Yashica-A TLR camera: When really simple is really good

Republic Plaza umbrellas
Outside Denver’s tallest building, lunch tables have colorful umbrellas raised in the middle of the day. I’ve been loving their bold, primary colors on test rolls lately. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Yashica-A is an early model in the Japanese maker’s line of faithful copies of the famed Rolleiflex TLR cameras. It’s fun to shoot, takes good pictures and earns many comments.

I mentioned last week that the Yashica-A was back in my bag after my first test roll came back negative (read: blank). Turns out I was wrong about that. I actually had the film back a couple weeks ago with some scans from the lab.

Which means the film that came up empty was shot in a different camera, and leaves me wondering: Which one? It might’ve been my thrift-store Holga, which you may or may not ever hear about because I don’t really like it.

I had the film processed by Mike’s Camera on Colorado Blvd. in Denver, and tried their scanning out for the first time. The film looks just fine, but the scans were exceptionally low in quality. They’ll work for a web story, but would be no good for anything else. It’s frankly not easy to tell how sharp the lens is from the scans.

Atlantic Jewelry and Loan
Atlantic Jewelry and Loan in downtown Denver, formerly Waxman’s Pawn shop. Above the door to the right you can still see where the Waxman Camera sign I’ve photographed before was once mounted. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I used inexpensive Lomography Color Negative ASA 100 film for my first test roll, the images you see here. It’s got pretty bold contrast, and it’s quite saturated in its reds and yellows. Blues seem a bit washed out, and I would describe its sharpness as moderate, at best.

The find

I’ve had a beat-up Yashica-D for a while, but its film counter doesn’t seem to work quite right. Maybe it’s me. It wound up wasting a lot of frames, though, shooting the last 2-1/2 off the end of the roll. You don’t have a ruby window on the Yashica-D so you have to trust the advance knob, and I don’t.

The Yashica-A has a few less features than the Yashica-D, but is otherwise almost identical aside from that advance knob — it uses a ruby window instead of a complex thickness-sensing mechanism. I wasn’t really set on replacing or augmenting the Yashica-D, but I browsed around occasionally and decided that another Yashica was probably my best bet for a replacement — rather than trying to save up $1000 or more for a Rollei.

16th Street Mall center lane
The center lane of Denver’s 16th Street Mall is lined with trees along most of its length, and filled with tables, chairs, kiosks, benches, pianos and street performers. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Lo and behold, I found the Yashica-A for about half the going eBay price a couple months back at a local antique mall, The Brass Armadillo. It is in near mint condition, truly. If it hadn’t been quite such a steal I probably wouldn’t have taken it home, but shooting a couple test rolls has reminded me of the things I like about shooting a TLR.

As you can see in these test shots, ignoring the film’s sharpness and the poor scans, the Yashica-A can take a pretty nice picture.

Features and specs

The Yashica-A isn’t really a direct copy of any particular Rolleicord or Rolleiflex; it’s the budget model and it’s not as much on par with a Rollei as are some of the higher-end Yashica TLRs. My first choice would’ve been a late Yashica-Mat (no 124) with an f/2.8 taking lens, but the simplicity of the Yashica-A appeals to me, as well.

While the Yashica-A is not the most respected of the otherwise well-regarded line of copies, it’s still a far cry from the next step down. There’s a bit of a gap between pseudo-TLRs like the Kodak Duaflex line or the Argus Seventy-Five and even the more popular Rollei copies and competitors like the Ciroflex, Autocord or Yashica.

To me the Yashica-A is about as close as you can get to middle ground — only nominally more complicated than a Duaflex IV, it’s astronomically sharper and more versatile. At the same time, it’s ridiculously cheap next to any Rollei, and in many cases, next to other Yashicas.

Introduced in 1956 or 1957, the Yashica-A uses commonly available 120 film and takes square, 6cm-by-6cm images. Being the budget model, it’s not surprising the Copal shutter is limited in scope — featuroing only 1/300 sec., 1/100 sec., 1/50 sec. and 1/25 sec. speeds, as well as bulb. It has a PC socket and the leaf shutter will X-sync at all speeds.

Paramount Cafe in Denver
The Paramount Cafe, on the 16th Street Mall less than a block from Denver’s historic Paramount Theater. The neon sign and adjustable-height awnings always catch my eye. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The f/3.5 Yashikor lens marks mine as a later model, and it will stop down to f/22. The shutter release is missing its trim ring, but is threaded to accept a Leica-nipple for a cable release if needed.

Loading film is pretty simple and the advance knob on the right side of the body turns easily, advancing advances at a good pace. Slow enough to avoid passing your mark when looking through the ruby window (which has a sliding cover to further protect your film from the cruel, cruel light), but fast enough to be efficient. On the left size of the body, two spring-loaded knobs can be pulled to release the film spools inside.

As with other Yashica TLRs I’ve used, despite the budget price you really get the feeling that care was put into its design and construction. Everything operates smoothy and fluidly.

There is a magnifying lens in the viewfinder for fine focus adjustments as you would expect with decent TLRs. There is no light meter, but there is a cold shoe on the left side.

The Yashica-A was discontinued in 1969.

How it shoots

The first thing I noticed about the Yashica-A, especially after having owned a Yashica-D, was how simple the controls are. I’ve never been a big fan of the dial-coupled controls on the Yashica-D — I find them somewhat difficult to operate, though my Yashica-D may need adjustment or lubrication. The controls on the Yashica-A are more akin to those on a lens-mounted shutter for a view camera, or on many medium format folding cameras like my Agfa-Ansco PB20 Viking.

Glenarm Place
Looking northeast up Glenarm Place in downtown Denver from the second level walkway at the Denver Pavilions shopping mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The outer ring of the shutter housing rotates to select one of the four shutter speeds (plus bulb) next to a fixed pointer on the inner ring. The inner ring also has the aperture settings marked, and a sliding pointer selects your F-stop. A lever primes the shutter and a small button on the front releases it. All the control operate smoothly and predictably.

I have trouble remembering to prime the shutter. I have trouble remembering that on lots of cameras, actually. I may have missed a few possible shots because of it. But I don’t regularly shoot with anything that requires it, so I suspect it’s mostly a matter of developing a habit.

Focus is adjusted via a large knob on the right side of the camera; distance markers around the knob align with a pointer on the side nearest the top of the camera — so it’s visible when you’re using the waist-level viewfinder. The film advance knob is on the right, as well, which makes the controls generally quite convenient for a right-hander.

The Yashica-A isn’t quite as heavy as the Yashica-D, but it’s not light. It’s got that heft of quality. The knobs feature quality knurls, the machining is solid and the polish is polished. Like I said above: Sure, it’s not a Rollei — but you can tell it was made with care and precision.

The size is good; I can cradle it in my left hand with ease. My hands are pretty huge, though, so your results may vary. This leaves my right hand free to operate all the controls and also makes carrying the Yashica-A convenient even without a strap.

Radio Shack on 16th
The Radio Shack store on 16th Street Mall in downtown Denver. When I made this picture we were just learning how many Radio Shack stores would close in the company’s bankruptcy and I didn’t know how long this store would remain open. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Lifting the top cover opens the hood and exposes the ground glass focusing screen. It’s not obvious, but the center of the top cover is hinged inside its frame, as well. Press it gently from the front when the viewfinder is open and up pops the magnifying lens. You can lean in a bit and use the magnifier to check your focus like you would use a loupe on a view camera.

Unknown to many, though, is that nearly all Yashica TLRs have another viewfinder mode: Keep pushing on the hinged center of the lid and it snaps down, locking into the back of the hood and covering the ground glass. This puts the viewfinder into “sport” mode for tracking fast-moving subjects. Pull gently down on the small silver knob on the back-right of the hood to release the center door from sport mode.

As with most rangefinders, the leaf shutter is stealthily quiet and this makes it great for candid street photography. As you get better at using the waist-level finder at your actual waist level, the TLR becomes even more stealthy because you’re not holding a camera up to your face. These days a lot of people won’t recognize what you’re doing.

Heck, some young people may not even recognize a TLR as a camera at all. For this reason I recommend that you don’t leave your TLR any place where suspicious police might blow it up out of an overabundance of caution.

The Yashica-A has no double exposure prevention, so you can expose a given section of film as often as you want. Don’t forget to advance the film if you’re not double-exposing on purpose.

The bandaged man
A man with a mysterious bandage on his head is seen walking Denver’s 16th Street Mall with the Colorado State Capitol in the background. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I’ve seen some complaints online that the viewfinder is dim, but I don’t find it to be. I’ve certainly seen brighter, but I’ve also seen much darker finders. The Yashica-A’s finder is more than bright enough to be quite usable, and the focusing screen has useful and unobtrusive rule-of-thirds lines on the ground glass.

When I got curious about how dim the finder in my Yashica-D was, and it was quite dim, I opened it up and found what appeared to be a literal mouse nest inside, as well as some dead beetles. It was considerably brighter after a thorough cleaning.

When I brought the Yashica-A home I opened up the top right away to see what I would find in its viewfinder. It was almost disappointing to discover it clean and in nearly perfect condition.

Shooting the Yashica-A, owing to its simplicity and solid build quality, is a pleasure. It’s easy and the results are good. The lens isn’t amazingly sharp, especially when wide open, but it’s definitely not soft — it’s really quite good.

One of the fun things about any of Yashica’s TLRs is the occasional, “Nice Rolleiflex!” you’ll hear on the street. And with any TLR, you’ll be asked what it is, how it works, how much it costs . . . over and over.

If you’re considering trying out a TLR for the first time, or even trying medium format film for the first time, this is a fantastic and very affordable entry point.

For the price, the Yashica-A is one of the best pleasure-shooter TLRs I can think of.

Denver City and County Building
Very moody clouds over the Denver City and County Building once more. The 80mm lens on a 6×6 camera loves this view. (Daniel J. Schneider)
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