The Yashica Mat 124G is a medium format film camera from Japan. Harking from the 1970s, It has a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) design, which means there are two lenses. You use one to view the image, and another one to capture it. The viewing lens is f2.8 (which gives a brighter picture in the viewfinder), whereas the maximum aperture of the shooting lens is just f3.5. The frame size is 6×6 square, and it produces 12 pictures per standard roll of 120 film. You can also use 220 film if you are so inclined, to get 24 shots per roll..
The Yashica is a relatively compact camera for one that shoots medium format, and is sturdy as well as lightweight (well, don’t drop it… but still). It feels great to use, and can easily be carried about without becoming a pain in the arse, or err, shoulder.
It’s safe to say that you don’t pick up a Yashica Mat 124G to capture technically perfect pictures, but it’s worth having a look at some of its individual quirks and features.
Sharpness, Focus, and Flocking
Sharpness isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when I think about the Yashica, but there’s no doubt that it is capable of producing sharp images. Getting the focus just right can be a challenge though – or at least it is for me. My eyesight isn’t great, and I find it tough to nail the focus with the waist level viewfinder or flip down magnifier. Sadly it isn’t possible to get drop in corrective diopters like I have installed in my Hasselblad to make things easier.
The other thing that you’ll notice from my example pictures is that there is a kind of hazey glow in a lot of them – especially around the highlights. Here’s an example:
At first I just assumed that this ‘blooming’ effect was a quirk of the camera, but after a while I came to realise that it’s actually not how the shots are supposed to come out. Unfortunately I suspect that the real issue is that someone has over enthusiastically cleaned the lens in the past, or just had it lying about in a cupboard somewhere – leaving lots of micro-scratches which catch the highlights. After doing some research it seems like this is a common issue with these cameras, and there isn’t much you can do about it.
Low Light and Bokeh
Like many film cameras, the Yashica really shines when there is plenty of sun and bright colours. However, even though its lens has a maximum aperture of f3.5, the nature of a TLR is that you can hand-hold it at much slower shutter speeds than you would an SLR – and I was able to shoot indoors with decent lighting as a result.
I even managed to get some decent bokeh when the conditions were right.
Things to watch out for
Waist Level Viewfinder
To focus the Yashica Mat 124G, you look down onto the viewing screen. This can be tricky if you’ve never used one before, as the direction you expect to move is reversed. In other words, if you want to shift the frame to the left, you actually need to move right. It becomes second nature after a while, but does make things interesting if you ask somebody else to take your picture. One up-side of this setup is that people don’t necessarily notice you taking their picture – at least not in the same way that they might if you are starting at them directly from behind a camera at face level.
Often you’ll find that the film transport mechanism of the camera either needs repaired or replaced. The tell-tale sign of this is if you have varying gaps or overlap between frames, like below.
I experienced this a couple of times, but realised that I was probably winding the film on too quickly. Once I took things a bit easier it didn’t really crop up again.
Jammed Shutter Mechanism
Easily the biggest problem with these cameras is that they often have jammed shutter mechanisms. The reason for this is down to a rather bizarre design flaw. Essentially, if you move the self timer lever while the camera is in M mode (manual) as opposed to X (sync), it can damage the mechanism, and gum things up inside – requiring a repair. Essentially, it’s easiest to keep the lever on X. People online often advocate putting a bit of plastic or metal in to act as a physical barrier to make sure this doesn’t get changed by mistake. I put a screw in mine which was nice and secure… though if you are doing this, just make sure that you use a screw with a big enough head, or else it runs the risk of falling inside the body!
This jammed shutter issue is an extremely common problem with second hand models, and often isn’t listed or described properly by sellers. Be sure to check this out before you buy, as everybody I know who owns one has had to have theirs serviced when they first got them because of this – which can make the seemingly initial bargain purchase a bit less of a steal.
Sticky Shutter Button
I had an intermittent issue with my 124G where the shutter button sticks when depressed, only to come back out very slowly. This means that you can’t wind on the camera for the next shot until it is reset fully, and I’m not entirely sure what the cause is.
Light Meter Battery
The Yashica’s light meter requires a PX625 mercury oxide battery, which unfortunately is no longer made. You can get equivalents, but they won’t necessarily match the exposure correctly. In any event, many of the light meters in these cameras no longer work anyway, and aren’t possible or worth fixing. Mine is a dud, but I tend to just meter by sight anyway, so it’s not a huge deal. If you are getting the 124G specifically for its meter, you will want to tread carefully.
I have a real affinity with medium format, and I have a lot of affection for the Yashica Mat 124G, though I can’t really place why. It’s not the smallest camera I own; it (definitely) doesn’t produce the best pictures; it isn’t the easiest or quickest to focus; it doesn’t have the fastest lenses, or even the best shutter sound… it just has character, and I like that. At the end of the day, the 124G is an affordable 6×6 camera that is both sturdy and yet also compact enough to come with you on your travels. Aye, you could use a Mamiya C330, but that’s too big. Hasselblad 500CM? Too heavy. Rolleiflex? Too expensive.
Unfortunately, despite liking the Yashica Mat 124G a lot, I ended up selling it on. The pictures I got from it were hit or miss for various reasons – sometimes they were great, and sometimes they were just meh. In the end, I stumped for a Rolleiflex f2.8 which has became my default TLR since. However, I do miss the Yashica, and suspect that I might end up picking up another one in the future if the price and condition is right, so it’s not the end of the story.
Cost and Availability
The Yashica Mat 124G is not difficult to find, though obviously they are no longer in production. A few years ago I picked one up for about £70, but nowadays you can expect to pay anything from £180 upwards. With that said, be sure to factor in any additional servicing costs that might end up being required.