The Olympus XA rangefinder
Images & Words featured 35mm vintage camera
If you’re an industrial designer you will have admired the XA. It is everything it should be , but you get more than what you see. The little XA is very small and is the smallest practical 35mm camera I have come across. The Rollei 35’s are smaller, great to look at, zone focus, not rangefinder, but are impractical for any quick picture taking. The XA is everything the Rollei isn’t. It is small, light, has rangefinder focus, very easy and quick to ‘shutter ready’ status. Being aperture priority the XA sets an appropriate shutter speed according to your manual aperture selection via the slide lever to the left of the lens - maximum aperture is 2.8, stopping down to f22. The form of the XA is a delight to behold and the only downside to this comparison - the Olympus is plastic, the Rollei is metal. The XA was followed by the XA1, 2, 3 and 4 but none of these followers are rangefinders and in some cases lacked the ingenious features found in the original XA.
The XA’s clamshell design is it’s main secret. When it is in closed position everything is off, the lens is completely protected and the rounded shape fits neatly into most pockets or small bags. This convenience becomes important when a great shot presents, which maybe momentary, and the XA ‘quick draw’ is in your hand ready to shoot in seconds. Most other cameras might be small, but have lenses, film winders, shutter speed wheels and so on, all which can catch on a bag lining or pants pocket. Photo moment gone! The XA is only 100mm long and 40mm thick weighing in at 220g and with the clam shut has no protrusions at all. Slide the clam open and you are the sneakiest street shooter ever, as surely no serious photographer would sport a camera so small.
Since 1936 Olympus has made it’s own ‘in house’ lenses named Zuiko with a letter prefixing the name. The letter corresponds to the number of glass elements present in the particular lens setup. So an F Zuiko has 6 elements. Lets talk about this neat F Zuiko lens which has a focal length of 35mm, is sharp and bright with a maximum aperture of f2.8. The unique design contains the lens within the line of the camera casing so even with the clamshell open, shoot ready, the lens does not protrude. The CDS light cell is much more reliable than the older selenium. A CDS light cell requires current to function, provided by 2 SR or LR44 button cells which are readily available at supermarkets, chemists and photo shops and they last for ages. Maximum shutter speed is 1/500 and ASA film speed from ISO25 – 800. Film speed is adjusted via a small lever immediately below the lens. The rangefinder focus lever is directly below this. The very light electronic shutter trigger, which minimises camera shake takes a little getting used to, but after a few inadvertent activations, due care becomes habitual. The shutter cannot activate unless the film is wound on. Close focusing and a back lighting exposure compensation function adds to the unexpected extras.
The lever on the left underside has 4 functions - +1.5 exposure compensation, battery check, self timer and when in this mode it acts as a camera support so the camera can support itself on any suitable flat surface..
The viewfinder is clear and bright with the rangefinder patch easily followed as it adjusts to focus . The most common flash unit is the A11 which fits snugly to the right side and screws securely into place. The flash has it’s own dedicated single AA battery. The more powerful A16 fits the same way and uses 2 AA batteries.
Price range for the XA is wide, and they can found as low as $20.00 but these may not be in great condition. For an immediately useable example in perfect condition with A11 flash unit, presentation box and printed instruction book expect to pay NZ$220 – NZ$300. You will keep using this camera as they are so convenient and well designed. The results aren’t bad either. We use Ilford 125 Black & White and Fuji slide film – usually Velvia 100. Also, and quite importantly you will not lose your money, as there is no 'techno' price rot, in fact if the camera is looked after it will appreciate.