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.
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.
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.
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?).
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.