As I’m sure some of you can guess from reading my previous posts, I own way too many cameras. Due to lots of cheap film cameras popping up on eBay, I’ve accumulated a large collection over the last 3 years. I haven’t done a count but I’d say it’s easily over 40. I stopped buying new ones, partly because I was running out of space to store them, but also because the collecting was becoming a distraction from actually using the cameras. I also found that I had a lot of overlap in terms of camera size, lens focal length, and lens speed. I decided it was time to start selling off or giving away the cameras that I don’t use. It also became apparent to me over the course of the last three years, which of my cameras were keepers, the ones that I used consistently and got good results from.
The Olympus XA2 is one of those cameras. I bought my first one very near the beginning of my camera-buying streak, which was also when I was starting to move away from Lomography cameras. I had bought an Olympus Trip 35 and was amazed by how much better the lens was than that of Lomography’s flagship camera, the Lomo LC-A, not to mention how much cheaper it was. Since the Trip, like the LC-A I’d been using, was a zone focuser, I found it very easy to operate and it quickly became my favorite camera. The only problem I had with the Trip was the fact that its lens focal length is 40mm, while my personal favorite for walking around is 35mm. There were times that I’d be shooting with the Trip when I just couldn’t get everything I wanted to in the frame, particularly in situations where backing further away from my subject was not an option.
Enter the Olympus XA2. I’m not going to recount too much of its history, that’s been well covered elsewhere. The short story is that in 1979 Olympus came out with the XA, which is an extremely small rangefinder camera with a sharp 35mm lens and aperture priority auto exposure. Not only was the XA small enough to slip into a pocket, it was (as far as I know) the first camera to use a “clamshell” design. Instead of having a lens cap, part of the front of the camera slides to the side to expose the lens and then can be slid back to protect it.
The XA was fairly expensive when it was first released, so in 1980 Olympus came out with the XA2 as a cheaper alternative. The XA2 features a 35mm lens and the same clamshell design as the XA but has a zone focus system instead of a rangefinder and completely automatic metering. The XA2 only has 3 zone focus settings, as opposed to the Trip’s 4, and automatically resets itself to the middle setting, 9 feet, when you cover the lens, making it the default setting when you open the camera. The lens on the XA is supposed to be better than the XA2 but after having shot both, I can’t really see any difference.
The things that make the XA2 a keeper for me are its size, quickness of use and lens quality. The fact that it’s so small and you don’t have to worry about a lens cap falling off means I can always have it in my pocket when I don’t want to carry a larger camera. The default focus setting is the one I use the most for street photography, so most of the time all I have to do is slide the camera open, point, and shoot. I’ve gotten many shots with it that I would have missed if I’d been trying to focus and meter. I’m consistently impressed with the quality of those shots. The XA2 is also incredibly discreet. It’s small, black, and has a pretty quiet shutter. Film advance is manual; there’s no loud auto-winder. The clamshell design was so ahead of its time that in 2017 it looks contemporary. Most people just assume it’s a digital camera and hardly notice it.
So those are the pros, what about the cons? Not being able to use filters or a lens hood are pretty minor drawbacks for me. The biggest one without a doubt is that the XA2’s shutter and meter are completely controlled by electronic circuitry, which means if any of that fails the camera becomes useless. Some people I’ve communicated with on Flickr and Instagram say they haven’t encountered any problems with theirs but I’m currently on my 4th one! I’ve had two become permanently stuck in self timer mode and the shutter button on a third often takes 2 or 3 pushes to work, causing me to miss lots of shots. When I first started using an XA2 they were selling for $20-$30, so I just replaced each one that broke. Now the prices are creeping up, you can expect to pay closer to $60 for a working one. The other thing I’ve noticed is that on some of them the metering seems a bit off. If there’s a small part of your subject that’s bright, the camera will sometimes meter for just that part, leading to a frame that’s largely underexposed. The fact that the XA2’s widest aperture is 3.5 certainly doesn’t help.
In the final analysis the pros of the XA2 outweigh the cons for me. It’s one of my favorite street shooters and I like the results I get from it. I’ve started to hear about repair services going for about $80, which for me would be worth it, given how much use I get out of this camera.
Below are some of my favorite shots that I've taken with an XA2.