The Yashica Electro 35 series rangefinder cameras are very highly regarded among street photographers, and perhaps with good reason. But I’m just not that impressed.
In the interest of transparency, I should disclose that my expectations were high based on all I’d heard about the Electro 35. It appears regularly on lists of affordable rangefinders, and frequently tops them.
Often discussed in the company of other inexpensive rangefinders that I know and love, such as the Konica Auto S2, the Canon Canonet III QL-17 and the Olympus 35SP, I guess I just got my hopes up too high.
It’s not that I can’t see plenty that’s right with the Yashica, but it just doesn’t do it for me the way those others do.
The Electro 35 series began in 1966 and went through several iterations over the years. My GSN model was produced from 1973 to 1977. Yashica reportedly sold over eight million Electro 35s over about 15 years.
It sports a sharp 45mm f/1.7 Yashinon (labeled “Color-Yashinon” after 1968 as color film became more popular) lens with a 5-bladed aperture that stops down to f/16 and accept 55mm threaded filters. The leaf shutter is infinitely-variable (“stepless”) and controlled by the auto-exposure system unless you switch to flash mode, which syncs at 1/30 sec. There is a self-timer lever behind the aperture ring.
The longest exposure is limited by the aperture — at f/1.7 it won’t go longer than 3 seconds, but at smaller apertures it can extend all the way to 30 seconds. If the battery is dead or removed, the camera reverts to its fastest shutter speed, around 1/500 sec. It also has Bulb mode.
On the top plate is a film speed dial with speeds from ASA 25 to ASA 1000 (earlier models went from ASA 12 to ASA 500). The meter doesn’t see through filters, so you may have to use the film speed dial to compensate for your filter factor. The accessory shoe on the GSN (and black GST) models is hot, and the models retain the PC-sync socket on the left end of the top plate that was more necessary on the earlier, cold shoe-equipped models.
Rewind knob on the top left, spool release on the bottom right, and battery check in the center of the back of the top plate. On the top center are the electronic exposure indicators. The yellow Slow LED indicates shutter speed of 1/30 sec. or slower, and the red Over LED warns you that the exposure is at 1/500 sec. and needs to go faster.
The two LEDs are also visible as arrows in the viewfinder with the same color coding. Using either set of indicators, the arrows indicate the direction the aperture needs to move to compensate for either the slow shutter speed or the overexposure.
Also in the viewfinder are brightline framing indicators that adjust automatically to correct parallax error and a diamond-shaped bright patch for the rangefinder.
The Electro 35 is designed to use a 5.6-volt mercury battery that is no longer available anywhere in the world, but there are a number of alternatives and adapters that can get you up and running with a 4SR44 battery or similar. When I mentioned the Electro 35 in an In My Bag post in February, I mentioned an adapter from Yashica-guy.com that worked quite well for me.
The shutter release button is tall and travels a long way before tripping the shutter itself, first activating the meter in two stages — one for the Slow indicator, and another for the Over indicator. It is surrounded by a locking collar that will save your batteries by preventing the tall button from being partially depressed in your bag. The button is threaded for a cable release.
I think I may have been suffering a bit of rangefinder fatigue by the time I got around to testing the Electro 35, but I really wasn’t that impressed overall. I think that has more to do with the competitors I’ve already tested, though, than the Yashica itself.
Visually, it’s a massive camera compared to other rangefinders of its day. It features a ton of metal in the construction, so it feels both stout and solid. However, it also feels quite heavy — even heavier than the hefty Olympus 35SP.
The rounded corners and shiny details are almost comically space age — like a prop from Woody Allen’s Sleeper or the set of the original Star Trek series. Of course this means that the Electro 35 is still fairly comfortable in the hand despite its size and weight.
The lens on mine wobbles a bit — not uncommon on Japanese rangefinders of its era, and particularly the Electro 35 — but stills seems able to take sharp pictures. Most of my examples were made at f/8 or f/11 and the Electro’s reputation for sharpness is, I think, well-deserved. I don’t see any noticeable distortion or chromatic aberration, either.
The aperture and shutter control rings, and the focus ring, are well-spaced for my thick fingers and have comfortable, grippy knurls. They turn evenly and easily.
The battery test button on the back of the top plate has a green LED next to it on some models. On those without the LED, the frame counter (almost hidden to the right of the film advance lever) is supposed to light up green. Mine apparently doesn’t work, because it does nothing despite the auto-exposure functioning correctly and the shutter firing.
A lot of the Electro 35’s controls, such as the spool release button, rewind knob, PC-sync socket and hot shoe, are placed in common locations and function as you’d expect. The film speed dial just turns to align a red mark with the speed on the indicator plate. Things get more interesting on the top right, though.
The shutter release’s long travel was harder to get used to than I expected. Pushing it down all the way seemed to take more determination than I thought, every time. The distance was like plunging a clogged toilet, over and over. Of course it’s going through the two stages of metering detection each time, telling you whether you’ll need to stabilize the camera for a slow shutter or stop down to avoid over-exposure, but it’s an action that requires a lot of intent.
The locking collar on mine, too. Is so easy to move, that simply brushing it with my knuckles flipped it around a few times and cost me a shot or a little frustration.
And there is something about the film advance lever, too, that is just a little bit off. Its plastic tip is curved and smooth on the vertical face your thumb touches, but the corners where it meets the horizontal top and bottom faces are fairly sharp and dug into my thumb.
Additionally, the advance lever is very short, which makes for an unusual arc of travel that felt almost unnatural in the way my thumb moved. The slippery plastic tip is easy to lose grip on at the end of the travel, and the return spring is strong enough that the lever really whips back. It’s loud.
The shutter, too, is louder than those on a lot of the Electro 35’s contemporaries. It’s not as loud as an SLR mirror or anything, just louder than its direct competitors. And then there’s the clunk.
Just as you begin to advance the film you should hear a loud clunk as the shutter cocks. I say should because that’s not always the case.
As the Electro 35 ages, there is a small rubber pad in the shutter tensioner mechanism which can degrade and crumble, preventing the shutter from cocking and reportedly messing up the accuracy of the light meter. Unfortunately, this problem is somewhat common on used Electro 35s, and repairing it requires a near-complete teardown of the camera — a repair that will almost certainly cost more than the camera is worth. Unless you’re brave enough to try it yourself, you probably want to pass or find a working replacement camera.
So if you’re in the market for an Electro 35, watch out for the “Pad of Death” problem and make sure you hear that clunk. Remember: If it don’t clunk, then it’s just junk!
Most of the rest of my complaints with the Electro 35 have to do with the viewfinder.
While the finder is seemingly big and bright, the framing lines indicate that the image area only occupies about 50 or 60 percent of the scene you see. This may be due to the automatic parallax correction — which is actually pretty cool. The brightline framing indicators move from being fairly close to the center of the viewfinder down toward the lower-right corner as you move the focus point closer. They stay nice and bright the whole time, too.
Also visible in the viewfinder are the arrow-shaped Slow and Over indicators from the light meter. The arrows point in the direction you’ll need to turn the aperture ring in order to compensate. Since the Slow arrow indicates a shutter speed of 1/30 sec. or below, you’ll want to either open up the aperture a little or stabilize the camera to avoid shake. Over is just over-exposed — the shutter can only handle 1/500 sec., so you’ll need to stop down or add a neutral density filter in order to compensate.
Looking through the viewfinder also feels a bit like looking through a toilet paper tube (two bathroom references in one review, that’s got to be a record!). It’s not as bad as the tunnel-vision finders on some old Bakelite box cameras like the Imperial Herco 620 Snapshot, but there are a lot of reflections that make it a bit annoying.
Lastly, the rangefinder patch is a bit meh. It feels almost like an afterthought in some ways. Sure, it works. But it’s not very bright or very big, and it’s an odd little squished diamond shape that looks like maybe a bigger camera sat on it during recess.
So that’s it. As I said, my experiences with some of its competitors — and the era was rife with solid, inexpensive rangefinders, particularly from Japan — may have colored my opinion, but I really wasn’t that impressed by the Electro 35.
If you have a chance to get one cheap, by all means give it a try — it would be a great introduction to this class of vintage camera. But if you have a choice between the Yashica and an Olympus or Canonet, maybe pick the other guy instead.
My test rolls were Ilford FP4 Plus and some expired Kodak 200 color negative that must’ve been cooked a bit in its life, as you can see from the grain and color-shift. The autoexposure seems to have been really spot-on, though.