The perfect camera probably doesn’t exist, but there are certainly some that come close. In this look back at the classic Olympus XA, find out why I’ve come to love this little powerhouse of the past.
The Olympus XA debuted in 1979 and represented a huge leap forward in technology and design. It featured a “clamshell” dust door, internal focusing 35mm f/2.8 lens, aperture priority AE, built-in rangefinder, shutter speed needle in the viewfinder, a self-timer, +1.5 exposure compensation and even electronic control. trigger (pressure conductive polymer) that cannot be triggered when the camera door is closed. Oh, and it’s all contained in a self-protecting pocket-sized package that doesn’t require an additional case.
For its age, it really is a feature-rich camera. But don’t worry, because it also adds a heavy dose of nostalgia. The camera is manual focus, and while the rangefinder works well, it takes some getting used to before you can line up the two overlapping images and be sure you’ve got focus . Film advance and rewind are both done manually by means of a thumb wheel and a retractable crank lever, respectively. ISO (ASA, as marked on the camera) must also be set manually from 25 to 800 using a small dial located directly below the lens.
Easy and fun to use, even in 2022
After loading a roll of film into 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’s so compact that more than once I forgot it was in the back pocket of my pants, making it a great carry. When I was ready to take a shot, I was amazed at how quickly I made my composition, even after manually adjusting the aperture and focus. All that needs to be done is open the door when you take it out of your pocket, quickly check focus, adjust the aperture dial if necessary, and before you know it the shot is socket.
The quick response is due in part to the extremely responsive shutter button, which requires virtually no pressure to engage (although it does take a bit of getting used to to avoid accidentally pressing it ). The shutter “click” is satisfying, even for someone like me who generally prefers the thud of an SLR shutter. Rolling to the next frame becomes automatic before you know it, and the wheel is smooth and easy to advance.
The camera also has a removable flash, which can be screwed to the side of the camera when needed. This is another nifty part of the design, as the flash is small enough to throw in your pocket and take with you when you need it. Even when the flash is attached, the XA remains a compact affair, and still (almost) pocket-sized.
They don’t make them 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 hadn’t been used for many years. Despite this, all that was needed was a new AA battery for the flash and 2 LR44 button cells for the camera, to get us back up and running immediately. There was no corrosion on the battery terminals of either camera, and all buttons and dials still function perfectly. I know it might sound cliché, but they certainly built things to last back in the day, and it shows in the rugged durability of my two forty-year-old XAs.
Zen and the art of shooting
After you get past the nuts and bolts of using the XA (which doesn’t take very long at all), there comes a moment when the camera becomes almost invisible, blending into you and your surroundings. The focus lever, perfectly located for your left index finger, the aperture dial, ingeniously positioned not around the lens barrel but like a vertical switch on the front of the camera, and the the shutter, which is just far enough away to prevent most accidental presses. but close enough to remain comfortable, are so well placed and well designed that the barrier between subject and artist is almost removed. Plus, the small size and unassuming matte black body are timeless, making it something to notice. In other words, “It’s a spiritual experience, man.”
Ok, maybe I’m selling it a little too much, but it’s really fun to use and the results are super cool. Even the fuzzier ones.
One thing I noticed after running my first roll of film through the XA was that my manual focus rangefinder skills were a little… rusty. But I think it added to the charm, and my technical shortcomings aside, the lens itself is actually pretty sharp, being hailed as one of the best in a compact camera. Also, the color rendition and contrast are exactly what I was hoping for (eat your heart out from movie emulators).
And that brings me to my favorite part about shooting with the XA. As a professional photographer, whenever I use a camera for “fun,” which often means family photos, I end up with some kind of diary. I’m either trying out new gear, film simulation, or testing autofocus and burst mode for the thousandth time. Or, I read each frame obsessively, zooming in one by one to see how sharp they really are, and sticking my eye to the EVF because it’s better to see them that way than through the screen , when these things should be my very last priority.
But not with the XA. This auspicious artifact teaches me to cast off the shackles of striving for photographic perfection and takes me back to a beautiful moment with those I love the most, immediately after its modest shutter says “click”. And, maybe that’s perfection itself. Pretty zen, huh?