Olympus XA1 Review – Blacksheep done good

The XA1 is often rated as the runt of the XA series litter by XA officandos. But this little overlooked  number can still deliver despite it’s limitations and can surprise.

Olympus XA1 Camera open & closed
Olympus XA1 35mm Camera open & closed

The XA series was Olympus compact clamshell range of cameras that were sold predominately in the 80’s and carried the torch on for Olympus from the Trip 35 and 70’s compact rangefinders. The  series is probably best known for the XA  probably the most compact 35mm rangefinder in the world and the Ubiquitous XA2 (to some one of the finest P&S there was – I’ve already said it’s good but just not that good).  The XA3 & 4 build on the XA2 but in the middle sits the humble XA1

Charitable Choice
Carlisle 2014. Olympus XA1 with Ilford XP2

This shares the shares the same clamshell design. This makes it compact and ideal to keep in the pocket. You slide open the clamshell to activate the camera’s metering & shutter. But open it and you’ll get a blast from the past in that it’s selenium metered (so no batteries). The spec is also suspiciously not a million miles removed from its more famous selenium ring predecessor the trip with the exception the lens is fixed focus and a fraction of a  stop slower. Like the Trip shooting in too low light causes a red flag appears in the viewfinder which locks the shutter.

Olympus XA1  Specs

  • Lens:  D. Zuiko 35mm
  • Focus: Fixed (1.5m to ∞)
  • Metering: Selenium Cell
  • Aperture: f/4-f/22
  • Shutter: 1/30-1/250
  • EV 100asa: 9-17
  • Film speed: 100 or 400asa
  • Filter-Thread: None
More Stalls
Carlisle Market 2014. Olympus XA1 with Ilford XP2

The camera also lacks the red membrane touch shutter of the rest of the series. Some moan about its more traditional sticky out shutter but I for one am happier with it and certainly you don’t get any annoying sticky shutter issues. And …psst… wanna know a secret unlike the other XAs you can exposure lock by half depressing it. Sadly it isn’t cable threaded.

Deep Cadium 6 noir
Cumberland Pencil Museum, Keswick. Olympus XA1 with Kodak BW400CN

Now the downsides. The camera is the most basic in the series, I’ll admit. The camera’s speed range is much more limited (no 2 minute metered exposures here) and you are irritatingly limited to either 100 or 400 asa. The camera loses the self timer and backlight lever compared to its siblings. The lens is f/4 compared to the XA2 f /3.5 (a pretty minor issue – otherwise they are both 4 element set ups). The lens is fixed which does become an issue in low light whereas the XA2 has the zone options. Like the XA2 there is no manual override option for exposure as you get with the Trip.

Like all of the series the camera only uses as a proprietary XA series flash units. It was sold with the A9M as a package but will work with the better units like the A11 or A16.

Donuts to go ?
Metrocentre, Gateshead 2014. Olympus XA1 with Ilford XP2

So how does it shoot ? In good conditions it does fine and I’d argue little different from the XA2  (predominantly a fixed focus camera with the option of zone focus in low light). Yup it does become poorer at low light but then again the XA2 isn’t exactly spectacular there either although it’s zone focusing does help. I’m Guessing the sweet spot for the XA1 in low light is around 3-5 meters. Manual suggests 1.5m to ∞ in good conditions.

Is it better than a XA2 ? In good light it’s just as good and has a better shutter button IMHO and can exposure lock. The XA2  is more versatile however and on a recent trip away where I took the XA1, I was missing having either a LC-A or XA2 for the long shutters in low light. Still the XA1 is a fine camera with 400asa and good weather.  It knocks the spots off cheap plastic fix focus numbers. The XA1 is widely available and you should get well under a tenner as it tends to have bad press. Expect to replace the light seals.

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6 thoughts on “Olympus XA1 Review – Blacksheep done good”

  1. I wonder if it had to be fixed focus because the mechanical trapped-needle metering didn’t leave any room for focus related mechanicals?

    Otherwise an infinity setting would be nice while being a simple binary choice between all(fixed)-focus mode and landscape mode…

    1. Difficult to be certain, you might be right but my hunch is more to do with the end of the Olympus PEN E series around the same time. These selenium powered half frame wonders inspired the Trip 35 and certainly had an influence on the XA series. The XA1 feels like a hommage to them especially the EE versions

  2. Hmm, the XA1 seems lighter than the XA2: but I suppose this is canceled by needing to carry the flash more often… The XA1 shutter also seems lighter in action than a Trip. I am trying a piece of closed cell light seal foam stuck to the XA2 red shutter button…

    I wonder why they didn’t try to protect/recess the XA1 shutter button when clam shell closed?

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