Let me be clear; I love the film camera community. I’ve got nothing but love for people who dedicate their time and effort to keeping film alive. But on occasion, the community can get a bit out of hand.
Take for instance the infamous Yashica T series. In the space of a few years, these cameras have risen from little-known sleeper cameras to being the very symbols of the social film camera community. And I don’t say that kindly. A decent lens, a pretty small form factor, and the exploitative shooting style of a certain unnamed photographer has elevated the reputation of the T4, especially, from a camera most photographers would shrug over, to a camera that every new shooter just has to own. The only thing more bloated than the hype is the camera’s now-ridiculous market value of approximately $450 USD.
It could even be argued that the T4’s scarcity, combined with its similarity to other prime-lensed point-and-shoots from the late 1990s, has caused the entire genre to experience a spike in value. Prices for the cameras like The Olympus Stylus Epic and the Konica Big Mini skyrocketed as the market for compact cameras started to go haywire. But perhaps the most unfortunate collateral damage from the compact camera gold rush can be seen in the Yashica T4 Zoom.
The Yashica T4 Zoom’s close association with the infamous T4 means that it has tragically inherited the reputation (and price tag) of that camera. As a result, this camera’s almost always dismissed as a slower, sub-par T4. But is this fair to this stepchild of the T-family?
To understand the plight of the T4 Zoom, we must first start with its family history. The Yashica T-series was a series of high-end point-and-shoot cameras manufactured by Yashica from the mid ‘80s to the late ’90s which featured, among other things, Carl Zeiss T* lenses. With some of the best glass in the industry, the T-series quickly gained a stellar reputation among avid compact camera shooters (and soccer moms). At the height of the T-series’ popularity in the mid 1990s, Kyocera, Yashica’s parent company, decided to capitalize on the era’s obsession with zoom lensed compact cameras and engineered a zoom-lensed version of the popular T4. Thus, the Yashica T4 Zoom was born.
Though most of these “premium compacts” look a bit samey, the T4 Zoom is, at least on paper, an improvement on other zoom-lensed compact camera fare. The normal features are present; it’s an autofocus, autoexposure-only camera, features a built-in flash, and can read DX-coded film from ISO 50-3200. Its shutter ranges from an admittedly sluggish 1/360th of a second to two seconds, but is bolstered by a convenient exposure compensation button which can toggle between +1.5 EV and -1.5 EV. Where the T4 Zoom begins to inch away from the pack is in all its extra bells and whistles. Its viewfinder zooms in along with the lens and features a -3 to +1 diopter. It also features an incredibly handy infinity focus lock for easy landscape shooting, compatibility with an external wireless remote, and a bulb mode for long exposures.
Where T4 Zoom really trounces the competition is in the quality of its construction. Instead of flimsy plastic, as seen on the Olympus Stylus series, the T4 Zoom is encased in durable, lightweight aluminum. Even with the admittedly cheesy faux chrome buttons, the T4 Zoom feels a cut above its contemporaries. Its buttons operate with an easy positivity, and its two-stage shutter button depresses with a satisfying click.
Things start to get a little shaky when we address the centerpiece of the T4 zoom, its Carl Zeiss T* 28-70mm f/4.5-f/8 Vario-Tessar zoom lens. Though the lens’ zoom range of 28-70mm is incredibly useful, it’s hamstrung by its sluggish maximum aperture of of f/4.5 at the widest end, and a glacial f/8 at the long end. Considering this, it makes sense that the camera would be nearly universally judged as inferior to its prime-lensed brother.
This established wisdom meant that the first time I shot the T4 Zoom, I expected to be disappointed. I prefer using fast, fixed-focal-length lenses and shooting in natural light, and subsequently have developed a Pavlovian aversion to lenses slower than f/2.8. Add that to my distaste for over-hyped compacts (even though I seem to love reviewing the damn things) and the T4 Zoom seemed destined to be a dud.
But quite the opposite happened. Against all odds, the T4 Zoom became one of my favorite compact cameras, and in my opinion one of the best compacts around, especially for casual shooters.
Though the T4 Zoom is undeniably hindered by its sluggish lens, its healthy range of 28-70mm more than makes up for it. What’s more, the T4 Zoom makes sure to emphasize its usefulness by breaking the zoom down into steps which correspond to 28, 40, 50, 60, and 70mm. This encourages shooters to think of this single zoom lens as if it might be five different lenses, and fosters thoughtful usage of each focal length.
Out in the field, the method proved effective. I stopped thinking about zooming and started thinking more about choosing a specific focal length. If I needed the 28 for a wider shot, it was there. If I needed the 50 for a more lifelike look, it was there. And if I needed a 70 for some perspective compression, that was there too. This may seem like a lot of hoopla about a zoom lens, but its convenience can’t be understated. Most of us die-hard film shooters often have to settle for carrying around a bunch of lenses or one huge, not-so-great zoom lens to cover all of our shooting needs, but the T4 Zoom accomplishes all of that in an extremely sleek form.
The camera’s many added features also serve to bolster the capabilities of this tiny camera. Its exposure compensation allows for some in-camera image tweaking, the infinity focus lock provides an easy way to shoot landscapes, and the bulb mode allows for some fun experimentation with long-exposure. Combine this with the versatility offered by the zoom and the T4 Zoom seems a worthy sidekick for virtually every shooter.
There’s still one feature left to talk about, and it’s possibly the biggest and most controversial feature – its Zeiss lens. For those whom much is given, much is expected, and so it is with with the T4 Zoom’s Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar. Some might dismiss this lens as the bastard child of the T-series’ Tessar lenses, but in my experience, the lens performs just as beautifully as any comparably specced Zeiss lens.
The Vario-Tessar retains remarkable sharpness throughout its entire zoom range, no small feat for any zoom lens. Every focal length proves to be just as capable as any prime lens, the only caveat being a lack of shallow depth-of-field due to the sluggishness of its aperture. While the lens doesn’t quite match the Tessars of the fixed focal length T’s, I’d be hard pressed to say I was disappointed with any of the images this camera gave me.
All in all, the Yashica T4 Zoom is a wonderful camera that’s capable of handling a surprising range of shooting situations. It’s a perfect camera for anybody looking for a versatile backup camera to compliment their existing SLR or rangefinder setup. It’s a joy to shoot and is capable of some incredible images. That being said, there is one enormous problem with this camera, one I alluded to at the very beginning of this review – the price.
In a tragic twist of fate, the Yashica T4 Zoom became a victim of the hype surrounding its immediate family. At the time of this article’s publication, a mint Yashica T4 Zoom will cost right around $300 USD. Granted, that isn’t as high at the T4’s price tag, but $300 is still an absolutely insane price for a zoom-lensed point-and-shoot from the ‘90s, especially when the similar performer from Olympus costs around $45. And it’s a shame that we have to mar this review with caveats of price, especially when that price is being inflated by a completely different camera, the T4. After all, the T4 Zoom wasn’t shot by some popular creep, or paraded around Instagram like Lady Godiva. It was simply a victim of circumstance, collateral damage from the roiling internet hype machine shining the spotlight on its sister model.
It’s a shame that the Zoom’s price will prevent the average photo geek from trying one out. It’s a delightful camera, and one that’s perfect for both the beginner and the seasoned vet. My advice? If you happen to catch this camera hiding out at a thrift store or a garage sale for cheap, take it and run. And please, for the love of God, don’t tell anybody about it.