The Car Boot £3 Classic – The Olympus XA Review

I’d never been convinced that Car boots are always work outs great for camera hunters. Sure you’ll find late AF zoom compact for the same price as you’d pay on eBay  less postage  but IMHO til then true bargains are rare and balanced by someone trying to sell a Knackered Praktica for 50 quid. All that changed when I spotted this grubby number.

How much ? Three Quid  – I didn’t stop to haggle.

Okay no $10 Leica, but this was still a find. The grot and scratches were superficial and £3  netted  one of the highest rated non AF compacts.

Wall
Olympus XA with Ferrania P30 Alpha. 2017

The XA on paper shouldn’t have worked. When launched in 1979, AF was starting it’s first baby steps, but despite it becoming the dominant high end compact focus system in the 80’s, the XA series cameras still sold like hotcakes.

Designed by the legendary Yoshihisa Maitani, this is one killer compact. With a revolutionary sliding clamshell,  killer optics and  aperture priority exposure yet all served up as one of  smallest 35mm production rangefinder ever made.

Still Waters
Olympus XA with Agfaphoto Vista Plus 200. Kingholm Quay 2015

Meet the family

The XA spawned 4 siblings. The XA2 is the most famous and is a pseudo-zone focus point and shoot with a cult following and recently rising prices. I have a love hate relationship with it but I can’t deny it’s a worthy compact. Oddly it was followed by the XA1 a much maligned (unfairly IMHO) fixed focus compact that nicks the exposure system of the Trip 35, The last 2 are much rarer. The XA3 is a revised XA2 with DX coding and a backlight option. The XA4 is a macro scale focusing rarity.

Olympus XA1
Olympus XA1 fixed focus 35mm compact. The blacksheep of the family with more than a nod to the Trip 35

All are wrapped up in the same shell with (bar the XA1) the same membrane shutter and CdS metering.

Back to the XA  – Specs & Shooting

Olympus XA Specs

  • Lens: F-Zuiko 35mm 1:2.8
    • 6 Elements 5 Groups
  • Focus: Rangefinder
  • Focus Range: 0.85 to ∞
  • Exposure:  Aperture Priority
  • Shutter: 10 sec -1/500
  • Metering: CdS
  • Battery: 2XSR44
  • ISO: 25-800 ISO

This a wonderfully engineered camera. The lens and the bulk of controls are found behind the sliding cover. And what a lens ! As we’ll see it’s  akiller despite being squeezed into such a small space  – actually just 31mm from outer element to film plane !

Plastic smile
2015. Olympus XA with expired (2014) Kodak BW400CN.

Although compact you’ll need 2 hands to shoot including one to move the focus lever under the lens – although a departure to the norm, you get use to it pretty quickly. A slider to the side of the lens allows you to adjust aperture and activate the flash. Feedback in the viewfinder is good with nice frameline,  a clear good size rangefinder square and a needle feedback of shutter speeds.

On the base you have a flip switch for battery test, timer but more importantly a +1.5 EV.

The Downsides

However being so small has its drawbacks. These it shares with its siblings. Most annoyingly, the infamous red membrane shutter which have become notorious for being a bit temperamental as they age. Mines wouldn’t fire with every press but thankfully more often than any XA2 I’ve owned.  Even if you get a fully working one, there is no option to exposure lock by half depressing – the shutter button  is all or none.

Tullie Details I
Tullie House Museum, Carlisle, June 2016. Olympus XA with Expired (2014) Kodak BW400CN.

The XA series uses propriety flash.  The A11 unit (GN11) is standard but you can pick from 3  other models (i’d avoid the A1L which was sold with the XA4 and has a technically not user replaceable battery).

Shooting Results

This is a killer camera optically. As expected, best with the aperture narrowed to f/8-16 (f/22 starts to give a degree of diffraction). That said centrally results are very good even wide open. Things soften wide at the edges most noticeable when the aperture is wide but actually not bad and holds it own amongst the best of the compact rangefinders. For me the Konica C35 edges it with its sharp contrasty lens but you don’t have the exposure controls of the XA.

The wee bit of barrel distortion is much better than it should be for such a compact design. Typical late 70’s CdS  metering for exposure Is most of tim it is on or near the money. You will need to adjust either ISO or the +1.5EV lever for more complex stuff but bear in mind this a 1970’s camera !

Shady Poet
Olympus XA with Ferrania P30 Alpha. Dumfries 2017

Verdict

This is one of those cameras where the hype really does match. The optically system is a fantastic piece of engineering and also delivers. Olympus could have played safe with a auto exposure number like the later XA1 on, but the Aperture Priority exposure system adds versatility. I still think the Konica C35 edges it optically but this is so much more pocketable and allows for for greater exposure control. The XA and XA2 make great second cameras. The XA2 is better for quick off the hoof shots, but the XA is so much better if you have time.

Prices seemed to have risen recently for both the XA and XA2. Whilst I did see tested examples under £40 in recent eBay sales, you’re probably doing well if you can get for under £70. However for £3, I got a bobby dazzler.

Alternatives

  • Konica C35 auto – The king of the 70’s fully auto rangefinders
  • Chinon 35EE – Not quite as good as a Konica but you can get for peanuts
  • Cosina CX1 or 2 – Equally funky zone focus number that inspired the LC-A.
  • Ricoh 500RF – Shutter priority compact range finder

Handy links

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14 thoughts on “The Car Boot £3 Classic – The Olympus XA Review”

  1. Now I want to put one of my rolls of P30 into my XA. You’re very fortunate to have found yours for £3! I think I paid ten times that for mine and I felt I got a good bargain.

    1. It really was one of those moments. Quite grubby looking so always a risk but when he said 3 quid I couldn’t say no 😉

  2. I so wanted to love my XA and for it to be the only compact I needed… But too much about it annoyed me.

    The RF patch was ok, and I did the Rik Oleson rangefinder patch trick, which helped, but I still found it tricky to focus accurately. And it doesn’t focus very close, again a disappointment.

    I ended up using it at f/8 and 3m most of the time and hoping the depth of field would mask any focusing errors. (I think a big clue about how Olympus envisaged the XA being used is that f/5.6 and 3m are both highlighted bright orange on their respective scales. It’s like they already had the quicker, simpler operation of XA2 in mind…)

    But then I realised using it like this made it pretty much the same as an XA2 in use, so the manual focus and aperture priority – two huge appeals on paper – became almost redundant in practice.

    In the end its successor, the Mju 1, for me is a far more useful camera. Just as compact, very good lens (especially up close) and instantly ready to use. I’m not the biggest fan of AF, but in cameras so small it’s makes a lot of sense. Oh and it focuses down to 0.35m too, a whole different world compared with the XA.

    Yes, the XA was an amazing and revolutionary design. And the lens is excellent – when everything comes together. But for me it just didn’t fit, and didn’t live up to the hype.

    1. Fair comments Dan, although I’ve found the XA quite easy. I full agree as I indicated in the post that this isn’t a quick shooter and the XA2 is better. As the Mju , it’s good but when I finally got a working one I wasn’t overwhelmed – reliable (with a working one) results but my 70’s rangefinder compacts pull in sharper results

  3. That was a great price for a superb camera, mine was £75! I carry this one in my pocket all the time. I am likely to have my Nikon S2 over my shoulder with Tri-X, and the XA is loaded with Agfa (poundshop) Vista, which is a great old fashioned snapshot film.

    I also have an XA1 which was £2, and this one really gets out of the way, a genuine point and shoot.

    1. The XA1 is a unfairly maligned Camera. I’ve reviewed it before and love the feel of history you get as it appears to share the same exposure system as both the Trip 35 and the even earlier PEN EE series of half frame cameras (it actually feels quite like my PEN EE2). Even better no membrane shutter.

      Slight shame Olympus hobbled it with just 2 ISO settings. It’s funny some slavish fans of the XA and XA2 waste a lot of engery slating it especially the sticky out shutter button. That button will still