Review: Yashica-A TLR medium format film camera

My latest camera purchase was one I didn’t see coming: A lovely Yashica-A twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera. But when I saw it in the 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.

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 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 reputable person do it for you. (For example, with the Rollei, it seems that here in the US, the only bonafide Rollei expert left is Harry Fleenor, who charges $500 for a full CLA.) The point is that having to have a CLA performed changes the economics of the camera purchase, and can turn a decently priced camera into a pretty expensive investment in the long run.

Anyhow, 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. It also has a PC socket to do flash sync — and a leaf shutter that’ll let you flash sync at any speed. Not bad.

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. 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 window in the back through which you read the exposure number. With most modern films having very lightly printed backs to avoid the issue of the printing ghosting onto the emulsion, 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 for those used to more modern cameras, there is no meter on-board; you’ll need to use the Sunny 16 method, or an actual exposure meter.

Exposure options are a bit on the limited side, however, making it somewhat important to avoid high speed films, such as ISO 800, unless you intend to avoid shooting outside in bright daylight. 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. 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.

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!

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, and what sort of developing services you choose, and how much those run. That adds-up fast if you’re not careful.

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 don’t know the cause, but I don’t find it that annoying, and when I browse the Yashica-A group on Flickr, I can see the same vignetting in a lot of the photos. It’s unclear whether this is related to angle of the sun playing optical tricks, perhaps varied by the position of the focus knob (since I don’t see it on every shot), or exactly what it is. As I said, it doesn’t really bother me, and I suspect in a black and white photo it wouldn’t even be apparent.

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

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.

Here’s some of the house detail from 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.