We Review Maitani’s Masterpiece, the Olympus XA Rangefinder Camera

We Review Maitani’s Masterpiece, the Olympus XA Rangefinder Camera

5316 2991 Josh Solomon

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.

Get your own Olympus XA on eBay

Get one from our own F Stop Cameras

Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch

Advertisements

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
23 comments
  • I found that over time, my XA’s very easy to press shutter button, has lost a lot of its spring. It occasionally delays, or I have to press it multiple times to fire. It’s a great camera, but maybe that mechanism isn’t built as sturdily as one would hope.

    • William Sommerwerck June 20, 2018 at 11:44 am

      The shutter release uses a bit of conductive material to make contact. It’s possible it’s worn, or dirty.

      • The shutter button does get dirty over time so it could probably do with a cleaning! Not surprised to hear it’s a common problem; it’s an old camera with a very unique and delicate component.

    • The sticky shutter button is actually not that hard to fix. There is a little butterfly plate inside the shutter switch that is responsible for the springiness that flattens over time. All you need to do is take the top off, take the switch apart, and bend the butterfly plate back to springiness and put it all back together. I suggest doing this in some type of container as the bearing for the clamshell cover WILL fall out and it will dissapear on the floor if you aren’t careful.

      See, I felt the same way as Josh about this camera…for about a month. What could possibly be better than a prime lenses, full frame compact camera that can fit in a shirt pocket I asked myself. But after I kept seeing the photos it took, and not being happy with them, it eventually dawned on me that the major issue was the lens that Josh was so happy to heap superlatives on. I found that at wider apertures it was just low contrast and “watery”. The colors also seemed…off somehow, like there’s a warm haze over everything, in a way that a lot of lenses from the 1970s tend to be, at least with modern film. I didn’t shoot it too often stopped down because I needed the extra shutter speed to prevent shake, something this camera was also prone to in my use.

      Once I got a Contax T I never looked back. It was like someone took the things I didn’t like about this camera (mainly the lens, but also the film advance and shutter button) and made them perfect. Of course I generally prefer contrasty negatives to get the look I want right from the film, so this is mostly a matter of personal taste. However if you just need a small machine to produce negatives for darkroom printing where contrast is controlled in post, then the XA gets very hard to beat.

      • Good point about the lens – i’m not shy with the sliders in Lightroom, so the lowered contrast and general sponginess wide-open isn’t that big of a deal for me. I might be a little strange in this respect, but I like a more lo-fi option in some lenses if I can have it!

  • William Sommerwerck June 20, 2018 at 11:42 am

    The XA obliterates the Rollei 35, a clunky camera whose idea of lens protection is to “disassemble” the lens and thrust its components inside the body. The wind lever is on the bottom, as is, I believe the flash connector. Imagine having to take a flash photo with the camera upside-down!! As for image quality, I’ve never found anything to criticize, though I suspect the corners are a bit soft (though I never systematically checked this). I don’t remember how the Rollei sets exposure, but the XA does it for you, and there’s plenty of room for override, with both the lever on the bottom and the ability to change the ISO. In short, the perfect take-anywhere pocket camera. The photo on the cover of “Stereophile” with Ross Walker kneeling next to the ESL-63 was taken with the XA. And let’s not forget the wide-angle XA4 with its close-up abilities and a clever little mirror that reflects the light onto the subject.

  • I dunno man, it seems like the Contax T is the XA kicked up several notches. With much better Ti construction, a better lens, fuller features and a nicer feel.
    For a lot more $$$..

    But seriously, you cracked me up with ” I jumped about as high as I would’ve had he told me his water broke.”

    p.s. your photos with your reviews are like love letters to LA. You should be on the chamber of commerce!

  • Great article! The XA2 makes shooting even easier with zone focusing albeit slower lens. The Rollei 35 is also an amazing engineering marvel. I believe 50 years from know Rollei 35’s will still be repairable and fully functional. Both are great cameras, just different.

    • I’m not arguing with you, but I can’t say I totally understand when people say this about the XA2. You can zone focus just as easily with the rangefinder in the XA. Plus there’s control over depth-of-field, which I know you know doesn’t exist with the XA2. Like I say, I’m not disagreeing, I just can’t say I understand why so many people have this opinion that the XA2 is better (I’ve seen this said a lot on Instagram, too).

      And as you say, the Rollei 35 is a wonderful, quirky machine. One of my favorites as well.

      But anyway, whatever camera you’re shooting, enjoy it!

      • James, in the XA2 you effectively don’t have to do anything before taking a shot, if light is decent and you’re not shooting something too close. The default focusing range puts everything in focus from a few meters to infinity, and there’s no aperture to set either. You CAN set your XA to certain parameters, but it isn’t 100% the same! And as they say, the fact that you CAN do it, doesn’t mean you WILL do it; it’s different when a camera has that ‘feature’ by default.

  • Cracking good review of a wonderful camera. I have a heuristic for cameras that reach my “inner circle” of gear: if I were forced to shoot just that camera for the rest of my life, would I be significantly limited? With the XA, the only thing I think I’d miss is macro. Otherwise, I’d just get on with making great photographs.

    My review is here: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2012/09/20/olympus-xa/

  • It’s a wonderful camera, I agree, but I wonder if most examples out there are too old to be reliable. I bought an XA2 a few months ago and loved it but experienced shutter sticking as noted above until it died totally and would not fire. Maybe it did just need a cleaning but I was not going to take a chance on a 30+ year old camera for which there are no parts. I returned it for a full refund. These are great cameras for what they are but they are delicate and not made to withstand heavy use. I will stick with my Stylus Epics, which are newer, and my Rollei 35s, which are all mechanical and more rugged.

    • I’d hesitate to say that there are no parts available to fix an XA. Any reputable camera repair shop will be loaded with parts cameras and should be able to fix nearly any problem. Sorry to hear about your XA2 though! Perhaps an XA will be a better fix, heh.

  • Renato F Valenzuela June 21, 2018 at 5:06 pm

    this camera is the reason why i never saw the point in getting a 35mm prime in any of my kits. It just felt redundant. It is a bonafide gem. Just enough control over your exposure and an excellent performer shot within its “limitations”

    Extra trivia. The self-timer, +1.5EV, battery-check tab doubles as a “foot” for when you don’t have a tripod and you set it up on a level surface.

  • If Olympus had put a rangefinder patch just a tad brighter I would be raving about this camera! When trying to focus in darker spots the rangefinder is useless! After using it since 1985 my XA just sits in a drawer bin now, destined for a Goodwill at some point.

  • The XA series cameras (notably the XA2) are Yoshihisa Maitani’s greatest masterpiece, overshadowing even the OM system. Less is more, in keeping with Oskar Barnack’s vision for a small, easy to carry camera that will produce very good results. Less is more. https://kenrockwell.com/olympus/xa.htm

  • I own an XA2 and I’d lavish its 35/3.5 lens with the same praises you do here, that lens is just incredible!

Leave a Reply

Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon