Thoughts on the Yashica Mat 124G

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It’s been a couple of years now since I started using film cameras again and I have become quite attached to two of them in particular. I’ve written about the Zorki 4 rangefinder here before and if anything I’m more impressed with that now than I was back then, in the excitement of shooting my first roll of film in a decade. The Zorki–and its Jupiter 8 lens–is a great carry around camera that works really well in the street, but for a slower style of photography I’ve taken to using a Yashica Mat 124G. This is a black brick-shaped hunk of metal from the early 1980s which produces square negatives on medium format 120 film and makes images with fine detail and beautiful, smooth, out of focus areas.

Where the Zorki is a crude but effective tool, the Yashica Mat is a precise and delicate instrument. That’s not to say it isn’t robust–this one is over 30 years old and works perfectly–but if I was looking for a bludgeon to whack a burglar and still be able to take pictures of the crime scene afterwards, I’d pick the Zorki. The 124G is what is known as a “Twin Lens Reflex” or “TLR” camera, because it has two lenses, one for viewing (the top one), and one for actually taking the picture (the one below). The viewfinder flips up from the top and you look down into it to frame and focus the image, which appears back to front on a piece of ground glass. There is a little magnifying glass to assist with fine focussing. It’s a very simple system and it works well, but if you want to get it right, you have to take your time. Given the cost of film and the fact that you only get twelve shots per roll, you’ll want to take your time anyway. This is the last in a long line of made-in-Japan Yashica homages to the more famous German Rolleiflex.

Shetland, Fuji Acros 100
Shetland, Fuji Acros 100

There is a real sense of occasion when using this camera. It’s theatrical in a way that most cameras are not. Back in the days when owning a car was something special, people would make a decision to “take the car out” as a treat. Using the Yashica Mat feels just like that. Being fully manual–it has its own light meter, but it’s not coupled to any settings–you have to check the light and set the aperture and shutter speed to get the correct exposure. Like making good coffee, you have to go through a process, and do it mindfully and with care. Most digital cameras can be operated one-handed, an ergonomic development we can thank for the rise of the selfie, but for the Yashica Mat you need three hands. It’s best to have it hanging round your neck or on a tripod while you set it up. Yet for all this inconvenience and fiddling around, once you get the hang of it it’s surprisingly easy and pleasant to use. All the settings can be seen looking down at the top of the camera, which is what you’ll be doing anyway while you are framing the shot, and what you see in the viewfinder is pretty much what you see when the negatives come back from the lab.

Birch Trees, Kodak Portra 400
Birch Trees, Kodak Portra 400

I had a soft spot for these kinds of cameras even before I acquired this one. My Dad had a Yashica TLR in the 1970s (a 635 I think) and I have  happy childhood memories of him in holiday clothes, head bowed into the viewfinder while we smiled and tried not to blink at the wrong time. Since I started using one myself I’m even more taken with it. As an object it really looks the part, but it is also a functional and highly effective design, with a superb, sharp 80mm f/3.5 Yashinon lens. And when you use it it makes people smile.

Portrait, Kodak Portra 400
Portrait, Kodak Portra 400
Shetland, Fuji Acros 100.
Shetland, Fuji Acros 100
Skelwith Bridge, Kodak Portra 400
Skelwith Bridge, Kodak Portra 400
Fountain, Fuji Reala 100
Fountain, Fuji Reala 100
Liverpool Docks, Ilford HP5 400
Liverpool Docks, Ilford HP5 400
Woods near Rydal, Ilford HP5 400
Woods near Rydal, Ilford HP5 400

Yashica Mat124G 2

Moby Dick in Space

Moby Dick is constantly in my thoughts these days, largely because of the Moby Dick on the Mersey project, but filmmaker Lynne Ramsey has extra-terrestrial plans for Melville’s great novel. According to The Guardian, plans are well advanced for a science fiction film adaptation:

Ramsay is writing the screenplay with Rory Kinnear, who collaborated with her on We Need to Talk About Kevin The Glasgow-born director first revealed details of the project on Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s Radio 5 Live show in October a year ago, where she said it would be shot on a low budget. “We’re taking the premise into the galaxy,” she said. “We’re creating a whole new world, and a new alien. [It’s] a very psychological piece, mainly taking place in the ship, a bit like Das Boot, so it’s quite claustrophobic. It’s another monster movie, cos the monster’s Ahab.

“It’s about this mad captain whose crazy need for revenge takes the crew to their death. I’m taking people into dark waters and you see some casualties on the way. It’s fascinating stuff because there’s so much in it.”

The Hollywood Reporter describes the film, which will be titled Mobius, as a “psychological action thriller set in deep space [in which] a captain consumed by revenge takes his crew on a death mission fueled by his own ego and will to control an enigmatic alien”.

More.

A Walk Around Liverpool’s Albert Dock

I took a walk around the Albert Dock area of Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, with my trusty Zorki 4 camera. The Albert Dock was rescued from the wrecking ball in the 1980s, but there has been a lot of development there recently too, especially around the Pier Head, from where the ferry sails. I’m hoping to make use of these images in a more concrete way in the future, but I’m enjoying the colours these old Jupiter 8 lenses seem to produce, and having fun getting to grips with a fully manual camera.

The Zorki-4 Soviet Rangefinder

Zorki-4 Soviet Rangefinder Camera

Update March 2013: I’ve been collaborating with the poet Rebecca Goss on a project using the Zorki-4 and the Jupiter-8 lens. We’ve called it the Jupiter Project.

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A couple of weeks ago I bought a Zorki-4 camera on ebay, because I wanted to see what it was like to use a rangefinder, and I don’t have the money to experiment with Leicas. I think I have been lucky with my purchase. This particular camera was made in 1968, the year I was born, but as the pictures below show, there isn’t much wrong with it. Even the slow shutter speeds seem reasonably accurate. The Jupiter-8 lens is in good shape too, but more on that later.

Zorkis were made in Moscow, starting with the Zorki-1, in 1948. The Zorki-1 was a copy of the Leica II rangefinder, from the early 1930s, and indeed if you are thinking of buying one of those, check carefully that it didn’t start out life as a Zorki. They look almost identical even before they have been modified, and you’re better off with a working Zorki-1 than a fake Leica. The Zorki-4s were made from 1956 to 1973, and were the best selling of the Zorki range. This one was made for export, and probably arrived in Britain when it was new.

Of course I am old enough to have used film cameras when there was no alternative, but what little I know about photography has mostly been learned with digital cameras. In fact if it hadn’t been for digital, I doubt I would ever have felt excitable enough about a camera to buy one of these, because I wouldn’t have spent enough time taking pictures. The Zorki has no electronics, and gives no assistance, not even a passive light meter. That was quite scary at first. The problem shifted from “How do I get this light into the camera in the way I want it?” to “How much light is there? Now what?” I downloaded a couple of light meter apps to my phone, and have also used another camera just for metering, but mostly I have used the “sunny sixteen” rule, made a guess, and worked it out for myself. The distance range on the lens, and the rangefinder way of focussing is very easy. The Zorki is a revelation.

Jupiter-8

The Jupiter-8 lens that came with this camera is a little stiff, but not in a problematic way. It’s clean and tidy, and seems to be free of scratches. One thing that has shocked me a little though is how variable it is. With modern lenses there is some slight variation in sharpness, depending on how wide the aperture is set, but for middle of the road snappers like me that doesn’t make much difference. This lens though is radically different with the aperture wide open from the way it is “stopped down”. I was pleased to get the shot below, largely because I was finding out whether the slow shutter speeds were working (they seem to be). But since it was taken indoors, the lens was wide open. Even allowing for a tiny bit of camera shake, you can see how soft the image below (taken at 1/40 second at f2) is. Not in a bad way, necessarily–maybe in a way you could use–but soft nonetheless.

Compare it with some of the outdoor shots in the slideshow below to see how sharp it can be at small apertures. A huge range.

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PS. This camera and lens cost less than a fast SD card.