…and back in love with photography again and again.

Warning: the following review of the diminutive Olympus XA is highly biased and totally subjective. I love the darn thing and actually own 2 of them. Just because.

Quite a few years back I was over the moon at the idea of finally getting my hands on my first DSLR. A Canon 7D, not a bad starter kit mind you! It did serve me very well, nothing bad with the camera, a very solid piece of gear. But here we are on EMULSIVE and you must know I won’t be talking about pixels, promise!

It’s noteworthy that this 7D was my go-to camera for just about everything as I taught myself to take half-decent photos, from studio portraits to hugely under-lit concerts to conceptual videos. It was a sturdy workhorse I brought everywhere with me.

…until I finally got my hands on my first Olympus XA, that is.

It was an epiphany. This camera had built itself somewhat of a cult following in my photo club and when I gave in, I was pretty sure I would like it. I had no idea of how much of a role it would play in my creative life.

There two major reasons for this: it’s a film camera and a rangefinder. Make that 3: the sheer minuscule size of it does appeal a lot to me.

Let’s start with the tech side.

The Olympus XA is a tiny aperture-priority rangefinder which packs a surprisingly great F.Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 lens. [EM: The "F” denotes that the lens is contructed from 6 elements].

It was quite inexpensive before its reputation took hold of the market price and drove it straight up but it can still be found at very competitive prices with a bit of luck. It usually comes with a screw-on flash attachment which extends flush along the side of the body and allows for some low-light fun. The first one I got actually didn’t have the flash and I almost never used the one of my second XA, so I won’t cover it much in this review.

When I say tiny, I mean pocketably tiny. In a real-life pocket. It usually sits in my jacket’s inner pocket and gets forgotten immediately, but I’ve kept it in my jeans front pockets without hassle. Think digital compact camera size, but with a 135 film inside.

I wouldn’t say it’s a point-and-shoot (contrary to later XAs), as you do have to focus and choose your aperture, but with some practice, it’s so quickly done you don’t notice it anymore. That means lightning-quick shots. Oh and you have to frame your pictures too. Photog life is tough life.

Now to the point.

When I started shooting the XA I had a good few years of photography already behind me. I had tried my hand at quite a few types of shooting and given a few tries at film but it didn’t stick. Since then? Since then my DSLR is used almost exclusively for photos of darkroom prints. My Canon lenses are at home on one of my EOS 300s, and one of my two XAs almost never leaves my side. I got used to always having a camera at hand, a camera on which I can depend and which I can whip out almost instantly when something catches my eye. I guess my phone could have done the job, but hey, why keep it simple? Also, where’s the HP5 PLUS “800 push” button on my phone?

A few years back I suffered from what I’ll call here the “enthusiast with a DSLR” syndrome. I had some decent gear, not that bad an eye and a working knowledge of camera settings. I could take ok pictures of most things and I did. But I did not take that many photographs. Or good pictures really. I had no style of my own and didn’t achieve much in terms of creative research.

I’m not saying the Olympus XA has the sole responsibility for the changes in my more recent work, but I’m not saying it isn’t either. I’m pretty sure it played a big role in several ways. First of all, it brought me to film – for real – as the prime tool I use for photography. This is a big deal as it’s not only the tools we use as film photographers but a whole relationship to the photographic medium that we build on every day. And this medium has taken a preponderant place in my work — I’m actually working on an eponymous series — and in my life. And I do mean life, as I’ve recently taken a part-time job to allow for more darkroom fun.

I’ve found myself more and more mindful of details everywhere, I’ve found myself more and more focused on the tasks at hand, I’ve found myself thinking more and more openly about lots of different approaches. Again, I’m not saying this is “buy 1 (XA) get 1 (life-changing experience) free”, as I’ve been evolving in lots of areas of my life at the same time, but I can pinpoint the start of my real evolution as a photographer to my second exhibited series: “Please Look Up”, which was shot (and in my mind made possible) exclusively on an XA.

The fil rouge there was exhorting people (myself first, then everyone looking at my work) to actually look up. From their feet, their phones, their struggles, from anything holding them from looking at the world surrounding them. I spent quite a few hours wandering around the streets, on my daily commutes, while out for drinks, pretty much anytime during my daily life really, XA in the pocket, and looking around, looking up. And I took photos of banal buildings. So bland, so boring — in theory. It launched me on a path to open people’s and my eyes. Not to anything in particular, but to at least open them and allow them to look and not just see.

Now, years later, I’m still out and about my everyday wanders with a camera. I may have given in to a bigger rangefinder spot (and the camera that goes with it), and so use a neck strap instead of my pocket, but the purpose remains. And the XA remains. Every time I’m not sure what camera to take, anytime I need a quick shooter, anytime I might need a 35mm lens, I take an XA and stuff it with some bulldozer film. Just in case.

I still feel just as comfortable with my tiny plastic box as I did on day one. The rangefinder might be on the dull side, the ergonomics might seem quirky (but don’t be fooled, they’re spot-on), the thing might very well just look like a toy, but trust me it works. Beautifully. Better than that even.

I went and traveled Egypt, I went and commuted to work, I went and enjoyed holidays with an XA or two. I shot at night and in plain desert noon, I shot concerts and family portraits. And rarely — so rarely it’s ridiculous — have I been disappointed. The amount of work that went into the Olympus XA is staggering. They pretty much invented internal focus lenses for this camera. They fitted every part so tightly you can’t figure out how it’s even possible (and I took one apart to find out). Even the flash unit is incredibly well integrated.

It does have some caveats though, the main one being the aperture-priority meter only ranging up to 800 ISO, which was “fixed” in later XA2/3/4s. But the lens is sharp, the use reliable and the aforementioned meter almost impossible to fool. Seriously, this is one of the best metering systems I’ve ever used, and that includes much — MUCH — pricier cameras.

There aren’t many cameras I have this sort of relationship with. I enjoy using most of them, I find uses for everyone, but I don’t love them so dearly. My 7D was a great big sandbox, my Yashica Mat a thing of beauty and my Bessa R2 is the camera I’ll probably use most of the time, but my XA remains as the little thing that changed my photography. The only other thing that springs to mind when I think of game-changers is darkroom printing. And that says a lot about the tiny Olympus!

I think that’s about enough or I might start singing soft rock ballads (and nobody wants that).

~ Virgil

Write for EMULSIVE

EMULSIVE is all about promoting knowledge transfer across the film photography community. You can help by contributing your thoughts, work and ideas to inspire others reading these pages: check out the submission guide.

If you like what you're reading you can help this passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.