Sunday, 23 March 2014

Olympus XA

Today we're going to have a look at the Olympus XA. Perhaps the only camera ever used by Tony Benn to take a photograph of Denis Healey. And as a homage to the French oulipo literary movement I've decided to avoid using the letters X and A throughout the rest of this article. Except for XA, of course. I'll still write XA. This kind of thing might seem difficult, but in the end it's not too tricky. X is used very infrequently in English; the letter A - lbiet one of the most populr vowels - is however not the most populr, tht honour going to the letter E. The letter e ppers ll the wy throughout this prgrph, wheres the letter i, for emple, only ppers in "is" nd "going".

The trick with something like this is to do it semlessly, so tht the udience doesn't notice. In fct, if I hdn't pointed out my intentions t the beginning of the previous prgrph, you der reder would probbly not hve noticed. Becuse I'm tht good. Wht piece of work is me. How noble in reson, how infinite in fculty. How like... God. How like... God. How like... God.

The mnul wrns tht ldies should not bend their dinty fingers too much

So, on to the Olympus XA. It ws lunched...

No, I'll stop this. It's silly. It was launched in Japan in 1979*, and judging by contemporary reports in Popular Science and Field and Stream it seems to have hit the rest of the world in mid-1980.

* The repair manual suggests that the first batch was produced in March-May of 1979, presumably for sale later in the year. It would have been a great Christmas present. It seems that the early models had one more screw in the shutter button assembly than later models.

Olympus sold the XA as a posh second camera for professionals, and the launch price was apparently $200, which would have gone most of the way to a Nikon FM. The XA's USP was the tiny size and the nifty lens, which punched above its weight, but I'll discuss that later on. Over time the XA became the quintessential pocket camera for mountaineers and outdoorsy types. Olympus never claimed that it was weatherproof, and I would be wary of exposing it to rain, but on a physical level it feels solid enough to take some knocks. The newest examples are now thirty years old, and it seems that Death takes them by reaching inside their plastic cases and gumming up their shutters or frazzling their electronics.

Here's mine:

Most of the shots on this page were taken in Rome with Kodak Ektar and Fuji Superia; I also used a lot of black and white film, which I deal with in a separate post. The XA's 35mm f/2.8 is a neat compromise although I personally prefer a narrower or wider perspective; 35mm was popular in olden times but by the 1980s news photographers tended to go wider and closer, and 35mm feels staid. As a general-purpose focal length 35mm lends itself to shots of someone standing in front of the Eiffel Tower / Leaning Tower of Pisa; it's wide without being wow-y but struggles with intimacy.

Olympus aggressively marketed the camera with a series of adverts that highlighted its size. In the UK the television adverts featured Ron Digsworth David Bailey, who had also advertised the Trip 35:

Did David Bailey actually use Olympus cameras? Andy Warhol famously had a thing for compacts such as the Polaroid Big Shot and the Minox GT, but that made sense because he was a pop art socialite who wanted something he could take to parties. I associate David Bailey with studio work, at least by the late 1970s, in which case an XA wouldn't have helped him very much. If only because it doesn't have a hotshoe or PC connector, so there's no way to interface it with studio strobes. The flash unit is detachable, by the way. I'm not going to write about it because I've never used it, except to check that it works.

Some of Olympus' print ads gave chief designer Yoshihisa Maitani top billing, which was unusual because camera designers are generally anonymous people who toil away in obscurity. Maitani joined Olympus straight from college in the late 1950s, and his first design was the half-frame Olympus Pen. Here's an original 1959 Pen sneaking up on an Olympus XA2:

Maitani had a knack for designing small, good-looking cameras, and it never left him. The Pen has a sleek body that has aged exceptionally well, especially given that it was launched only two years after Sputnik. The XA series had something of Syd Mead about it. Like Mead's hovercars and space habitats it looks of its time but has, again, aged gracefully. The black-and-red colour scheme is pure MkII Golf GTi. Compare it with the Pentax PC35, which has the same basic configuration but looks much older, despite being more modern.

The Pen was a big success, and Maitani knocked out a string of hits over the next twenty years. The XA was something of a return to his compact roots, after the OM SLR range.

There were five different XA cameras in total, spanning 1979-1986. The original XA introduced a slidey-openy-shutty body that's occasionally described on the internet as a clamshell. It's not, though, is it? Clams flap open and shut like mouths. The XA's door slides left and right. The XA was part of a wave of "capsule cameras" that were the big new thing in the late 1970s.

The slidey-widey body style was very influential and in my opinion the XA has the best implementation of the idea. On a practical level it works extremely well, and the XA is one of the few cameras that can be shoved into a pocket without worrying about catching the lens on something. The cover snaps open with a satisfying click and is a triumph of ergonomic design; the camera is ready to shoot almost instantly.

That oulipo stuff was fun. Let's see if I can get through the rest of the article without using the ancient Greek μ symbol. That should be easy enough. As a work of industrial design the XA clearly had a lot of thought put into it. The controls are ergonomically positioned - the rangefinder window is easy to block if you have clumsy fingers, but once you get the hang of it the XA is a cinch to use. There are clever details that were obviously thought about with usability in mind. The base is flat, so you can rest it on a flat surface. The shutter fires at 1/60 when the back is open, so you can wind film on easily. There's a tiny little cover that slides over the rangefinder eyepiece when the body is shut. The self-timer / backlight / self-test lever in the base, for example, has four clever things:

1. It's not easily activated unless you want to activate it;
2. It sticks out, so you know it's activated without having to check one of the camera's menus - and it looks wrong when it's activated, so you probably won't leave it activated accidentally;
3. It remains activated, so you don't have to turn the self-timer on every single time you take a shot, and see also point 2;
4. It acts as a little foot that helps keep the camera stable.

I have no idea how much input Yoshihisa Maitani had into the design - I have always assumed that by the late 1970s he was more a supervisor than a hands-on draughtsman, and presumably the XA's electronics were the work of a separate department within Olympus. One thing that doesn't work very well is the shutter button, which was too clever for its own good. The button is pressure-sensitive and either too twitchy or not twitchy enough depending on how it was assembled; judging by the repair manual, the assembly line workers were supposed to calibrate the button with rubber spacers, and I imagine these get squashed over time. My natural tendency when the shutter doesn't go off is to press it harder, which probably makes it worse. The XA2 and later cameras put a little spring under the button, but it's still an acquired taste.

In its day the XA was an impressive feat of miniaturisation, and it's still one of the most compact 35mm cameras ever made. The earlier Minox 35 was slightly smaller, but only when folded up, and it was a lot more expensive. Later compact cameras tended to load the body with motor drives and autofocus, and so the XA was designed at just the right time. In fact there's something anachronistic about it. As far as I can tell it was the last ever consumer-level rangefinder camera, and one of the last compact point-and-shoots with aperture-priority autoexposure. Its heirs and successors used zone or autofocus and program exposure, and if you wanted rangefinder focusing and the XA's level of control in the 1980s and beyond you needed to spend a lot more money on a Minolta CLE or a Leica.

On a personal level I've always wanted an XA, but such is fate it has taken me fifteen years to get around to actually buying one. The XA's rangefinder is accurate and easy to use, viz the following image, which would have been difficult to achieve otherwise:

I needed control over focus in order to execute that idea. An autofocus compact would have focused on the sign. Zone focus is too imprecise.

I know what you're thinking. It's a trite idea. It's a vague point about consumerism, or something, how original. The Afghan Girl looks pissed because National Geographic's photographer is bothering her, and ultimately she's being used to sell National Geographic, and now she's being used to draw people into a posh coffee shop in London. And in turn I'm using her to illustrate a blog post. We're all using her. Passing her along like human traffic. She had no say in the matter. Images are valuable things until someone asks for money.

I have that issue of National Geographic. The story was written by Debra Denker. Steve McCurry took the pictures. It's the loose sequel of an earlier piece on Pakistan's Kalash people, which had been published in the October 1981 issue of the magazine. By coincidence I had that issue of Nat Geo when I was a kid. There's a picture of it in this post. My parents bought it for the Space Shuttle, which in 1981 was the future. It was going to put disposable rockets out of business because it was so much cheaper. But that plan died even before the crew of STS-51-L. Fast-forward to 2014 and the remaining shuttles are museum pieces. New York's Intrepid museum has one sitting alongside a Concorde, another vision of things that came and went.

The future was not reusable space launch vehicles and supersonic airliners. It was in fact eternal war and death, and there is still trouble on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Denker's article has a timeless quality. The Kalash still exist, and were recently threatened with extermination by the Taliban. Five months after writing this post Afghanistan was comprehensively overshadowed by events in Iraq, although I'm sure it will be back in the news eventually. Elsewhere the article has a photo of some armed men hitching a ride on the back of a Toyota Hilux, an image that hasn't dated since 1985. Nowadays the Shuttle is gone; armed men still hitch rides on the back of Toyota Hiluxes. The Hilux and the AK-47 are simple, robust implements that survive where more complex alternatives wear down and fail, they are metaphors for Afghanistan itself.

The Afghan Girl doesn't appear in the article. Only on the cover. She isn't named or mentioned in the text. Many years later they went back and found her; she was unimpressed. Her story raises the issue of distance and comfort. In 1985 she was beautiful but her anger was jarringly real, and her authenticity was highly commercial. She simultaneously refuted the postmodern consensus while becoming an icon of a postmodern age. As time goes by she becomes less real. The story she illustrated has already been forgotten (who today remembers Debra Denker, or cares about the Kalash people?). She is no longer the woman she was in 1985, and eventually the face will become an icon, just like Botticelli's Birth of Venus or Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The person will become a name and a pair of dates, and eventually not even that. Many years from now people will take photographs of pretty women in native dresses, tight close-ups of their faces, concentrating on the eyes, and they won't know why.

Abrupt tonal shift the XA series itself grew slightly over time. The XA3, for example, is just fractionally larger than the XA:

The XAs had a black plastic body with a metal back. I had always assumed they used the same shell, but in fact they're slightly different.

- The XA had a 35mm f/2.8 lens with rangefinder focusing and aperture-priority autoexposure. The dust cover is a flattened oval.

- The cheaper XA2 (1980) had a 35mm f/3.5 with zone focus and program autoexposure. The dust cover was more rounded.

- The confusingly-named XA1 (1980) was the budget model. It had a fixed-focus 35mm f/4 lens with a solar-powered selenium meter. The pressure-sensitive shutter control of the other cameras was replaced with a conventional button. The dust cover was more circular and, uniquely, had the camera's name printed on the front.

- The XA3 (1985) was much the same as the XA2 but with DX coding and a new film loading system, and a slightly wider body than the 1980 models. The internet has lots of print adverts for the Gen One XAs, but the XA3 and XA4 appear to have just emerged, and were discontinued a year later. The Gen Two XAs were available with bulky quartz date backs.

- The XA4 (1985) has the same flattened oval bulge as the XA, but with a 28mm f/3.5 lens that focuses down to a few feet. It came with a handstrap that doubled as a measuring rod, a la the old Minox 16 miniature spy camera.

There are detail differences. The XA has a shutter speed readout in the viewfinder, whereas later XAs simply had an LED that lit up when the exposure was out of range. Internet legend has it that the XA had two meters, one for the viewfinder readout and one to set the shutter speed, but reading through the repair manual it seems that this isn't true. No, that's rubbish. It does have two meters; you can see them here. The shutter speed readout is independent of the actual shutter speed, and it seems that over time the display can become inaccurate even when the shutter is working fine.

The XA's f/2.8 lens focuses by shifting an internal element back and forth. The camera is almost as small as a modern digital compact but has a full-frame sensor with a 35mm f/2.8 lens, which means that you can get a little bit of depth separation; it's not easy, but it can be done. In Micro Four Thirds terms you would need an 18mm f/1.4 lens to equal its field of view and depth of field, and in fact Olympus sells a 17mm f/1.8 which has a similar specification. Even in 2014 there isn't a direct digital equivalent of the XA. Nothing has its combination of versatile lens, pocket size, and (particularly) speed of operation. The aforementioned 17mm f/1.8 essentially turns a Micro Four Thirds body into an Olympus XA2, but much larger and more awkward to carry about.

Why can't the XA's lens simply be put into a digital body? It seems that digital sensors suffer from a problem called crosstalk, whereby light rays hitting the sensor at a shallow angle interfere with adjacent pixels; this causes colour shifts and heavy vignetting, and the XA's lens would end up having terrible corner resolution unless the sensor was modified to cope with it. Which would presumably be uneconomical. Leica modified the sensor in its M9 full-frame rangefinder to cope with off-axis light, but Leica can afford to do that, because Leica is uneconomical.

The XA's lens has an unusually large rear element:

The XA's six-element 35mm f/2.8 lens.

 The XA3's 35mm f/3.5 four-element lens, plus a glimpse of the DX contacts and quick loading system.

The XA's lens scored highly in Modern Photography's tests, and I don't have a problem with it. It's essentially sharp in the middle at all apertures, soft and vignett-y in the corners at f/2.8 but sharp almost to the extreme corners at f/8 or so. There's a little bit of yellow-cyan CA towards the edges. Particularly notable is the low, low geometric distortion, which is only noticeable if you put a horizontal line right at the edge of the frame:

The lens is shaded well by the body, and out of hundreds of photographs I've shot with it I really had to try hard to get lens flare. Adverse light manifests itself as a generalised lack of contrast, which can be fixed with software.

All of the electronic XAs used SR44 silver oxide batteries, which are still available today. SR44s are physically the same as LR44 batteries, which are much more common, but the XA's manual warns against using them in the XA. I know from embarrassing personal experience that LR44s don't work (or don't work well) in my XA3; the shutter was wildly inaccurate until I swapped the batteries for SR44s, at which point everything was right again.

It's entirely feasible to collect all five XAs, although nobody really wants the XA1. In the TV spot above you'll notice that it's third prize. The XA2 sold in great quantities and is available on eBay for the cost of a few rolls of film. The Gen Two models are rarer, particularly the XA4. The XA was the flagship, with the fastest lens, and vies with the XA4 as the top of the tree. There were also red, white, blue, and even pink versions of the XA2 and XA3, with pink as an ultra-rare commemorative edition.

But what's the XA like, on an emotional level? Initially it's liberating, eventually it becomes transparent. I've never been a fan of digital-style focusing - where you hold the camera out in front of you whilst concentrating on the screen. It's an unstable shooting position. In contrast, you have to press the XA against the front of your face when you take a shot, which is a bit like kissing, and I like that. It's nice to look through a viewfinder, it's like travelling into a different world. A world where I am kissing a piece of black-painted metal.

I tried to shoot at f/2.8 as much as possible because f/8 is boring. The XA's top shutter speed is 1/500, problematic in bright sunshine. The XA2 and later XAs had a 1/750 top speed, but the shutter was never back-ported to the original XA. I imagine that a lot of XA owners who just wanted a decent compact camera were bamboozled by the aperture lever, and never touched it; at f/2.8 their photos would have been overexposed in daylight with 400-speed film. For general-purpose shooting the manual recommends setting the camera to f/5.6 and 3m, and there are orange marks on the controls to that effect.

This photo makes it look as though the lens is full of fungus; it's actually reflecting the table.

Over time I forgot about the XA and just took pictures with it. A faster lens would have been nice, but the shutter is such that long hand-held exposures aren't very hard. It has a tripod thread on the base and the shutter opens for up to 20-30 seconds. Mine consistently gets 38 shots out of a 36-shot-roll. The biggest problem is that when stopped down the camera doesn't have much of a character apart from the vignetting, but on the other hand it's a genuinely practical carrying-about proposition, whereas a typical 40mm f/2.8 rangefinder from the 1970s is simply too large to make sense any more. The XA is unobtrusive, essentially silent in operation, nobody gives it a second glance.

After the XA series ran its course Olympus launched the boxier-looking, autofocus AF-1 (1986), which hasn't left much trace on the internet. The AF-1 was in turn replaced by the Stylus (1991), which sold over twenty million units and was essentially a streamlined XA with autofocus and a built-in motor drive, with a weatherproof body. In the US it was called the ∞ Stylus, in Yerp it was the...

Oh, damn. It was called the µ[Mju:]. Why such an odd name? It was the 1990s, that's why. Postmodernism. By the 1990s Olympus had progressed beyond the futuristic-looking XA into an age of post-modernism, in which everything was an ironic commentary on something else, and names were basically symbols, right? So why not have an actual symbol?

Your Future Dream is a Shopping Scheme
In 1979 the XA looked futuristic. Now that we live in the future, it has aged surprisingly well, although the notion of futuristic design seems to have died off. When Apple launched the G4 Cube in 2001 it wasn't supposed to look futuristic, it was supposed to look like the present, but amplified, and modern product design has followed this trend. My recollection of Warp Records' sleeve designs of the period was that they were ironic commentaries on postmodernism itself; they were supposed to look like 1991 and 2000, not 2525. The days when technology was routinely described as futuristic are long-gone, because we no longer have a definite, collective vision of the future. There is an acceptance that the future will probably look just like the present, and that deliberate attempts to evoke the future are just going to look silly in a few years. We're more pragmatic nowadays. Smarter than those primitive screwheads from the 1980s.

There was a time when people in the West had a collective vision of the future. It was going to be sleek and minimalist, and would probably involve wheels in space and supersonic jets and so forth. At the very least it would be better than the present. This notion was dealt a mortal blow by the grim 1970s, and by the early 1980s the hi-tech look of the XA - and the Raleigh Vektar BMX bike etc - were starting to look silly to grown-ups, although kids still loved them. In this respect the XA's design was out of step with contemporary trends. Although the contrasting geometric shapes have a postmodern look, the XA wasn't supposed to be postmodern. It really and sincerely was supposed to look like the future.

The XA's run coincided with the scuzzy anti-glamour of Mad Max: The Road Warrior and Blade Runner, and latterly the computerised steampunk of Brazil and Max Headroom. At the beginning of the decade our future dream was not too different from that of the 1950s, but with more plastic and less chrome, but by 1985 it seemed that the future would instead involve feral children dressed up like Sigue Sigue Sputnik running through burned-out rubbish tips. In the world of design and architecture it became fashionable to throw away notions of progress, and instead build homages to the past; ironic commentaries on the past. In the 1980s there was a sense that the future was not going to be designed at all, it would instead accumulate. The future would be an accumulation of discarded artefacts compacted by the pressure of time. All of a sudden buildings were no longer gleaming towers of glass and steel, they were playfully ironic retro homages.

Postmodernism was fashionable, but even at the time there was resistance. There were very few postmodern cars, for example, and until the revamped New Beetle of 1998 the only examples had been restricted to the Japanese market. I've just read an article in New York Magazine from as far back as 1988 which pokes fun at postmodernism; sadly I can't embed it, but it's great fun. My lack of formal art training limits my perspective but I have the impression that although postmodernism seemed to reach critical mass in the 1990s, it had become old-hat amongst art professionals; it just took that long for mainstream design to adopt it, and mainstream culture treated it as a kind of froth that blew away quickly. Nowadays the 1980s is stereotyped as a go-getting decade of bright colours and synthetic music, but looking back it seems that the people of the 1980s were probably aware of the ridiculousness of their fashions and mores. They knew they looked silly, it was deliberate.

It seems to me that the future of the XA was killed off by postmodernism, which in turn gradually evaporated. The aforementioned Apple G4 Cube was not a postmodern retro homage, it was simply a neat piece of design. The EO Personal Communicator of 1993 had an air of postmodernism about it, but the far more successful iPad of 2010 was simply modern-looking. As if to acknowledge that there was no future, and that this is all we have. That we are all trapped here, in hell, and there is nothing after the end. God made us smart enough to understand the inevitability of our own end, perhaps because he is fated to die as well, and wanted to vent his rage on us.

There was a kind of futurism in the 1990s. Internet types imagined a transhuman future that would either be enabled or destroyed by the coming singularity, but that was always a minority viewpoint and it never achieved much mainstream penetration. It never became a collective vision. Popular sci-fi such as Star Trek (and throughout the 1990s Star Trek was, more or less, the only truly popular mainstream sci-fi television show) gradually blanded-out until eventually the universe of Starfleet was almost unrecognisable from that of our own, but with teleporters and more spandex, but even the spandex one-pieces were slowly replaced with jackets. The holodeck of The Next Generation suggested that people of the future would spend their time recreating the past.

Nonetheless, this is why the ∞ Stylus / µ[Mju:] had an odd name. It was a weak, odd attempt to play with the idea of names. We may not see its like again.