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Olympus XA Retrospective: 35mm Pocket Sized Perfection?

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The perfect camera probably doesn’t exist, but there are certainly some that come close. In this retrospective look at the classic Olympus XA, find out why I’ve come to love this tiny powerhouse from the past.

The Olympus XA debuted in 1979, and represented a great leap forward in technology and design. It featured a “clamshell” dust barrier door, internally focusing 35mm f/2.8 lens, aperture priority AE, a built-in rangefinder, a shutter speed needle in the viewfinder, self-timer, +1.5 exposure compensation, and even an electronically controlled shutter release (pressure conductive polymer) that cannot fire when the camera door is closed. Oh, and all this is contained in a self-protected, pocket-sized package that doesn’t require an additional case.

For its age, this is truly a feature-rich camera. But don’t worry because it throws in a hefty dose of nostalgia too. The camera is manual focus, and although the rangefinder works well, it takes some getting used to before you can line up the two superimposed images and feel confident that you’ve achieved focus. The film advance and rewind are both done manually by way of a thumbwheel and pop-up crank lever, respectively. ISO (ASA, as labeled on the camera) must also be set manually from 25-800 using a small dial located directly below the lens.

Easy and Fun to Use, Even in 2022

After loading a roll of film in the XA and taking it out for a test drive, the first thing I noticed was how incredibly easy the camera was to use. It is so compact that more than once I forgot it was in the back pocket of my pants, making it a great carry along. When I was ready to take a picture, I was surprised by how swiftly I made my composition, even after manually setting the aperture and focus. All that needs to be done is to slide open the door as you take it from your pocket, make a quick check of the focus, adjust the aperture dial if needed, and before you know it the picture is taken. 

The quick response is due in part to the extremely sensitive shutter button, which barely requires any pressure to engage (although it does take a bit of getting used to in order to avoid accidentally pressing it). The “click” of the shutter is satisfying, even for someone like me who generally prefers the clunk of an SLR shutter. Winding to the next frame becomes automatic before you know it, and the thumbwheel is smooth and easy to advance.

The camera also has a detachable flash, which can be screwed into the side of the camera when needed. This is another ingenious part of the design, since the flash is small enough to throw in your pocket and take along for the times when you need it. Even when the flash is attached, the XA remains a compact, and still (almost) pocket-sized affair.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

I currently own 2 XAs, both of which were given to me by a friend. I found them buried in a bin of assorted cameras and random accessories, and they had not been used for many years. In spite of that, all it took was a fresh AA battery for the flash, and 2 LR44 button batteries for the camera, to immediately put us back in business. There was zero corrosion on any of the battery terminals in either camera, and all of the buttons and dials still work perfectly. I know it might sound cliche, but they certainly built things to last back then, and it shows in the rugged durability of both of my forty-year-old XAs. 

Zen and the Art of Picture Taking

After getting past the nuts and bolts of using the XA (which doesn’t take very long at all), a moment occurs where the camera becomes almost invisible, blending into you and your surroundings. The focus lever, situated perfectly for your left-hand index finger, aperture dial, ingeniously positioned not around the lens barrel but as a vertical switch on the front of the camera, and shutter button, which is just far enough to prevent most accidental presses yet close enough to remain comfortable, are so well-placed and well-designed, that the barrier between subject and artist is almost removed. Additionally, the small size and unassuming matte-black body is timeless, further removing it as an object to be noticed. In other words, “It’s a spiritual experience, man.”

Okay, maybe I am over-selling it a bit, but it is really fun to use, and the results are super cool. Even the blurry ones. 

Focus Shmocus

One thing I noticed after putting my first roll of film through the XA is that my manual focus rangefinder skills were a bit… rusty. But I think it added to the charm, and putting my technical deficiencies aside, the lens itself is actually quite sharp, being praised as one of the best in a compact camera. Also, color rendition and contrast are exactly what I hoped for (eat your heart out film emulators).

And this brings me to my favorite part about shooting with the XA. As a professional photographer, every time I use a camera for “fun,” which often means family photos, I find myself having some sort of an agenda. I’m either trying out a new piece of gear, or a film simulation, or testing autofocus and burst mode for the thousandth time. Or, I obsessively play back each image, zooming in on them one-by-one to see how sharp they really are, and sticking my eye into the EVF because it’s better to view them this way than via the screen, while these things should be my very last priority.

But not with the XA. This auspicious artifact teaches me to throw off the fetters of pursuing photographic perfection, and places me right back in a beautiful moment with those I love most, immediately after its modest shutter says “click.” And, perhaps that is perfection itself. Pretty Zen, huh?

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