I was only a month into my re-introduction to film photography, and I already wanted another camera. I had been shooting a Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, a perfectly lovely 1960s Japanese fixed lens rangefinder that allowed me to control exposure and focus, two things that were either impossible or hard to do on my iPhone or digital compact. I really liked the camera, but like many cameras of its era, it was bulky and weighty. I thought it might be nice to have something that could easily slip in and out of a pocket.
I first tried a camera of the type that I’ve seen called a “millennial compact,” the point-and-shoot cameras from the end of “film camera history.” The circa 2002 Pentax IQ Zoom 170SL (known as the Espio 170SL outside of North America) was slim and light, had a 38-170mm zoom lens, and did everything for me–focus, exposure, wind, rewind. (And flash. These cameras love to flash!) It was a fun little camera, and one that cost less than ten bucks shipped.
On one dark Portland February night in 2020, when social gatherings were still a thing, I was hanging out with my friend Paul. He is a technology geek who also has an affinity for film cameras. Show and tell over drinks had me mentioning that I had just bought the IQ Zoom 170SL. For some reason, my purchase didn’t sit right with him. Perhaps he had an aversion to those all-singing, all-dancing ’90s and 2000s compacts, an opinion popular with many classic-leaning film heads.
In my voracious reading of all things film photography on the internet, I’d read many enthusiastic appraisals. I’d searched eBay for one, but quickly realized that they cost a bit too much money for me, save the runt of the litter, the lowly XA1. So while the XA series seemed the perfect fit for someone like me, someone looking for a camera in between the larger rangefinders and compact point and shoots, I never bought one.
But Paul, he had one Olympus XA and two XA2s. He figured that he didn’t need two XA2s. Would I like one for myself? Heck, yeah!
When the Olympus XA debuted in 1979, there was no other camera in the world quite like it. There were ultra compact cameras that used 16mm or 110 film, but the XA took 35mm film, meaning its photos would be of higher resolution and higher quality than the Pocket Instamatics lining the K-mart Camera Departments of America. There were already a couple other tiny 35mm cameras around–the Rollei 35 had been around for over a decade and the Minox EL a half-decade. But the Olympus XA featured a sliding dust cover that protected the lens, front viewfinder window, and photo cell. Unlike the Minox’s drawbridge dust cover design, the XA’s open dust cover sat flush with the body. The Rollei 35? The lens had to be pulled out to operate and also needed a separate lens cap. The XA’s lens never needed to move out, using a retro-telefocus lens design that kept the distance from the lens to the film plane very, very short. Just slide the cover and the XA is ready to be operated.
The ingenuity of the Olympus XA series can be attributed to one man, Yoshihisa Maitani. Maitani had been with Olympus for over twenty years and was responsible for the Japanese camera manufacturer’s obsession with small cameras. His Olympus Pen, a half-frame camera first introduced in 1959, was very tiny and got twice as many exposures from every roll of film. The Olympus OM-1 of 1972 was one of the smallest full-featured SLRs at the time and spurred every other Japanese camera company to have compact SLRs by decade’s end. But the XA series would go one step beyond all of that.
Maitani wanted a truly pocket-able camera that could go anywhere, a camera that because of its unobtrusiveness one did not have to make the tough decision of whether they wanted to take a camera with them or not. How could you not take it, when the camera weighs about nine ounces and easily slips into a good sized pocket? Nowadays we never have this predicament, since our smartphones are always in our pocket, camera at the ready. But in the analog world of the late 1970s, a truly pocket-able camera was revolutionary.
And to make the XA and most of its siblings (save the XA1) truly pocket-able, Maitani designed the camera to have an electronically controlled shutter. This allowed the shutter release button to be flush with the body, no protruding release to worry about getting caught in a pocket. This of course means that the XA cannot be operated without a battery. Thankfully the XA is powered by easy to find SR/LR44 button batteries.
The XA series pointed to a new world of electronically controlled compact and easy to use cameras. There were some easy to use 35mm compacts by 1979, the Konica C35 EF and C35 MF are good examples. But these were not as small as the XA and often had traditional camera accessories like lens caps, Ever-ready Cases, and shoulder straps. The XA did away with all that.
Yet despite its revolutionary features, the Olympus XA and siblings XA1, XA2, XA3, and XA4 were still transitional cameras, a bridge between what came before and what would come after. While auto-focus, however primitive, had already been featured on a few cameras, focus on the XA series would either be achieved via rangefinder (XA), or via zone focus (XA2, XA3, XA4). (The XA1 is fixed focus.) Nor would the XA series have motor drive–the film advance was the wheel type that would soon be seen on the disposable cameras that would crowd the checkout at your local Caldor. That’s okay. If the XA series had auto-focus and motor drive, the cameras would be bigger. The 1980s would be dominated by fairly bulky “compacts” featuring auto-focus and motor drive. It would not be until the end of the decade, when Maitani introduced his last camera design, the Olympus mju / Stylus series, where those automatic features would finally be included in a truly compact camera.
Another concession to size was that the XA series cameras did not feature a built in flash. We had already seen integrated flash units with the Konica C35 EF, so the tech was there. But adding a flash to the XA at that time would have made the camera bulkier. The compromise was to offer an add-on proprietary flash, either the regular A11, more powerful A16, the runty A9, or the built-in battery A1L. This would add a couple inches of length to the camera–still remedially pocket-able but not as compact. But because the XA was designed with optional flash, it only flashes when you want it to. Compare that to the “always flash unless you deactivate it” flashes of the 1990s compacts.
But what about the XA2, specifically, the camera that I actually got? It was introduced in 1980 as a stripped-down version of the XA. The Olympus XA2 features a four-element f/3.5 lens versus the XA’s six-element f/2.8. (Both lenses have a 35mm focal length.) The XA featured rangefinder focusing, possibly the smallest camera to do so, whereas the XA2 is a simpler zone-focus in which we choose between close-up (person), middle distance (group of people) and far/infinity (mountain). We don’t have the focusing precision of the XA, but because the XA2’s exposure system favors wide depth-of-field, leaving the focus slider in the middle position generally results in in-focus shots. And since the slider slides into the middle position when the dust cover is closed, no need to worry about changing anything!
It didn’t take long for me to take to my Olympus XA2. I really enjoyed the photos it made. There can be slight vignetting in some shots, but that’s not as big of a deal to me as it may be to others. I also liked the programmed shutter and self timer. The XA2 is not designed to give you any control over exposure other than changing the ISO setting–the XA is the only camera in the series that has exposure control. The shutter on the XA2 can reach a speed as fast as 1/750 yet also as slow as 2 seconds. That two second maximum shutter opening is very useful. For low light shots, put the camera on a stable surface, set the timer (the “leg” lever for that acts as a handy stabilizer), and press the shutter. I’ve gotten some great low light shots doing things this way.
The “take anywhere” nature of the camera has led me to use the Olympus XA2 more than any other camera I own. It’s easy to take it with me even when I don’t think I want to bring a film camera along. And because of its diminutive size I can easily carry it along with a bigger, more “serious” camera, especially if that other camera has black and white film loaded in it. While the lack of a traditional filter mounting ring on the XA series means I can’t slip on a yellow or red filter for black and white, I have gotten some great black and white images with the XA2 anyways.
The XA2 isn’t perfect, no camera is. Folks who want a camera with exposure control and/or auto-focus need to look elsewhere. If you want a flash, you are stuck with the XA’s proprietary series. And avert your eyes if the “wheel” film advance reminds you too much of disposables at drunken parties. Get beyond all that and you’ll be amazed at how capable this little machine is. Over the past three years this camera has never let me down. It’s been a constant companion–in shirt or jacket pockets, in my backpack, or in a pouch on my handlebar stem where I can quickly take the camera out to snap a pic.
What’s the worst thing about the Olympus XA2? It’s that it soured me on the automatic compacts that came after it. I’ve tried a number of auto-focus/auto-exposure/auto-wind point-and-shoots over the years, and none of them clicked. All of them left the collection, yet the XA2 remained.
[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]