I love shooting medium format. At present, I have seven such cameras, two of them are Holgas, one is an SLR, one is a (working!) folder from the 1930s, and the other three are twin lens reflexes. Rolleiflex cameras are the standard bearer, being the first mass-marketed camera of this type in the 1920s, and most TLRs are largely based on Rollei’s design.
Rolleiflex cameras are also fairly expensive, and can fetch anywhere between 300 and 1,000 dollars for a well-used 50 or 60-year-old camera. The quality is there, of course, but it’s still a lot to pay for your grand-dad’s camera.
I love my Mamiya M645, but it’s a bit bulky and awkward to carry around, especially considering that my medium format camera will usually be also accompanied by an SLR. I’ve started packing a TLR in my camera bag, and have decided I love this plan. They are durable, lightweight and don’t take up too much space in the bag, slides easily into the bay I’d use for a zoom lens… which I pretty much never pack.
TLRs shoot nice big 6cm x 6cm exposures that look great when scanned or printed. You only get 12 shots per roll of 120 film, which are only a couple bucks cheaper than 35mm film and cost no less to process, so while the photos are exceptional I am more sparing with how many frames I’ll shoot, due to both cost and time. Loading and unloading 120 film is more time consuming than 35mm, and you’ll do it three times as often, as 35mm films usually have 36 exposures per roll.
So I had two of these cameras, a Seagull 4A I bought from a friend, and a Yashica Mat I bought from a brother. Both are perfectly fine and shoot beautiful magic (as long as it’s at shutter speeds above 1/60, anything slower is painfully inaccurate), but I wanted something next-level. Mamiya makes professional quality TLRs, however they are a little more on the bulky side, not a lot but enough. Rollei TLRs are great but they’re pricey and they’re old. I wanted something compact with the quality of a Rollei but at half the price.
I read a review for a Yashica Mat 124G on some photo blog, which is where the trouble usually begins for me… says the guy whose paired-down camera collection is more than two dozen units strong! I really don’t need another. I want another. It’s the American way! People buy Rolex when they only need Timex, they buy Audi when a mid-range Chevy would do what they need, and when I have 24 cameras somehow I feel I need a 25th. That’s what the Yashica Mat 124G became, camera number 25.
I managed to spend too much on this one. I was trying to spend close to $200, but I wanted the quality to be good enough that I wouldn’t crave an upgrade in the near future. I know me, and I know that if something has a ding in the frame or a loose corner on the vinyl covering, I’d eventually want something better if it’s a camera I use regularly. In my price range I found one with slightly torn vinyl, one with a non-detrimental part broken off, and several with broken light meters. I found three that were pricier, but in almost perfect condition. One sold for over $500, one sold for a hair over $400, and the one I bought sold for $350. More than I wanted to spend, but I eff’ing wanted it!
I’m allowing myself to buy only two cameras in the coming year, this was one of them. The other is an Olympus OM 4ti (specifically in all-black with no chrome). That is to say “probably.” There are a lot of days in a year, and I’m always only one well-written camera review away from my next gotta-have model.
The Yashica Mat 124G was Yashica’s last and best TLR. Manufactured from 1970 to 1986, at a time when the market was no longer looking for TLR cameras as they were considered old tech, Yashica built this model to similar standards as a Rolleiflex, figuring that while there might be a vanishing market for TLRs, perhaps there might be a little bit of interest yet for a -good- TLR.
I loaded mine with Ilford HP5 and stuck it in my bag. I love the look of this thing, my other two TLRs are that black-and-chrome look that all old cameras have, this one is black. The parts that would be chrome are satin black, really striking. I also appreciate that I can use most camera straps with it, my other 120 cameras have these small metal pegs that require a specialized strap attachment. The 124G has metal loops above those pegs, why these other cameras don’t is beyond me.
It came with a leather “ever-ready” case that I promptly took off and threw in a bin somewhere, and I will eventually throw it away like I did with the other two TLR cases. Too pretty a camera to cover up with clothes.
The metering system is a matter of moving the control knobs for shutter speed and aperture (located to either side of the lens) until two needles line up in this teensy little window. Is it accurate? (shrugs) I dunno. Seems to be, though I used the Sunny-16 rule much of the time. The viewfinder is the waist-level variety, so composing shots takes getting used to because the horizon is always opposite of what you think it is, plenty of crooked shots.
The lens is a four-element 80mm f/3.5 bit of stuff, good for getting closer shots for portrait or street photography. I’m used to 50mm focal range, sometimes 35mm, so I found myself having to take a few steps back when composing photos. The moving parts were moving nice and smooth, and the focus had a longer throw so it was relatively easy to dial in that perfect focus. Way easier than focusing with one of my rangefinders, with their shorter focus throw. Composition takes me a bit longer, but I’m generally not in a hurry when I’m using this machine. I get 12 exposures per roll of film, each one needs to count.
This old technology is fun to shoot, I will often look for reasons to use it. It makes me more conspicuous when doing street photography, but then it’s a classic and interesting camera, if I ask to take someone’s photo they are more intrigued than put-off. That’s the look… guy in a hoodie with a 500mm lens’d DSLR? Creeper pervert. Guy with old-timey winder camera thing? Hipster artsy fart.
The pictures? Pretty good, or at least they have the potential to be good – I don’t always bring my A-game to a roll of film. Does it shoot better photos than the earlier model Yashica-Mat I bought for one third the price? Nah, not really. Am I going to return it, then? Not a chance.