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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