Olympus XA: Style and Performance in an Affordable Compact Rangefinder Camera

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If you wanted to be considered a professional photographer in 1979, the year the Olympus XA was released, your choice of cameras was limited. For some in the upper reaches of the profession, Leica was still the only option. For the rest of us, there were large, solid machines like the Nikon F2 and the Hasselblad 500C/M.

But I also wanted something smaller and easier to use when I didn’t have a paying client to impress.

Above photograph: Luxor, Egypt 1982 The Olympus XA is a low-profile camera that doesn’t call attention to itself. Ektachrome 200.

Photographs © Boyd Hagen

The Rollei 35, Canonet G-III QL17, Olympus RC35, Kodak Instamatic, Konica C35, and many other small-ish cameras came and went during the 1970s, but none was quite right for me: too complicated, too simple, too expensive, too large, too heavy, limited shutter speeds, small apertures, no focus control, no exposure control, wrong focal length—my ideal camera didn’t exist.

What I needed was a lightweight, affordable, and uncomplicated 35mm camera that was easy to use, but with high-quality optics, metering, and focusing—one that could slip into a shirt or jacket pocket. Looking cool was always a plus. It also had to weigh a lot less than the Nikon F2 with MD-2 motor drive that was my workaday tool—this “brick” weighed 3.56 lb.

When the Olympus XA was released (in the same year as the Sony Walkman), it was a great leap forward for affordable high-quality pocket cameras. Arguably the smallest 35mm rangefinder camera ever produced (along with the more upscale Contax T, released five years later), the XA was the pure expression of a trend that continues unabated 40 years later, bringing us diminutive cameras like the Ricoh GR cameras and the Fujifilm XF10, among others.

Yoshihisa Maitani, the designer of the Olympus XA camera, had spent a decade thinking about how to design the smallest possible 35mm rangefinder camera. “I had realized that even if a camera could shoot everything—from outer space to bacteria—users couldn't take any pictures if they didn't have the camera with them. My idea was to make a camera small enough to fit in the breast pocket of a shirt.”

A camera designed for men AND women

With a curvy black clamshell design, the XA wouldn’t look out of place in a lady’s clutch purse—it resembles a fashionable lozenge-shaped makeup compact. This was not accidental. Because men dominated the camera-buying market at this time, Maitani wanted the camera to appeal specifically to women: “. . . to make the camera look like a camera when the slide was open, even if it looked less camera-like with the slide closed. Males would like the camera with the slide open, females with it closed.” And voilà! The first fashion-accessory camera was born! But it was a real camera.

What appealed to me was the simplicity and the optical quality—the XA has a sharp, six-element, five-group F.Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 lens with an electronic between-lens shutter that sounds like a whisper compared to the Nikon’s clunk when the shutter is released. After years of mashing Nikon’s mechanical shutter button, the XA’s red “electromagnetic feather touch shutter release button” lived up to its name, keeping me alert when my finger got anywhere near the button.

There is no power button—when the clamshell cover is opened, the lens (and the camera) is immediately ready for action. Unlike most cameras with a sliding cover, the lens on the XA doesn’t retract when the cover is closed nor extend when the cover is opened—a special design makes the actual lens shorter than its focal length.

The aperture-priority exposure system is accurate, with an ASA range of 25-800. Shutter speeds range from 1/500 second to 10 seconds. A small lever on the bottom of the camera can be used to check the battery; to set the 12-second self-timer; or to use the +1.5EV backlight exposure option.

This is no “point-and-shoot” camera, either. It features accurate double-image coupled rangefinder focusing. If you wear glasses (as I do), using the tiny viewfinder can be a challenge, but well worth it. And the weight of the XA including battery, is 7.8 oz, about 13% of my Nikon rig.

Port au Prince, Haiti, 1981. Voodoo ceremony/performance using the A11 flash for fill light. Ektachrome 400

The A11 flash is a separate unit that attaches to the end of the camera when needed, using one thumbscrew. While the A11 isn’t exactly a powerhouse, it works very well as a fill flash, especially with ASA 400 film. With the flash attached, the length of the XA balloons to 5.4".

A manual thumb-drive film advance means you usually get just one shot of any subject that isn’t stationary, which sharpened my appreciation of the “decisive moment.” And the XA goes unnoticed in situations where the Nikon F2, with or without a motor drive, would be a magnet for unwanted attention.

34th Street, 2019. You only get one shot at a moving subject. Ektar 100

There is even a thoughtful notice in the user manual: “Never leave the camera near radios, TV sets, or magnets.” No explanation was given for this warning, but I decided not to take any chances.

The XA became my (nearly) silent accomplice, going where no single camera of mine had gone before--everywhere. Parties, family photos, ski trips, hiking expeditions, the beach, snapshots, casual street photography, travel—the XA was always on hand and ready at a moment’s notice.

Hudson Yards worker on lunch break near 9th Avenue, 2019. Few people put up their guard with a camera as charming and understated as the XA. Ektar 100

Olympus followed up the success of the XA by immediately removing a critical feature for advanced users: rangefinder focusing. The XA2 (1980), XA3 (1985), and XA4 (1985) all had scale (“guess”) focusing. The XA1 (1982) had a fixed focus lens. On the plus side, the XA3 was available in fire-engine red.

In 1991, the XA series was followed by the Stylus series of cameras: wildly popular, fully automatic compact cameras with no focus or exposure control. More than 20 million copies were sold in the first ten years of production. Less thinking, more shooting was a popular idea long before Nikon started using it to promote its D3500, in 2018.

Picking the XA up again after many years, I found that I missed some of the limitations that digital photography has removed. You’re forced to think before you shoot. Accurate exposure is critical. The anticipation while waiting for the film to be developed has no digital equivalent, and the design of the XA is still a reliable mood enhancer.

The Olympus XA was the right camera at the right time for me—it produced some of my most spontaneous photos and continues to be a discreet and lovely companion wherever I roam.

Do you have any experience with the Olympus XA camera? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

4 Comments

I purchased my XA perhaps a year or two after they came out and was delighted with it. If I didn't have my Nikon EM with me the XA was always with me in the car. The difference was the XA was truly pocketable, making it very discreet. I even kept it in my lab coat at work as a medical technician and used it in the hospital taking photos of fellow employees, myself at work stations and yes some patients. I packed it up and put in storage with my other cameras anticipating a move to WV, which has taken longer than anticipated and when I thought film was "dead." Now I miss it. I am going to WV to work on a cabin we are building on our property there in a month or so and will be getting it back. I have already purchased some light seal foam and intend to get my old friend back. Another note, I once dropped my XA from a bridge onto a rocky dry river bed, (about 15 ft.), but it continued to work fine for years afterward, a statement about it's durability. I only had to replace the little roller pin under the sliding cover which fell out one day, as it had been jarred loose. I want to buy another XA, and don't try to stop me. Love em!

I bought a couple of Olympus XAs back in the day and gave them away as presents.  Outstanding little cameras.  They produced great images while skydiving, in battle, at parties, anywhere.  I recall a Magnum photographer who used an XA and wanted another one being told by Olympus that they were too expensive to manufacture and had been discontinued.  Many years ago.  You really could slip it into your pocket and go out, while using them was simplicity itself.  Olympus has a long reputation for daring and innovative design, going back at least to the OM-1 system.  I also have a Rollei 35 and it was a very neat camera, too, but there were different lenses on different models.  (I think that mine was a cheaper Triotar, not the better Sonnar.)

I took an XA with me on the Appalachian Trail in '96 and '97. It was a great compromise between automatic P&S and manual at the time. Pushed 30-40 frames each week, and never had to change the battery on the trail. Doing the same with a digital seems somewhere between frustrating and painful, between batteries, cards and uploading, and a lot more weight to carry. 

My XA with the A11 is sitting in a glass case for me to look at from time to time. I left it on my patio roof for a couple of days back in the 80's in Chula Vista. It still worked fine after that. My main camera was a Canon F-1n which I miss to this day. The XA was a joy to shoot with & fit in my shirt pocket.

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