Film Photography: Olympus XA Camera, Hype or Classic?

If you talk to enough people about classic film cameras, you'll hear the Olympus XA (manufactured in 1979) mentioned. If you look online, you'll see reviews of this camera, websites dedicated to the XA, and countless threads extolling its virtues as an almost perfect, pocketable film camera. I wasn't convinced. I do recall a family member having a similar clamshell camera, but it was just a little plastic piece of junk. The Olympus XA reminded me a bit of that camera. It's all cheap looking plastic, which I hate. It's ugly too with it's little sliding door lens cover and weird vertical aperture selector. The ISO is controlled by a little switch under the lens and just above it is a similar tab/lever which you slide to focus the rangefinder. Nothing on it works like a real camera.

And yet, I couldn't quite get it out of my head as a perfect camera to accompany my FM2n and F3 on our upcoming Paris trip. If only it would perform like a SLR and give me good quality pictures. Then a pal from California messaged me saying he had an extra XA that he wanted to sell cheaply if I was interested. I PayPal'd him the money (roughly equal to the price of two drinks in NYC) and figured it would be an interesting experiment.

I've only shot one roll of throwaway images with it, but I like it. I like it for three reasons.

First off, it's compact. Look at that tiny thing next to the roll of film; this makes it feel like nothing in your hand. Second, the shutter is both whisper quiet and easy to engage. You barely have to touch it to fire and when it does fire you almost can't believe that it just took a picture. And third, it's an Olympus with a Zuiko lens. That means quality. The lens is a fast f2.8 lens and I'm assuming you can hold it steady at 1/30 second or even 1/15 second with ease. If you don't want to press your luck handheld in low light, it has a little self timer lever on the bottom that can be folded out. And this lever acts as a little stabilizer to hold the camera in place on a table top or flat surface. So far the lens is sharp enough for me stopped down a little. Wide open it's kind of soft, but I like that softness in the corners sometimes depending on the subject.

The rangefinder patch on this particular specimen is a little hard to see in dim conditions as is the viewfinder exposure meter, but it's easy to estimate in the dark for exposure or distance. There is a distance scale for the rangefinder above the lens when you look down. So far, the only problem I've had is keeping my finger out of the way of the lens. When I was taking a picture the other day with Kate, she said remarked that it looked like a disposable camera. She's totally right. It doesn't look like a professional or capable camera in any way. It looks like a toy. But it shoots nice pictures that will produce 35mm negatives you can enlarge way beyond today's top of the line cropped sensor DSLR cameras that cost over a thousand dollars. That's not a toy. It's definitely not just hype and with features and performance like this, I think it's a classic.

Here are a few decent pictures from the first roll.

Shot with Olympus XA on Kodak Tri-X 400 film exposed and developed at 800 ISO in Kodak Xtol Developer for 7.75 minutes

Wall Streeters with umbrellas crossing Water Street in the rain

News stand on Water Street in the Financial District

Community Garden in the Lower East Side

Live How You Live Graffiti in Freeman's Alley, Lower East Side

Freeman's Restaurant, Lower East Side

Freeman's Alley, Lower East Side

Freeman's Alley Horse Art, Lower East Side