TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras produce high-resolution film negatives on 120 film, without the bulk and weight of bulkier medium format and large format cameras. Though the TLR design existed prior to the arrival of the German Rolleiflex in the late 1920s, the Rolleiflex’s popularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s inspired many imitators abroad. Among these was Yashica’s Yashica-mat.
The Yashica-mat from Japan was introduced in 1957 as Yashica’s premium TLR entry, and was closely modeled after the contemporary Rolleicord. While not the company’s first camera in the twin lens format, the Yashica-Mat included such features as an improved Tessar taking lens (four elements in three groups, vs. the three elements in three groups triplet found in Yashica’s earlier cameras), a ten-blade continuously adjustable aperture, discrete control wheels for f-stop and shutter speed, and the namesake: a sturdy, foldaway film-advance lever that automatically cocks the shutter when turning over to the next frame. The ‘Mat would directly compete with Minolta’s Autocord released a few years prior, but would retain the Rollei-style focusing knob that Minolta had replaced with a unique front-mounted focus lever positioned below the lens assembly.
My World Through the Yashica-mat
By 2019 I’d already been considering my first medium format camera when my composition teacher reached out to me, letting me know that she was selling her grandfather’s gear. It felt like fate that the person I had studied with and worked for during all of my graduate studies would happen to have a Yashica-Mat for sale. I wanted a break from my SLR, and desired something that would let me concentrate on the slow and deliberate capture of Autumn colors. Fortunately for me, the previous owner kept all of his equipment in immaculate condition, but I suspect that if he were more careless it might not have mattered: the premium old-school TLRs of the 1950s and onward are wonderfully engineered regardless of where they were manufactured, and can certainly withstand a bit of abuse in the field.
In researching this article, I was surprised to find that my example was most likely produced among the very first run in 1957, as evidenced by its 80mm “Lumaxar” labelled taking and viewing lenses. It’s a contentious debate over whether or not Yashica sourced a different manufacturer when the ‘Mats of 1958 were released with “Yashinon” branded lenses, but the argument is moot except to camera historians. By all accounts there’s little discernible difference in image quality between them.
Having shot a few rolls of color negative film through September and October, I decided to challenge myself as a landscape photographer. This meant subjecting the Yashica-Mat to the hard handling that it was spared by its former owner. As a temporary escape from deep circumstantial depression, I left Northwest Ohio in the middle of November for the already-frigid Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with a five-pack of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film, hammock shelter, and a borrowed sleeping bag.
The first night was spent camping alone in Hiawatha National Forest, where I struggled to start an adequate fire and froze all night, suspended between trees, swaying in the frigid wind in my poorly insulated hammock. I broke camp well before sunrise, with the only photo to document my site being a three minute long exposure illuminated by my car’s headlights, which might have benefitted from cooking a few more minutes longer. Not allowing the rough night to discourage me, I drove an hour to the bustling metropolis of Marquette, where I found redemption walking its streets and exploring the nearby Presque Isle Park just north of town.
For the duration of the trip, the combination of slow slide film and tripod-bound Yashica-Mat felt perfect. While slide film is uniquely challenging for landscapes due to its narrow exposure latitude, I felt that Velvia was ultimately in its element, as the perpetual overcast clouds did not blowout into nothingness, and its unique saturation introduced hale and hearty color into this quiet world. Had I brought the same combination during the peak tourist season, I would probably not be so happy with how the extreme contrast and saturation of blue skies and foliage rendered.
Should you pick up a Yashica-Mat, or any vintage TLR for that matter? Well, if any part of the narrative “person gets sad, takes pictures of gloomy lake-scapes” appeals to you, then certainly! The typical 6x6cm frame caught on a TLR will yield a ton of detail for landscapes, and the workflow on these cameras lends itself to the slow work of framing, adjusting depth of field, and long-exposure (ideally with a shutter release cable – make sure to search for a Leica nipple adapter for your conventional screw-in cable release).
The square aspect ratio isn’t just useful for your inevitable upload to Instagram. It will make you more sensitive to composing shots that take advantage of layering fore-/middle-/background elements. It will force us to adhere to or break the rule of thirds. It will punish us for off-level horizons. Many generations of Yashica-Mat were produced until the mid 1980s, and while some models will have light meters (with varying accuracy in 2020), all of them should offer similar picture quality.
While this review is largely informed by keeping my TLR atop a tripod, those who are interested in portraiture and street photography should not be dissuaded from the experience. The typical 75-80mm focal length of 6x6cm medium format cameras approximates the 41-44mm range for 35mm cameras, allowing your TLR to capture with a field of view that is similar to the trendiest of rangefinders. Portrait subjects will be framed within a perspective that isn’t much wider than your bargain bin nifty-fifty, but will further benefit from the narrower depth of field and higher resolution that only a larger negative can offer. While there is a heightened aesthetic factor to these larger, ornate machines, the leaf shutter used in a TLR is far more quiet than a SLR’s swinging mirror, permitting stealthy captures in a street or gallery shooting context.
Photographers today have it easy. Whether one prefers digital or analog imaging, it’s hard to imagine that anyone remotely serious about their picture taking won’t get by with the purchase of a single camera body that accepts a range of lenses to cover a majority of photographic genres. In 2020, every digital camera is excellent, and 35mm roll film remains an incredibly versatile format. I can only speculate what it must have been like to start out decades ago, when comparison shopping meant unpacking the pros and cons of 135, 120/220, 127, and other film formats, all without the help of the internet to assist (or confuse) our decision making.
With the standardization of sensors and camera architectures, creating an image that stands out in an Instagram feed of full frame digital and film shooters requires the artistic sensitivity that can only come from practiced familiarity with one’s tools, along with careful curation of subject matter. With most expressive media, it’s common to fall into artistic ruts. Photography is a rare practice in that it’s so dependent on its tools that changing up our equipment entirely can prove a shortcut to a richer personal expression. While an extreme reaction to the SLR and rangefinder experience might be to take up large format (with the Intrepid Camera bringing this option within reach of the budget-conscious shooter), an intermediate step could be to experiment with the compact medium format cameras of the mid-20th century. And the most invigorating of these is the TLR.
TLRs change the way we see the world, and change our photography in as universal a way. The mirrored image, the thoughtful process, the contemplative compositional gymnastics that they require, all stimulate our art. Above all, the TLR is perfect for those seeking a slower process in their picture taking. For all of its relative convenience compared to larger field cameras, a Yashica-Mat simply takes longer to position and adjust its parameters than the popular automation-assisted film cameras of the 1970s and 1980s. This requires effort. But the effort is rewarded with an unusual rendering and a high resolution image achieved at an absolute bargain of a price.
My Yashica isn’t a camera that I reach for often, but its ability to resolve fine details within a wide contextual area makes it a tool that I’m grateful to have, even when compared against my capable digital outfit. When I know the shot is worth it, I’m assured when I have the Yashica-Mat on hand, and the lessons on landscape photography that I’ve learned since swinging in the forest have carried into my everyday captures with SLRs and the Sony A7III.
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