Olympus XA and XA-1

I have recently acquired from Portugal an Olympus XA and a XA 1 from the United Kingdom. These two cameras, although aesthetically very similar, are quite different, the first being a complete manual rangefinder, the second a cheap point and shoot.

They both feature a brilliant small clamshell design that protects the lens and locks the controls when not in use, a great feature. While the XA 1 might not be the smallest point and shoot ever made, the XA is one of the smallest rangefinders available, together with the Contax T.

The Olympus XA family. Picture by Austin Calhoon (http://austincalhoon.com/camera-design/) under CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA.

The XA series is made by five models in total.

  • Olympus XA (1979) – manual 35mm rangefinder
  • Olympus XA2 (1980) – zone focusing 35mm camera with programmed exposure system
  • Olympus XA1 (1982) – Simple point and shoot camera with selenium meter programmed exposure and fixed focus. Supports either 100 or 400 ISO film.
  • Olympus XA3 (1985) – Very similar to the XA2 but with support to up to 1600 ISO and DX film coding
  • Olympus XA4 (1985) – A XA2 with a Zuiko 28 mm f3.5 lens with focusing to 0.3m. The strap had a measuring scale allowing precise focusing.

The design is by Yoshihisa Maitaini, who also designed other major Olympus cameras such as the Pen and the OM System (the OM-1n being my absolute SLR love). All four models are very compact, approximately 6.5 x 10.5 x 4 cm – they can easily slide into any pocket.

All XA models do not feature a hot or cold shoe. The flash unit is installed sideways and fixed with a plastic screw that keeps it in place. There are several flashes available (my XA came with the A11).

  • A9M – Completely manual flash, designed to be used with the XA-1 but works with all models. Takes 1 AA size battery.
  • A1L – Low power model, designed to be used with the XA4 for close up photography. Integrated lithium battery, non user replaceable (unless you fiddle with screws and solder)
  • A11 – The most common of the range. It accepts 1 AA battery and needs to be set to the proper film speed (100 or 400 ISO). When used with the XA, it can be set to FULL and aperture can be regulated with the standard aperture control.
  • A16 – Less common, bigger and more powerful version of the A11. Uses 2 AA batteries.

The XA

I originally planned to buy a XA when I wanted a small camera to take around with me. By reading several articles I found some interesting compact models, like the Fuji Natura Classica, the Klasse W, the Nikon 28Ti and the Minolta TC-1. Naturally, all of these cameras are really expensive and I am really poor, so they will probably stay indefinitely on my wishlist. I then stumbled onto the XA and was shocked how it was possible that I did not know about this wonderful object before.

I started hunting eBay for one, when I stumbled across a XA-1 sold for 40£, shipping included. I foolishly though that “XA 1” is just a way to indicate the original XA, to distinguish it from the other models of the series (“XA” being the series and then the individual models being numbered). It was only after the actual purchase that I found out what the XA-1 really is. Not what I was looking for, but maybe an interesting piece of lomographic potential.

The XA is a real rangefinder, featuring a D.Zuiko 5mm f/2.8 non retractile lens. It is actually shorter than its focal length. It supports ISO 25 to 800, with an automatic shutter with speeds ranging from 1/500 to 10s. Aperture ranges from f/2.8 to f/22. The camera works on an Aperture priority mode, powered by two SR44 batteries (or equivalent – the manual states clearly not to use alkaline or lithium batteries as the meter will not be precise with those batteries).

The shutter button of the XA is somewhat unique. It is very sensible to pressure and allows you to minimise movement when shooting, which is great if you are doing fast or street photography (although, for very fast photography, you would ideally pick a better setup anyway). Film advance works via a standard thumbweel (like a disposable camera!) and winding works via the classic knob on the left side.

It is not a coincidence that some people call the XA “the camera that pros bring on vacation”. Unless you’re British, in that case you’re going on holiday.

The XA 1

The XA 1 is considered the lesser of the five cameras, but it’s not a bad camera per se. It shares the same shape and form factor of the others, remaining a very compact and pocketable camera. Unlike the other cameras, though, the super sensitive red shutter release is replaced with a clunky and plastic cylindrical button that feels quite cheap.

It does not need batteries, as the timing is selected by a selenium shutter. The lens is a fixed focused 35mm f/4 D.Zuiko, nothing particoularly exciting. On the bottom, there is a switch which allows you to switch between 100 and 400 ISO (no in-betweens). The only switch on the front is for activating the flash unit (it uses the same flash units as the other XA cameras), no other setting is selectable. Just load the film, turn the thumbweel and off you go.

Overall it’s a very simple and quick camera, that has lomographic potential if used with a bit of creativity.