Guest Reviews Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

Yashica Electro 35GS: I Guess I’ll Keep It? – Guest Post by Ian Ross

I’m an old-ish guy, so when I think of photography I think of film. My interest in photography has ebbed and flowed over the years, and really took a nosedive with the arrival of digital. About two years ago, that interest suddenly returned. I had dusted off (literally) my first-generation Lomography LC-A, but after a few rolls I felt the need to take more control of my image-making, without getting too fussy. It was time to try a rangefinder.

But which one? In the sinister way that G.A.S. works, curiosity turned to research, and then to obsessive hunting on the used market. Not willing to take an expensive chance, I went with the “poor man’s Leica (But which one?).”

The Yashica Electro 35GS was the winner, for two reasons: one, I was born during the years of its production; and two, I really like Spiderman. Oh, and three: I found several online from U.S. sellers. Clearly I’m not too picky.

Yashica Electro 35GS (with vintage boombox lurking in the background)

Yashica Electro 35GS – top view

Some specs, briefly: The Yashica Electro 35GS has a non-interchangeable 45mm lens, aperture-priority, stepless shutter speeds from 1/500th to 30+ seconds, takes a $9 battery… There’s a ton of info on this camera on the interwebs; in case you haven’t figured it out, this will not be a very technical review.

Anyway, I bought my Yashica Electro 35GS for a steal (my ideal price) on eBay. A risky marketplace, at least in my experience, but it arrived in mostly good condition. However, it was not without its problems. First thing I noticed, the focus ring was frozen. Curse you, eBay! Luckily, a VERY tiny amount of electronic lubricant freed it up. Whew!

Since it seems that vintage camera best-practices warn against playing with the self timer, I consider myself lucky to have one that works. I never use that feature in real life, but hey, small victories. I discovered this one mechanical miracle almost immediately after unpacking the Electro; I snagged the timer lever on my shirtsleeve by accident.

Boy Spinning Top – Kodak TriX 400 (expired)

Hat Man – Kodak TriX 400 (expired)

Dancers – Kodak TriX 400 (expired)

After running a couple of rolls through it at the local dragon boat festival, my scans revealed some significant light leaks. Like many others who’ve recently acquired a Yashica Electro, I spent several messy hours digging out and replacing the gooey foam seals. I used thin strips of that foam insulation with the adhesive on one side, but still the leaks persisted. Electrical tape on the seams was a temporary solution, but glueing a few strips of “film cannister velvet” along the hinges finally fixed the issue for good.

During the course of my research, I read about the “pad of death” (Where do people come up with these names anyway? Even “death pad” would’ve been an improvement). This is a foam pad nestled under the top plate, which allows a post crucial to the function of the camera to be locked into place as the film is advanced. Or something. The important thing to know is that it’s supposed to make a “thunk” noise every time you advance the film. I would describe it more as a ker-chunk, but the point is, my pad of death was still alive. Another plus.

How long it will remain alive is an open question. It’s presumably made out of the same foam that the light seals were made out of. This “death pad” (It’s official, I’m changing the name. Take note, internet.) is a source of constant anxiety when I’m shooting with the Yashica Electro 35GS. I listen carefully and move the lever slowly after each frame, and breathe a little sigh of relief with each ker-chunk.

Unlike the film advance, the shutter itself is practically silent. I have taken more than a few blurry pictures of my confused face on occasions where I thought the shutter wasn’t working at all. Considering the shutter button is like, four inches tall, you’d expect a big noise when you finally hit bottom (a chick-KA!, perhaps?).

Depressing the shutter button halfway will activate the light meter. If the shutter speed is too slow (below 1/30th I believe), a yellow arrow lights up in the viewfinder to show you which direction to turn the aperture ring. If the meter is reading more light than what will make a proper exposure at 1/500th (maximum shutter speed), a red arrow appears pointing in the opposite direction. The idea is to turn the aperture until both yellow and red arrows disappear. This should give you a little bit of wiggle room in selecting an aperture that suits your style. There are also red and yellow lamps on top of the camera that mirror the activity in the viewfinder. I guess this is for people who don’t need viewfinders. I do, and I find that the arrows are a little hard to see, especially in daylight conditions.

The viewfinder itself is bright, and the focusing patch is fairly easy to see. The frame lines move as you focus to compensate for parallax error, which is pretty cool. I always feel like I need to step back when framing shots, like the viewfinder is crowded, but maybe that’s common for rangefinders.

Riva’s – Kodak Portra 400

Grass Steps – Fuji Superia 200 (expired)

Fire Escape – Fomapan 400

Ultimately, using the Yashica Electro 35GS made me realize that I mostly prefer SLRs (I do own some other cameras). I’m a little bit particular with my horizontal and vertical lines, and I have a hard time making frames that are level and plumb with this camera. Also, there’s no way to “lock in” a shutter speed setting; to make an exposure compensation, you have to trick the sensor by changing the film speed. It’s a process, and not at all spontaneous.

There have been many times in the past couple of years when I thought I would sell this camera. The accumulation of small problems mentioned above – and my anxiety about the life expectancy of a camera as old as I am – made me reconsider this purchase, despite the fact that it cost very little. But every time I say, “Well, I’ll just shoot one more roll,” I’m amazed at the sharpness and contrast I get from the Yashinon lens. Not too long ago I bought  an M42 mount version of this lens for my Pentax Spotmatic, figuring I could get the same results with an SLR. But – what the heck!? – the rear element interferes with the mirror return when it’s focused at infinity. The same thing happens with my Praktica bodies. And I can’t justify buying a Yashica SLR body just to use that lens (or can I?).

Pin Oak – Kodak TMax 100

Priest and Girl Dancing – Kodak TMax 100 (a little blurry, I know, but I love the moment)

Garden Wall – Kodak TMax 100

Pond, Blackstone Valley Conservation District – Fomapan 400

Viewing the Partial Eclipse – Fomapan 400

Anyway, a couple months ago, I had an unused roll of Fomapan 400 left over from my summer vacation. I figured I’d pop it in the Electro just for fun. I took it for quiet walks in my city, and took some pictures of people trying to view the eclipse with their crazy, homemade contraptions. This was just low-pressure, day-to-day shooting, and using the Electro felt spontaneous and easy. I developed and scanned at home, as usual. Everything looked super, and there were quite a few keepers in the bunch. I think I finally might be warming up to this camera. Maybe I’ll keep it after all.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Stephen Jenner
    December 30, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Hi Ian, the lens on those Yashicas is excellent, and worth the effort of keeping them going where possible, your pictures ably demonstrate this.

    I seem to remember that the lens is a copy of the Zeiss Sonnar, Hamish’s favourite design, and very similar to my current manual rangefinder, the Nikon S2 with F1.4 50mm (Sonnar copy) lens. I really like the idea of swanning around with a camera that is the same age as me.

    I had an Electro GTN as a boy, my first serious camera. I really liked it, but became frustrated by the lack of manual control.

    StephenJ

  • Reply
    Mike R
    December 30, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Well done, Ian. I’ve owned and sold several Electro 35s since switching back to film full time five years ago. I agree—the lens is super sharp and renders images with a vintage feel that I really like. But they are somewhat fragile little machines. I’ve replaced a few death pads (see what I just did there?) and light seals. Ultimately I moved on to other, much more expensive, rangefinders. But I am tempted by low-priced Electros on eBay, especially since I now know how to fix them.

    • Reply
      Ian Ross
      December 31, 2017 at 12:07 am

      Death pad, right on! We get one more person on board and we have a movement.

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    December 30, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks Ian for this article. My only beef with the Electros is the lack of manual shutter speed. The lens is fine as your images show. I like especially the colour ones you’ve posted here, they are beautifully rendered.

    • Reply
      Ian Ross
      December 31, 2017 at 12:11 am

      I agree about the lack of manual control, but luckily I have a few different cameras to choose from depending on my mood. My first real camera was a Chinon CG-5 that had an aperture-priority auto setting, which behaved in a very similar way to the Electro.

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    December 30, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Thanks for a light-hearted approach of your review. We can become ponderous & preachy as we stake out our opinions. Your piece serves as a reminder that we should be having fun. Why not just keep the camera? I like the b&w’s, although “Riva’s” could be a cool fine art print.

    • Reply
      Ian Ross
      December 31, 2017 at 12:14 am

      Thanks for the comments Dan! I figured there were enough technical articles on this camera out there, and I wanted to do something a little more personal. Glad you liked the Riva picture!

  • Reply
    Jens_a
    December 30, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Hi!

    Very nice camera. My copy had a lens flare once in a while. I also used Konica auto s3 and Yashica electro cc. Used them mostly for shooting cross processing and got some of my best photos from them. Later I got the Leica CL and Minolta CLE, but… it is not the same. Can not get the same feel from them. Happy New Year.

  • Reply
    Phil Hall
    December 31, 2017 at 6:44 am

    Hi Ian,
    I’ve had an Electro35 GS like yours for over 10 years. I had to fix the death pad 🙂 myself, it’s not too hard. Lots of folks mention the good sharp lens and that’s interesting to me. The lens *is* sharp, no doubt, but I had a compact rangefinder with a sharper lens than the Yahsica, and yet I still have the Yashica. There’s a brief tale in that. The sharper camera I had was a Konica Auto S2. It had an extremely sharp lens and I really wanted to love it. But I never got comfortable with it. Among other things, the lens focussed in the opposite direction, with a shorter throw, and I never got used to that. I had both cameras at the same but when I decided to keep only one of them, it was an easy decision to keep the Yashica. To me it’s more than just the lens. It’s the whole package that’s comfortable and easy to just carry around and snap quick shots.
    Happy New Year.

  • Reply
    Hernando
    December 31, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    A great read: interesting, informative, and well written. Not to mention typo-free. Wow. I wish more publications, on-line and traditional, would take a few minutes to proofread.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      December 31, 2017 at 6:44 pm

      Some people are better blessed with such skills – I can’t read my content 10 times over and still miss the obvious.

  • Reply
    Bruce Kowal
    February 23, 2018 at 12:27 pm

    Thanks for the light-hearted review of a wonderful camera. I have three of these, and they were all sent to Mark Hama in the US for a superb CLA. They really have a unique look, and all of your photographs bear witness to this classic lens. FWIW, the 45mm lens is actually closer to what the eye sees than the “normal” 50mm lens, which may account for the success of this camera. I first bought this camera in 1968 while serving with the US Navy during the Vietnam War. I bought it at the Navy Exchange in Subic Bay. After it died on me, I bought three more. It renders both B&W and color superbly.

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