Olympus XA & XA2: Great things come in small packages

Olympus XA front
The Olympus XA. I probably should have put something very small, like a pack of cards, in the frame for scale. Because it’s very small. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Olympus XA and XA2 — essentially two variations of the same camera — both pack a ton of easy quality into a tiny little package.

Physically the two look almost identical, and the functional differences are minor, though important. The two biggest assets each possesses are the superb lens and the extremely compact frame.

Both feature auto-exposure, but the XA is a true rangefinder with aperture-priority, while the XA2 moved to a zone-focus system and full program auto mode. In many ways, they could be considered the spiritual successors to the Olympus Trip 35.

I’m considering the two together here because there will be so much overlap, both in the description and specs, and in the actual review.

The Olympus XA

The XA debuted in mid-1979 and was in production until 1985. It features a sharp 35mm f/2.8 F.Zuiko lens (six elements — remember the letter designation before “Zuiko” indicates, by its position in the alphabet, the number of elements in an Olympus lens), aperture-priority and a rangefinder.

Olympus XA lens
A closer look at the lens and controls on the Olympus XA. Aperture to the top left, focus and film speed selector bottom left. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The lens design is very complex, which it had to be. It uses internal focusing so the front element never moves in or out of the body, and in order to keep the camera compact, the physical length of the lens is actually less than its 35mm focal length. Minimum focusing distance is just under three feet.

The rangefinder is coupled to the lens and the focus lever protrudes from the bottom of the lens area. The film speed selector is just above it on the bottom side of the lens, and offers speeds from ASA 25 to 800. The film speed selector actually selects from a range of masks with varying sized holes in front of the CdS meter cell.

In the middle of the lens assembly, behind the aperture, is the two-blade leaf shutter, and the aperture-priority auto-exposure system is capable of speeds from 10 seconds down to 1/500 second. There is a focus distance scale visible on the top edge of the lens through a clear window, which is marked in meters only outside the U.S., and feet only on cameras for the U.S. market.

The viewfinder features a shutter speed display on the left edge, with markings from 1 second to 1/500 second, and over- or underexposure areas at each end; the needle moves to the speed selected by the auto-exposure system. In the center is the rangefinder patch, which is small but offers good contrast.

The XA’s two-bladed aperture is controlled by a slider on the right side of the front of the body and stops positively at each full stop from f/2.8 down to a minimum of f/22. Push the slider all the way to the top, past f/2.8, to switch on the flash, if attached, and also set the aperture to f/4 and shutter speed to 1/30 second. Apparently you can then move the slider back to f/2.8 for more ambient light in flash photos.

Piano player
A piano player on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Taken with the Olympus XA and Kodak Tri-X — note minor pincushion distortion. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter release is a red button on the top of the camera, which locks when the clamshell cover is closed. Closing the cover actually turns off the camera completely, and as a result, the XA’s two SR44 batteries can last many years. The shutter button is electronic, triggered by a microswitch under the plastic button, and takes only a feather touch. Focus resets to infinity when you close the cover, as well, and a tiny blind extends to guard the rangefinder window.

On the bottom of the camera is a switch that enables the self-timer or the battery test, as well as a +1.5-stop exposure compensation mode for backlit situations. The self-timer runs about about 12 seconds, during which a red LED on the front of the camera blinks and the camera beeps to indicate the countdown.

The film advance is a plastic thumbwheel not unlike that of the Ilford HP5+ single-use camera or many very cheap cameras.

The XA has a passable point-and-shoot mode, too. Just set the aperture and focus to f/5.6 and 3 meters (both marked in orange) to get reasonably sharp pictures with no further input, near or far.

Film loading and rewinding is quite typical of a 35mm camera: a spool release button on the underside, a flip-up rewind crank which you pull to release the door, etc. The frame counter resets automatically when you change the film, and it counts up to at least 40 frames.

While most XAs are black, they were also available in a range of other colors including red, blue, and a putty color reminiscent of early IBM PC cases.

The Olympus XA2
The Olympus XA2. Note the zone focus control to the left, and only a film speed selector below the lens. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Olympus XA2

The XA2 looks for all the world like an XA clone, which it just about is. It was introduced in 1981 as a lower-budget option, and remained in production until 1986. Three primary differences separate it from the XA:

Comic Con 2015
A portrait at Denver Comic Con 2015 taken with the XA2, using the A11 flash for a little bit of fill light outdoors but in the shade. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The first, and probably biggest, difference from the XA is the less complex four-element D.Zuiko 35mm lens, with its maximum aperture a half-stop slower at f/3.5. The shutter and aperture designs remained about the same, though the shutter speed range in the XA2 is from 2 seconds down to 1/750 second.

Next, the XA’s aperture priority auto-exposure was replaced by full program mode on the XA2. Set the film speed and focus, and the camera does the rest.

Third is the focus method: the XA2 dropped the optical rangefinder in favor of zone focusing, and repurposed the unnecessary aperture slider as a focus selector. Focus resets to medium distance each time the clamshell cover is closed. The orange marking, again, allows point-and-shoot functionality with a focus range that’s likely to achieve reasonable focus from a few feet all the way to infinity in most circumstances.

Both cameras share virtually every other feature and otherwise function identically. They are both compatible with the popular A11 flash attachment (micro review: it’s weak, but small and portable, and good enough for pictures of your friend’s birthday party — but only just), which screws into the left side of the camera and uses a proprietary electrical connector. They even share most of the same strengths and weaknesses.

Olympus XA2 + A11 flash
Front view of the Olympus XA2 with an A11 flash unit attached. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Carrying the XA and XA2

Not going to beat around the bush here, they’re getting five stars in spite of some noteworthy issues. But let me tell you why…

I heard about the XA and XA2 from Andrew MacGregor, who recommended it highly for hiking and walking, and any other activity where something ultralight would be an asset. He could hardly have been more right about it.

Either one fits great right into the hip-belt pocket on my old Osprey Switch 25+5 pack (which I use for hiking, not skiing, but like for its 2.5-liter hydration bladder, and because I already have it), and weighs a pittance (the XA weighs more by about three quarters of an ounce, but both are under half a pound). Thanks to the brilliant lens and clamshell design, it’s well-protected however I toss my pack around, and when it comes out, it’s ready to shoot as fast as I can open the cover.

Roxborough Park
A view from the top of the mesa overlooking Roxborough Park to the north. Taken with the Olympus XA and Kodak Tri-X. Vignetting very present in this frame, though the clouds to the left were much darker. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The killer app here is the lens, though. The XA wins in terms of sharpness and speed, but the XA2 seems to suffer slightly less pincushion distortion. Both are almost completely free of chromatic aberration, and each suffers from a little bit of vignetting — slightly less on the XA2, but not enough to be a deciding factor between the two.

The difference is really in the amount of control you have as the user — do you like focusing precisely and using aperture-priority, or is zone-focus and full program more to your liking? There is really nothing else different enough to recommend one over the other.

That said, I prefer the XA — probably because I like having more control. If all the XAs in the world disappeared and I was stuck with an XA2, though, I wouldn’t shed a tear. That’s really just fine.

UMS 2015 Strawberry Runners
Strawberry Runners perform at the hi-dive in Denver during the Underground Music Showcase 2015. Taken with the Olympus XA2 and A11 flash, which is not really powerful enough for subjects more than 6-8 feet from the camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I picked up my first XA2 at a swap meet for something like $25; since then I’ve found several more at thrift stores for lower prices (the Olympus XA series is of that ilk which, like the Stylus Epic mju-II and Yashica T2/T3/T4, wind up in the bin with the Kodak Advantix cameras). The XA was a gift from a friend who thought I’d prefer the real rangefinder — I do.

The XA2’s zone focus shares the same fatal flaw as every other zone focus camera I’ve used (except the Olympus Trip 35): I just plain forget to check my focus half the time, or I misestimate and it’s off by a mile. That it resets to the middle distance every time I close it is rather annoying, too. I understand why it’s set up that way, but I don’t like it.

The aperture setting on the XA is almost as hard for me to remember, sometimes. It doesn’t bother me nearly as much, though, because in-focus photographs made at f/5.6 are just fine most of the time.

View from Rocky Mounta Village
A view from the hills above the Easter Seals Rocky Mountain Village camp. Taken with the XA2 and expired Kodak Gold 200; the meter did impressively well with the complicated lighting. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The viewfinders on both are relatively small, but adequate. They aren’t terribly bright, though. The XA’s shutter speed display is very difficult to see, in fact — you have to get your eye in there are just the right angle, which also applies to the brightline framing guides in both cameras. My XA’s shutter speed needle just bounces around randomly, but doesn’t seem to actually indicate what it’s meant to correctly. I didn’t find that to be an issue, however, as the shutter still obviously selects different speeds in different conditions.

The film rewind knob and its shaft are made of plastic. It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I worry it will one day break while rewinding a stubborn cassette. The crank, too, is small and short, and I found my fingers slipped off the knob frequently while rewinding — an annoyance.

In spite of the rewind assembly, the cover, and the advance knob being plastic, though, the majority of the camera’s body is in fact made of thin and robust steel, and it’s quite solidly built.

The XA and XA2 both fit equally comfortably in my hands, and the few controls are placed conveniently. The worst side effect of the compact size is that once or twice I accidentally got a fingertip into the relatively wide field of view. Though it may not be great ergonomically, it’s so light I doubt that matters.

1970 Cadillac Eldorado
A 1970 Cadillac Eldorado parked in Denver’s Washington Park West neighborhood on a sloping street. Taken with the Olympus XA, which did a decent job metering this shadowed scene with a little bright sky in the background. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Though it’s convenient, the shutter release is a conundrum. It’s so easy to trigger, most of the time, that I let shots off by accident too often. On the other hand, it offers virtually no tactile feedback; it hardly moves at all and if it doesn’t trigger accidentally sometimes I find I have to press harder than I think is reasonable to get it to activate. I think that was really a foible of this one particular XA2, but the inconsistency is frustrating. The XA has been more consistent, so it may really be a question of finding an XA or XA2 that works just right for you.

That said, once triggered, the shutter is amazingly quiet. Just a barely audible click and you’re away.

Oh yeah — a nifty feature I like: the shutter (and the whole camera) is turned off with the clamshell cover closed — except when you open the back to change the film. You can operate the shutter and advance the film as needed with the back open; then close it and open the front cover to finish advancing from the start position to frame 1.

When all is said and done, the Olympus XA and XA2 both offer a ton of bang for your buck, especially as inexpensively as they can be had. Even at eBay prices, they’re a good value. If you’re not absolutely sure you need the flash, a camera without one can save you as much as half the average cost.

If you want a camera to slip in a purse or briefcase, or even slip into a jacket or back pocket (yeah, it even fits in your jeans — probably), I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything better.

Baby doll on sidewalk
Someone’s missing their baby doll. Found alongside a 100-year-old-plus sandstone slab sidewalk in Denver’s Speer neighborhood. Taken with the Olympus XA and Kodak Tri-X — note vignetting. (Daniel J. Schneider)
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Olympus XA and XA2 compact 35mm cameras
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