Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: What digital compact will still be used 30 years from now?
The Long Version: The Olympus XA is small. Very, very small. More than thirty years after it was introduced, it's still the worlds smallest rangefinder camera that takes 35mm film. The XA has a non-collapsing 6-element 35/2.8 lens that covers the full 24x36mm frame, and has a built-in light meter for electronically-controlled aperture-priority exposure. The entire depth of the camera, measured from the front of the lens cover to the back of the film door, is thinner than the distance from the lens mount to the sensor plane in any 35mm or APS SLR.
While it's not an auto-everything camera that can be handed to a random local for a quick tourist portrait, it's simple enough to use that it could be mistaken for a manual-focus point-and-shoot. Compared to the pseudo-Victorian clockwork-complexity of the similarly-sized Rollei 35, which has a collapsing lens and a guess-the-distance focusing system, it comes across as a cheap plastic toy. But despite its appearance, the XA is a solid and tough little camera; while it may not equal the controllability of its bigger classmates, its capabilities are far greater than its size suggests.
For Olympus to create a tiny a six-element lens that can cover the full 35mm film frame without critical quality issues is amazing. Sharpness is very good, and it shows just a mild pincushion distortion and moderate vignetting. Unusually for a rangefinder, the lens is apparently a telephoto, which allows it to be shorter than its focal length. To make a camera like the XA with a "full frame" digital sensor is probably impossible. Its closest modern cousin, the "APS-C" Sigma DP series, are 40% thicker even with their collapsable lenses retracted, but their lenses cover less than 45% of the XA's sensor area. The Olympus XA is small.
There are downsides to miniaturization, of course. The frame lines aren't corrected for parallax, so the composition is even more approximate than usual for a rangefinder. The lens is a 35mm f/2.8, which some people will think is slow, but that forgets that an f/number is actually a mathematical ratio. Much more significantly, the compact design means that the baby Olympus is very susceptible to the rampant finger-in-front-of-lens problem that just doesn't happen with big cameras. But considering that "the best camera is the one you have with you" school of though has resulted in published books of cell-phone photos, I'm happy to have something the quality of the thirty-year-old XA tucked in my back pocket.
The Olympus XA is the cosmic answer to all of those "compensating for something?" jokes that photographers face when they use big cameras with long lenses. It's small enough to hold in one hand and has a wicked hair-trigger.
The other size concession is to have an incredibly light touch on the shutter button. Intended to minimize camera-shake for people who are used to bigger and heavier bodies, it's a nasty shock when I'm habitually looking for a half-press-to-focus action from a camera this size. If I tried hard enough, I could probably trip the shutter with the brush on my Lenspen. My first roll of 24 exposures had three accidental frames on it; I've since learned to close the cover as soon as I'm done taking a picture, but I still accidentally trip a couple of frames in the typical 36-exposure roll. This isn't a camera to shoot dollar-a-frame chromes with. What's more, I'm not entirely convinced that the featherweight shutter cuts down on camera shake, but there's no real way for me to test that.
I bought the original XA model over its cheaper descendants because it's the only one with rangefinder focusing. So it's with a certain sense of incongruity that I have to report that the XA is really easy to use without looking at the camera at all.
With the camera cover safely closed, move the focusing lever to the right (shutter-button side) until the left-hand edge of the focusing tab is pointing down as much as possible. That's 3m, which the manual recommends to have everything in focus. To refine the focus a little more, moving the tab all the way to the right is infinity, and having it square to the bottom of the camera is 1.5m/4.5ft. When the right side of the tab is pointing down as far as possible it's at 1m/3ft, and all the way to the right is the minimum focusing distance, which is about arm's-reach away, although close distances really do benefit from the better precision of the rangefinder.
The manual suggests f/5.6 and 3m (9ft on American models) as the best all-purpose setting, but I like to err on the side of caution and use f/8 instead. Without looking at the camera, slide the aperture selection switch to either end – f/2.8 or f/22. Now move it three clicks toward the middle. That's f/8. As the saying goes, all that's left is to be there.
For night photography, it's really best to keep the XA at f/2.8. The starburst patterns from the four-bladed aperture are a long way from being subtle. Exposure compensation is also a challenge; there's a +1.5EV setting for dealing with contra-jour subjects, but otherwise the only control is to adjust the film speed. While I will mess around with that kind of detail for slides or digital, with 135 negative film I usually over-expose by as much as a full stop and everything scans in just fine.
The XA is still a 'serious' camera, but not one that demands very much in return. It's easy to carry and not monetarily valuable – it doesn't cost nearly what it's worth – so there's no reason to leave it at home or in the bag. It's probably not as good a camera as my Yashica GSN, and my Zeiss Ikon and 35/2 completely smokes it, but that comparison misses the point. The Olympus XA was the counterpart to the Canon AE-1 in the same way that its offspring, the Olympus XZ, coexists with whatever Canon Rebel happens to be current this week.
Not a lot of people routinely use film any more, but for those who do I don't need to explain its appeal. (For those who don't, I can't.) I could use a digital camera – I do own several of them – and compact snapshot cameras are an obvious candidate for digital replacement. The thing is that casual film photography is still very different from digital photography; its inherent unnecessariness adds something to the results. There's a lot to be said for the surprise and imperfection of film, and this little pocket rangefinder captures the essence of it. Long may it live.
last updated 30 oct 2011