Cameras don’t come much smaller than the Olympus XA. A compact camera with a clamshell sliding door, this little rangefinder was sold on the strengths of its pocketable size. But its strengths didn’t end there.
Designed by Olympus’s legendary Yoshihisa Maitani and released in 1979, the XA packed a lot of punch for a camera small enough to stuff in your pocket. No Lomo-style zone-focusing here – the XA was a rangefinder like it’s bigger, bulkier cousins such as the Leica and the Contax, but a fraction of the size. The Zuiko lens contained in the XA’s tiny frame was sharp and contrasty (Olympus had an enviable reputation for its lenses thanks to the OM range of SLRs and the Olympus Trip 35 compact).
The XA quickly became a favourite with street photographers – the camera’s tiny size makes it look like a tourist’s happy snapper, rather than something a serious photographer would use. This made it perfect for grabbing shots without anyone noticing.
Why’s the XA so good? It focuses down to less than a metre, the lens opens all the way up to 2.8 – it even has an over-ride so you can take pics with strong backlighting. The shutter button responds to the lightest touch, meaning camera shake in this little gems is kept to a minimum. The XA was only the start of a series of cameras, including the Lomo-like zone-focusing XA2, a selenium-celled version simplified called the XA1 and the macro XA4.
The excellent camera review site Photoethnography described the XA as ” the camera that professional photographers carry on their vacations”. I first realised how good the XA was when Phil Coomes, the BBC News website’s picture editor, used one for his 64×64 project to mark the dying days of Kodachrome 64.
Soon after I found one for sale at the RPS’s annual photography fair in London – in perfect working order for £40. You can find them for cheaper on eBay, but being able to prod and poke old film cameras and see if they’re actually working is always a good idea.
I wasn’t disappointed. The XA is an incredibly useable camera, packed with features that would usually be found on much more expensive – and much bigger cameras. My XA has travelled with me to Barcelona and Dubrovnik, and a sunny Reading festival. It’s not only a superb street shooter but perfect for Lomo-style shooting – cross-processed slide comes out a treat.
And with an ISO setting that goes up to 800, there’s plenty of scope for low-light shooting, especially as there’s no mirror to cause camera shake.
The XA is so small that you can take it anywhere. I now have two (and an XA2 aswell) and they’re perfect street shooters to pop in a jacket pocket. The XA’s shutter is whisper-quiet and it’s so much smaller than an SLR – perfect for taking candid shots.
The old school photographer’s advice is always have a camera with you. The XA should be that camera.
See pics below, or on my Flickr here.