Hype can kill. We’re no strangers to the phenomenon here. We’ve tested plenty of popular cameras that have failed to support the weight of expectation and popular opinion, and it’s always disappointing to shoot a camera only to have it fall short of the hype. For me, there’s one camera whose hype train runs faster than the rest – the Olympus XA.
For a long time, the Olympus XA was my holy grail of compact cameras. Praise for this tiny rangefinder is universal. Consistently lauded as a compact camera suitable for professionals as well as casual shooters, and championed as one of the most ingenious pieces of industrial design ever conceived, to say the camera’s reputation preceded it would be an understatement. So, when James offered to send an XA to any of the writers here for review, I jumped about as high as I would’ve had he told me his water broke. I needed to know if this camera was the real deal.
The story of the Olympus XA started with one man’s obsession with compactness. In a career spanning decades, Yoshihisa Maitani eventually rose from headhunted student to Olympus’s genius head of design. In years prior, Maitani and his team created the ingenious half-frame SLR Pen F, the famously compact OM-1, and the classic point-and-shoot Trip 35. For many, this would’ve been enough, but not for the obsessive Maitani. Maitani wanted an even smaller, even more advanced camera than any he’d yet made. He needed something completely new.
This all sounds like the plot of some cheesy, feel-good movie about a plucky Japanese camera designer, but it’s a profound story at its core. To prove my point, I’d like to put forth a simple test, if only to prove Maitani’s brilliance.
Clear your mind and imagine a 35mm rangefinder camera. Got it? Okay, now imagine a 35mm rangefinder with an aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. Easy enough, right? Now imagine it with a fixed, manual-focus 35mm f/2.8 lens. Okay, now look at the Olympus XA. I bet what you were imagining wasn’t at all what Maitani came up with. And if it was, I suggest you shoot a job application over to your favorite camera company.
If the eyes of today see the XA as less-than-revolutionary, that’s because it influenced many cameras that followed after. But at the time of its introduction in 1979, it looked like no camera that had come before it. It featured a brand-new clamshell cover which not only streamlined the body, but also protected the lens, focusing mechanism, and ISO/ASA selector. It also featured a vertical aperture control, an electromagnetically triggered shutter button, and a flush-mounted self-timer, battery check, and +1.5 EV exposure compensation lever. Essential components, sure, but the XA executed them like nothing else on the market.
The XA was meant to fit into a shirt pocket and retain full functionality, which meant a complete redesign of nearly every single component in the name of compactness. The shutter button sits flush with the top of the camera, the focusing lever rests in a small crevice underneath the lens, and the aperture selector protrudes just a couple of millimeters from the face of the camera.
But the most radically designed component of the camera was not its controls, but its F. Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 lens. Lenses are often the enemy of compact design, as they traditionally protrude out from the camera and telescope in and out in accordance with the focusing mechanism. Maitani determined this to be unnecessary and unacceptable, so he designed an all-new lens whose focusing mechanism would be found internally, eliminating the need for long lens barrels and that pesky telescoping action.
When all was said and done, Maitani got the camera he wanted, an impossibly small, fully-featured 35mm rangefinder camera fit for a shirt pocket and ready for nearly anything. The XA’s introduction in 1979 brought with it much fanfare, and a legacy of cameras which includes the rest of the XA-series in the 1980s (XA2, 3, and 4), and the XA-inspired Infinity/Mju series autofocus point-and-shoots of the 1990s. The Olympus XA completely changed the compact camera game, and in doing so kept Olympus right at the very top of that game well into the digital age.
It’s easy for a small, cute camera like the XA to simply become a novelty these days, but its intuitive design ensures its reputation as an out-and-out shooter. The small size still makes nearly all 35mm compact cameras (not to mention digital cameras) feel bloated by comparison, but it’s designed well enough to avoid making shooting such a small camera feel unnecessarily cramped and difficult. Its concise control layout also makes the normally baffling manual focus rangefinder incredibly easy to understand and operate, and combined with a particularly streamlined aperture-priority mode this makes for easy shooting. The focus throw is incredibly short which enables easy focusing, the shutter button actuates with a feather touch, and the shutter sound is a near-silent “click”, making stealthy candids a cinch.
In testing I’ve found that the XA excels particularly in spur-of-the moment candid situations. Its short focusing throw and easy, silent actuation combined with its small size means that the XA is ready for anything at any time. For the scale-focusing street shooter, the streamlined XA can potentially be even quicker and more discreet than the fastest autofocus cameras. And even though it can be operated as a quick snapshot camera, the XA ensures a surprising amount of fine creative control for the more discerning shooter, with apertures ranging from f/2.8 to f/22, a shutter with a range of 1/500th of a second to a full ten seconds, and an ISO/ASA range of 25-800.
The centerpiece of this camera, however, isn’t the design. It’s the completely redesigned, internally focusing F. Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 lens. I may risk drowning this lens in superlatives, but I can’t help myself. It is one of the finest compact camera lenses I have ever used. It possesses a slightly soft, but characterful rendering at the wider apertures of f/2.8 and f/4, but sharpens up considerably by f/5.6. I’m convinced that negatives from the XA can be blown up just as large as negatives from any Leica or Zeiss camera. The resolving power of this lens is simply unreal.
I’m hesitant to heap so much praise on the Olympus XA without a bit of nit-picking. No camera is perfect. The rangefinder patch isn’t the biggest or brightest around, which makes low-light photography a bit more difficult than with some larger rangefinders. The electromagnetic shutter button is nice, but sometimes it releases at the slightest touch, resulting in a couple of wasted frames per roll in clumsy hands like mine. The redesigned lens renders images with some barrel distortion and it vignettes when shot wide open, flaws that may bother shooters who prefer a more clinical rendering. And if I’m being really nit-picky, the serrated advance wheel feels and sounds a lot like the one found on the Kodak FunSaver disposable camera, which I often associate with missed shots from grade-school field trips and the faint smell of animal droppings at the LA Zoo.
But that’s all the criticism I can rightfully level against the XA. Much to my relief, I can say that the camera absolutely lives up to the hype. But even saying that doesn’t do it justice. If I’m being honest, the Olympus XA is even better than the hype would suggest.
It might just be the quintessential film shooter’s camera – historically important, yet meant to be shot; beautiful, yet functional; small, yet enormously capable. And for all of its serious, ingenious design, the XA is a fun-loving, carefree camera that encourages you to shoot, and shoot some more. A camera like that deserves all the praise it gets, and even more still.
Bravo, Olympus. Bravo.