Popular amongst photographers and hipsters and suedo-celebs alike, the Olympus XA has developed a sort of cult following. Designed by the brilliant Yoshihisa Maitani (the man who made Olympus), the XA is a marvel of engineering, especially the time of its release in 1979. (I also have my mother’s original OM-1, another Maitani masterpiece, and the most beautiful camera I’ve ever used. Peering through its viewfinder is like looking into another world. Unfortunately it doesn’t work anymore, but I still pick it up from time to time just to look through that viewfinder.)
Anyway, I digress. Back to the XA. It is stunningly small. The F. Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 is surprisingly sharp. The XA’s meter is spot on. It’s really fun to shoot with. Despite all that, I still consider it a glorified disposable camera. WHICH IS EXACTLY WHY I WANTED IT. I wanted a creatively imperfect camera. I wanted a Holga with a little more control.
Wow. I knew this thing would be small, but I can’t believe how small the XA actually is. I can literally wrap my palm around the entire thing. It feels like a spy camera when you’re shooting with it. It’s an attractive camera and the build quality is great. It’s plastic and the sliding door seems a little flimsy, but other than that it feels really solid…surprisingly so.
The XA is fun to shoot, even with the most unsatisfying shutter of all time. The click of the shutter is deadly silent, great for street shooting, but pretty much the exact opposite of the goosebump inducing kerthump of the Pentax 67. (I like it loud.) Despite its sound, taking a shot with the XA is fun.
Speaking of its shutter, this seems to be photographer’s biggest gripe with this camera. It is feather touch sensitive, and many shooters set it off by accident. The biggest problem with its age seems to be that the shutter can get stuck or break all together. While it does seem a bit fragile, mine is in perfect working order…for now.
It’s almost too good. Take the scene above, shot at f/8. It is a perfect exposure and really sharp throughout the frame, yet it has that disposable camera look to it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s unique. I don’t want perfection. I want that look. Hell, I shot a lot of these images slightly out of focus...on purpose.
Like I said above, for my purposes I consider this camera in the same class as a Holga. (Blasphemy for such a well designed camera, I know. Hear me out.) You shoot a Holga because of its imperfections. You shoot on a Holga for the lights leaks, the soft corners, the limitations and unpredictability of it all. You shoot a Holga because because you never know what you’re gonna get. And this is why I wanted the XA…for results like the one above.
When you impose limitations on yourself you can really thrive creatively.
I don’t really have a single gripe with the camera or the image quality. It’s great for what it is, although you do notice certain characteristics. With only 4 aperture blades it can leave some pretty strange looking square flare and bokeh, as you can see in the top left corner above. It’s not great, but it’s not bad.
I’ve heard this camera called the “poor man’s Leica”, presumably because they’re both rangefinders, and I think that’s incredibly misleading. Shooting with a Leica offers an experience and results that are in a different league than the XA, obviously. This ain’t no mini Leica. The rangefinder patch is basically invisible, even in the best conditions. If it’s nearing darkness you can forget about it. Luckily it’s very easy to guesstimate the distance using the focusing scale.
My only “real” complaint is that the ISO dial only goes up to 800. I would love to push HP5 to 1600, or shoot one of my favorite films, Kodak TMAX 3200. I haven’t figured out a way to fool my camera into metering past 800, so let me know if you know how. Again, not the biggest deal, but the grain on TMAX 3200 would shine through this camera.
Unfortunately by the time I’ve eyed an old film camera on ebay, the hype surrounding it has usually doubled its price. I paid nearly $140 for mine, but it was in never-been-used-brand-new condition. The original battery was still in its original wrapper (and it works)! It sucks knowing that I could’ve gotten one for $30 a couple of years ago, but still, $140 is not a bad price for what you get. If you’re lucky you could still find one for $5 in your local thrift store heap.
XA vs. XA2
The XA and XA2 are completely different cameras. The XA2 is not simply the second generation of the XA, as the name would imply, but an altogether different shooting experience. The XA2 is a fully automatic camera with 35mm f/3.5 lens. You set a focus zone and the camera does the rest. This is great for quick and stealthy street shooting, à la Bruce Gilden or Daniel Arnold. After some debate, I went with the original XA for the added control and focusing ability, BUT if I were primarily trying to capture people and street scenes, I probably would have gone with the XA2.
When I’m out shooting in the wild I’m almost always shooting in Aperture Priority mode. This is great, because you don’t have a choice with the XA. But worry not, its meter is amazing. You can only fool the camera into over or under exposing by the ISO switch at the bottom, and it does have a back light switch that adds +1.5 EV to the mix. Handy, but I haven’t used it yet. Overall the meter is spot on with perfect exposures, and that’s with a 30+ year old battery. Pretty amazing when you think about it.
UPDATE: After shooting five rolls of film through it, the original 30+ year old battery has died. Replacing it was easy. RIP.
Through the windshield
It was a very dark and rainy weekend in New Orleans, perfect for taking the XA out for her maiden spin. All of these were shot through a wet windshield, hence the very Todd Hido-esque distortion to them. I LOVE how they came out. These type of images are why I wanted this camera. Perfectly imperfect.
Flexing her muscles
Here are some cleaner images for your viewing pleasure. I have to admit, not only do I love the results, but I’m surprised at just how good they are. Like I said above, I bought this camera to be my funky little side piece, but after seeing these results, I’d feel very comfortable carrying just this camera around. I get the hype.
I’ve only shot two stocks of film through the XA, Ilford HP5 and Kodak Colorplus 200. I’m excited to really experiment with some funkier films (especially Agfa APX 400 after seeing this post…so dreamy).
Easter weekend in Carolina
UPDATE: A couple of weeks after I wrote my initial thoughts above, I brought the XA with me up to North Carolina. It was the only camera I used. The results, once again, reaffirmed that this is a true 35mm camera capable of fantastic results. That being said, I stand by my comments about it being a glorified disposable camera. As good as these results are, they still have a small camera look to them, and are not in the same class as a full sized SLR or rangefinder. BUT, for its size, you’re not gonna find a better camera.
A School bus graveyard in georgia
Let’s finish this up with some bright colors in mid day.
After only shooting a few rolls through this camera, I can honestly say that I love the Olympus XA. Is it worth the hype? Depends on your expectations. For what I was wanting it’s pretty perfect. This camera isn’t replacing anything, it’s just a fun new toy for my arsenal.
Ultimately for me, the shooting experience always trumps the camera and even the results themselves. The Olympus XA is one of those cameras that just begs you to just pick it up and take it with you. It’s so small and so good that you literally have no reason not to carry it with you at all times.
I’m almost 9 years in the photography game and I feel like I’m just getting started. I still shoot digital and love it for what it is, but when I go out in search of a good time, I’m dreaming in film. Shooting film and embracing the limitations that come along with that has made me a far better and more creative photographer.
I’ve got a cool trip to Yosemite coming up soon, and while I’ll certainly be shooting with my Pentax 67, the XA will be in my pocket at all times. There’s simply no excuse not to bring it everywhere.
final score / A-
Should I do this again?
I hope you enjoyed this quick and simple review. I’ve never “reviewed” anything before, simply for the fact that 95% of the people who normally read my blog won’t know what the hell I’m talking about. But if you’re a fellow photographer who liked what you saw, please leave a comment or sign up my more posts with your email below!