Yashica TLR – an introduction
A great video introduction to Yashica TLR
Some of my Yashica TLR Collection for sale:
Yashica Mat 124G: Women and Dreams
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The Yashica Mat shoots 6x6cm negatives, which has the pleasant side-effect of making the photographs look like album covers, viz:
“Wir fahren fahren fahren auf der Autobahn” indeed. Square images are hardcore, although in practice there’s no reason why you can’t crop them down to taste. You have plenty of negative to work with. Still, I find that after having composed the square image through the Mat’s square viewfinder, it looks better if I leave it square.
Square format was long a hallmark of Swedish medium format giant Hasselblad, although with a very few exceptions the company’s modern digital sensors have a 4×3 aspect ratio. Nowadays, for most people, square equals Instagram equals real photography.
Medium format is a mysterious world. “If you have to ask, you’re in the wrong department”, that kind of world. Historically there were several different medium format formats, although they all used 120 film, with different framing.
Why was it called 120? I always assumed it was because you could take twelve shots at 6×6, but in practice the number was just arbitrary; Kodak plucked numbers from thin air. Throughout the 20th Century the company also sold 110, 116, 616, 120, 126, 127, 135, 220, 620, and 828 film, and none of those numbers meant anything either. Nowadays Kodak still sells 120 and 135 – the standard 35mm format – but for how much longer, eh?
Hasselblad cameras shot 6x6cm negatives, and so did Rollei TLRs and indeed most TLRs in general. Bronica, Pentax, Contax, and Mamiya used a 6×4.5cm format, which was called645. This was the most popular medium format of all, striking a good balance between a large negative, economical use of film, and relatively compact bodies. Furthermore the 4:3 aspect ratio was much closer to a magazine page or an 8×10″ print than square format. I’m not sure why I keep saying was, because 645 survives to this day as the standard digital medium format format. Back in the 2000s Kodak made a square format sensor that went into the Kodak DCS Pro Back and the early Hasselblad CFV models, but if you walk of your local Phase One showroom with a digital back nowadays, it will be a 645 digital back.
It’s worth pointing out that Kodak’s square sensor wasn’t actually 6x6cm; it was 3.6×3.6cm and had a 1.5x cropping factor. As far as I know the only 6x6cm medium format digital camera was the Dicomed Big Shot, from way back in 1996, although it was a cumbersome beast designed for tethered studio shooting. As I write these words there’s one on eBay for £2,500, from Hong Kong, untested. You’d no doubt need a 1996 Apple Macintosh as well.
Still, some Pentaxes and Mamiyas shot 6x7cm negatives, and there were even 6×9 cameras, which squeezed eight large shots onto a roll of 120. 6×9 had a split personality. On the one hand there were tough professional 6×9 cameras such as the Polaroid 600 and the Fuji GW690 – the “Texas Leica”, so called because it resembled a Leica that had been pumped full of beef – and on the other hand, the format was common in low-end cameras such as the Agfa Clack, the idea being that the negative was so large that frugal holidaymakers could simply have contact prints made up, rather than paying for enlargements.
Moving into the realm of the esoteric, there were also 6×12 and 6×17 panoramic cameras, such as the Fuji GX617, which still fetches a fortune on eBay. In the right hands these can produce stunning images, and in the wrong hands they can produce boring dross, just like any camera. Also, look at this stupid-looking man. If the internet is to be believed – and I have no reason to doubt it – these cameras are only capable of taking photographs of (a) beaches at sunset (b) the Grand Canyon (c) leaves. Which gets boring after a while. Guys, you can stop now.
Still, have a look at this cropping guide:
That’s a full 6x6cm frame, shot with a Yashica Mat 124G. The yellow box represents the largest 8×10″ crop you can make from this negative, although there’s no reason why you have to include the full height of the frame.
The red box is the same relative size as a 35mm negative, 36x24mm. Put another way, you can crop down that much and still have 35mm quality. Incidentally, if you could somehow stick the Yashica Mat’s 80mm f/3.5 lens on a full-frame digital SLR – and assuming you left the camera in the same spot – that red box is what you would see. You’d have a slow 80mm short telephoto with, presumably, very consistent image quality across the frame, on account of the huge image circle.
With the exception of the cropping example, all the shots on this page were taken with Kodak Ektachrome, indeed they’re all from the same roll. With 6×6 medium format on standard 120 you get twelve shots, which seems ridiculous in a digital age; even at 21mp my 5D MkII can store hundreds of images on a 16gb memory card. A card that costs less than a five-pack of 120 film, that has no processing costs, and can be reused over and over again.
But, knowing that each image is costing more than a pound, and shooting on a tripod, I find that my strike rate has zoomed up. If the image doesn’t look good in the Mat’s preview screen, I don’t take the shot. And I’m not going to go the trouble of setting up the tripod and the camera just so I can unset it the fuck down again, so I’ve had to raise my game.
In theory I don’t need a Yashica Mat to raise my game. I could carry around a digital camera, and just hit myself on the face with a wet fish every time I take a bad picture. But in practice I’m not going to do that. Because I can’t be trusted. I know me.
The Mat, like most TLRs, can in theory be used handheld. Some people have no trouble with this. In practice I find that the reversed viewfinder and the odd controls confound me. Furthermore, I scout out the world from a height of just under six feet – which is where my eyes are – but the Mat is designed to shoot from waist-height.* So I use a tripod, like this chap here. As the man points out, the Mat has little feet, and so if you don’t have a tripod you can always rest it on a flat surface. It’s not too heavy for a Gorillapod, either. The camera is large, but mostly hollow, like the work of Béla Tarr, haha.
*PROTIP: Because you’re shooting square, if you want to compose and focus at eye level without using the useless sports finder, just hold the camera sideways! Turn your body so that the subject is ninety degrees to your left, bring the camera up to your face so that it’s ninety degrees from the horizontal – with the lenses pointing at the subject – and shoot. No, imagine that the camera is a glass of beer, and you’re really thirsty, and you want to photograph someone at the same time. So, just drink the beer and stand at right angles to the subject. Press the shutter. With the beer.
Look, it’s easier to watch than to describe. Unlike the work of Béla Tarr, haha.
As before, I used a Fuji S3 as a portable lightmeter / preview back. Here’s the S3’s rendition of a shot near the top of the article, processed to look a bit like Ektachrome:
Although I shot it at the same aperture – f/4 – and the same spot, the depth of field is much wider, because I’m using a smaller format. To get that field of view I shot at 30mm, rather than 80mm, although it’s complicated by the fact that I’ve cropped this square. The perspective is also slightly different, because I shot it from eye-level rather than waist-height. I have to assume that children or little people would use a TLR at about mid-thigh-height, and babies might as well just rest it on the ground.
There’s a whole industry of Photoshop plugins that apply different film looks to digital files, which will no doubt breed a future race of photographers who speak of the Ektachrome look and so forth, when in reality they’re waxing nostalgic for a simulation, a false memory. I’m reminded of this discussion here, in which a professional director of photography asks his peers how to recreate the Kodachrome look, before going on to describe something that doesn’t sound like Kodachrome at all, but an idea of what it might have been, based on the evocative name. An idea of a simulation designed to evoke a mood.
Shooting Nature with the Yashica Mat 124G
Getting Started Without Spending Big Bucks
If you are reading this, you already know photography is an expensive hobby. We spend thousands of dollars on the equipment we need for capturing the light at that decisive moment. But you can get started at this nature photography habit without selling your car. Most people start with a simple 35mm rig, then build a few lenses and accessories around whichever system they have chosen. See“What Camera Should I Buy?” on this forum for more information.
So how do you get started on the cheap? Check out the photo.net classifieds or other web sites. One good source of information, which I discovered through photo.net, is the Medium Format Digest.Reading the postings of people who used Yashica Mat 124G cameras prompted me to add this to my short list of necessary equipment.
I wanted a larger original than my Canon EOS system gave me, but could not afford to lay out several thousand dollars for a Bronica, Hassleblad, Pentax or Rollei. When I found an excellent Yashica Mat at Adolph Gasser’s in San Francisco a few months ago I decided to take the plunge. One roll of Ektachrome 100SW later I was hooked. But this was just a test roll shot in a local park, to make sure the shutter speeds and apertures were working. The true test would come two weeks later on a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In the Field
Still being uncomfortable spending the money for slide film for such an old camera, I brought the EOS along to shoot Ektachrome and loaded the Yashica Mat with Kodak Ektar 25. My son and I spent a long weekend near Kennedy Meadow, taking scenic photos along Highway 108, where it parallels Deadman Creek, and up to Sonora Pass. Looking down at the ground glass, and interpreting a reversed image, helped me concentrate more on composition than I did when peering through the tiny viewfinder of my Elan II. The Yashica Mat does not have a bright viewfinder image, especially when compared with a Rollei TLR, but I found that by flipping up the magnifier I could easily compose and focus even in low light.
I shot one entire roll using some rocks in the foreground to test the corner sharpness, with water rushing over rocks in the middle and upper portions of the image for visual impact. When I went to the lab a few days later I was pleased to see the rocks in the lower corners were indeed sharp. And the complete lack of grain and added tonal scale made 35mm enlargements look, well, grainy and dull.
The next test came on a trip to the Bristlecone Pine National Forest, just north of Death Valley in California’s White Mountains, and Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. I carried both systems again, but this time brought slide film for the Yashica Mat and Kodak Royal Gold 25 for the Canon. The slides were a mixture of Fujichrome Velvia, and Agfachrome RSX 50, 100 and 200. A friend who shoots fashion photography sent me six rolls of the Agfachrome to test. You gotta love being someone else’s guinea pig.
I followed my usual procedure on this trip, dragging my son around all afternoon, searching for interesting scenes and checking my compass to make sure the morning light would shine on the particular tree I spied. When my alarm went off at 4 a.m., I crawled out of my sleeping into the cold morning, left my son sleeping in his tent and drove back to the target tree to wait for sunrise. Because I hadn’t bought a light meter, I used to Elan II to meter the light, mounted the Yashica Mat on my tripod and shot a few frames at first light, then mounted the Elan II and shot a few more frames, just in case. I waited a bit for stronger light, but another tree started casting a shadow on my tree of choice, so I moved in closer and took some close-up shots on the twisted tree trunk. These came out especially well.
By the way, the Yashica Mat 124G does have a light meter. However, I have found the meter in the Canon EOS Elan II is extremely accurate, and the meter in my Yashica Mat reads two stops slower than the Elan II meter. Using the Elan II as a light meter is tedious unless I have both cameras loaded with the same speed film, but it does work very well when I keep my mind on what I’m doing. That is not always easy with an 11-year-old along asking me to check the framing in his Konica point and shoot all the time.
It Ain’t the Toys, It’s How You Play with Them
After a few days in the Bristlecone Pine Forest, we headed east across Nevada to Great Basin National Park. (Tip: get there in the fall after the aspens have changed color. I plan to go back.) Four days in Great Basin yielded excellent shots with both systems, but a few with the Yashica turned out just as I had envisioned.
My son decided to accompany me on one early morning shoot the second day in Great Basin. We hiked up to Teresa Lake before sunrise, and waited. Snow-covered Wheeler Peak reflected in the almost calm water, ruffled only by a slight breeze. I shot a few 28mm frames with the Canon so I could get the reflection and the peak on the negative, then switched to the Yashica Mat. The 80mm lens couldn’t get the whole scene in the viewfinder, so I moved a little closer, focused on rocks under the water and stopped down to f/32 to get the reflection sharp. These are some of the best shots of the trip. Sometimes having limited equipment forces you to look for different perspectives. Limitation or advantage? Depends on your attitude.
Upon returning to California Monday afternoon, weather prevented us from our planned backpacking excursion into the Ansel Adams Wilderness south of Yosemite National Park. (We were not prepared for snow in July.), so we headed back to the Bristlecone Pine National Forest. The snow in the Sierras turned to rain 30 miles across the Owens Valley in the White Mountains. We grabbed what little sun there was to try and capture the wet bristlecone pines, but there wasn’t enough light to get many images. On Thursday the clouds broke, and we got some excellent shots with beautiful, fluffy clouds in the sky. Again, I shot both systems on almost every scene.
Because Bay 1 filters are hard to find these days, I held a circular polarizer over the Yashica Mat’s taking lens, making sure to orient it the same way as the polarizer over the Canon lens, so my light reading would be similar. How did this work? Quite well. The only difficulty came from trying to remember to calculate the differences between the film speeds in the Canon and the Yashica Mat, and the three frames I blew when I metered with the polarizer on the Canon and forgot to put the polarizer over the Yashica Mat. That’s why I have a used light meter on the way. Oh well, at least it wasn’t 4×5 film.
Comparisons and Conclusions
How do the images compare? The Yashica Mat seems to be as sharp and contrasty as the Canon 50/1.8 prime lens, and noticeably sharper than the Tamron 28-200 zoom my wife insisted I buy. These aren’t scientific measurements (I’ll leave that to Bob, if he ever wants to do some), but impressions gained from comparing slides through an 8x loupe. The larger original image size is a decided advantage when enlarging, but the Canon is much more versatile with its excellent range of interchangeable lenses.
Looking over the images after returning home, I concluded the image quality in medium format is definitely better than 35mm. And in some instances not being able to change lenses made me think more about how to shoot a scene, and I got better photos than I would have with interchangeable lenses. In other instances, putting a wider or longer lens on the Canon allowed me to change the perspective to a more pleasing composition.
This is all part of the process of learning to shoot landscapes, and gives me more motivation to buy a medium format or large format system with interchangeable lenses, give the Canon and the Tamron to my wife and let my son have the Yashica Mat. First, though, I’m getting a good, used light meter. The Yashica Mat gave me some very good slides in both locations, including some beautiful evening images of Wheeler Peak above Stella Lake in Great Basin. Close ups of the bristlecone pines show much more detail in the larger format. But the best image of the trip came out of the Canon, using that cheap zoom at its 28mm setting. It’s one I shot the first day, of a lone bristlecone pine against some red clouds at first light, with the snow-covered Sierra Nevadas in the background.
The Yashica Mat hasn’t been perfect. I started having problems with it during the trip.About every other roll the camera would not advance past the first frame until I double exposed that frame, the it would behave. Gasser’s has the camera in their shop as I write this, repairing it under their 90-day used equipment warranty. I’ll update this article after they return the camera.
Overall, though, this is a good entry-level medium format setup. With a little research and patience, you can find an excellent Yashica Mat 124G for $150 to $300, a light meter for $50 or so (unless you want to go ahead a get a new one), and a used tripod for $50. Total investment, for me, is about $400 including the camera, light meter and tripod. This will get me by until I can start building a better system. It’s cheap, the image quality is very good, and the weight is low.
Yashica Mat 124G Basic Specs
- Twin-Lens Reflex camera
- 6×6 cm square format
- 80mm f/3.5 taking lens
- Flash synch at all speeds
- Film Advance via Winding Crank
- Uses Bay 1 filters
- Accepts 120 or 220 film
[If you like this blog, please take a few seconds to take a look of the ads below. Thank you. TLRgraphy will continuously collect the best information about twin-lens reflex cameras]