Is the Yashica Electro the best deal in rangefinder photography?
by Ricky Opaterny
Eight years ago, I shot with a Leica for the first time and immediately found the experience to be photographically unparalleled. Although I longed for an M7, my budget at the time could only accommodate a used R body, an old 50mm Summicron-R lens, and an even older 28mm Elmarit. Nearly seven years later in 2010, my budget still was not really a match for an M7, but I decided to get one, anyway, along with a 50mm Summicron-M in a deal that was too good to pass up.
Oftentimes, online discussion of camera gear frames the equipment as a tool to accomplish an objective, the instrument used to realize a vision. And while that is true, I find that much of photography for me is about the experience of taking photos, and the gear you use can make that experience more or less enjoyable‚ more or less inspired, more or less memorable. There are few regular experiences in life that I find more enjoyable than that of looking through the viewfinder of my M7 and hearing the kiss of the shutter release.
So, why would I ever bother with another camera, especially one made with a darker viewfinder and focusing patch, a comparatively inferior fixed lens, and an aperture priority system that doesn’t even let you know what shutter speed you’re using without full manual controls that requires a battery no longer produced? Why would I get a camera from a seller who couldn’t even tell me if it worked? Why, in short, would I bother buying a Yashica Electro 35?
There are two reasons: 1) I found the sample images I saw online be excellent for a $20 camera and 2) How can you possibly go wrong on a $20 camera with a 45mm f/1.7 lens that isn’t completely awful? Yes, f/1.7 in Leica terms is halfway between a Summnicron and a Summilux. A Summicrux, perhaps?
(I should note that there are several old, film rangefinders available with nice, fast, prime lenses. These include, among several others, the Canon Canonet QL17, the Konica Auto S2, and the Yashica IC Lynx 14E.)
The Yashica Electro 35 rangefinder comes in four different variations: the GS, the GSN, the GT, and the GTN. The differences between these cameras, produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s include color‚ black vs. chrome‚ and hot shoe vs. without hot shoe. But with an f/1.7 lens, you shouldn’t worry about having a flash, and the differences between the variations are negligible.
Obtaining a Yashica Electro seems to be no problem; there are several available on eBay at all times. Finding one that works, however, is slightly, but not much, more difficult. Because the Yashica takes a mercury battery that is no longer made, most sellers are unable to test the function of the meters on these cameras. Fortunately, my friends and I have purchased five of these cameras and three of them had meters that worked out of the box. Two of them required minor repairs.
To test a camera, you first need a six-volt battery, because the original battery was longer than this six-volt battery, you’ll need something to conduct electricity from the battery to the contacts. An elegant solution is this battery adapter. You get two for $9.49. If you want to spend next to nothing, make a cylinder out of aluminum foil and use it to connect the battery to the contact.
The most common problem with these cameras is corrosion on the contacts. Use a Q-Tip with vinegar to clean them. The other problem we encountered involved a wire from the battery compartment whose connection to the circuit board had broken‚ nothing a little soldering couldn’t fix.
Once you have the meter working, even if it requires no work, you may want to remove the top plate, anyway, to clean out the viewfinder windows. Removing the top plate is also the first step to any wiring repairs that the camera may need. The Yashica Guy site contains for this procedure and several other common repairs.
I said this camera was cheap, not easy. However, based on our small sample, the odds are that your camera won’t require any work at all. So, let’s move on to the features.
I mentioned the 45mm f/1.7 Yashinon lens, which is excellent for the cost. It has an aperture ring that goes from f/1.7 to f/2.0 and then in full stops to f/16. Of course, there is a focusing ring and depth of field scale. The minimum focusing distance is 0.8 meters, or about 2.6 feet. There’s also a mode dial to switch between automatic aperture priority mode, bulb mode, and flash sync mode.
There is no manual mode. Most of your time will be spent in aperture priority mode. You set the aperture on the lens and the camera picks the shutter speed automatically based on the aperture, meter reading, and ISO setting. You can set the ISO from 25 to 1000, and the ISO dial also provides a way, albeit an inelegant one, to compensate for the meter reading.
The shutter is a wonderful, stepless, quiet leaf shutter whose sound some of you might even prefer to those on your fancier cameras. It maxes out at 1/500 second at the fast end and can deliver shutter speeds up to four minutes long at f/16 at the slow end.
On the top of the camera, you’ll find two lights that correspond to two equivalent lights in the viewfinder. One is labeled “slow,” which means that the lighting conditions require a shutter speed below 1/30 of a second. It’s just a warning for you, if you’re handholding the camera. The other light is labeled “over,” which, predictably means the metered shutter speed is faster than 1/500 second. You can still shoot at 1/500 second, but the camera is warning you that you may be overexposing the shot.
SLR users are used to being able to see metering information in the LCD displays on the top of their camera bodies, but this is a foreign concept to users of M-mount rangefinders, who bring their cameras to their eyes to get a meter reading. That is, unless you’re using an external or hotshoe-mounted meter, such as the Leica Meter MR.
This is a feature I thought useless at first but now find convenient. I can check to make sure I’m within the correct aperture range for a given lighting condition without raising the camera to my eye. So, when I see a scene that I want to capture and bring my camera to my eye, all I need to do is focus, frame, and release the shutter.
As for the rangefinder, it’s not as bright as one on a Leica, but it’s also not too bad. Focusing is very easy in a yellow diamond, split-image focusing patch in the center of the viewfinder. Out of all the Yashicas I’ve tried, not one had a misaligned focusing patch. The 45mm bright lines are bright and the viewfinder’s magnification, I would guess, is around 0.8x.
I tried to take a photo through the viewfinder. It did not work out so well, but you can see that the frame lines are bright.
Film loads normally and easily after you open the back door and rewinds via a release on the bottom and a standard rewind knob on the top of the body. This all sounds fine, but the real questions are: What is it like to use this camera? And what kind of results does it produce?
It took a while to get used to the limited shutter speed range. I always seem to want to shoot at f/4 or f/5.6, but I often found myself having to shoot at f/11 with this camera, especially at ISO 400.
The first roll I shot was Kodak Ektar 100, which requires fairly precise metering, close to that required by a slide film. I’m happy to report that the Yashica’s meter did an excellent job. Sure, there were some backlit situations that it misread, but that’s a mistake that almost any meter would make‚Äîcertainly any simple, reflective non-TTL meter like the one in the Yashica.
Headlands Center for the Arts
Headlands Center for the Arts
Framing with the viewfinder is accurate‚ it’s parallax corrected and focusing poses no problems for anyone who is used to handling a rangefinder camera. Coincidence is not difficult to spot. Even at f/1.7 and close distances, I found the rangefinder alignment to be accurate. If I missed focus on any of the shots, it was my own error that caused it. Have I mentioned how quiet the shutter is? I have. Nonetheless, it is very, very quiet. My only complaint is that it’s too easy to accidentally fire the shutter when you’re just trying to activate the meter.
Bokeh at f/1.7
Bokeh at f/1.7. The lens becomes noticeably sharper at f/2.8.
The lens, which was the main attraction of this camera, performs quite well. It vignettes slightly but not unattractively at all apertures. Wide open, it produces some nice bokeh. However, if you want to shoot wide open outdoors, you should probably invest in a neutral density filter. (It takes 55mm filters.) You may also want to get a hood because this lens flares easily. Unlike the vignetting, I can’t say that the flare is attractive. It often takes on the pentagon shape of the aperture. It looks as if someone drew a semi-transparent pentagon on your photo. In other words, the transition from flare to no flare is not, in any way, gradual.
One of the few times the lens flare didn’t look hideous
However, under most conditions, the lens gives a nice vintage look and a pleasing bokeh. I can’t say that the Yashica will replace my M7, but it’s certainly a fun little camera. And I’ve never carried a camera that elicited more comments from passers-by. Many people asked me what kind of a camera I was carrying. One man told me he had just bought one for himself. A woman at one of the trendiest restaurants in the city asked me, “Is that a Yashica? My father gave me one of those. It takes great pictures!”
Even if it’s not a conversation starter, changing equipment for a day can be inspiring or at least compel you to just go out shoot. I don’t know of a camera with a better quality to price ratio than the Yashica Electro with which to do so.
Ricky Opaterny is a writer who dabbles in photography in Paris, San Francisco, and New York. He occasionally maintains a blog, a photo blog, and a collection of things he likes, many of which are related to photography. He collected some photos from France in a book.