About 10 years ago, I really got into film photography after shooting nothing but digital for many years. Desiring an alternative to the digital photography experience, I spent a good bit of time playing around with a variety of old film cameras. My timing was fortuitous, because used film cameras were cheap and plentiful at the time.
Not so much anymore. Prices of compact film cameras have skyrocketed over the last few years. My purpose in writing this in the year 2020 is to give you some guidance based on my own experiences so that if you choose to dabble with film for travel photography, you don’t waste too much of your money on artificially overpriced gadgets.
Before we get to talking about the XA, let’s discuss some film compacts of many decades ago that are currently highly sought after. (There are many more than these, so this is not an exhaustive list.)
Contax T2 & T3. These are considered the top of the line compacts of the 1990s and early 2000s. Featuring sturdy metallic designs and Carl Zeiss lenses, these cameras go for big dollars. A used T2 will set you back between $700 to $900, and the T3 can run upwards of $2000.
Unless you’re obnoxiously wealthy or plan on shooting film as your primary photographic medium, I’d skip these. Yes, the technical image quality is great for what it is, but if superior image quality in a pocket-sized camera is your goal, just buy a Ricoh GR 3 (the 2019 version) for the same price or cheaper, and you’ll get a better, more useful camera. My guess is that most people who buy these models are collectors who don’t actually use the cameras much.
Yashica T4. There are a few different versions of this camera, but the big distinction is the zoom vs non-zoom. If you get one, the one you want is the non-zoom. The T4 Zoom was the last new film camera I bought before digital got popular; it was an okay camera, but not nearly the same level of optics as the regular T4 with the 35mm prime lens.
This is also a very nice camera that unfortunately is consistently overpriced, though not to level of the Contax T cameras. You can typically find one in decent condition for around $400 to $500.
Olympus Stylus Epic. This is an excellent point & shoot camera that sold millions back in the late 90s. It’s got a super sharp f2.8 prime lens, is the smallest of all the cameras mentioned in this article (slides effortlessly into a front pocket), and up until recently, was easy to find and inexpensive. I used to own this camera and bought a brand new model on eBay for $47 in 2011. Man, this thing takes great photos.
Unfortunately, people have caught on to how awesome this camera is, and now they’re selling for $250 to $300. If I was writing this 8 years ago, the Stylus Epic would be my number one recommendation due to its low cost at the time and optics that rival the much more expensive Contax. At 2020 prices, I’m hesitant to recommend it.
The problem with paying top dollar prices for an old camera is that you never know when it’s going to crap out on you. Like cell phones of today, these film point & shoots were not designed with longevity in mind. And since they’re ancient, getting one repaired is tedious and expensive, if not impossible. You break your Olympus Stylus Epic, it’s pretty much done for because Olympus doesn’t even make parts for them anymore. That’s why I sold both of mine at a high price last year while they were still in good working condition, so I’m not the last fool who is stuck with them when they inevitably turn into nonfunctioning paperweights.
Which brings us to the Olympus XA. This is a pocket sized rangefinder camera that was first released in 1979, and despite its age, it is still relatively easy to find good working models out in the wild. Hold one and you can understand why: this thing is built like a tank. Compared to later Olympus models, you can tell this camera was designed to take some abuse.
For the purposes of this review, I’m not going to do a deep dive into the technical specifics. For that, check out this excellent website that details the inner workings of the XA: The Olympus XA Camera.
From a traveler’s perspective, especially those who want to travel light, the XA has some nice qualities compared to other similar film cameras:
1. Unlike almost every other camera in this category, the lens does not protrude out when you power the camera on. All you have to do is slide open the clamshell, and it’s instantaneously ready to fire. No missed shots due to waiting that extra couple of seconds for the lens to get ready.
2. Focusing is all manual, and it’s quick and accurate once you get used to it. The XA uses a rangefinder mechanism to focus its lens, just like a Leica M. For those of you who don’t know what a rangefinder is, there’s a small lever under the lens that you slide back and forth with your finger, and that lines up two superimposed images in the viewfinder. Whenever your subject goes from two images to a single fused one, it is in focus. I really love this type of focusing because with film, the most common reason why I get a bad photo is due to the autofocus targeting the wrong thing. Happened quite frequently with my Stylus Epic and Yashica. With the XA, you’re in control of the focus at all times.
3. More manual control. You can set your own aperture for each shot, and you can indirectly control exposure compensation by adjusting the film speed setting. There’s also a handy lever on the bottom of the camera that quickly adjusts for back-lit photos.
4. It’s small, light, and has great battery life. The XA runs on two silver oxide batteries, which will run the camera for years. The batteries power the light meter and the shutter; everything else from focusing to film advance/rewind is all manual, so the power requirements are tiny compared to the other cameras with more automatic features.
5. It has an electromagnetic shutter release that will fire the shutter with a light touch. This is the only camera I’ve ever owned with a shutter button like this. Due to the minimal pressure required to fire the camera, you can get away with slower shutter speeds without using a tripod when light levels get low.
And perhaps the most important quality: you get a great quality lens without getting ripped off. As of early 2020, you can still find a good condition XA for around $100, which is barely more than what they were selling for 10 years ago when I acquired mine.
Note that there are several versions of the XA, including the original XA, XA1, XA2, XA3, and XA4. The one you want is the original XA, as it’s the only one with an f2.8 lens, aperture control, and rangefinder focusing. Be especially careful that you don’t buy an XA1 which is a completely different and inferior camera.
The Olympus XA is a great choice for a travel camera if you want to experiment with some film. Unlike most of the other compacts, you can still find one for a reasonable price; so if and when it eventually breaks down, you’re not out a ridiculous sum of money.
In the last couple of years, I sold off most of my film camera collection (for a nice profit), but the XA is one of the very few that I held onto because I still do occasionally like to shoot film to mix it up a little bit. Of the many film compacts that I had amassed, it was the one that I consistently enjoyed using the most, and I’m certain it’ll continue serving me well in documenting my future travels.