“Street review”: The Olympus XA2

The Olympus XA2 is the most “Barnack” camera i’ve ever owned.

Probably a lot of readers won’t agree with this sentence but if you’re curious, just keep reading to know why i think so.

INTRODUCTION

How much would you pay for a full frame, all black, with a nice OVF, silent and pocketable camera???

Today, a lot of photographers would pay about 2500€ for a digital full frame compact camera with a 35mm fixed lens (i mean the Sony RX1) and about 500€ for an external optical viewfinder. Add that the RX1 is not pocketable.

Probably they don’t know they can get a little gem like the Olympus XA2 for about 1/100 of the price, and this is nothing if they consider the fun they can have with film photography and the lot of things they can learn from it (that’s UNVALUABLE!).

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THE HISTORY

This little camera was designed by the absolute genius of Maitani, the man who also designed the OM and Pen series (the original half format camera, not the digital one!).

In the 1979 this man invented the Olympus XA, a small – probably the smallest ever! – rangefinder camera, with a great 35mm f2.8 lens.

It was a big success, so in 1980 Olympus released some “variants” with different specs, including the XA2.

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SPECS

The body was the same of the XA – all black, metal and plastic, really solid- but the RF was gone: the camera had a zone focusing system. The lens is a 35mm, but with a different design, with a maximum aperture of 3.5. It has a sliding cover mechanism that also work as On/off for the camera if opened/closed. The camera is minimalism at its best. In fact you find just a viewfinder on the back, a red shutter button, the iso selector and the zone focus mechanism. That’s all. You don’t need nothing else to get GREAT photos.

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THE SHOOTING EXPERIENCE

Oscar Barnack was the man who invented the 35mm film. He designed the first Leica cameras. He revolutioned the world of photography, forever.

Before him, camera weren’t absolutely pocketable. He did a revolution! Finally you could have acceptable quality with great portability, thanks to the “new” 24×36 “sensor size”.

So the expression “Barnack Camera” usually refers to the screw mount Leicas, pocketable cameras, stealthy and capable of great photos, unintimidating, that you can have always with you, waiting for a great moment to be captured and not losing it when it appears.

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This concept applied undoubtely well to the screw mount Leicas for about 20 years; there was no alternative if you wanted to have always a camera with you.

But for today’s standards, using a screw mount Leica can be really really slow.

Yes you can still carry it always with you (as I did for some time)  with a collapsible lens, but i think that there are better/faster alternatives.

The XA2 embodies the Barnack Camera myth at the best.

Why?

It is pocketable, i mean REALLY pocketable, since it can stay without problems in your jeans.

It can stay always with you, you have no excuses.

It produces really nice photos.

It is really fast – you grab it, slide the cover and ta-da, you’re ready to shot without preoccupation to focus.

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Yes, you don’t have to worry a lot about focusing thanks to the fastest focus technique ever: the zone focusing.

Near the lens, the camera has a little lever and it can switch to 3 position according to the distance of your subject : portrait, medium distance, landscape.

How is it possible?

To understand this, you have to know that a lens has his own depth of field; depth of field is bigger when the focal is shorter, for example a 24mm lens has a lot of depth of field, while a 85mm has a little dof, and dof also increases when closing down the aperture.

If you have a big dof, a lot of things in the picture will be in focus.

Olympus was very smart to choose a 35mm lens with a 3.5 aperture: this mean that almost everything will be in focus even at the maximum aperture.

When you slide the cover is medium, that covers from about 2-3 meters to near infinity, so this is the setting you will need in almost every situation!AMAZING!

You just have to set to landscape or portrait only if you are shooting a really close subject or a really far one.

Trust me, this is so liberating! It set you absolutely FREE, you just have to focus on composition and on your subject and when everything is ok just click the shutter!

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In fact, the camera is all automatic: it sets the f-stops and shutter speeds automatically, doing very accurate exposures in every situation.

Olympus is known to be one of the best company regard exposure automatic setting.

The viewfinder is really good. It is of a similar size of the one of the Fuji X100, it is crisp and bright, with nice framelines.

When the shutter speed is low (under 1/30 if i remember correctly) it warns you with a red light to avoid blurry photos.

The shutter button is really really sensible; i recommend not to wind all the film advance dial since if it’s all winded and you just touch the button it can shoot!

When you need to shoot, just finish the winding with a fraction of a second and shoot!

Doing this little exploit make possible to avoid rubbish non-wanted shots.

The shutter is really really silent. Nobody will notice you while shooting! It’s a leaf shutter, so the sound is similar to a x100. You know that it’s amazing while shooting the streets.

Being a leaf shutter, it also means that you can do relatively long shutter speeds without blurring the photo, since the shutter is really “soft” and it doesn’t cause a “shake” when opening\closing.

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CONCLUSION

I really recommend to you this little camera: is stealthy, cheap, pocketable, with a good OVF and with a nice lens.

It has EVERYTHING you need to get a GREAT photo.

Think at the work of H.C.Bresson: do you remember any of his great photo because of the bokeh it had? Or because the super sharpness of it?

I don’t.

OTHER SAMPLES

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I hope you liked this informal, non technical review. It’s intended to be a sum of the experiences i had with this camera.

Any questions?Doubts?Use the comments!

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ALL photos are mine and subject to copyright.

Thanks a lot!

Peace,

Giorgio

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36 thoughts on ““Street review”: The Olympus XA2

  1. Amazing shots, truly wonderful! Who needs a Leica!
    I’ve just picked up the XA, and I’m truly excited about using it,,I was intending to get the XA2, but the XA was on offer for £23 with a flash, so I couldn’t refuse!!

    1. Thanks Nik, you are too kind!
      The XA, at this price, is an amazing deal, i’m sure you will enjoy it a lot! The lens is great, the only thing that may slow you down is the rangefinder focusing sistem.
      Have a nice day!

  2. Yes the Rangefinder on the the XA isn’t the best, but if you use it the same way as the XA2, zone focussing style, it’s quite usable, and the lens on the XA is the jewel in this package.
    The actual range of the focussing isn’t that huge compared to my other rangefinders, like my Yashica Electro 35 for instance. I picked up the XA primarily to have something discreet and quiet for street photography, it’s size and design also make it easy to whip in and out of your pocket, no lens to catch etc.. It’s ergonomic design is also an added bonus.
    If the focussing system doesn’t work for me, I will pick up the XA2.
    What film did you use for the shots?

  3. I love the size of the XA, but it’s focussing due to the rangefinder takes some getting used to! In my quest for a great street camera I was looking at the Ricoh Gr1 series, but the prices seem very excessive, then I read about the new digital version coming out with the APS-C sensor, for me this might be the camera that bridges my 2 worlds, the one of the DSLR and one of compact everyday camera that will go with me everywhere, and be ready in a flash to capture those moments we see and say to ourselves,,if only I had a camera in my hand right now! With a small compact I tend to walk around with it in my hand, which has been the XA, or my trusty Panasonic LX3 recently, while a few years old now ( and battered) it does give me the ability to set up some decent B&W modes for shooting

  4. comprata da poco, una goduria! puoi scattare il “momento decisivo” per fare foto che ho sempre sognato! bell’articolo e bella rece!
    se vuoi vedere alcune mie foto ho fatto alcune prove con un rullino ilfors fp4…
    il mio nickname è v.a.l.i.s._nicola !
    grazie

  5. This is a love letter to the XA2 which comes straight from the heart. Very sweet, and your pictures are super! I also use mine for street photography, exclusively. Did you have to push your film? What speeds do you usually shoot at?

  6. Before the XA series jewel there was the Rollei 35, albeit a bit quirky in its operation, and with a 40 mm f/3.5 lens it marvels at silence, solid build and outstanding sharpness of the Tessar lens. Later on there was a successor called the HFT Sonnar with an f/2.8 aperture in the Rollei 35S. You can see some of its pictures on a Flickr.com search for Rollei 35!

  7. Great review Giorgio. But surely, the pics received (digital) post-processing, correct? These don’t look like straight scans from film.

    1. Ciao Karin! Of course the pics received post-processing as every of my pics! But when i scan film, i use a really simple post-processing, with nothing that i can’t do in the darkroom while i print. So basically i check the levels, the contrast and i do some burning and dodging. Hope it’s helpful! 🙂

  8. Great page this is just what I was looking for and I love your examples! I just brought one off eBay for £2 which I’m chuffed with considering it seems to be in good condition. Looking forward to experimenting with this! If anyone has any film recommendations it would be great if you could let me know, thanks!

    1. Ciao Sam! I’m glad that you like this page 🙂
      I can suggest you kodak tmax100 for sunny days and kodak cn400 for the other situations!
      Feel free to ask any question!

  9. Nice photos! Did u manage to get all your subjects in focus when shooting or are there some shots that tends to be oof? I’m still trying to get use to the zone focusing and I am inspired by your photos!

    1. Ciao Hadi and thanks for your kind words. 🙂 Of course I’ve got oof pictures, that’s normal! So continue practicing with zone focus and first of all have fun while shooting!
      Have a great day!

  10. HI,
    I use this camera a lot and carry it like you in my front jeans pocket. One thing I want to say is that you need good light to get the depth of field with the zone focus settings of the XA2. In low light the focus is much more narrow for the close and middle focus setting. I enjoyed your blog post, thanks.

    1. Ciao Sal! First of all, thanks for reading my article and writing to me. Your opinion is very welcome! I’m glad that you too enjoy this little gem! 🙂
      Have a great day!

  11. Bella macchinetta, ho avuto quella con il telemetro che era un po’ lentina e mi sono tenuto una Minox 35 invece. Per il digitale , che amo poco, la mia favorita era una Ricoh GR digital. Belle foto 😉 Se vuoi seguirmi su Flickr alexweisstrost è il mio nome. Ciao grazie

  12. I’ve came across your blog while I was looking for info about the focus zone of this little gem [bought one at the local street market]. The pics are gorgeous! Ciao

  13. Giorgio;
    Afterreading your article and briefly touching bases with you over my break at work, the Olympus XA-2, given me that day at work, was experiencing a few troubles, one being the film transport wouldn’t function, and the shutter wouldn’t fire. In addition the flash wouldn’t charge or fire (led unlit). I thought I was in for the normal light seal replacement, and extra woes, as several others have also had issues with similar things. Then I read the shutter used a magnet, electrically operated, and figured the dead SR44 batteries might be the only issue after all. After returning home and starting dinner for my teenage son, I broke out the cotton swabs cleaned the entire camera, with emphasis on the electrical portions, and installed the metering, and flash batteries after wiping the oils of with vinegar. Image my surprise when the viewfinder lights lit up, and the flash led glowed triumphantly, and the whole operation worked flawlessly. I am so thrilled, after trying to get other rangefinder cameras elsewhere, that a gift from a coworker would be my new favorite 35mm street photography camera. I have the two of you to thank, as he provided the toolset, and your esquisite literary talents made me believe this was the path to follow. Thank Giorgio, for being intrumental in fullfilling my interest, and faith in little blessings from unknowing agencies. I will definitely be regularly in touch with future unknown projects, and throw in the musical proponents for entertainment purposes, if not else.
    Sincerely,
    Murray

    1. Ciao Murray and thank you for your time spent here. I’m really glad that my article inspired you so much: wow! Sounds nice that you also did yourself the repair of your little gem. Now go out, shoot, and show us the results!
      Have a great day,
      Giorgio

      P.S. don’t forget to go and say a BIG “thank you” for who gave you the camera 😉

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