful if the camera breaks down, and common enough that it is relatively easy to find another.
Of course it doesn’t matter if a camera is cheap if the photos it produces are sub par. Luckily the optics in the XA are very good, and certainly capable of excellent results. The combination of features is excellent. There are no gimmicks, just things real photographers will find really useful. Best of all this is one of the few cameras that will genuinely fit into a coat or trouser pocket, and looks so unimposing no-one will give you a second glance. More often than not people have thought I was using a disposable camera because of the film advance wheel. The best camouflage for a photographer is not to be taken seriously and the XA’s size leads most people to dismiss it. Those of us who have been lucky enough to use one and see the results know better.