1 May 2017

Yashica-A TLR camera

My newest thrift-store find is this Twin Lens Reflex camera from the '50s.

By In Gear, Photography 6 min read

My camera collection has been growing steadily the past few years. I make it a point of checking all the thrift stores I encounter to see if they’ve got anything cool that hasn’t been snapped up yet. Since film cameras have been gaining popularity again it is a bit harder to find the really cool stuff, and prices have steadily been increasing, but you can still find some diamonds in the rough. Like my newest purchase!


A Yashica TLR! I’d been looking for a TLR, a Twin Lens Reflex camera, for a while now. But I’d been assuming that I’d have to do my research, figure out what I want, and start hunting them down on eBay or other auction sites. I did not expect to simply find one in the store window of a thrift shop, the price tag saying ’25 euro’. So this was a pretty simple impulse buy!


TLR camera’s are distinct because of their double lensed design, something we haven’t seen in a modern camera for decades. This very functional concept, not particularly influenced by modern ergonomics, was originally conceived in the late 19th century. The two lenses are identical, but one – the viewing lens – is meant to show you what you’ll be photographing, so through the viewfinder you can compose your shot. The second lens – the taking lens – actually takes the photograph.


Before the TLR was invented it wasn’t possible to both visualize your photograph and take it at the same time. The TLR would later be replaced by the SLR – the Single Lens Reflex – which uses a single lens but makes use of a mirror to divert the view to either your viewfinder or to the photographic film. But for its time the TLR was a huge innovation. The technology got mass-market appeal when Rollei introduced the Rolleiflex in the ’20s and introduced a handheld form factor that would be copied for decades to come.


And that’s how we get to Yashica. From the start of the ’50s they built affordable Rollei clones, and from the end of that decade they got a reputation for actually making good products. They had a TLR for every budget, making sure you get the most bang for your buck in every segment. The Yashica I picked up is the Yashica-A, produced in februari of 1958 according to the serial number. The Yashica-A was the budget model from a product line that also featured the Yashica-B, -C and -D – naming really wasn’t their strong suit. The -A model was barebones, with the cheapest lens from the line-up and no accessories like lightmeters. This means -A models aren’t very popular now, as most modern photographers prefer to have some more features in their camera. The most premium, fully-featured Yashica TLR, the Mat-124G, is a favorite of collectors all over the world.


The thing every newcomer to TLRs needs to get used to is the WLF or waist-level finder, a viewfinder that you don’t bring up to your eyes. Instead, you hold the camera at waist- or chest-height and look down into the top of the camera. The ground glass on top is where the viewing lens projects your view of the scene. The nice thing about the WLF is that it gives you a huge preview of your photograph, bigger even than the digital LCD screen that are on the back of modern digital cameras these days!


Because the WLF works by using a mirror to project the view from the viewing lens, left and right are reversed in your view. This is extremely confusing at first, because when you compensate to change the composition by moving to the right, your view will instead move to the left. You get used to it soon enough, but it can be frustrating for newcomers – like me.


Are you used to zooming in on the screen of your modern digital camera to see if your subject was tack sharp? Good news: there’s an analogue equivalent to this that’s been around for more than a century now – there’s a magnifier hidden inside the top lid. Pop it out and it sits on top of your viewfinder, letting you see if you’re nailing focus.


Apart from getting used to the strange new viewfinder, operating the camera is fairly simple. You focus with a knob on the right-hand side of the camera. Turn it and the lenses move forward or backwards, changing your focus. Because the lenses are moved identically the viewfinder will always show you what will be in focus in your final photograph.


A lever on the taking lens sets the aperture of the lens, while you twist a ring to set the corresponding shutter speed. A lever on top of the taking lens cocks the shutter, preparing your camera to take a photograph. One press on the shutter release button, in the bottom corner of the camera, and you’ve got your picture.


This models doesn’t advance your film for you automatically. To make sure you don’t accidentally expose the same film twice, you should immediately advance your film to the next shot by hand. You do this by turning the smaller knob on the right until you see the next number appear in the frame-counter on the back of the camera. On the other hand, if you’re into multiple exposure photography, this makes it very simple to do without any hacks. Just don’t advance the film until you’re happy with the shots you’ve combined.


Like most TLRs the Yashica-A uses medium or 120-format roll-film. It’s a bigger type of film negative than your normal 35mm rolls, and results in a big square 6x6cm negative. There’s room for 12 such squares on the roll, which may be somewhat limiting if you’re used to the 36 shots on a 35mm roll. But the bigger negative means more detail and the ability to enlarge your pictures to far bigger sizes than possible with 35mm film.

Another difference between 35mm and 120? While 35mm comes in a light-tight canister that can also hold the exposed film for easy transport to a film lab, 120 is simply wound onto a spool. The exposed film is protected with a layer of opaque backing paper, but if you’re not careful you can easily unwind the film as you’re pulling it from the camera and ruin all your shots. So care must be taken when I remove a finished roll of film from the Yashica-A.


All in all, a pretty oldschool affair – but that just makes it even more cool. You can still easily get 120 film online and in specialty photography stores, though it’s no longer available in mainstream department stores. I just bought 2 rolls and am going to experiment with the camera for the next few weeks – looking forward to it!

(Original post in Dutch)

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