For regular readers, this will be an all-too-familiar story: Your Humble Filmosaur stumbles across some battered or broken camera, buys it, cracks it open, and pokes it repeatedly until it gets annoyed and starts working again. With that bit out of the way, I give you the Olympus XA4 Macro.
This camera is the last of the long and storied XA line. Beginning with the original XA in 1979, these set a new standard for high quality cameras in remarkably compact packaging. Unlike earlier compacts, the original XA came with a six-element 35 f/2.8 lens and a proper rangefinder. Combine that with aperture-priority operation via a CdS meter and users had a very capable camera that, oh by the way, was also ridiculously tiny and, courtesy of its sliding clamshell cover, could be tossed into any bag or pocket with wild abandon.
Predictably, the XA was a huge success. Just as predictably, Olympus then started tinkering with the design. The results were mixed. New versions – sold alongside the XA, not in place of it – cut features. The rangefinder went away, replaced with scale-focusing icons. The six-element f/2.8 lens became a simpler four-element f/3.5. The truly basic XA1 made do with a selenium meter and fixed focus, while the far more common XA2 at least retained the CdS meter of the original and scale-focusing. When the XA3 came along, it was basically an XA2 with a few minor features of the XA reintroduced, along with a couple of new ones, most notably DX-coding for film and an increased ISO range, now extending up to 1600.
Which brings us to the XA4 Macro. Just when Olympus seemed to be on a predictable, well-worn path of feature reduction and cost-cutting – their budget for coming up with compelling camera names seems to have been essentially nothing – they then took an unexpected left turn and introduced a camera based on the XA3, but with a five-element lens of a completely different focal length – 28mm f/3.5 – and made it possible to precisely focus (scale-focusing icons replaced by actual numbers) this new lens down to 0.3m (or 1ft, if you prefer) to boot. The reasoning behind this design exercise is difficult to comprehend, but I’m not arguing.
It’s even harder to understand when you consider that the XA4 was a short-run camera, apparently produced only in 1985, at the end of the XA series’ life cycle. There aren’t many around, and when they do crop up they’re usually pricey. Mine wasn’t, but then look at it. On top of scars and bruises, it was jammed up tight. After cleaning off several protective layers of filth, I procured new batteries and set about to unjamming it. Thankfully, this was not terribly difficult: the rewind button was stuck as a result of accumulated crud, and once I cleaned it out things started to function. Some new light seals finished off the refresh. The glass is good and everything now functions more or less as it should. It’s not the smoothest camera I’ve ever used, but for a piece of 1980s plastic it isn’t too bad.
A test roll showed mixed results. The focus was on, and shots taken indoors were exposed well. Outdoors was a different story; on a cold, clear day, all were underexposed by a few stops. I’m at a bit of a loss as to say why this is, but from what I’ve read I’m not the only one to experience this. Subsequent testing indoors showed a tendency to underexpose any scene that included bright light or high reflectivity surfaces, so I don’t think the temperatures were to blame, at least not primarily. Barring digging further to make an internal adjustment to the metering circuit, I will probably need to adjust the ISO setting for outdoor shooting on bright days, which is annoying but not hugely problematic as long as performance stays consistent.
The XA4 Macro is a handy little camera, to be sure. How long it will remain in my hands is a different question. I like it, especially the wide lens and the close focusing ability, but my feelings on mandatory auto-exposure in cameras with serious picture-taking pretentions are not fit for polite company. Whether I can come to terms with that will dictate if the XA4 stays here or moves along, the proceeds to fund the rehabilitation of some other old and abused camera. Time will tell.