I found this little guy buried in a basket of cases underneath a camera table at an estate sale. The guy calling prices for unpriced items wandered over with his pad and said, “What, a little olympus camera? Four dollars.”And for that incredible price, I wasn’t about to explain to him that the XA simply isn’t a basic point-and-shoot! Along with the sharp lens that Olympus cameras are known for, the XA is a rangefinder that allows you to make a lot of choices as you would with other larger rangefinder cameras or SLRs.
Being an aperture priority camera, you can just set the f/stop and the camera will choose the correct shutter speed for you. There is a slide switch next to the lens that lets you set the aperture, so you can decide how much bokeh effect you want in each photograph. The focus is completely manual, controlled by adjusting the dial under the lens. I enjoy the manual focus because I have had problems with other point-and-shoots when they decide to focus on the background and leave my subjects all blurry.
And if you want to expose more for highlights or for shadows, there are a few tricks for working around the automatic exposure. On the bottom of the camera is a lever that has 3 functions: battery check, self-timer and an option for adding a stop and a half of exposure. This last option works great for shooting backlit subjects if the meter is being tricked by a bright sky in the top of the frame. You can also manually change the ISO setting of the meter, so therefore you can add or subtract as many f-stops as you wish.
The camera comes with a removable flash unit, which seems to be quite resilient despite having been produced in 1979. I always check out the battery compartments before buying a second hand camera and when I popped open the flash, a cloud of battery acid puffed out! It was nearly a deal breaker for me, but then I found a box of batteries in the laundry room of the estate sale and thought I’d see if the flash still had any life in it. Sure enough, I slid in two batteries, set the camera to its flash setting and heard that warm electrical whine as the flash capacitors started charging up. I’ve run about 50 rolls through this camera by now and the flash has never let me down.
Without the flash attachment, the camera is so tiny it fits in the palm of my hand, making it the smallest 35mm camera I have ever shot with. Also considering how lightweight it is, this is a great option to take along on any excursion. I recently started shooting medium format film, but I keep the XA in my pocket just in case I want to shoot something else on 35mm. It also comes in handy as a light meter to work off of. The camera’s petite size and its super quiet shutter click makes this a great choice for discreetly catching street scenes.
So all in all this is a great pocket camera to travel around with for both a beginner or the more advanced shooter who likes creative control. I would suggest that if you happen to see one at Photodom or any other store, you grab it ASAP. Olympus cameras are popular for good reason, as they give you the functionality of a SLR within simplistic design of a point and shoot. It’s absolutely worth getting and you won’t be disappointed!
Phillip Thompson is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He recently started a personal museum loan program in which participants exchange images of their ancestors to be displayed in someone else’s home. You can see more of his work here on his instagram (@brineswimhandle).