Olympus XA: The best everyday 35mm film camera?

I love my Canon A1. I shot my first rolls of film with it, it’s super reliable and I love the amazing lens selection for it. But when I decided I wanted a more compact camera for my trip to Tokyo, I needed something lighter, smaller and more silent; I wanted a rangefinder. I did a quick Google search for ‘smallest 35mm rangefinder’ and landed and fell in love with the Olympus XA.

A portrait shot with the Olympus XA
My friend Donna on my first day with the camera. Shot in Antwerp.

Overview

The Olympus XA is one of the worlds smallest film photography rangefinders. This ‘always in the bag’ camera has a very sharp 35mm 2.8 lens, it’s iso goes up to 800, aperture control from f2.8 to f22, a tiny focus lever from 0.8 meters to 3 meters and beyond, tiny viewfinder with focus patch and a needle to indicate the shutter speed which is selected automatically, like an aperture priority mode.

The Olympus XA has a clamshell design. The shell is moved from right to left to reveal the lens. When the shell camera is ‘closed’ the shutter won’t work. Very convenient since it’s shutter button is so very easily triggered.

Olympus XA clamshell movement
A very satisfying thing to do.

The Olympus XA gained popularity as a street photography camera thanks to it’s tiny size, stealthy trigger and fast, super sharp 35mm lens.

A cat shot with the Olympus XA 35mm film camera.
Picture of Lucy the fat. I mean, Lucy the cat. Shot in Antwerp.

The good

This camera is one of the most popular street photography camera’s for a reason..

Small

The camera is TINY. It fits right in my pocket and that to me is a really important feature when looking for an everyday camera. As a filmmaker I am pretty fed up with carrying around big bags full of heavy equipment all day. I don’t want to carry around multiple camera’s with multiple lenses when I’m strolling the streets of Tokyo. The Olympus XA eliminates that problem.

Silent

The Olympus XA’s shutter button is not only very, very easily triggered (which could be a pro or a con for you), it is also very silent. Perfect for candid street photography shots. Perfect for me since I am still a little awkward when it comes to photographing people.

Here we were actually booking our Japan trip 😀

‘Auto’ mode

The camera has a sort of ‘auto/no brainer’ mode. To do this you set both the aperture and the focus lever to the orange highlighted numbers. This way your shot will be in focus across the frame. The shot below was shot this way.

Olympus XA 35mm photograph in Antwerpen.
One of my favorite shots from the XA so far. Shot in Antwerp.

The lens

35mm f2.8; pretty much the perfect street photography number. As far as sharpness is goes; Just look at the detail on the picture below where I actually took the time to be in perfect focus.

The sharpness on this little lens is amazing.

Design

I instantly fell in love with it’s design; I love the way it’s shell slides back and forth to reveal the tiny lens, I love the way the red shutter looks on the all black design and how the engraved ‘XA’ lettering looks right next to it. It is an iconic little camera that I would love to collect and sell. Btw, watch this awesome Dutch Olympus XA ad below (but don’t if you’re a hardcore feminist XD..)

Dutch Olympus XA commercial

Cheap, sometimes

Funny enough, I bought my first XA for 80 euro’s, and the second one for 30. The latter was in much, much better condition than the more expensive one. If I see a XA online for no more than 50 euro’s, I’ll instantly buy it. Cause (spoiler) despite of its flaws I just love these little camera’s <3

The bad

Despite everything I love about the camera, some bad experiences kind of ruin the mood here. I hope this will change..

Dim rangefinder patch

As mentioned this tiny camera is actually a true rangefinder camera. But it can be very hard to focus and/or see what shutter speed you’re on. The focus patch is OK, just OK. Yes, it is very dim, but not as dim as the shutter speed indicator, which to me, is the bigger issue.

PS: There’s a fix for dim rangefinders. Thank the lord for Rick Oleson.

Dim shutter speed indicator

I didnt want to rely on the metering too much cause I found that with the first model I bought was a little off sometimes. For this reason I had to dive in the viewfinder to check the shutter speed via the needle indicator as opposed to using my knowledge of photography. When the visibility of the needle matters the most, it’s really hard to read. It helps when you move your eye ‘around’ the angles of the viewfinder, but it can be very distracting to work like this. I actually missed a few shots because of this.

Olympus XA dim rangefinder patch and shutter needle indicator
Lining up the shot for the best visibility.

If I could only rely on the shutter speed being accurate, I would have no trouble lining up my shots. But as for my experiences now, I just don’t know if i can.

Customized Olympus XA. Review of the two will come later.
My two XA’s, Willem and Pokémon. I actually did a little test with these two camera’s. To my ears, the shutter sounds about the same even though ‘Willems’ shutter indicator seems to be off. As soon as I get these rolls developed I’ll post the results on the blog.

Lightleaks

Also, a known issue for more film camera’s; Lightleaks. I have lightleaks on my first roll shot with the Olympus XA. Very unfortunate but understandable, since the light seals that the camera came with so many years ago just go bad. A new lightseal kit is available online.

A picture with lightleak shot with the Olympus XA
Color shift on this photo because of a light leak.

Overall reliability of the Olympus XA

As for most old camera’s, reliability is an issue. Unfortunately, the Olympus XA is no exception. I did not read about many complaints about the Olympus XA’s reliability, but my own experiences kind of make it hard for me to say this is super reliable camera.

Now a little side note here; I am going to switch the battery from a modern one to an older kind, this might solve the issue. I’ll update as soon as I have seen some results. 

Because of my metering problems in my first Olyxa I decided to buy another one from a seller that claimed that the camera worked perfectly. At first I thought he was right; the camera worked fine, except for the sounds the camera generates while in self-timer mode or when checking the battery. Later though, after loading my 9th film in Tokyo I noticed the film shot indicator did not work. Just before that I had trouble advancing the film.

Also, the ‘shutter lock’ mechanism when sliding the camera’s shell in it’s closed position doesn’t work. This made me waste more than a few shots, because I am used to advancing the film right after taking a picture. 

Overall, I am pretty nervous about developing the 10 rolls I shot in Tokyo.. I know I took a big risk taking a new, untested (by me) camera with me, and if I wasted all of the rolls there’s only myself to blame for not taking my trusty Canon A1 with me. But if so, I will never rely on an Olympus XA again and my love for it will be gone.

The Verdict (for now)

In review; I love the concept of this camera. It’s probably the best (budget) street photography camera out there. It is perfect as your everyday film photography street camera, as long as you can rely on it :/ . It’s not that the Olympus XA hasn’t proven itself to the world, it most certainly has. It’s just that the experiences I had with the two specific camera’s have been mixed.

I’ll end this review with a little gallery of shots I made in my first weeks with the camera. As soon as my Tokyo rolls come in I’ll post them whenever I can.