Rangefinder Film Cameras of the 1960s and 1970s

Olympus XA – Rangefinder 35mm f2.8 Lens with 6 Elements

Olympus XA

The Olympus XA is a 35mm aperture priority rangefinder film camera. It fits snugly in the hand and the sliding clamshell, or capsule, means it’s always ready to shoot. The smooth rounded corners enhance the tactile feel and make it easier to get in and out of a jacket pocket. It comes with a wrist-strap that I recommend you always use just in case it slips from your grasp and you accidentally drop it 

There is full user rangefinder control of the lens focus despite the XA looking like a typical point-and-shoot camera. Overall it feels solid and very well-made. I must admit that the Olympus XA is one of my favourite cameras of any era. It is a marvel of design.

The XA came out in 1979 and was made in Japan until 1985. It straddles the time period when cameras were just beginning to incorporate a lot more plastic in their manufacture. But this little beauty still features plenty of solid old-fashioned reassuring metal in its construction. However, it isn’t heavy at just 225 g.

There is no LCD panel. This is an aperture-priority manual camera. Unlike the later Olympus Mju II, there is no autofocus or auto rewind, or auto pop-up flash. The two LR44 button cell batteries power the built-in light meter and the electronic shutter. Without the two batteries, the shutter doesn’t work at all.

The controls; ASA, aperture, and focus are operated by sliding switches. It doesn’t have “DX” automatic film speed recognition or a window in the back door to read which film you have loaded. Therefore you need to take a little care when loading your film to ensure you set the film speed to the correct ASA with the little slider on the front of the camera. An old but helpful reminder of which film you have in the XA can be created by sticking a short length of masking tape on the rear of the camera and writing the film speed on that. Useful if you only take a few shots and put the camera away for a period of time and totally forget which film it is loaded with.

The Olympus XA has a 35mm f2.8 F-Zuiko six-element lens and rangefinder focusing. The 35mm fixed focal length is the same as 23.3mm on a modern digital APS-C size image sensor. So a 35mm film lens on the XA is perfect for Landscapes, portraits, travel shots, and street photography.

The bottom plate with a small lever to set back-light compensation, battery check, and self-timer.

It includes +1.5 backlight compensation lever on the bottom plate. The same lever also operates the 12-second self-timer (with flashing red light) and a battery tester. When the battery check is set to on, the red light on the front of the camera shines continuously and the camera emits a continuous high pitched tone.

The lens, though small has six elements and is very sharp. The lens design is unusual in that the focal length is changed by the movement of the internal elements only, so the overall length of the lens remains the same throughout the focusing range. This is a big advantage in a small camera of this type as the lens doesn’t need to be retracted back into the camera body before closing the clamshell cover, nor does it need to extend again before taking a shot. Unlike the newer Olympus Mju II for example. The obvious advantages of this feature are the savings in battery power and the contribution to the very compact design. The two readily available 1.55v LR44 batteries used in the XA only have to power the meter, which is switched off when the clamshell is closed, meaning the batteries will last for years.  

Inside the Olympus XA. Note the disposable camera style film advance wheel.

There were later models made in the Olympus XA line being the XA1, XA2, XA3 and XA4 that look practically identical but these are all zone/scale-focus, except for the XA1 which has fixed focus. The Olympus XA reviewed here was the first in the line and the only true rangefinder version. It is the best one to get and commands the highest prices.

The XA1 35mm D Zuiko 4 element fixed-focus lens. Uses 100 or 400 ASA film only. Shutter speed range f4 @1/30 sec. to F22@1/250 sec. Programmed auto exposure. Doesn’t have the feather-touch electronic shutter release of the other models. It has a raised black button instead. It doesn’t use a battery but has a selenium cell similar to the old Olympus Trip 35.

Olympus XA2. 35mm D Zuiko f3.5 Programmed auto exposure. Shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 1/750 of a second. Lens f3.5 – 14. Three-position zone-focus lens. There was also a rare red plastic version, a white plastic version, and an equally rare blue plastic version of the XA2 made complete with red, white or blue A11 flash. I have only ever seen these coloured models on eBay.

Olympus XA3. It is the same as XA2 with the addition of “DX” automatic film speed recognition. Programmed auto exposure. Lens D Zuiko f3.5 – 14. Three-position zone-focus lens.

Olympus XA4. This model had a wider F Zuiko 6 element 28mm lens. Programmed auto exposure. Zone focus from .3m to infinity.

Externally, all five models look almost identical, especially with the clamshell closed.

You can read more about the excellent Olympus XA and its siblings here on Wikipedia.

Olympus XA instructions pdf from Olympus America.


Photo Gallery – Olympus XA

High Resolution .pdf of Rangi II at Picton. The file size of this .pdf is 1.3MB. It contains just one black and white photograph. Even so it is compressed a little. From viewing the gallery above you may be inclined to believe the old 35mm film cameras featured on this site don’t produce very sharp photographs. That is actually far from the truth as these photo files are all heavily compressed so that they download from the internet quickly to your device. By compressing them like this a lot of fine detail and sharpeness is lost. The 6MB files are reduced in size to 100k meaning the photographs are only 1/60th of their original file size. It is very much a trade-off between speed and picture quality.

If you open the pdf above of the Rangi II and also open the the photo of the Rangi II in the gallery above on desktop, you will be able to see the difference in sharpness by clicking back and forth between them.

There are several other considerations to bare in mind as well. Generally I don’t have prints made and have my films developed only (dev only). I scan my own negative and positive 35mm, and medium format films myself on an old Epson Perfection 2480 flatbed scanner which has a light in the lid to illuminate the developed films as they are being scanned.     


Specifications

Type: Aperture priority auto-exposure 35 mm rangefinder-focus camera.

Film format: 35mm standard. No DX-coding. ASA set manually.

Lens: 35mm f/2.8. Olympus F.Zuiko. The unusual lens design means that it is shorter than its own focal length. It doesn’t need to retract back into the camera body when switched off to make it more compact. Which of course means it doesn’t need to waste time extending when the camera is switched on – which also saves the batteries. In practice, this feature makes shooting from startup almost instant.

The lens features 6 elements arranged in 5 groups. On Olympus Zuiko lenses the alphabet letter corresponds with a numeral starting with A equals 1. Therefore F being the 6th letter of the alphabet means that there are 6 lens elements.

Shutter: Electronic between the lens with a range between 1/500 – to 10 seconds. The XA works very well for long exposure night shots. Mount the camera on a tripod to prevent any camera shake and release the shutter with the self-timer. 

Shutter Release: Electromagnetic feather-touch shutter release aimed at preventing camera shake. Be sure to hold the camera as steady as possible when releasing the shutter to avoid pushing the whole camera down causing blurred images. I found that occasionally the shutter wouldn’t fire. This is easily fixed by closing and reopening the clamshell to switch the meter off and back on.  

Viewfinder: Shutter speed readout and over-exposure warning. Bright frame finder makes the view 0.55x real-life.

Focusing: Double-image coupled rangefinder. Focusing range: 0.85 m to infinity. It is resonably bright and I have no trouble focusing even while wearing glasses. However, the gold/yellow rangefinder patch could be brighter and does tend to fade on some examples of this camera. You can easily enhance the contrast of the patch by placing a dot on the front of the viewfinder with a black Sharpie pen, or cut one from black insulation tape and stick it in place. The second option is the better because you can lift the tape off easily and restick it if you haven’t placed it in the correct place the first time. 

Exposure control: Aperture-priority automatic exposure. Automatic shutter speed range 10 sec to 1/500 sec. Backlighting compensation +1.5EV.

Aperture range: F2.8 to F22.

Exposure counter: Progressive type with automatic reset, displayed on the top-plate.

Self-timer: Electronic self-timer with a 12-second delay. Blinking LED and electronic beeper

Film speed range: ASA 25, 50, 100, 200, 400 and 800. No automatic setting with a DX-coded film.

Film Advance: Film advance is by a small thumbwheel just like a disposable camera. This works fine and was likely used to keep the design as compact as possible.

Film Rewind: The film is rewound by raising the rewind crank handle on top of the camera and pressing the button on the bottom plate to disengage the spool. Then crank the film back into the canister turning it until it winds without resistance indicating it is fully retracted. Then pull upwards on the crank to disengage the film spool before opening the back to remove it. This is fiddly on such a small camera but easily done. 

Flash modes: An A11 electronic flash attaches to the lefthand side of the camera with a screw and knurled knob built into the flash. On the XA this flash works in both auto and manual. It will fire approximately 150 times with its 1.5v AA penlight battery. There is also a more powerful A16 flash which uses two AA penlight batteries but is harder to find. With the flash in auto mode, you need only push the slider to “flash” on the front of the camera to start the flash charging. I don’t have a flash for my XA but would concede it would be good to have for fill-flash when taking portrait shots on a bright sunny day or when taking a photograph indoors in poor light.  

Power source: 2x 1.5V LR44. Eveready EPX76 and AG13 or equivalent.

Battery check: Move the lever on the bottom of the camera to the Battery Check position.  If there is sufficient charge for the camera to operate the red LED on the front of the camera shines continuously and a high-pitch tone is emitted.

Weather-Proof: Can survive a bit of water splashed on it. But isn’t water-proof.

Dimensions: 103 mm wide, 64 mm high, and 40 mm deep.

Years manufactured: 1979-1985.

Overall this is a truly excellent little film camera. My shots are always well exposed. Of all the Olympus rangefinders I have tried together with the later point-and-shoot Mju range I like the XA the most. It is a true rangefinder camera with the battery to operate the electronic shutter and to power the light meter. There being aperture-priority automatic exposure you are able to exert greater control over expose. Although you cannot choose the shutter speed separately, you do have knowledge of the shutter speed and exposure prior to releasing the shutter, a feature missing in the later Mju range.

As an interesting aside: The photographs you can see in the gallery above were from relatively low-resolution scans. The negative film had been stored in a refrigerator for at least ten years but still worked alright with the C41 process. You will get far better results from something like Fuji Provia 100F Daylight-Balance Color Transparency Film and have the strips scanned to 25MB tiffs at the same time the film is developed. Though both the film and the E6 processing are frightfully expensive nowadays. Cell phones have advanced to a level where they can take very high-resolution pics and have the processing power of a desktop computer. However, for those of us who have grown up with 35mm and medium format film and cameras, it has a wonderful quality that is hard to explain!  

 

Advertisement for the Olympus XA as it appeared on the back cover of National Geographic in 1982.
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Allan Burgess

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  • Dear Allan

    Thank you for this review. You write "All operation is entirely manual. The two LR44 button cell batteries power the built-in light meter and nothing else."

    Sorry to correct you, but that's not right. The XA is fundamentally a powered camera that will not operate without batteries. Crucially, the shutter release is electronic. You can load a film, wind on, focus and adjust the aperture manually, but without batteries, the camera doesn't function.

    Kind regards

    David

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    • Yes, David, you are quite correct. Thank you for pointing that out. The electronic shutter on the Olympus XA won't fire at all without the batteries. What I was referring to by "manual operation" is that it doesn't have any of the automatic functions like autofocus, auto-rewind, or auto pop-up flash of later models. I have changed my clumsy wording to better reflect that.

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