In 1985, my parents decided they wanted a small camera to take with them on holiday to Portugal – a hot and sunny getaway before the birth of their first child (hello) threw their lives into disarray (sorry). They chose and bought the Olympus XA4.
Manufactured for just one year, The XA4 was the last in a successful range of compact cameras that Olympus had begun producing with the original XA in 1979. The XA4 quickly became a staple of my childhood. I remember that camera surviving beach trips, camping holidays, and numerous birthdays, firing often and reliably with only a dent in the film door to speak to its exciting life. Around the time when digital cameras took over, it was stashed in the kitchen drawer and forgotten.
I began using film cameras in earnest during college after taking a darkroom course and being viciously bitten by the photography bug. I carted around a chunky Praktica MTL3 for a while, then upgraded to a Pentax MX – but the little compact my parents owned was stuck in my memory. Fishing it out of its kitchen drawer cryochamber, I was delighted to find that it still worked and decided to give it a new lease of life.
At first glance, the rounded clamshell shape is pretty unassuming. A small, black lump with OLYMPUS branded in white across the front of the plastic sliding shell, the XA4 is unusable until this clamshell is opened. But though it looks like nothing more than a squared off river rock, the ergonomics of the XA4 are quite well thought-out. The convex front fits perfectly in the palm of your hand, and the film advance and shutter release rest perfectly under the intended digits. In the hands, it’s far less slippery than it looks.
Look through the viewfinder and we see bright frame-lines with parallax correction markings (useful, since the XA4 Macro focuses as close as 30cm compared to the 85cm of the original XA). There’s also a light that illuminates when your shot is likely to be underexposed. Olympus made a range of flash units that fit neatly on the side of the XA cameras, but I rarely use mine – it’s surprisingly bright, and tends to scare away the subjects of any candid shots. This ability to disconnect the flash unit is of great benefit to natural-light photographers (I flirted with using a Fujifilm Tiara, a similarly tiny clamshell compact, but got irritated with constantly having to turn off the in-built flash and soon returned to the XA4).
Focusing with the Olympus XA4 is an exercise in scale focusing, with a sliding distance scale on the front of the camera spanning from 0.3 meters to infinity (this resets to 3m when the front cover is closed). Though it lacks the rangefinder focusing mechanisms and rangefinder patch of the original XA, focusing with the XA4 is just as sweet. Simply estimate distance to subject and shoot. The relatively wide lens helps ensure deep enough depth-of-field to be sure most everything we want to be in focus will be.
The red shutter button is something most people tend to double-take at – electromagnetically controlled, it releases one of the quietest shutters I’ve ever known. Unless we’re really paying attention, it can be difficult to be sure we’ve even taken a shot. This audible subtlety and the mentioned scale focusing methodology make the XA4 perfect for street photography, and I’ve used it extensively for close candid shots – placed on a table with the cover open, it’s rarely noticed.
The XA4’s 28mm f/3.5 lens is the widest found in an XA series camera (the others offer 35mm lenses with either f/2.8, f/3.5, or f/4 maximum apertures). It’s a pin-sharp lens capable of making exceedingly detailed images, but images do suffer some vignetting and distortion at the edges when focusing closely. Colours are rendered brightly, with a good level of contrast. Yoshihisa Maitani (lead designer of the original XA and many other legendary Olympus cameras) famously believed that the lens was the heart of any camera, and the one packed into the XA4 must surely have made him proud. For shooters looking for a wide-angle lens in a compact, the XA4 is a great choice.
I’ve found no problems with the automatic metering and exposure, as long as I pay attention to the little light in the viewfinder. Shutter speeds run from 1/750 to 2 seconds, and if exposure compensation is desired, there’s a neat little lever tucked underneath that provides +1.5 compensation – intended for backlit subjects, the manual says. The lever also controls a self-timer and battery check (listen for the beep).
The ease of use of the Olympus XA4 even extends to film loading – simply pop a roll into the back (film speeds are read automatically by DX contacts), pull the film leader across to the right, and rest it within the space marked by a handy red stripe. Close the back and wind on, watching the spool on the left – the film sprockets catch easily, and the film advances – no fumbling with little metal hinges, or trying to wiggle the leader into a slot. If the XA4 has any downsides, it’s that the DX codes can’t be overridden with the ISO lever underneath the lens – something I’ve only discovered recently – so if you want to push or pull your film, you’ll have to tape over the DX code and set it manually.
There’s been a resurgence in the popularity of compact film cameras in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. Their pocket-ability, sleek and often minimalist designs, and partially (or fully) automated functions make them irresistible for street photographers and lovers of candid photography. They’re small enough to slip into a bag or pocket, and their lenses offer all the image quality of larger film SLRs.
The XA4 is just such a camera, and it’s the camera I’d save from my flat in the event of a fire. It’s not the most valuable camera I own, or the most superficially impressive, nor the one with the most creative controls. But in every situation I’ve used it in, the Olympus XA4 has excelled and proved itself to be the perfect compact film camera. My only worry is that one day it will no longer be able to be repaired or serviced (a concern of most of us who use discontinued gear). If and when that happens, my family heirloom camera will be sadly consigned to that big kitchen drawer in the sky.