Review: Yashica-A TLR medium format film camera

The camera purchase I made in July 2019 was one I didn’t see coming: A lovely Yashica-A twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera. But when I saw it in the display case at Englewood Camera with a $125 price tag on it, it got my attention. Then when I looked closer, I just couldn’t not take it home with me.

The Back Story

Earlier this year when I longed to get a medium format camera, I originally set-out to get a TLR — either a Yashica-Mat 124G or some flavor of Rollei, ideally an Automat MX-EVS (a/k/a 3,5B). But when the Pentax 645 showed-up, well, that scratched my medium format itch and then some.

Not to digress, but in truth, I still want a Rolleiflex. The problem is that finding them in really good condition is difficult, and virtually any one you’d find is likely to need a CLA (clean, lube, adjustment) — an expensive proposition if you have a Rollei specialist do it for you. The need for a CLA can turn an affordable camera into a pretty significant investment in the long run.

The Camera and The Experience

But, back to the Yashica-A. It’s a pretty basic camera, arguably about halfway between my Kodak Duaflex II and a Rolleiflex in terms of complexity and capability. Unlike the Duaflex, you can at least adjust the aperture and shutter speed on the Yashica-A, and — gasp! — focus the lens.

Based on what I can find online, this camera appears to have been made in 1961, just a few years after it was introduced to the market. The camera was sold new for roughly $30 — about $285 or so in today’s money. It was the lowest priced, most basic model in the Yashica TLR lineup of the day, but as you’ll see below, it’s hardly a slacker.

If you want to take a deep dive — a very deep dive — on this or other Yashica TLRs, you’ll easily get lost reading through the voluminous information provided by Paul Sokk on his excellent web site, yashicatlr.com. The information is so detailed and so esoteric that it can be a little overwhelming, but I appreciate the fact that his level of interest in the Yashica TLRs has resulted in such a comprehensive web site for the benefit of all.

This is also a manual camera, so you may want an exposure meter. To support flash shots in this exact scenario, I chose the Gossen Sixtomat F2, which is capable of metering flash when needed.

One down side of this camera compared to a Rolleiflex is that there is not bayonet mount on the lenses, and hence, no ability to use any filters other than the 32mm push-on type described in the manual; good luck finding any of those. I’ve not done an exhaustive search of eBay and other sources, but to date, I’ve not turned-up a single one available for purchase. I’m not exactly an avid filter user at this point, so not a major issue, perhaps.

While a basic camera, it does sport a PC “X” socket to do flash sync with electronic flashes, and a leaf shutter that’ll let you flash sync at any speed. Not bad. It works great connected my Godox TT600 flash unit via a sync cord, but you’ll also need a flash bracket or handle. While the Yashica-A has a cold shoe on the side, it’s the older, all-metal type, which means it’s not suitable for modern electronic flashes. If you do put it there, it’ll short the center pin and the ground (earth) on the flash, thereby triggering the flash — perhaps repeatedly.

As for the bracket, I chose this Vello CB-600 from B&H Photo. It’s less than $10, mounts to the tripod connector on the bottom of the camera, and works nicely. The only down side? Doing a ceiling bounce shot with the flash unit while looking down through the waist-level finder may not work so well; your head is likely at least partially in the way of the light when the flash goes off. A bracket with a handle where the flash can be positioned higher may be a better solution for bounce shots.

Returning to the camera itself, it’s in nearly pristine condition on the outside. Its leather case shows some signs of wear, but even it was in pretty good nick. That said, its strap was very weak in one spot, and I ended-up paying far more than I wanted to in order to have a leather shop custom-make and fit a new, exact replacement. It was worth it, though. Despite the low investment overall, I really don’t want to drop this camera; I’m just too happy with it.

The ground glass focusing screen was dirty — inside and out. When I got it home, I removed the waist-level viewfinder assembly from the top, which exposed the fixed mirror (which was filthy) and the underside of the ground glass (also filthy). How that area came to be so dirty is a mystery, as the inside of the camera body itself was perfectly clean. Some very careful cleaning later, I reassembled it and things were happy-happy all around. (I wouldn’t normally clean a viewfinder mirror, but compressed air didn’t do the job; denatured alcohol and a microfiber cloth were required to de-grub it, along with the ground glass.)

Loading film is easy, and pretty much the standard drill. Transfer the old spool to the take-up location. Insert a new roll. Pull it over the opening. Wind it around the take-up spool until it’s secure. Close back. Wind until “1” is in the window.

That manual film advance is one of the camera’s downsides depending on how you look at it. I have no issue advancing my own film, but…

…the problem is remembering to do so. On my first roll, I shot no less than two double-exposures, like this one:

While out shooting today on my second roll, alas, I did it again at some point despite thinking I was being religious about moving the film forward after each shot. Bottom line: Just like the Duaflex, it truly takes some discipline to remember how to use the camera and break the auto-advance habit.

As with most cameras of the era and of this type, there’s a red (“ruby”) window in the back through which you read the exposure number. With most modern films having very lightly printed backing paper to avoid the issue of the printing ghosting onto the emulsion (Lomography films have old-school dark print, but Lomo has its own issues), it can be tricky to see which one you’re on — let alone align it accurately. All I can say is: Wind slowly and carefully.

That issue aside, the Yashica-A is both easy and fun to use, although exposure options are a bit on the limited side, making it somewhat important to avoid high speed films, such as ISO 800, unless you intend to avoid shooting outside in bright daylight. (Even ISO 400 films can render some bright daylight shots impossible.) Aperture values are f/3.5, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, and finally, f/22. In reality, the aperture is continuously variable without detents, and reportedly varies proportionally.

The shutter speed is also continuously variable without detents. However, unlike the aperture, so far, it appears that any attempt to place the value between two marked settings will not yield a shutter speed between them, but rather, the printed speed you’re closest to. I’ll revise this at a later time should I discover it behaves otherwise; discussions about this online seem to be inconclusive. You can choose from among the non-standard values of 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/300 — its fastest — plus bulb, of course. With the weird speeds marked, which will not match any exposure meter I’ve seen, you’ll need to sort of round them down with the premise that it’s better to over-expose than under-expose. For example, if your meter says shoot at 1/125, then set it to 1/100.

Focusing is relatively easy, but it’s a typical waist-level viewfinder TLR experience, given that the image is flipped horizontally. That does taking getting used to, as any TLR shooter will tell you, but it’s not hard. The only risk is bright light from the side making it tough to see the ground glass focusing screen — something you’ll experience with any waist-level finder. That can be dealt with by blocking it with your hand (making you wish you had three hands in the process), or by using the folding close-up viewfinder lens. While you’ll still look downward into the top of the camera to focus, when you deploy the close-up, you hold it right up to the eye where you can get a solid lock on focus accuracy. (In truth, I find it very difficult to focus accurately without using the close-up lens, and end-up deploying it on every shot.)

Another item that takes getting used to is that when you’re ready to shoot, you must first cock the shutter action. There’s a small lever on the side of the taking lens (the bottom one); just push it downward fully and let it return to its neutral position. Then, press the shutter release button to take the photo. I’m told you must not change the shutter speed once the shutter is cocked, so I always get everything ready to go first, then cock it and snap as a quick, two-step action. Then be sure to wind the film forward afterward! (Most other cameras I’ve used that have a shutter cock can have the shutter speed changed after cocking, including the Hasselblad V-Series and Mamiya C-Series TLRs, so this is a bit of a hard habit to break when using the Yashica-A.)

Everything on the Yashica-A feels so incredibly smooth and accurate. The advance knob has a great, quality feel, and it moves cleanly with silky smoothness. Ditto the focus knob. And while we’re on the subject, I did something today I never expected to do with this camera: I went to focus and turned the wrong knob, advancing the film slightly. I’m sure I’ll regret that when I get the film back, but live and learn. Just double-check that you’ve got your fingers on the right knob before you start fiddling, or a wasted shot is nearly guaranteed.

Speaking of wasted shots, they’re a bigger waste on this camera as well. Like a Hasselblad, Rollei, etc., it takes full “6×6” square images (approximately 6cm x 6cm), meaning you get just 12 of them per roll of 120 film. That means that a wasted shot equals anywhere from $1.00 to $3.00 (or more) depending on which film you picked, what sort of developing services you choose, and how much those run. That adds-up fast if you’re not careful, but then, film photography isn’t about economy even under the best of circumstances.

The Results

So, how are the photos? Well, in short, pretty good. Here are a few examples.

In the first two images, you’ll no doubt notice some red vignetting on the upper left and right corners of the image. I didn’t know the cause at first, but I didn’t find it that annoying, and when I browsed the Yashica-A group on Flickr, I could see the same vignetting in a lot of the photos.

So in August 2019, I reached-out to Leslie Lazenby from the FPP about it, and she suggested a possible light leak from the front of the camera. But as I thought about that possibility, and did some testing (as she suggested), one thing occurred to me: If this was a light leak, the vignetted areas would likely be white — and they’re not. I can also find absolutely no evidence of light leaking-in with a light test, but the clue was the fact that these areas are red, and that they’re barely evident in any black and white shots.

The pictures that exhibit this problem (and it’s not all of them) were taken in sunlight, with the sun positioned at an angle behind me. What seems to actually be happening is that sunlight shining directly onto the red film exposure window (“ruby window”) on the back (where you read which exposure number you’re on from the backing paper imprint) is letting a small amount of red light to work its way around the gubbins of the camera, and onto those spots at the film edges. They actually seem to match the approximate location of some indentations in the back pressure plate. When I take shots with the sun not hitting the back of the camera, things seem fine. And of course, to see the exposure number through that window (especially with lightly-printed Kodak 120 films), I have often held the back of the camera into the sun.

The solution appears to be to simply close the exposure window cover on the camera (covering the red window completely) while taking pictures, at least in bright daylight conditions. Then, open the window in subdued or shadowed light, wind the film, and close the window again.

This camera does reveal one thing I like about medium format: resolution. Let’s take another look at that top photo.

No, closer.

No, no… I mean, let’s look really close:

This nearly 60 year old camera, with its simple lens, can “see” a jet airliner at the leading end of a contrail in a picture that is not zoomed anywhere near it. And notice while you’re at it the soft, barely detectable grain of the Kodak Ektar 100 film that this image was shot on. I find that pretty amazing to be honest. Admittedly, there’s a very slight amount of chromatic aberration on that contrail (blue edge above, red edge below), but scroll back up to get some context about how close we’re looking here; it’s a perfectly acceptable amount of aberration in my view.

Here’s some of the house detail from the lower part of the same image:

I may still long for a Rollei, but the Yashica-A is a simple, easy-to-use, inexpensive, and fun TLR with clearly (bad pun) better optics than my Kodak Duaflex II, along with the sorts of control over the results I want (aperture, shutter speed, focus) that the Duaflex can’t offer me. And the results? Well, as you can see above, they speak for the themselves.

These cameras are generally available at incredibly low price points, as they don’t seem to be all that well-known, and certainly are not as highly sought-after as Rolleiflexes, or more complex choices like the Mamiya C220/C330. For me, the great results and great price point equal a no-brainer for analog photography enjoyment.