The Yashica A is a Japanese-made twin lens reflex camera manufactured between 1956 and 1960. When it was released, it was marketed as the lowest tier model in a line of three budget-friendly TLRs, priced at $29.95. Ads in photography magazines asked, “When, if ever, have you seen camera value like YASHICA”?
Imagine, in 2020, how bare-bones a camera must be if it was the benchwarmer of the Yashica TLRs in 1956. Make no mistake, the Yashica A is as unassuming as a medium format camera can get, but with patience it can produce some incredible images, and its general lack of special features counter-intuitively brings its own set of advantages.
I purchased my Yashica A for $35 from a local-seller on OfferUp, and almost passed on it due to its condition and missing nameplate. The leaf shutter blades were slow and sticky but seemed to loosen themselves up after a few shutter fires. Somewhat uneasily, I paid for the camera and got online to see what could be done to fix it up. Fortunately, these cameras are still very repairable, so I sent it off to Mark Hama, after which it’s been working like a dream for the past three years.
Specs and Controls of the Yashica A
The Yashica A shoots 6x6cm images on 120 film. This film is advanced manually and is uncoupled from the shutter mechanism, which means many things. For one, infinite exposures are possible on any individual frame, simply by cocking and firing the shutter without advancing the film. It also means that we must peer through a close-able, red framed counter window for advancing the film to the correct spot.
The very quiet, five-bladed leaf shutter is completely vibration free within the solid body of the camera. As the camera has no meter, only full-manual exposure is possible, with shutter speed and aperture controls arrayed around the taking-lens. The only shutter speeds offered are the non-standard 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/300 plus Bulb. There is no self-timer, and none of the exposure settings are viewable from the finder. Focusing is smooth and precise with the pop-up focus assist lens in the finder, and the focus knob conveniently has depth of field and distance indicators on it.
While earlier examples have the 80mm f/3.5 Yashimar lens, mine has a Yashikor of the same specifications and a similar triplet design. The Copal leaf shutter has five curved blades, and can flash sync at all speeds with the PC-sync port. The aperture is steplessly controlled via a lever that circles the side of the lens, with full-stop markings along its travel. A flash shoe on the side of the camera holds flashes, triggers or accessories.
Speaking of accessories, there are a few that are must-haves given that this is a very minimal camera. First is a cable release adapter, commonly known as a “Leica Nipple.” Because this camera is so slow to shoot with, I almost exclusively use it with a tripod, and having a cable release is mandatory for getting rock-solid long exposures. Your local camera shop should have a bunch of these adaptors in a drawer somewhere.
Since there are no batteries needed to hold the shutter open and no heat being generated by a digital sensor, the Yashica A is perfectly suited for hours-long exposures with none of the drawbacks (barring reciprocity failure – but that’s the film’s fault). Using filters for long exposures is a little finicky, as the lens only accepts 32mm push-on filters. I’ve gotten around this limiting factor by adding some tape to a 37mm-52mm step ring, allowing the use of modern, threaded filters. The 37mm end of the step ring fits snugly enough around the taking lens, but I wouldn’t leave it on between shots.
You’ll also want to carry the light meter of your choice, but it should be noted that the Yashica’s non-standard shutter speeds won’t align perfectly with what your meter suggests. In my experience, I’ve had good results just rounding down (slower) with color negative and black and white films, and rounding up (faster) for slide films.
The Lens and Image Quality
Importantly, the best part of the camera is the Yashikor 80mm f/3.5 taking lens, which is an absolute stunner at this price. When stopped down, it’s one of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever used, even when looking at 4760×4760 resolution scans. At wider apertures, it has loads of character, with swirly bokeh, a little vignetting and some edge softness. It’s great for unique portraits in addition to tack-sharp landscapes, which is one of the reasons I carry it along on all of my adventures.
At f/3.5, pretty much only the focused point is sharp, and only perfectly sharp if it’s in the middle of the frame. The bokeh intensifies in a circular radius from the center, which can be used to draw extra attention to the middle of the frame. At around f/5.6, slight corner softness is still detectable if focused close to infinity, but there’s no noticeable softness to speak of above f/11.
Shooting with the Yashica A is slow and methodical at best, and tedious and cumbersome at worst. Unless you’re a seasoned photographer with TLRs, this is not the camera to help you “get the shot.” The Yashica A is much better suited for landscape work and portraits where the photographer has more time to set the exposure and focus. It’s a camera which rewards precision.
A small gripe with my example is the bottom dial’s tendency to loosen on its own, potentially causing the camera’s film compartment to open accidentally. This disaster hasn’t actually happened to me because I applied some gaffer tape to prevent slippage. As this is on the bottom plate, thankfully this modification doesn’t alter the camera’s otherwise gorgeous curb appeal. This point isn’t so of much relevance to a “camera review,” but it does well describe shooting decades old film cameras in 2021 – be prepared for imperfections.
Composing from the waist-level finder is as easy or difficult as it is with any other TLR. The lateral axis is reversed, making quick, intuitive composing impossible for those not used to this. Three years later, I still cannot easily compose my shots, which is one reason I almost always shoot with a tripod. I find myself tilting off axis very easily when shooting handheld. Thankfully, the pop-up focus assist helps as much with composing as it does with focusing, especially considering the dimness of the finder.
Noticeably absent from the finder are any kind of exposure indicators whatsoever. Because you need to look at the front of the camera to set the shutter speed and aperture, you’ll want to set exposure before you compose your shot. This is the biggest fault of the camera that I can find, as it really interrupts the whole process. Many times I have found myself frustrated that I finally found the perfect angle to click the shutter from, but then realized I had to turn the camera toward my face to set exposure. I carry a tripod because it allows me to lock my framing and set exposure afterwards, because I always forget to set it first.
The complete lack of electronics provides a few benefits to offset the shortcomings. I imagine if the camera got wet in a rainstorm it would have no problem continuing its service with just a bit of drying time. Cold weather would also likely have no negative effect on the operation of the camera. As I often bring the Yashica A on multi-day hikes in the backcountry, I am extra appreciative that I don’t have to baby it. It’s an extremely reliable piece of kit that isn’t fussy.
Additionally, the shutter doesn’t need batteries to stay open and it can be cocked an infinite amount of times without moving the film plane. Since the film advance is independent of the shutter, your imagination is the limit when it comes to multiple exposures.
While it’s worth mentioning the benefits of slowing down your process, it’s hard to justify all the extra reminders that are necessary with the Yashica A. The simple fact that there are twelve 6×6 shots per roll of 120 film is enough of a nagging reminder to make every shot count, especially with manual film advance.
The Yashica A as a First Medium Format Camera
I think that the Yashica A serves as the perfect entry point on one’s journey into medium format. When I got it, I was most excited to reap the benefits of exposing a larger negative than the 35mm frames which I was coming from, and the camera certainly provides that at an extremely approachable price. I’m glad I chose it as my first medium format camera instead of jumping straight into getting a Bronica or Hasselblad, because now the luxuries of those systems will feel so much sweeter when I make the investment.
The Yashica A taught me to appreciate all of the simple photographic conveniences I had taken for granted. Aperture priority, exposure information in the finder, auto advance, etc. And yes, its slowness has made my photography more intentional. Most, if not all of my favorite photographs I’ve shot in the past few years were taken with it, and it’s solidified in my mind what I want in my next medium format camera. It has also made me fall in love with the square format after almost exclusively shooting in 3:2 for years. Instead of cropping out of square, as Ansel Adams sometimes did, I challenge myself to compose shots using the whole frame. The square isn’t a cropped rectangle to me, but rather an expanded one.
If you’re thinking of taking the leap to medium format, the Yashica A serves as a great tip of the iceberg for a very modest initial investment. It’s a reliable, consistent, approachable and eye-catching piece of gear. Mine has turned many heads and sparked more than a few conversations on hiking trails. If you know its quirks, it will faithfully serve you for as long as you need it to. There is beauty in things of great utility, and I liken the Yashica A to your old, singlespeed beater bicycle that gets you to the grocery store and back.
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I really love the shot of the Pittsburgh skyline from… Troy Hill? It really has a Steel-era vibe to it.