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Olympus XA, with its equally compact flash (Pic: Dave Fayram)

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.

A candid shot at the market in Arles, southern France

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.

Want to review a camera for Kosmo Foto? Email me at foto.dowling@gmail.com. Every published review earns you two rolls of Kosmo Foto Mono film.

Stephen Dowling
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urbanhafner
6 years ago

Great shots! The XA is on my list of cameras to acquire. I already have its later cousin the mju-II, but sometimes all this autofocus, autowind stuff does get in the way.

titaniummike
6 years ago

Reblogged this on TITANIUM MIKE.

symbolicinteraction
6 years ago

Design of this camera is truly lovely – it’s small, fast and just fun to use. But i sold mine, because I was disenchanted by the quality of image it provided. It wasn’t very sharp even at f=4-5.6 (I did some 18cmx24cm prints and not impressive sharpness was already visible). Maybe mine XA was faulty, but if it’s normal, then I prefer any other 70s rangefinder camera – a little bigger and harder to hide in your pocket, but sharp and contrasty as hell.

Christos Theofilogiannakos

Yes, a Hi-Matic 7s will give you better pics, but you can’t hide it!

symbolicinteraction
6 years ago

Maybe it’s harder to fit into a pocket, but I didn’t say it’s impossible.

symbolicinteraction
6 years ago

Design of this camera is truly lovely – it’s small, fast and just fun to use. But i sold mine, because I was disenchanted by the quality of image it provided. It wasn’t very sharp even at f=4-5.6 (I did some 18cmx24cm prints and not impressive sharpness was already visible). Maybe mine XA was faulty, but if it’s normal, then I prefer any other 70s rangefinder camera – a little bigger and harder to hide in your pocket, but sharp and contrasty as hell.

Christos Theofilogiannakos

Yes, a Hi-Matic 7s will give you better pics, but you can’t hide it!

symbolicinteraction
6 years ago

Maybe it’s harder to fit into a pocket, but I didn’t say it’s impossible.

Moose Borrowdale
6 years ago

I bought one of these when they first came out and was delighted with it. I used it for a number of years and it was a little marvel for it’s time. I still have it and since reading this article have decided to take it for a spin later this week, for old times sake. I know it isn’t the sharpest of lenses but used for the right purpose i.e. where composition and mood is more important than tack sharpness, it can produce great results. I was always pleased with the quality of the images I made back in… Read more »

Moose Borrowdale
6 years ago

I bought one of these when they first came out and was delighted with it. I used it for a number of years and it was a little marvel for it’s time. I still have it and since reading this article have decided to take it for a spin later this week, for old times sake. I know it isn’t the sharpest of lenses but used for the right purpose i.e. where composition and mood is more important than tack sharpness, it can produce great results. I was always pleased with the quality of the images I made back in… Read more »

jimmyca1219
5 years ago

I’m going to get one!

jimmyca1219
5 years ago

I’m going to get one!

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[…] as do the Diana and Holga range of toy cameras. My favourites so far, aside from my Lomos, are the Olympus XA and the Zenit 3M. The Olympus XA is not exactly a lo-fi camera – it’s a masterpiece of […]

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[…] as do the Diana and Holga range of toy cameras. My favourites so far, aside from my Lomos, are the Olympus XA and the Zenit 3M. The Olympus XA is not exactly a lo-fi camera – it’s a masterpiece of […]

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[…] Advance and Zorki Photo have nice detailed reviews, so check them out if you want to learn more. There is a also a site […]

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[…] Advance and Zorki Photo have nice detailed reviews, so check them out if you want to learn more. There is a also a site […]

Marcel Schepers
4 years ago

Excellent camera! Too bad the range finder patch fades with time ….

Marcel Schepers
4 years ago

Excellent camera! Too bad the range finder patch fades with time ….

Robert
4 years ago

Olympus xa is a very nice small camera. When i was traveling during summer i used xa withuot flash so it was even smaller. I have xa for a long time but i dont use it very much.

Robert
4 years ago

Olympus xa is a very nice small camera. When i was traveling during summer i used xa withuot flash so it was even smaller. I have xa for a long time but i dont use it very much.

bart honhoff
bart honhoff
3 months ago

Compared to the Minox 35 I prefer the XA all over it.
Rangefinder with a decent lightmeter and distance meter.
More usable and smaller. Broke one brought another one and happy with it