One of the first film cameras I had when I started to take photos was a zone-focus XA3. I loved it’s tiny stature and how easily it would fit in my pocket and be taken with me every day. I never expected it to produce great photos, I just wanted something that was there when a photo opportunity arose. As expected, the photos were alright but it did the job. As a change of pace after a few rolls, I swapped it for a Minox 35 GL and was impressed with how sharp and colourful the photos it produced were, along with the aperture priority and guess focus, which I learned to be pretty accurate with.
I’d read plenty about the original XA rangefinder and knew I wanted one at some point but never found a suitable candidate until recently. I managed to find one in great condition, just needing new light seals and batteries before it was ready to take out and shoot a test roll with.
- Type – Rangefinder
- Exposure – Aperture priority auto
- Shutter – 1/500 – 10sec
- Aperture – f2.8 – f22
- Focus – Manual rangefinder
- Lens – 35mm f2.8
- ASA – 25 – 800
- Size (mm) – 65 x 105 x 40
- Other stuff – Proprietary flash units, self timer, backlight compensation
The design of this camera, and the entire XA series, is excellent. They’re all genuinely able to fit in a jeans pocket and be taken with you everywhere, every day, and the sliding front shell means the lens is always safe in your pocket, bag or wherever you’ve stuffed it. The XA is primarily plastic but still feels solid and has a nice weight to it, with no loose, rattly bits (like the Minox). I believe the XA is officially the world’s smallest rangefinder camera.
Whilst Minox went with engineering and a folding lens, Olympus went for a fancy lens design that makes it shorter than it’s 35mm focal length. The XAs have a timeless quality, simultaneously retro-looking and futuristic, and they’re a satisfying little thing to hold in your palm.
I spent a good while prior to shooting with the XA trying to get the rangefinder spot a bit brighter. It was just about passable in full daylight outdoors but anywhere else it became an indistinct wisp of a thing. Having got a dot of blue marker pen lined up just right in the viewfinder as per Rick Oleson’s rangefinder trick I then decided I’d rather the viewfinder be clear and tidy than have a slightly brightened rangefinder and scrubbed the blue pen off.
In terms of size, the XA’s viewfinder is fairly big and bright, but in actual use, it’s incredibly awkward. The automatically chosen shutter speed is displayed in the left hand side of the viewfinder, but you have to angle yourself just right to be able to see it, and even then you need to be in bright light to make it out. I ended up spending far, far too long agonising over trying to squint at the exposure meter, line up the dull rangefinder and frame the picture whilst my fingers wildly jabbed at the tiny aperture and focus controls.
And on that note; the controls. As I mentioned, the shutter speed is displayed in the viewfinder but the aperture can only be checked on the front of the camera. Adjusting shutter speed involves blindly wiggling the aperture lever, not knowing what it’s actually set to without taking the camera away from your face and potentially missing the shot. With the Minox, I’d learned to assess light levels throughout the day and adjust the aperture to suit, leaving it at that setting and trusting that the exposures would be fine, but with the XA, I was made constantly paranoid by the sensitive meter. The shutter speed needle in the viewfinder rockets up and down the scale wildly making you terrified of under or over exposure and distracting you from your photo taking.
The focus lever, in practice, is a great design and works with just one finger, but the combination of short focussing travel, tiny distance scale and frictionless movement means keeping the focus set to a particular distance between shots is impossible. The focussing tab juts out of the bottom of the camera ready to be knocked about in your pocket.
I constantly felt like this camera was fighting against me, trying to dodge my attempts to control it and trying to slow me down.
I sent my film to be developed with a distinct feeling of relief that I was done struggling with this camera, and I told myself that even if the photos were absolutely spectacular I would still sell this camera on. I’m still half of that mind, however…
The photos are beautiful. Half of this roll was filler to try and finish off the film, but not a single shot is out of focus or wrongly exposed, despite my paranoia. The colours are more vibrant than my Minox, the pictures are sharper than the Minox, the blacks are deep, the depth of field is gorgeous and the vignette is outstanding (if you like that sort of thing, which I absolutely do).
What’s the point?
Excellent photos aside, my main problem with the XA is that I don’t understand it’s purpose. If my goal is great quality photos, I’ll make a point to take my SLR with me. If I just want a pocket camera to capture quick snapshots, I’ll take an XA2. The XA is both pocket sized and fully featured which on paper seems like a great combination, but to me, the whole point of a pocket camera is speed of use.
I spent longer taking individual photos with the XA than I do with a full SLR, battling with the fiddly controls and squinty rangefinder. For street photography and capturing impromptu moments, this camera is just too slow to get ready for a shot. I can get photos with similar shallow depth of field with a Minox, much faster, using guess focussing than with the XA’s rangefinder, and I can get similar dark vignettes with an XA2.
How a camera feels to use has got to be a factor to consider alongside the results it produces, and to me I just felt awkward and frustrated with this camera to my face. The photos the XA gave me have just managed to save it from being sold, but I’m not sure when or where I’ll feel like I need it in my pocket again.
Having sold this XA ages ago in a sweaty fit of bankruptcy, I recently ended up with another one in a lot of untested cameras. Decided to try another roll through an XA to see if I could learn to love it.
Still hated using it. Still loved the photos. The XA is a cruel camera. It taunts me. Ended up selling this one too. I’m currently using an XA2 and enjoying it, but it’s got the unresponsive shutter button problem so I’ll be taking the top off and cleaning the contacts shortly.