Olympus XA3 – Red cameras go faster

Everyone knows that red cars go faster.  Ok, they feel faster.  Does this translate to cameras?  It sort of does with this one, as the Olympus XA3 does meter for faster film than the camera it replaced, the XA2.  The argument does break apart though, as they did come in black, blue and white as well as red, but as this review is of a red one, we’ll go with that.

There has been a lot of interest in compact cameras lately, driving up the prices considerably for sought after models.  Luckily Olympus made so many compacts, and types of compacts which allows them to be considerably more affordable.  Even the mju, while a little expensive, are still lower priced than a lot of the “in fashion” compacts. During the process of alternating flavours of the month, there has consistently been an affordable alternative, the Olympus XA series.  The main differential being the lack of autofocus, which considering the age of the cameras, can be benefit.  One less thing to break.

The original XA is favoured by photographers who prefer manual rangefinder cameras, while the XA2 is operated with basic zone focusing. This was also carried into the XA3 and XA4.  The XA1, considered the runt of the litter, was fixed focused.

The XA3 is not as common as the XA2, which does make it a little harder to locate one for sale.  The good news is that due to the design, where the camera literally protects itself by being a clamshell, they do tend to be still working.  Olympus has a great history in innovating in the small camera market, you can see a other examples in the Olympus Pen S, The Trip or the EE-2.

Small and compact is a perfect description of this camera, it can fit into a coat pocket very easily, albeit without the A11 flash attached.  The lens will be protected by the clamshell cover and with the cover closed, the camera is completely off, allowing the batteries to last an extraordinary amount of time.  The ingenious design of the lens makes it possible for this to be so compact without needing extra mechanics to “pop” it out.

All this convenience is not worthwhile if the camera does not produce quality results, and this where Olympus really scored the goal.  There are limitations but they can be weighed up against the convenience.  First a little more about the XA3, the camera in red.

History

Maitani Yoshihisa is largely responsible for Olympus being such a successful camera company from the late 1950’s through to the present day.  While he has passed away, his philosophy of compact, efficient, functional and quality cameras have continued even in the current Micro Four Thirds cameras.

Olympus released the original XA in 1979, which was a rangefinder camera, but one that does not look like any other.  Exposure is only via aperture priority with a manually controlled aperture.  Metering is through a battery powered CdS meter.  It utilises a six element 35mm f/2.8 lens.

About a year later the XA2 was released.  It has a simplified focus control, by using a very basic zone system and the lens is slower at f/3.5.  It does not have aperture selection and the camera selects the aperture based on the focus zone selected and exposure metering.  The camera colours were also introduced with the XA2.

In 1982, the XA1 was introduced, with a fixed focus f/4 lens, limited shutter speeds and ISO options.  It also has a selenium meter which limits its lifespan but being mechanical does avoid the need for batteries.  This is still considered the red headed step child of the series.

The XA3 and XA4 were introduced in 1985.  The main differences to the XA2 is that ISO selection is upgraded up to 1600 from 800 and DX coding function was introduced. Also re-introduced is the backlight switch, which the XA2 did not have.  The XA4 also has a 28mm lens rather than the 35mm.  These were available new until the early nineties when the Stylus and mju models were released.

All models have attachment flash units, which are interchangeable and attach to the side rather than usual hot shoe method.

While it is very unlikely that Olympus will ever release a film camera again, it would be interesting if they would release a modern micro four thirds version of the XA series, there should be a place in the photography world for this design.

Camera Specifics

The Olympus XA3 is a compact 35mm camera in a clamshell design.  The clamshell cover both protects the lens and turns the camera on and off.  This allows the camera to not only save the batteries when closed, but also makes the camera ready for shooting the moment it is slid open.  A handy little feature to allow it to be ready quickly is that it resets the focus distance to the most used one when closed, so it is not focusing on close-up or landscape when the camera is needed quickly.

There are three focusing options, the two-people headshot, the two-people full body and the mountain.  They relate in terms of distance ranges of 1m (3.3ft) to 1.5m (5ft), 1.2m (4ft) to infinity and 2.5m (8.3ft) to infinity respectively.  The focus is controlled by a lever on the right side of the lens while holding the camera.  The focus controls the aperture chosen by the camera in conjunction with the meter.

The camera is powered by two LR44 or SR44 1.5v button batteries.  The batteries power the meter and the electronic shutter.

The CdS exposure meter is situated just above the lens, but its positioning and the fact the lens does not have filter threads, due to the clamshell design, does not allow this camera to utilise filters yet alone meter for them.  Under the lens is the ISO selector switch with options from ISO 25 through to 1600.  The selection is only active if the film does not have DX coding.  If the DX coding is present, it will always use the film’s box speed.  Under the ISO selector is the flash switch, which only activates if the flash is connected.

The lens is an Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/3.5 with four elements in four groups.  It has a unique design, used by Olympus historically to allow them to maintain small compact camera sizes.  It is an ingenious design, in that it allows the lens to sit a lot closer to the film plane than nearly all other camera lenses.  As such, it minimises protrusion of the lens allowing for the small form factor.  Step-less aperture range is from f/3.5 to f/22.

Shutter speed, automatically selected by the camera based on the exposure metering, has a range of 2 seconds through to 1/750 second.  The shutter button is an electronic red button.  A backlight override is available within a multi-switch at the bottom of the camera.  This gives an extra 1.5 stops of exposure.  The switch also has a battery check function and the self-timer.

The viewfinder is a simple affair with clear frame markings.  On the bottom right it has an indicator light to notify the photographer if the shutter speed is slower than 1/30 second.  On the left there is an indicator that the flash is attached and on.  Neither warnings stop the camera from firing.

Film is loaded by opening the back with pulling out the film rewind crank.  Loading is simple, by placing of the film from left to right, no threading is required.  The forward wind is the usual wind on thumb wheel from Olympus.  To rewind the film, the button on the bottom is depressed and the film rewind crank is rotated until the film is back in the canister.  The film counter is located on the top plate next to the shutter release button.

Finally, there is a tripod socket on the bottom for the slower speed photographs.

Normally a flash unit would be covered separately, but the screw on flash accessories for the XA series are such as integral part of the overall camera.  There are four different models, this one is the usual packaged one, the A11.  The A11 attaches to the camera from the side, by screwing in a black wheel on the left side.  The unit is contoured to fit the camera perfectly.  Initially when connected it is off, but with the flick of the switch on the camera, it turns on and the little orange light at the top pops up indicating its status to everyone.  Pressing down the orange light turns the unit off.

There are two settings for the flash, ISO 100 and 400.  A guide at the back of the flash unit describes the flash distances for the two settings, being 2.5m (8ft) and 5m(16ft) respectively.  The idea being that for films up to ISO 125, ISO 100 is used and for ISO 400 film, ISO 400 is used.  There is no indication on what to use for ISO 200 or above 400 in the manual, so this would take some trial and error.  The flash is powered by one AA battery.

Allowing the flash to be a separate accessory makes the camera much easier to pocket and have around, especially with the matching red wrist strap.

The Experience

I was looking for a “take everywhere” camera, especially something I can take to work and use during my break.  I had been keen on the idea of the XA2 originally as I wanted something not overly expensive like the Contax T2, Olympus mju or Yashica T4 etc.  I also wanted something that had less electronics than those to give it a little more life expectancy.  I then read about the XA3 with the option of ISO 1600 and the backlight switch and I was sold.

I found this one on eBay from a seller in Spain.  I was not intending on a red one, but when I saw it, and also realised the XA3 was really limited in numbers for the coloured ones, I snapped it up.  I have not regretted it since, but it does have a few quirks.

The DX code function was sold as a feature when it was originally released 1985, as most of the targeted consumers were using this camera as a family snaps camera.  For film shooters these days this can be a little limiting, and the fact that you cannot override it if the film is coded is a little annoying.  I get around it by taping over the coded area of the film with some electrical tape, red of-course.  The camera then assumes the film is not coded and works off the selector.

I quickly loaded some film, first some Ilford HP5+, my preferred film stock, and set the ISO at 800.  It gave me such a sense of freedom while out shooting.  I did not have to worry about exact focusing, or exposure settings and this little red wonder did it all for me.  It was very easy to pull out, slide open the cover and shoot.  The one thing that I felt could have been done better is the shutter release button.  Being electronic it is a very shallow and more out of habit than required, I would half-press to check the exposure was ok.  It is very sensitive and I did fire off a few shots without expecting to.

In terms of operation there is not that much more to it.  The XA3 effectively blends into the background, even when it is red, and just lets you frame your shot whether on the street or in family events.  The exposure is accurate, not too many wrongly exposed shots to worry about, but if I was nit-picking I did find it did underexpose by half a stop in the darker situations.

The build quality is also quite impressive.  It may be small, but it has a metal body, and while I would not call it heavy, it has some heft so feels good in your hand.  This is a camera that feels like it will take a knock or two.  The flash unit on the other hand is very plastic and feels like it can break very easily.

The quality from the lens really surprised me.  I had read that it produced above its weight and the results showed this was correct.  Both on HP5+ and when I went colour with Kodak Porta 400, the results were sharp, clear and well exposed.  Porta 800 were not as good, but I suspect this is the film, as I have not had results that I like with that film on other cameras.  This is more on the colour rendition of which I am comfortable with from the results I had with Porta 400 on this camera.

There is some light fall-off starting from the centre, which is expected on a lot of compact cameras.  It is there but not so significant where it detracts from the image.  When I scanned the film on return from the lab, I have not tried to correct it as I do not find it distracting enough to worry about it.

More importantly I looked at the quality of the lens sharpness and this is where I was really impressed.  For such a small lens, it is impressive.  With the portrait setting, where I assume the aperture is open wide at f/3.5 there is some sharpness loss towards the corners, but generally everything is sharp.  Stopped down and this is no longer a problem.  Also since most pictures taken which the XA3 are in the middle focus setting, depth of field tends to be from front to back.

While being a red camera is not the most stealthy camera to use, the XA3 is a fantastic camera not just for general use but for also on the street.  It is a camera you can have with you all the time, produces great images and is a lot of fun to use, in that it does not get in your way.  All positives in my book.

3 Comments

  • Mary Donnelly November 10, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    Hi great review. I received my xa3 today and i havnt got a clue how to load the film. Does the film go through the steel piece attached to the spool or does it go past the red line and wind on to the spool?. Any tips would be much appreciated thanks!

    Reply
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