I Understand Why the Yashica Samurai Failed

1800 1013 Connor Brustofski

Say I owned a camera company in 1987. And say an employee approached me with the idea to combine the features of a point and shoot, an SLR, and the (even by then long-abandoned) half-frame format into one 35mm camera. I’d have a lot of questions. Questions like “Why?” and “Who is that for?” And then I’d say “No.” But when this very scenario happened at Kyocera, the decision-makers there asked only one question (presumably). “Can we fit it inside a taco shell?” And the Yashica Samurai was born.

After using the camera for a few months, I understand why the concept and the camera failed to catch on. The Yashica Samurai in all of its forms is defined by its camcorder-like shape. Intended for one-handed shooting, my hand fits snugly around the side and rests in a grippy alcove, with my pointer finger resting naturally on the shutter button. This is helped by the included “action grip,” a piece of rigid plastic that makes carrying the camera much easier, especially when not shooting. There’s even a notch on the opposite side of the camera where the shooting hand’s thumb is supposed to rest, although I more often found myself wrapping my thumb around the back of the camera onto the film back. There’s a nice little depression where the film window is that my thumb fit into perfectly.

One interesting quirk of the taco design is that the film runs vertically through the camera. This actually makes the Samurai shoot in landscape by default, something that’s uncommon with half-frames.

But is it fun to shoot? Simply, yes. If you grew up using camcorders (sorry Gen Z) you’ll feel right at home with the Samurai. As long as your hand reaches the shutter comfortably, you really can use this camera one-handed. Combined with its point and shoot sensibilities, the Samurai provides a noticeably liberating shooting experience for a camera of its size.

Liberating, that is, when people aren’t asking you what you’re filming. I’ve never been asked about a camera more than when carrying the Yashica Samurai. I think the ubiquity of camcorders throughout the 1990s and 2000s means that everyone has fond memories of capturing family vacations, birthdays, and the like on small tape cassettes. They see the Samurai and remember the moments from their past, frozen on magnetic tape. Upon explaining that, no, this isn’t a Sony Handycam, it’s actually a stills camera, I had more than one person balk and ask “Why?”.

That would be the first question I’d ask about the Samurai too, though as mentioned, I have more. Why is it an SLR? Why is it half-frame? Why is it so big? Thankfully nobody asked me these questions, because I wouldn’t know what to tell them.

The size, I suppose, could be chalked up to the lens. The 25-75mm f/3.5-4.3 Yashica lens is considerably larger than anything on other point and shoots, and is sharper as well. The 35-105mm equivalent focal length covers general shooting, and the aperture is faster than many point and shoots. The lens makes nice pictures, when the Autofocus isn’t getting in the way.

Though my expectations were low, informed by years of shooting point and shoot cameras from the same era as the Yashica, I was still surprised at just how bad this camera’s autofocus operates. Even in bright light, the Samurai hunted for focus for two to four seconds while screaming at me for having the nerve to try to focus on anything but a static, contrasty background. Loud, slow, and inaccurate, the Yashica Samurai’s autofocus is all of the things a real Samurai isn’t!

The nice lens and terrible autofocus system is stuffed into a body that, while strangely designed, is made of solid plastics that leave the entire thing feeling sturdy. The camera feels premium, and far outclasses most other point and shoots coming out at the time, aside from things like the original Contax T, released in 1984.

But was the Contax even the Samurai’s target? That question gets to the heart of the matter. What is the Yashica Samurai trying to do, trying to be? Who is it for?

The Yashica Samurai is a lot of things, and none of them fit perfectly with the others. It’s a premium-feeling point and shoot for discerning photographers. And it’s a half-frame camera for people who care more about stretching a dollar than making a nice image. And it’s an advanced SLR with a better-than-average lens, but it has no manual controls. And it’s meant to be used with one hand but it’s heavier and harder to travel with than any point and shoot. It’s only marginally lighter than the much better focusing autofocus SLRs of the time. Are you confused? I am.

In my opinion, adding even the most basic manual controls would have made it a more attractive option to the then-burgeoning market for high-end point and shoots. Something like the Ricoh GR1’s aperture selector dial, or even a full SLR style mode dial would have been possible on the Samurai’s left side, which is completely devoid of controls aside from the power switch. Without any control, the Samurai has the size and weight of an SLR with the features of a basic point and shoot, all combined with the lower image quality of half-frame. It’s hard to argue that that this isn’t the worst of all worlds.

Like I said, though, using the Yashica Samurai was really quite nice. I assumed the larger, premium lens would compensate for any half-frame loss of quality, and even if it didn’t fit in a bag as well as a Nikon OneTouch or any other point and shoot, carrying it around was just as easy because of the ergonomic shape and grip. I’ve carried tacos around before, I’ve even driven a car while eating them. I know how to hold this camera. Ideally, the half-frame Samurai would produce twice as many images as a comparable point and shoot without losing quality, which is an attractive elevator pitch.

By fitting two shots onto what would be one frame on a normal camera, the Samurai, and other half-frames, create diptychs. These pairs of photos enable the photographer to tell a story with two images rather than just one while simultaneously annoying the poor sap who has to do the film scanning at the local photo lab.

Thinking in terms of diptychs is an entirely new process for me, and something I would recommend everyone try, even if you don’t have a half-frame. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what are two pictures worth?

The Samurai was my trusty companion for a few weeks before I got any film developed, and despite its flaws I was ready to make it a permanent resident of my camera bag. I have an ongoing search for the perfect “bring-everywhere” camera for me, and the Samurai was fun, interesting, and felt premium. I even grew to love the cacophony of whirs and buzzes that come with using any older autofocus camera but seemed to be just a bit louder with the Samurai. Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome, but the Samurai really is charming in its own bizarre, backwards way.

Unfortunately, this individual camera has an issue I’ve seen in other reviews where there is a dark patch on the bottom of the frame. From what I can tell, the shutter timing is off somehow, and the mirror is blocking part of the frame on higher shutter speeds. It’s something I’ve seen before in other cameras, and is fixable in most, but the tiny half-frame mirror box and complex electronic nature of the Samurai make it something I would be hesitant to try to repair or even send to a technician.

The shots I got back, although marred by the darkened section, show that the Samurai is a camera worth using if you can find one that works. It makes better images than comparable point and shoots on half as much film. The lens is capable of producing out-of-focus areas and flattening backgrounds, especially at 75mm, where I was most impressed with it. I don’t normally use zooms, preferring to leave them as wide as possible, but I found myself consistently (albeit slowly) zooming in to the 100mm equivalent long end of the lens.

When I look at the Yashica Samurai X3.0, I wonder what could have been. I wonder if adding manual controls would have made it more attractive to professionals. I wonder if taking away the SLR design could have allowed the camera to be full-frame, giving the wonderful lens twice as much space to shine. I wonder if the drugs the designers were on are still available.

It’s clear that this camera is the end result of a domino chain of baffling design choices, but what I’m wondering now is if it really would have become a permanent resident of my camera bag if it didn’t have mechanical issues. No matter how bizarre it is, the Yashica Samurai never fought or confused me while I was using it. It just worked, felt nice in the hand (just one), and took great photos. Sometimes the only question worth asking is whether or not a camera makes you excited to shoot, and the Samurai did just that.

Let me know in the comments what camera gets you most excited to shoot, and maybe some ideas for the perfect “bring-everywhere” camera. I’d love to hear them, talk about them with you, and maybe even review them right here on Casual Photophile.

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Connor Brustofski

Connor Brustofski

Connor Brustofski is a photographer, graphic designer, and wearer of colorful sweaters living in Savannah, GA. He’s been shooting film for the past five years, and spent the last two working at Complete Camera Center in Vermont. In addition to photography, he founded Headwaters Magazine, a Vermont-based environmental publication dedicated to spreading the word on complex environmental ideas, science, and research.

All stories by:Connor Brustofski
11 comments
  • I think I prefer my Yashica 110W camera from the same stable. It is no bigger but takes full frame pictures. I bought this for £8 from a charity shop, almost new and still boxed. I believe the 28-110mm f6 lens is a crib from the Zeiss lens destined for the unreleased T4 compact, which would have been made in the same factory and very good it is too. It is considerably sharper than most of my Leica R zoom lenses and has less pincushion distortion at the tele end. The only downside is that it is quite a slow lens but the camera mates very well with Kodak Ultramax 400. The slow lens has the benefit of not putting the multi point autofocus under much strain. Certainly from a photographic POV, the best value I ever got from just £8. The only problem is that when I left my French house last October, I hid it away somewhere and now I cannot for the life of me, remember where I put it. It will turn up at some point.

    Wilson

    • Avatar
      Connor Brustofski July 15, 2020 at 11:22 am

      Yeah, I would say you can get 90% of the Samurai for 10% of the price a lot of the time. The only irreplaceable parts are the shooting experience and the promise of 2x the frames without sacrificing quality. Some of those later Yashica/Kyocera point & shoots were really well built! I played around a bit with a Yashica T4 Zoom and really enjoyed that. The 28-70/4.5-8 Zeiss lens is fantastic, but it was a little slow, had some vignetting, and my camera had light leaks that I just couldn’t shake. Luckily I didn’t pay the ridiculous prices people are charging nowadays, so it didn’t burn me too much. Thanks for reading, Wilson!

  • Pretty sure there is only one thing you can do about the Samurai.
    Get another one.
    The left handed version. Then you can “dual wield” and/or have fun with them as binoculars. Even with the 1/2 frame limitations, this would likely produce better photos than any of the “camera-binocs” I’ve seen.
    😀
    I enjoyed this article, thanks! I also have long had a fascination for half-frame cameras. For me, they are much more fun than they should be. And this one just seems to play into the pleasingly weird side of things.

    Until a few years ago, the AGAT 18k was always in my pocket. But as much as I liked that camera and its lens, the plastic construction always made me a bit nervous about whether or not it would fall apart in my hands. Especially all the “lovely” crunchy noises when advancing or rewinding the film. I moved house 3 years ago and haven’t been able to find it since. I suspect it is in one of the boxes in our attic.

    • Avatar
      Connor Brustofski July 15, 2020 at 11:26 am

      Ha! And tape them both to my hands until I finish the rolls inside.

      I agree, despite being just plain bizarre I didn’t want to put the Samurai down. The deciding factor is definitely the mechanical issues, but if that weren’t the case I’d be facing the existential dread that comes with actually successfully filling a niche in my camera bag and not needing to search for new cameras!! God forbid!!

      I looked at the AGAT when I was searching for half-frames but was turned off for that exact reason. I know myself, I would break it. A few of my friends have Olympus PENs, and I wanted to be contrarian, ha. Maybe I’ll look into the Canon Demis or something.

      Thanks for reading, Rob!

  • Bizarre, but good.

  • Your Yashica is quite cool but likely much to bulky to me. I’ve had a bit of half-frame experience. My Agat broke. But I bought a Canon Demi and a Fujica Half. After using both a while, I like the feel of the Canon much better. It is quite handy and fun. I bought a “for repair or parts” one quite cheap, unstuck the lens and added new light seals. I’ve been using it for over a year.

    I sold the Fujica.

  • I particularly like the photo of what I assume is your significant other looking bemusedly at your use of such a silly camera when we have perfectly good smartphones available. I think it would pair nicely with the leading image of you with the camera to your eye.

  • Lol. I was going to buy one of these. You got some pretty good shots out of it. Nicely written piece, good review. Next up the Aiborg? Maybe?😝

    • William, the Aiborg has a surprisingly good lens. Makes up for/compliments (depending your POV) everything else.

      Nice write up Connor! The AF with its delay and hunting would kill the fun for me though.

    • Avatar
      Connor Brustofski July 26, 2020 at 12:02 pm

      James always keeps us writers stocked with interesting cameras. Maybe I’ll pull a few strings to keep my “obscene camera design” review trend going…

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Connor Brustofski

Connor Brustofski

Connor Brustofski is a photographer, graphic designer, and wearer of colorful sweaters living in Savannah, GA. He’s been shooting film for the past five years, and spent the last two working at Complete Camera Center in Vermont. In addition to photography, he founded Headwaters Magazine, a Vermont-based environmental publication dedicated to spreading the word on complex environmental ideas, science, and research.

All stories by:Connor Brustofski