Remember Mr Maitani? The guy who designed the Olympus Pen cameras?
That’s right! You read about him here yesterday, yes?
One would have thought that the adulation he received after designing the Pen range, he would have hung up his saddle and enjoyed his new-found fame. But Maitani was not like that. He was a man who, like all great geniuses, preferred to stay in the background while others got rich on his work.
Having designed a tiny camera that could give us 72 shots from every roll of film, his next task was to create a more modern, slick but equally superior camera. It was a very difficult task, as the Rollei 35, another miniature camera, had already hit the market and was creating waves about it’s unique design, too.
To me, it seems the obvious thing Maitani may have done is to buy a Rollei 35 himself and use it, handle it, work out what it’s foibles were, and design his own camera so that it didn’t show any of those problems, and more.
And Maitani knew full well that camera designers were in the process of miniaturising their wares….for some reason, it was THE thing to do back then, as it is now too….miniaturise everything.
The first thing Maitani found with the smallest 35mm camera available at that time (the Rollei 35), was that it was an absolute pig to use, with quirky ways of focussing it, loading it’s film, attaching a flash, the list goe son and on. Even though the Rollei took fabulous shots due to it’s lens system.
These problems were his first hurdle. And it is these problems he addressed very admirably with the Olympus XA.
Before we go any further, let’s have a bit of a laugh with a TV advert from the UK showing the XA, with Lord Lichfield (the very suave, young guy sitting at the presentation table) and also a quite young David Bailey appearing as well!
It is said that his first prototype was made out of wood, finely polished all round, which he handed to his colleagues to judge their reaction to the design. The size of this new camera was a revelation. Soon as you held it in the palm of your hand, it just felt right. It had no sharp angles or corners like the Rollei.
Aside of the Rollei, there were other rivals, Minox comes to mind immediately, but even that was a folding camera, whereas the XA does not fold and the lens doesn’t need to collapse.
And to take a photo, all you had to do was slide the cover, focus and click, voila! No need to extend the lens out as in the Rollei, and no need to cover the lens up with a lens cap either…you slid the cover closed and it protected everything, as well as switching the camera off…..lens, shutter button, everything.
Next thing was focussing. Again, with the size constraints, it was going to damn difficult fitting a lens system that could be focussed, but he managed to design such fantastic lens and rangefinder system that BOTH were incorporated into his design. This was unheard of in the day…such a tiny camera, with a lens that didn’t need to be extended and with a rangefinder? Unbelievable!
Of course, where the XA wins hands down is in daily use. We all know the hassle of carrying cameras, you need a case to keep the dust out, a lens cap to protect the lens, etc. And the moment you pull your camera out of it’s case on the street, it draws immediate attention.
Well with the XA, it is such a design that nobody even bothers to look at it when you’re using it, as to Joe Public it looks like cheap, plastic toy that couldn’t possibly take photos!
If you’re in a hurry (which no photographer should be!), you can even take your shots without focussing with the rangefinder, as the camera is designed to default to a standard position soon as you slide the cover open, whereby any shots taken between 3 ft to infinity will be in focus. Yet another ingenious idea.
But the magic is in the lens system. At the time, and even now, a full 30 or so years later, there are not many people who understand how such lens came to be designed, as the camera side profile is around an inch and a half, and the only way a lens in a full frame 35mm camera could be fitted was to have it extend outwards in use.
Maitani managed to do it, but it was not completed without tremendous effort. Without getting involved in technical detail, he best way to explain how it was done is by saying it is like a normal 35mm lens, but reversed into itself. And how is it able to focus if the lens doesn’t extend outwards? This again is another very clever idea that Maitani devised…to focus the camera, instead of the front lens elements moving backwards or forwards, in the XA, the REAR elements move in and out, with the front of the lens staying put!
To the non-technical mind, that doesn’t explain a lot, but mention that to a lens designer now and he/she will most probably go bright red in the face, realising the immense problems so caused. Having decided on this radical new shift in lens systems, Maitani then had to specify such high quality glass for his lenses that was cut to extremely close tolerances. So with an XA in your hand, you are getting a camera that almost never made it into production, due to the astronomical costs.
The result was a fantastic 6 element, 5 group lens which gives results comparable to many very high quality cameras, such as Leica and Contax.
Another first on the XA is the rangefinder. It’s the world’s shortest base rangefinder ever, and can cover it’s whole range with a movement of just under half and inch…try comparing that to other rangefinders!
Now, remember we talked about the sliding cover on this camera? Well, there’s more to that than just looks. From day one, Maitani had in mind that this was going to be a true pocket camera, meaning that you could throw it into your pocket or handbag without fear of damaging the lens or bodywork. And he didn’t want people to be burdened with fiddly things like lens caps, camera cases, etc. And to be truly pocketable, the thing needs to be able to be put in your pocket or handbag without you noticing it.
And so he came up with the famous sliding cover, which not only covers and protects the lens, but look at this, it also covers the rear viewfinder window, too, as well as the tiny rangefinder window. Now that’s what i call forward planning!
Let’s move onto some more firsts….if you look at the base of the camera, you will see a little lever cleverly tucked and parked flush with the body. This lever has two purposes; it acts as a very handy stand, allowing the camera to stand unaided during times when you cannot, or don’t want to hold the camera while taking a shot, say when taking a self-portrait or if you are in a group photo and want yourself included.
There is also a self-timer position for the lever that gives you an approx 10 second delay for this. However, yet again the camera has another clever design here….when you move the lever to “selftimer” position, you will see that in that position, it automatically juts out about half an inch from the body, providing stability for the camera to rest on any reasonably flat surface unaided.
The next position for the lever is the “check” option. When this is selected, the camera will let you know if there are batteries in it, and if they are ok. It does this by emitting a continuous bleep and showing a red light near the aperture scale on the front.
The final position of this lever is the “+1.5 back light” option. This is another unique offering on the XA, something that very few, if any cameras in this range are able to offer. This is the backlight compensation feature, which can help you easily focus and shoot a subject that is in very poor light.
A word about the very unconventional shutter button. Unlike normal cameras, this is an electromagnetic release. What does that mean? Well it means that it operates the shutter electronically rather than mechanically like most cameras, and this leads to a very quiet and virtually vibration-less shutter, meaning you can take shots in the street without anybody hearing your shutter click, or you can take shots at very low speeds free from fear of blurred photos caused by shutter or shutter release judder.
In use, as the lens used in the XA is almost a semi-wideangle one, you need not be too concerned about accurate focussing, as the camera is designed to deliver sharp shots even if the focus is not strictly correct…..this is a boon for high speed shooting such as might occur when doing street work. You choose the aperture, the camera chooses the shutter speed.
What else is there to say about the XA? Not a lot more really, save to say it was designed to cater for seasoned professional photographers as well as the average person on the street.
If you need a manual for the XA, you can access it here for FREE.
And I have one for sale, too!
If you want a camera that you will always want to use, get one now!