The Poor Man's Rolleiflex?
3 Sep 2009
If I had my way, all photos would be square. I love the look of 6x6 medium format shots. I think there's nothing cooler. I mean, medium format is just prettier. Quality-wise, digital and 35mm don't come close. Not even if you make 'em square.
But the funny thing is that probably most medium format users in the online community are using 'toy cameras', Dianas, Holgas and their brethren. Toy cams have their place of course, but sometimes what you want is a camera that will give medium format film the treatment it really deserves. The problem being, of course, that a lot of those cameras don't come cheap. Hasselblads? I mean, come on! Maybe when I find me a rich wife or win the lottery.
Fortunately, though, high quality can come at low prices. Call me a bargain hunter or call me a miser, but I love the so-called poor-man's classics. If you hang around photo forums long enough you soon learn that for every bonafide classic camera there's a poor man's alternative. Poor man being a relative term, of course. Just because you're not using Leicas for paperweights and Hassleblads for doorstops doesn't mean you're poor exactly. But anyway, us paupers end up with all kinds of exotic copies of the real deal, whether it's a Zorki 4 for a Leica M2, a Kowa 6 for a Hassy, or whatever. For the dedicated film shooter on a budget, they exert an incredible lure. One could almost get obsessed. Just possibly.
Now, I've already written about one poor man's camera here, my lovely Zorki 4, and I'd like the spread the poor man's gospel a little further. Behold the coming of the Yashica-Mat, Japan's answer to the mighty (and mighty expensive) Rolleiflex. For those of us unable to shell out the extortionate prices commanded by Rolleis, the Yashica line is a fantastic way into the world of medium format shooting.
For those who haven't been sucked into the vortex of camera fetishism, I should explain that Rollei more or less ruled the world of medium format from the mid 1930s right up to the sixties. Back in the days when people didn't want to fiddle around making mechanisms to shift mirrors out of the way of shutters, the obvious answer was the Twin Lens Reflex or TLR. Hook one lens up to a viewfinder and dedicate the another to the business of taking photographs; link up the focussing mechanism, and, hey presto, you have the ancestor of the modern-day SLR. In grand-scheme of things the SLR would pretty much render TLRs redundant as far as pros were concerned. But in their day, Rolleiflexes were the industry standard for medium format shooting. And as such they spawned a crop of copies everywhere from Czechoslovakia to Russia.
In Japan, one of the best lines of copies was produced by Yashica. I picked up my Yashica-Mat for around $70, in fantastic condition, with its original case. It's one of the middle models, between the first crop and the much sought-after Yashica-Mat 124, and it's a stunner.
After getting my first film developed, I was hooked. It produces pin-sharp, contrasty pics with a stunning clarity to them. Which isn't to say that I didn't find getting used to shooting one of these beasts a real challenge. Everything is about as manual as could be. Winding and cocking is done with a satisfying crank on the side; speed and aperture are set with the two wheels on the lens assembly. The big thing, though, is composition. Looking down into the waist-level finder, everything is back to front. When you're trying to follow a moving subject it can be a bewildering experience. Not easy. And not, you'd think, speedy.
But the thing is, when you get used to it, the Yashica-Mat becomes a very fast and very able street shooter. Nowadays cameras are big plastic things with huge lenses, and people either hold them pressed up against their face, or weirdest of all, at arm's length, while they squint at an LCD screen. So if anyone sees you looking down into the top of this beautiful chromed antique, all you get is a smile and curiosity. Most people barely seem to associate what you're doing with photography. And so, for a pretty conspicuous object, the Mat becomes a wonderful tool for candid portraits and street-shots. Indeed, it's pretty much my camera of choice for travels in foreign climes. The shots here are from London, Tokyo and Rome. I hope they convince you to go the Yashica way ... (picture of the beast itself still to come).