Design classics – the Olympus XA
Posted by Polonius on 19 September, 2006
The Olympus XA redefined the compact camera. Until 1979, even “compact” 35 mm cameras were relatively bulky. Then the XA appeared. It was a truly pocket-sized 35 mm camera, with a 35 mm f/2.8 lens. Its ingenious sliding lens cap made for a smooth, and fairly tough, package that could slip into even a relatively small pocket.
Its tiny body was packed with useful features. Most striking was the rangefinder focussing, like the much more expensive Leica M series. This provides very accurate focussing, even in relatively low light levels. Like the Leicas, it had a very quiet shutter mechanism, much quieter than SLRs with their clattering mirrors. These features allowed aspiring but impoverished photographers to attempt to emulate the candid street style of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The XA predated the era of automatic everything; even DX coding of fim speed wasn’t available in 1979. The aperture priority automatic exposure relieved the user of the need to set the shutter speed, but that still left a lot of settings to be input . Arranging all those controls in such a small camera presented huge ergonomic challenges, which weren’t entirely successfully met. Nevertheless, the XA represents a milestone in the development of 35 mm compact cameras.
The legacy of the XA can be seen in Olympus’ μ series. The original μ-1 (or μ[mju:]-1, to give it its full title), of 1991 was a point-and-shoot model that, unlike its ancestor, really did have automatic everything, including a built-in flash, programmed exposure and (100-step?) autofocus. With all those features, especially the flash, it can be forgiven for being slightly larger than the XA. The μ-1 had a slightly slower, f/3.5, 35 mm lens, and later models added zoom lenses. The μ series retains a sliding lens cap similar to the XA’s, but has improved the grip, at the expense of a slightly less smooth shape with the cap closed.