Seems like I’m the only crazy guy reviewing stuff that’s anywhere between 20 to 50 years old – that’s just how this blog rolls! (see what I did there?!) – but yeah, I love vintage gear. And people like myself, before hunting down for one of these old cameras, like to research on the product before buying, just like when buying a new digital camera. It’s the same thing. I was always grateful to those who actually reviewed vintage gear like this, so that I had an idea of what I was getting into before I actually went out and got whatever it was I was getting…so I thought it’d be nice to return the favor by publishing my own review on a piece of vintage gear, for any future buyers out there wanting to get their hands on one of these lovely cameras. Anyway, here’s the Yashica MAT 124G medium format twin-lens-reflex (TLR) camera
This camera is a copy of the Rolleiflex 3.5T, one of the classic TLRs…and along with similar models like the Minolta Autocord, these were able to compete with Rollei in the TLR market back then due to very competitive pricing while being of almost equal quality in terms of optics and build. Even today, a vintage Yashica or Minolta TLR can be found on eBay for less than half the price of a similar Rolleiflex, and is a great bargain considering the quality of these beauties. If you’re trying to get into the medium format TLR game, start off with one of these – these are real user cameras and are ideal for getting you into the medium format/TLR film photography world, without dumping a load of cash on a higher end one. And as you’ll find out as you read more, these are top cameras too
Coming from a rather long history of Yashica TLRs dating back to the original Yashica MAT in 1957, the Yashica MAT 124 and 124G were the last TLRs produced by Yashica, and made from 1970-1986. In my opinion, the 124/124G models are some of the best TLRs Yashica has produced, so although the original MAT was a beauty too, if you’re looking for a bargain TLR today, I recommend you check out these ‘newer’ models! The 124 and 124G models are nearly identical, and have very few differences between them, but note that for the purpose of this review I’ll be discussing the 124G as it is the one I have in hand
This Yashica is the only TLR I’ve ever used, and apart from my toy cameras (Holga/Diana+), it is the only medium format film camera I’ve used (yet). Using a medium format film camera is a very enjoyable experience overall, to be honest – the way this camera works, along with the different 120 film format, is just different compared to anything you would have experienced using 35mm film cameras – and is just interesting to use! It really is. I’ll write up a post more on using TLRs and medium format in a future post, but for now, let’s get into more detail on the 124G
The Yashica MAT 124G
The 124G comes with a very fine set of Yashinon lenses. As with all TLRs, you have two lenses (why else would they call it a twin lens camera?!) – one lens for viewing through the viewfinder, and one for taking the actual image – and they’re both high quality pieces of glass. The taking lens is an 80mm f3.5 while the viewing lens is a slightly brighter 80mm f2.8. The taking lens is a 4-element Tessar-type lens – which is fantastic – and stops down to a minimum of f32. I’m not sure about the construction about the viewing lens, though…and frankly, it’s not that important. As the name implies, the taking lens takes the picture, so that’s the one to look out for. It takes Bayonet-1 type filters
The shutter is a leaf shutter made by Copal, and fires from 1/500 down to 1 second…and includes a Bulb mode. The lens can focus from a minimum distance of 1m all the way up to infinity. The focusing screen is a matte glass screen, with a built in 3x diopter loupe, which makes focusing relatively easy, and the large focusing knob on the side of the body, similar to the Rolleiflex (as are most of the controls on this camera) makes it even easier. The built-in light meter is not very accurate, and I never use it, favoring my Sekonic handheld meter, but it’s there if you need it. The camera also has a self-timer, and flash sync which syncs at all shutter speeds. If you’re wondering what film this takes, it takes both 120 and 220 format film
Similar to the build quality of all vintage cameras produced way before the digital era, the thing is made very solidly. Lots of metal – nothing feels cheap or plasticky – and although compared to the Rollei it may be slightly inferior, I really have nothing to complain about in this area. Controls feels tight, knobs turn smoothly – the shutter and aperture control wheels still work beautifully after what must be nearly 40 years – yeah, it was built to last, and last it has
Yashica MAT 124G – Controls
The controls – well, there are quite a few to be found on this manual film camera – let’s go through them quickly: unlike most other cameras, TLRs (or at least this one) has most of its controls on the front of the camera. There you will find the aperture control ring and the shutter control ring (on either side of the lens), the shutter release button, the shutter lock, the self timer, and the flash sync selector. The flash connector and the light meter receiver are also on the front. Quite a lot going on here! On the front of the camera too. But it’s a fairly large area and doesn’t feel cluttered – the design pretty much directly copied from the Rolleiflex – and it being my first TLR, I able to learn to use the controls very easily. That should mean something!
The right side of the camera simply contains the film winder crank, the exposure counter, and a little window that lets you know if you’re using 120 or 220 film (12 shots or 24). Oh, it’s got a little wheel which you use to set the film speed for the light meter too
The left side has got just the focusing knob, the accessory shoe, and a battery compartment. When changing film, the left side also has two knobs which release the film spools inside…more on that later
The top contains the light meter and film speed window, and of course, you lift the top panel to open the viewfinder. The bottom of the camera simply contains the lock to open the back (to reload film) – the back is completely empty
That’s about it. Very similar to how the classic Rolleiflex cameras operate. And like I said, I found using this camera’s operation very simple and intuitive, even though it was the first of its type that I had ever used. If the built-in light meter worked accurately (like my amazing Nikon FM2n’s meter), I would think that I’d use this camera a LOT more. Currently, I find it a bit of a hassle to carry it around, as it isn’t the most compact thing by itself, and add to that the fact that I need to carry an external light meter and take readings before I shoot, and that’s something I find a bit too much of a hassle, especially when shooting street life
But wait, I missed the viewfinder! The waist-level type of viewfinder! This is something that is really cool about TLRs. I mentioned it was on the top of the camera – yes, you open the top panel door, and there you have it: a really large viewfinder, almost like a little window, that you look down into, keeping your camera at ‘waist-level’, and it shows you what the viewing lens is looking at
Did I mention its large!? It’s bigger than most digital camera’s LCD screens! It’s quite bright too. Using a TLR for the first time, this will be a fantastic experience, and will really surprise you. It’s a wonderful type of viewfinder! I was amazed. The only issue that you might find with it is that the image is inverted, a mirror image of what is being captured, and can therefore be quite a challenge when composing your image, especially when you’re new to using this kind of viewfinder. I still haven’t got 100% used to it. I mean, you’re looking down at something, and seeing as if you’re looking in front of you. Then you turn the camera left, and the image turns right…you move it right, and the image turns left. It really plays with your mind – and at first, I guarantee it’ll confuse! But still, a lot of fun to use
Yashica MAT 124G – Image Quality
And now, the real key factor: image quality…and it’s very, very good! I haven’t shot a lot of film with this camera yet, but from my little experience, the images are excellent. The optics are very fine, resulting in super sharp images, with excellent contrast and detail. I rarely shoot color film these days so my experience with the 124G is purely black and white, but those results have been excellent indeed. Like I said earlier, if you’re looking for an entry level TLR, go for this one – not only is it cheap but the pictures it takes are fantastic. With the larger film format, shallow depth of field is quite possible, even at the not-so-fast f3. The Yashinon lens of the 124G lens gives a nice smooth bokeh, and although the DOF isn’t really that shallow, it is quite impressive for a lens that is not really that fast. Another area where the large film format helps is the resolution of film scans. My film scanner is a rather cheap flatbed, but even on this scanner, the images I took from the 124G look very sharp, and of high resolution. You will be quite surprised at the difference between 35mm and 120 film in this regard. Again, my kind of review doesn’t involve a ton of sample pictures – I would’ve liked to have added a few samples here but I currently don’t have film scans from this camera – so in case you don’t believe me, check out this awesome site where you can find over 200 sample pictures taken on the 124G! Yeah, so this camera looks really cool, it’s cheap, and it also takes great pictures! Many people say you wouldn’t be able to easily distinguish between the 124G’s photos and the photos of a Rolleiflex. Do I need say more?!
Using a TLR camera: The basics
Ok, so before I bought my first TLR, I had no idea how to use one – no other site I came across actually explained how one would use a TLR – and it was only after I got the PDF manual of the 124G that I was able to figure it out. That’s why I thought I’d try to give you some of the basics in here…just an idea of how things work in a TLR camera…and although you might find a couple of other online videos quite a bit more helpful to figure out some parts, read on!
Alright, this is going to be a really basic explanation – a TLR 101, if you will – covering the stuff briefly, unlike my usually super-detailed writing! I’ll do a more detailed post as soon as I can, but until then, I hope this helps:
- Loading/unloading 120 film: This is the biggest difference I found when using this TLR compared to others film cameras! Why? Well, unlike 35mm film, once you’re done with your 120 film, you don’t rewind it. This is because, when loading your film, you insert an empty spool on one end of your camera…and your new roll of film on the other end. Then you enter the film leader portion from your new roll into the empty spool (known as the take-up spool) and start taking pictures (see below)
Once you take your shots and advance to the next frame, and so on…the film gets wound up around the empty spool that you placed earlier on. Once your film is done, no rewinding is necessary. Just open your camera, and remove the previously empty spool, which now contains your newly exposed film. The previously ‘new’ film spool is now an empty spool, which can be subsequently used as the take-up spool for your next 120 roll. Ah, seriously, it’s hard to explain! Watch a video if you didn’t get it! (my pictures might help too)
- Using the viewfinder: Once your film is loaded…time to shoot! Open up the viewfinder, hold the camera around your waist, and look down! If you want to move the image left, turn the camera right…and vice versa. Take a bit of practice, but you’ll get there!
- Focusing: Focusing is rather easy. There’s a little patch in the middle of the finder that you should look at, which makes it easy to see if the image is sharp or blurry – look at that, and turn the focus knob. If you struggle to see your subject clearly, just flip down the 3x loupe and it’ll be easier. I wish it had a rangefinder type focusing screen though – that’s THE easiest way to focus manually – but this one works alright
- Setting exposure: Well…use an external light meter, get the settings you need, and flip through the wheels on the front of the camera, which are beside the lenses…and set your aperture and shutter. Don’t use the dead built-in light meter…even the ‘working’ ones don’t work well
- Winding: Obviously, once you set your exposure, you need to release the shutter! Just press the little shutter release button in front of the camera, and that’s it. Afterwards, flip out the film winding crank, and wind to the next frame. The 124G stops once the film has wound to the next frame, which makes it easy (some medium format cameras don’t). Next, you need to wind the crank in the opposite direction until it stops, which loads the shutter for the next release…and you’re ready to repeat! Easy! Naturally, you will want to wind the crank backwards to load the shutter before your first shot as well!
- Differences in 120 film compared to 35mm: Well I already mentioned one big difference, which is that you don’t rewind the film…you simply wind it from one spool to another, inside the camera. Second major difference: it doesn’t come in a plastic canister, but instead it comes simply wrapped in paper. Actually the entire strip of film is backed with paper, which extends longer than the film, and once the film is used up and wound up on the spool, the paper complete wraps around the entire roll a couple of times to make sure it is sealed to light. Again, a lot of fun to use this film…really takes you back to the old days. Oh, and obviously, 120 film is larger than 35mm film, in terms of the frame size…that’s another difference! This Yashica, like many other TLRs, shoot in the awesome 1:1 square format aspect ratio, and results in 6x6cm frames of film
And that’s about it. Using TLRs is a lot of fun…and the Yashica MAT 124G is a great little TLR to get you started in the medium format film world. It’s cheap, it’s readily available (check out eBay), it takes superb pictures, it’s fairly compact for a medium format camera…and it’s just a great all-round performer. Go out and get one. As for TLRs in general, I’ll be writing a more detailed post on how these things work, and other good models you could check out…for now, to summarize the main differences that I find when using a TLR compared to a 35mm camera:
- The viewfinder: it’s huge, bright, and you view it from a distance, unlike the viewfinder in other cameras where you place your eye against it…a lovely experience
- Similarly, the way you hold this camera is completely different…down around your waist… and the way you’d grip it with your hands is quite unlike how you’d hold a normal camera
- 120 film: the way you load it, and the way it works, is quite different from 35mm film
- Two lenses Vs. One: it is a difference, even though you probably wouldn’t realize it while using it. If you’re wondering about parallax error caused by using different lenses for viewing and taking pictures, well…the minimum focusing distance of these cameras are usually greater than the nearer distances where you’d notice parallax error, similar to rangefinder cameras…so that’s nothing to really worry about. You’d never use a TLR for close-ups or macro work…the lenses don’t allow this. A TLR is probably best for landscape and portraits, and possibly street work on occasion
And that’s really about all I have for you in this post! Have a look through the pictures below, if you like…and see you all in my next post. If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment! Cheers!
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By Heshan Jayakody All content in this post is my own