Compact Camera Quest (Part 5)

Posted 2011.07.25 23.13 in Hobbies, Photography by Stephanie

In the last installment, I mentioned that my search had led me into two different directions. Today it’s all about the other direction my quest has led me.

One of the cameras that kept popping up on lists of good compact film cameras was the Olympus XA. I had heard of these cameras before but hadn’t seen one in person and didn’t realize just how small they are.

They are one of the few cameras in this size that incorporate an actual coupled rangefinder, and even after 30 years they are still in demand – meaning they tend to still demand a high price. So I looked about and managed to get my hands on a cheap one – it had a flaw but I thought I could fix that. I thought wrong. It turns out that the XA series use an early IC and when these chips die, there is really no way to salvage the camera.

After that disappointment, I continued looking around, and instead of another XA, I came across a later model that I had to have – the Olympus XA-3.

The XA-3 is almost identical to the XA-2, in that both are zone focus and fully automatic AE. The XA-3 employs the DX system for reading film speed directly off the 35mm film can (for non-DX film you can still set the speed manually), and also has a +1.5EV switch for backlit subjects.

The real reason that I had to get this XA-3 though, was the colour…

Olympus XA-3

About two decades ago, a red Fuji DL-7 was my constant companion for many years, and since then I have had a soft spot for red cameras. 🙂

The XA series are indeed compact full-frame 35mm cameras. Unlike the first three cameras I’ve looked at, the XA-3 does not retract its lens when closed – Olympus was able to keep the size down without resorting to retracting or folding parts. The built-in cover simply slides to one side to reveal the lens and power up the electronics, and slides closed again to protect the lens and switch off the circuitry. In addition to the lens, the sliding cover also protects both sides of the viewfinder.

The XA-3 is similar to the LC-A+ in a few other ways. It is fully automatic exposure, and uses zone focusing – with detents so the focus lever stops at the pre-set ranges. The XA-3 however has only 3 focus zones: The ‘main’ / default zone is 1.2m to infinity — if you are in good / bright daylight. The close zone is from 1m to 1.5m, and the far zone is from 2.5m to infinity. The manual advises you to use the ‘far’ zone if you are shooting distant subjects in lower light situations, and the ‘near’ zone for shooting closer subjects (eg. portraits) in lower light or indoor situations. Otherwise, you almost needn’t worry about focusing at all.

A nice feature is that when you close the XA-3 sliding cover, it automatically resets the focus lever to the ‘main’ / default setting.

Another similarity between the XA-3 and the LC-A+ is that the Olympus camera has “rear-curtain sync” when using a flash — meaning that when using a flash, the flash does not fire until just before the shutter closes, rather than just after the shutter opens.


In terms of focus and exposure, I am quite pleased with the results I’m getting from the XA-3. I still have the occasional distance focus estimation problem, but I have a much better success ratio with this camera. Mind you, the default focus setting has such a wide depth-of-field in good light conditions, that this is almost a focus-free camera. Between that and the fully automatic exposure, I can’t help but feel that this has crossed a line from classic compact film camera, and modern point-and-shoot. Though at 26 years old, it’s not exactly modern any more.

4b - Olympus

As a fairly modern camera, at least that does mean that batteries aren’t an issue – the XA-3 uses readily-available SR-44 or LR-44 button cell batteries.

The XA series do have some quirks. With the exception of the XA-1 (about which the less said, the better) they feature an electronic shutter release. This is a flat square red button which takes a feather-touch. This means that you use very little pressure to trip the shutter, which should mean less chance of camera-shake. The down-side is that it is harder to find without looking – you can’t just slide your finger around to locate it, because as soon as you find it, it snaps the picture.


Another quirk is the flash – the XA series use their own specially-made line of flashes which screw on to the side of the camera, similar to the Rollei A26. Four flashes were made, with the A11 being the most common. It used a single AA battery but has a fairly slow cycle rate.

Indoor Portrait

The XA series have a standard tripod socket, but because of their special electronic shutter, there is no provision for a cable release – standard or otherwise. They do sport an electronic self-timer mode, which provides a 12-second delay that incorporates both a flashing LED and an electronic beeper.

Details: Zuiko 1:3.5 f=35mm lens. Shutter, 2sec – 1/750. Aperture f/3.5 to f/14. Battery, two LR44 cells. Standard tripod socket.

Pros: Small. Light. Fully automated exposure. Closed cover protects lens and viewfinder front & back. Easy-to-use focus lever (3-position).

Cons: Requires battery to function. Almost no options to control exposure. Uses proprietary flash unit.

Summary: 4.5 out of 5. Both the XA-3 and the XA-2 can be had for a reasonable price, and they are good working cameras, easy to use, and appear to have good lenses. The AE seems to work well, and the three zone focus system seems to work well. Both this and the LC-A+ feel like cameras I could keep with me on a regular basis. However, I still want to get my hands on an original XA, so the quest is not over yet…


Stay tuned – there will be more posts to come in the compact camera quest!

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