23 May 2021

Using the Olympus XA as an everyday carry camera

Combining rangefinder focus, aperture priority mode and a 35mm f/2.8 lens, this is a baby Leica camera.

By In Gear, Photography 8 min read

The Olympus XA has been my EDC camera this year and I gotta say – it’s a ton of fun. The concept of EDC – Every Day Carry – is that a piece of equipment should be light and compact enough to have with you every day, yet still versatile enough to be useful in almost all situations. Finding an EDC film camera is something that was on my mind for most of 2020. I want to shoot more film, with a camera that fits in my pocket and can be taken anywhere. But I don’t want to worry about it getting banged up or stolen. My favorite film cameras right now are either too heavy or too expensive to just take anywhere on a whim.

My Olympus XA camera
My Olympus XA camera

Every Day Carry camera

Halfway through the year, I bought the Zeiss Nettar for this exact reason as an EDC medium-format camera. It was a fun experiment, but it turns out I just can’t zone focus to save my life. The big 6×6 negatives from the Nettar did not make up for how hard it was to use the camera without a focusing aid. In the end, I kinda stopped taking this camera with me. But this attempt with the Nettar made my requirements for an EDC camera much more clear. I want a smaller version of my Leica M3 and Reveni combo with me, everywhere I go. A small 135-film rangefinder camera with a fast, wide lens and a meter, something that would take well to street and other more impulsive forms of photography.

That’s when the One More Stop Discord server introduced me to the Olympus XA camera. One More Stop is your one-stop shop for getting hooked on film photography and all-round fun place to hang out. This tiny camera they recommend is a premium 135-film compact from the early ’80s. It combines rangefinder focus with aperture priority shooting and a fast, wide 35mm f/2.8 6-element Zuiko lens. Basically, people consider this a baby Leica. Sounds perfect!

Baby Leica hype

After googling for more information I discovered that the Olympus XA gets a whole lot of love on the internet. I mean, every film photography blog and every film YouTuber has done their own review. There are tons of sites where you can get very detailed information about every aspect of the camera. Everyone loves this little camera, the hype for the XA is definitely out there.

Part of the Olympus XA’s legacy is that this camera is considered one of Yoshihisa Maitani‘s masterpieces. He was Olympus’ head of design, responsible for many legendary film cameras like the Pen F, OM-1, and Mju. His design philosophy was to provide relatively inexpensive cameras that still pack an incredible feature-set and high quality into a tiny footprint. The XA really embodies this desire, with high-performance and refined controls in a package that fits in your shirt pocket.

The camera has a practical clamshell design that protects the most fragile parts while not in use. Slide the clamshell open and the camera turns on, uncovering the lens and controls. You set the aperture with a vertical slider next to the lens. The rangefinder focuses with a tiny lever at the bottom of the lens. And the ISO sets using a small selector just above the rangefinder lever. A needle in the viewfinder moves to indicate the appropriate shutter speed. And the bottom of the camera has a lever for optional backlight compensation, self-timer, and battery-check modes. That’s it! The camera is delightfully simple to control – not quite as automatic as a modern point&shoot, but not too far off.

The simple design belies the complex systems Maitani had to employ to make the XA work. The lens, for example, never moves externally – even while focusing. While most compact cameras use extending lenses that protrude out of the body, the XA’s lens stays in place. An ingenious design borrowed from telephoto lenses makes the lens this small and internal-focusing. The camera’s shutter uses an electromagnetically triggered button, as opposed to a mechanical linkage, to save space in the body. And the same is true for the film advance winder, which uses the same coin-edge disc that disposable cameras do. All in the name of fitting more function into a small body. Still, the controls never feel cramped or uncomfortable to use. It’s truly a pleasure to hold in the hand.

My Olympus XA

After a week of watching YouTube videos and reading reviews, I was pretty much convinced. The XA isn’t hard to find on the various auction sites and marketplaces, and it didn’t take long for me to find some to purchase. But thanks to the steady online hype the average going rate for an XA is about 200 euros now, if not more. Based on the specs I’d say the camera is worth it. But if I paid over 200 euros for this, I’d probably be too worried about it getting banged up as EDC. Luckily, I actually got this Olympus XA for a steal!

My Leica M3 with a Summaron 35mm lens and a Reveni meter compared to my Olympus XA
My Leica M3 with a Summaron 35mm lens and a Reveni meter compared to my Olympus XA

My XA doesn’t have the original shutter button anymore. You can still fire it by pressing down on the plate underneath, but it looks pretty ugly. And that’s how I talked the price of the camera down to just 50 euros. Great, because I didn’t mind the missing shutter button at all. I’d already seen that a replacement button model was available on Thingiverse. A few minutes of 3D printing and a bit of sticky tape later and voila! By printing it in black, I even made the camera look better than with the original bright red button.

Olympus XA missing its shutter button
Olympus XA with 3D-printed shutter button replacement
Olympus XA with 3D-printed shutter button replacement

Since acquiring this camera in January it’s been in my coat pocket every day, usually loaded with the cheapest stocks I have. So far that that’s been either a 36-roll of Ilford HP5+ (ISO 400) for black and white or a 36-roll of Fujicolor C200 (ISO 200) for color (I get my film from Retrocamera, my favorite film webshop). I’ve shot 6 rolls through the XA so far, about one roll a month. That sounds a bit low for an everyday carry camera, but it’s still the middle of a pandemic so I don’t get out that much right now.

This is definitely what I was looking for when I had an EDC camera in mind. The XA is light enough to barely notice it, but have it available whenever I see something that takes my fancy. I had it with me when Utrecht was unexpectedly covered in pristine snow, when lockdown and curfews made the city empty and lonely, when spring returned and people came out to enjoy the warmer weather. It’s also been in my pocket when we started visiting the national parks here as safe outdoor destinations during the pandemic. It’s the perfect “one you have with you” from the classic adage.

Downsides of the Olympus XA

I must admit that my success rate on these rolls is very hit and miss, compared to my other cameras. Not just because I use the XA to take pics whenever something looks interesting, without much forethought or preparation. But the camera itself also doesn’t help to ensure all shots are perfect. The electromagnetic shutter button is very sensitive, firing with the lightest brush of a finger. This makes accidental misfires extremely common. The rangefinder patch in this camera is dim and small, which makes focusing a challenge at times. And the point&shoot vibe of the camera sometimes makes you forget that it’s not, in fact, a point&shoot – it turns out I have a ton of failed shots where I simply forgot to set a proper aperture or focus.

Still, it’s hard to fault the camera for what is, in the end, mostly user error. I know the shutter button is prone to misfires, so I could wait with advancing my film until I’m ready to take a shot. I know the rangefinder patch is dim, so I could employ one of the many DIY fixes that people are using to make it more visible. And simply forgetting that the XA is not a point&shoot is definitely a case of the problem being me, not the camera. So these aren’t downsides, so much as they’re peculiarities that come with using the XA. I will probably increase my success rate on these rolls as time goes on and I get more used to shooting with it.

Final note

If this blog and my pictures make you want to buy your own Olympus XA, it’s important to make sure you get the original model. The later generations (numbered XA1 to XA4) lack the rangefinder focus system, which makes the camera much less interesting to use. This numbered system, where the second generation is called the XA1, confuses a lot of people looking for an Olympus XA camera. And don’t get me wrong – many people love their XA1-4 cameras, they’re cool. But the XA’s rangefinder is what makes this a proper replacement for my Zeiss Nettar as an EDC camera.

What do you think?