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The Yashicamat was the first Medium Format Camera I bought. I got it off eBay, and it was in mint condition. It looked like it had never been used. I sold it 2 years later for more than I paid for it. It was a good camera, and I probably could have held on to it as it wasn’t going to lose any value, but truth be told, it didn’t really suit my shooting style.
TLR stands for Twin Lens Reflex, there are two lenses, one for viewing (top one) and one which is directed onto the film. The lenses are not interchangeable, fixed at 80mm, which is your nifty fifty in Medium format land. The Yashicamat is a 6×6 camera, shooting a large 6cm square format negative.
The Yashicamat 124G is based on the Rolleiflex camera, and nearly as good. The viewing lens on the Yashicamat is a 2.8, but the raking lens is f3.5, whereas some Rolleiflex cameras are available with an f2.8 as well as an f3.5 taking lens.
If I was going to buy another TLR, I would get an f2.8 Rolleiflex. Why? That image in the waist level viewfinder is so gorgeous to look at, it’s hard not to feel that you want to see the world that way and you want your images to look that way too. Unfortunately then they come out with f3.5 DOF rather than than buttery f2.8 look, it’s a little disappointing.
Of course, if price is important to you, and it is to most people, then the yashicamat can be got on eBay for around £150 in good condition, whereas a Rolleiflex 2.8 is going to set you back the best part of a grand. One day.
Sorry, where were we? Let’s get back to reality.
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The controls on a TLR are pretty basic. The yashicamat 124G comes with a light meter, a focussing knob and a waist level finder with focussing screen. The viewfinder incorporates a sports finder for direct shooting, but of course this camera is not designed for sports.
The aperture and shutter speed controls are on the front of the camera, to the side of the lenses. The aperture adjustment operates incrementally rather than in whole stops; setting the aperture 1/3 of the way between f8 and f11 gives you f9. The same doesn’t go for shutter speed, but comes in distinct detentes on the dial.
Operating the Yashicamat 124G is easy enough, a bit clunky at times. I would have preferred to focus the camera with my right hand rather than my left, but you get used to it after a while. Instead of the focussing knob, the right hand side of the camera houses the winding lever to advance the frame and cock the shutter.
The biggest challenge you will have, especially in the beginning is getting to grips with the waist level viewfinder. WLVs are popular on MF cameras like Hasselblads, but take a while to get your head around; everything you see on the screen is reversed. If you tilt it left the picture tilts right, you want the object to move right in the frame, you move the camera right. It’s all very confusing, but persevere and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
What you will also get the hang of is staring at a live picture on the ground glass at f2.8. It is just gorgeous, one of the finest a things you will see in photography, especially if you’re used to looking at the world though a digital SLR. Because you look at a ground glass TLR focussing screen with both eyes, the image has a 3D quality that looking through an SLR viewfinder with a single eye just cannot match. It makes the world look gorgeous, and shows you what your photos are going to look like. Shame the 124 doesn’t come with an f2.8 lens, that would be dynamite.
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The Yashicamat, and other TLR cameras are not so good when it comes to close focussing. I think the closest the yashicamat focuses is 1m, which is standard fare for MF cameras. You can buy close up sets in Bay 1 fitting, these bolt onto the front of the lenses, there is one for the viewing lens (adjusted for parallax) and one for the taking lens. +1 is good for 24-36 inches distance, +2 is good for 18-24 inches. I bought a used Rolleinar set off eBay, and they worked just fine on the yashicamat.
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So how is the Yashicamat in action? Pretty good. It is a big solid brick of a camera, but as it is sporting an 80mm f3.5 lens, it is actually as small at it gets depth wise for MF. The WLV can frustrate, and can make composing a frustrating experience until you get accustomed to the inversion.
Winding the lever is a noisy affair, but the shutter is a near silent click. The copal leaf shutter is one of the great things about fixed lens cameras. Leaf shutters allow you to handhold down to ridiculously low shutter speeds, 1/8s is not unreasonable as long as you haven’t had too many coffees. 1/15 is fine all the time.
The focussing is fine tuned by means of a focussing lens which pops out of the viewfinder to help you to nail your focus. If you’re shooting at widest aperture, you’re going to be wanting this little fellow out a lot.
The Yashicamat has a built in light meter, operated by the famed (and now unavailable) PX625 mercury oxide battery. If you use the meter for shooting negative film, just use the modern px625 equivalent and err on the side of overexposure. If you’re shooting slide film, use a handheld meter like a Sekonic L508 or the more modern Sekonic L758, which can also be used for digital photography. Both are readily available on the used market, and robustly built so will last many years’ service.
Image quality, as you might expect from a MF fixed lens camera, is extremely good. The lens is sharp, and the 6×6 negative is significant amount of image capture real estate to produce a very high level of detail. See the gallery for example photos taken with the ‘mat
Ok, so we’ve established the camera has a lot going for it, it is cheap (under $200, or £200 for a good quality example) thanks to a plentiful supply on the used market, and rock solid build quality. The camera takes amazing photos and is compact for the image quality. What’s not so good?
This camera is all metal, and built like a tank. If you’re going to be carrying one of these around, you are going to need a strap, and if you don’t want blood blisters on your shoulder get a nice soft (and wide) leather or neoprene strap to take the load off.
Knowing that you’re not going to get what you are seeing through your beautiful f2.8 viewfinder in your final image (which will be f3.5), really hurts. Suck it up and save for a Rolleiflex f2.8. Save £100 a month, and you only need wait a year.
3. Waist Level Finder
Many MF cameras have WLV, but they also have options for something else, the TLR not so much. It makes the camera stealthy and gives you a different perspective from which to take photos, but whether you like it or not will be down to your experience and your preference in framing and composing your shots.
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Here are some of my favourite photos taken with the Yashicamat 124G. This is a mixture of slide and negative film. If you want to see the full size example photo click on the thumbnail.
You can buy good used examples of this very capable camera on eBay UK, eBay USA, or equally you might find a decent example in good local camera shops. Frequently comes with a nice hard case with red velvet interior lining.
If you’re not sure whether you like it, you can always sell it in six months for the same amount you paid for it. A highly recommended first foray into Medium Format film photography.
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Also published on Medium.