Olympus XA2 – Point and Shoot 35mm Film Camera Review

Olympus XA2 – Point and Shoot 35mm Film Camera Review

2000 1125 Shawn Granton

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.

Eventually he pulled out his small stable of Olympus XA compacts. The XA. The XA 2, 3, and 4! How had I forgotten about the XA series?

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.

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Shawn Granton

Shawn Granton is a film photographer and cyclist from the Pacific Northwest, whose many works can be explored on the site - https://urbanadventureleague.wordpress.com/

All stories by:Shawn Granton
  • This is a great review and a great camera. I would like to have one to compare to my Contax T

  • Love my XA2 even though the shutter is a bit finicky. Haven’t found that it does so great in colour, but throw in some Delta 400 and set the ISO to 250 and *chef’s kiss* 😘🤌

  • Does this compare with my SH-50 which I need to replace due to failure of the software which has led to over-exposure of all photos.

    • Iain, we’re talking about comparing a digital camera with zoom lens and a multitude of modes, vs. a film camera with fixed lens, auto-exposure, a self-timer, and no sottware. Size-wise, they seem pretty similar, the SH-50 ever so slightly longer (by a centimeter.) A zoom lens is going to stick out more, though.

  • grant Hardeway May 24, 2023 at 6:59 pm

    I am supposed to be working right now, but just 5 minutes ago, I was organizing a few files and a black and white photo was hidden in the mess, I was wondering what camera had been used, and I recalled that I had been testing my little XA2 that morning. It’s a heck of a lifesaver of a compact,. As a matter of fact, in my “pack” of hunting dogs, it’s the runt beagle. Works as hard or harder than some of it’s pack mates and is always eager to please, Great review!

  • Out of all the cameras I’ve shot with and that is quite a few – I hold this camera the xa2 a keeper or core camera for use. To me it’s only set back is slight trigger click lag. It’s a thin electronic contact button. Other than that the pros outweigh this con by far. The metering is excellent as well as the lens. Fun to shoot.

  • I’ll play the devil’s advocate. Remember the old movie line “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings”? In the camera world, every time An Olympus XA review comes along, the price of the camera goes up another 5%.

    In my mind, the price the XA series currently demands has far outpaced the photographic return. I’m not saying they are a bad camera…far from it. In fact they are probably best of breed. But the breed is still a point and shoot camera. If you have one already that’s great, but it would be hard to recommend buying one at today’s inflated prices.

    Film is expensive, along with the added costs of developing…costs that can be paid in money or time. There are a host of other models that can achieve similar results for a fraction of the investment. If you want to shoot like this, why not save the cash and lean into the low-fi experience?

    Personally, I do have a compact Olympus I use for travel, the Chrome Six 🙂

    • Mike, yeah, the prices of the XA series keep on going up, and another article won’t help in that regard. But that can be said for a lot of cameras these days. And the cameras of the XA series still don’t match those found for the “premium compacts”. Heck, the prime-lens (non-zoom) Olympus mju/Stylus cameras usually go for more on eBay.

      As for “other models that can achieve similar results”, well, that can be said about A LOT of cameras. Why buy a Leica when the thrift-store Spotmatic will achieve the same result: a photo on film. Why would I pick up an XA2 when I could find a later-model zoom-less point and shoot for less?

      For example, I just got (again) a Pentax IQZoom (or Espio) 170SL. It was made in 2002, at the very end of the film supremacy era, the refinement of decades-to-centuries of technology. It’s roughly the same compactness as an XA2, has a built in flash, autoexposure, autofocus, autowind, and a lens that can zoom from 38-170mm. On paper it’s superior to the XA series. But in use? I don’t care for hitting a small “on” button every time I want to use it. I don’t like the motor sounds, even if it’s quieter than an 80’s autofocus p&s. (Don’t forget that a motorized p&s goes through batteries much faster than something like the XA2, and those batteries cost more.) And the camera tends to flash more than not, even when using ISO 400 film in daylight. Motor plus “oopsie” flash lessens the stealth factor. Whereas to use the XA2 I slide the dust cover to operate. No motor sounds to worry about if I’m trying to be stealthy. And the flash is optional. Plus, while the 170SL isn’t a bad looking camera, I definitely like the aesthetic of my XA2 much more.

      There are many factors that go into why someone would like a camera, it’s not always about end results. I’ve had some cameras that gave great results, but I couldn’t get on with the camera’s size, or ergonomics, or looks. I’d rather have a camera that I enjoy using and takes great pictures, vs. one that just takes great pictures and everything else about it I don’t care for.

      And I’m a bit confused by this statement: ” If you want to shoot like this, why not save the cash and lean into the low-fi experience?” Shoot like what, exactly? I like having a camera that is tiny and gives great results that aren’t “lo-fi”. Can you elaborate?

      • Oh goodness, don’t get me started on the compact zoom cameras (or worse yet the “super zooms”) I’ll get banned from the site for sure.

        I’ll try and explain my thinking. Feel free to disagree, it’s just my opinion.

        In the evolution of camera formats, 35mm opened up a whole new world of portability. And as they became simpler and simpler to use; accessibility. Journalists took their cameras to war zones. Families took their cameras to picnics. They were everywhere, but the greatest attribute of the 35mm format was not image quality, it was the portable nature of the system.

        Could they shoot landscapes? Still life? Fine portraits? Sure they could, but not at the same level of quality as medium or large format. On the other hand, they were a lot easier to fit into a backpack…portability in exchange for lesser image quality.

        The “point and shoot” and their related cousins, built on that trend. Here were cameras you could take anywhere and shoot anything at any time. And millions of people did. Could you expect the same level of quality as you got from a system (35mm) camera? No, and that really wasn’t the point.

        Of course some point and shoot cameras were better than others, and some were much better than others. Olympus made some of the best, both in design and image quality.

        These days, the take everywhere, shoot anything at any time type of photography that these cameras where built for has been replaced with our phones. And seriously, they do things that the old point and shoot cameras could only dream of.

        But of course, we want to shoot film, even with all of its limitations.

        And finally, here’s my point about “low-fi” which was not meant as an insult, believe me.

        In the set of pictures you posted, the one (to me) that stands out above the others is the B&W shot of the other bike riders. Not because of any technical considerations, but because it pulls the viewer into the “take your camera on your adventure” ethos that is the highest calling of the 35mm format, and by extension of these small compact portable cameras.

        For me the true reward of the highly portable camera is getting in the middle of the experience. I remember when the disposable cameras first started appearing, my friends and I would use them during soccer practice. When the waterproof models came out, we would take them out surfing. We all had 35mm SLRs that could take better pictures, but again, that really wasn’t the point.

        Now I’ll concede that the design of the XA makes it a joy to bring along, but in my world I would just as soon burn through a dozen $10 cameras, and stick their low quality noses right in the middle of the action!

  • “All of them left the collection, yet the XA2 remained.”
    It’s exactly the same for me! I had a lot of film cameras (Leica, Rollei, Voigtlander, Minolta, Ricoh…a lot, seriously), also two rangefinder XAs! But the XA2 remains, very good review, I agree on everything you wrote!
    Thanks for this nice review!

  • Yes a great camera. I also like the Pentax IQ zoom camera. Takes great photos. You forgot to mention it has a bulb setting.

    • True. But I wasn’t doing a comprehensive review of the IQZoom 170SL this time. Maybe another article? In any case, bulb mode on a point and shoot is neat, but probably not what most people are concerned about with these cameras. Plus, since it’s automatic exposure, it’s hard to figure out a correct length of time to leave the shutter open while in Bulb.

  • Had an XA back in the 80s. Fantastic camera, could take it anywhere. Its still probably sitting on Adams Col after it fell off the top of my pack while doing a transalpine trip here in NZ. I did replace it with a XA2 because it was cheaper but the main thing was that I found with these cameras is that I gradually ended using them far more often than my collection of SLR gear. My last regularly used camera of the film era was a mju.

    WhiIe I have quite a collection of film cameras these get used intermittently and like many I take most of my images with a phone because its always available. Still spend a lot of time in the hills or travelling so lightweight and compact is still the way to go.

    Thinking back to the XA again there was nothing quite like it at the time as far as size, weight and image quality. Just like the OM1 it felt quite revolutionary for its time

  • I am still using an XA2 after 40 years – although as the first was nicked in 1987 and my current one bought for £1 at a boot sale in 1998. I tried a Pentax Espio mini in 1996 – flash, anti redeye and almost as small as the XA2, and a sliding lens cover that acted as the on/off switch. 35mm Fujichrome was not as as sharp as the XA2. The XA2 is great for backpacking etc. as it slips in and out of the pocket so easily ! Also LR/SR44 cells are cheap and easy to carry.

  • Great review Shawn! I just bought this camera as a gift for someone. What color film do you recommend/did you use for these photos?

  • Great review! What color film do you recommend using with this camera?

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Shawn Granton

Shawn Granton is a film photographer and cyclist from the Pacific Northwest, whose many works can be explored on the site - https://urbanadventureleague.wordpress.com/

All stories by:Shawn Granton