Yashica-Mat: The simple, elegant essence of a TLR

The Yashica-Mat
The Yashica-Mat is a fashionable addition to any sidewalk cafe table, and has many times more street cred than most hipsters. The only things missing are a fedora and pack of Gauloises. (Daniel J. Schneider)

When I bought the Yashica-Mat, I was no stranger to Yashica TLRs. It was an impulsive bet on a single feature, but I think it worked out.

Early in my journey from digital back to film, I picked up a rough Yashica-D for cheap and I really quickly fell very much in love. I shared some Provia slides made with the D quite a while ago.

That camera had a scrape in the back that went all the way through at the edge of the film door, a stuck shutter and a (literal) mouse nest in the viewing lens. But with a little gaffer tape over the hole, some lighter fluid in the shutter and a thorough cleaning, it was a decent camera.

And, of course, it was a strong influence in my buying the Yashica-A that I reviewed last year. Entry level or not, that was a solid camera, too.

I’m not alone in this opinion. In fact, the Frugal Photographer points out that the Yashicas made from about 1955 until 1984 are very good, and with their lower prices, likely are more economical than the Rolleicords and low-end Rolleiflexes they were meant to compete with.

So when I had the chance to buy a cheap Yashica-Mat with a misbehaving focus knob, I jumped on it.

Coming on the heels of my huge Pentax 6×7 system review, this one will considerably more concise. But I have a ton of example photos to show off, too.

The techy stuff

The Yashica-Mat was first released in 1957 and went through several slight variations over the years.

My Yashica-Mat appears to date to very early 1971 and includes the later Copal MXV shutter, a Yashinon 80mm f/3.5 taking lens, and a bright Yashinon f/2.8 viewing lens. I’ll be focusing primarily on the specs of my particular camera, but mentioning some relevant differences.

The first versions were equipped with a Copal MX shutter, although apparently its fastest speed was 1/500 second as opposed to the 1/300 second speed on most of the other cameras using the MX. After a few years, the Yashica-Mat started featuring the Copal MXV shutter.

Yashica-Mat left side
The left side of the Yashica-Mat. The large knob is the focus knob and has a film-speed reminder in it. The two smaller knobs are the spool releases. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The leaf shutter has speeds ranging from 1/500 second down to 1 second, and Bulb. The aperture has 5 curved blades and stops down to a minimum of f/22.

The focus knob is on the left-hand side of the camera and has a scale marked in both meters and feet, with a minimum focusing distance of 1 meter, and a depth-of-field scale.

There is a film speed reminder ring in the film advance knob. Simply rotate it so the window highlights the chosen film speed, from ASA 16 to 400 (also marked in DIN).

Earlier models had 4-element Lumaxar 75mm taking lenses with a maximum aperture of f/3.5. It’s unclear if there was a hard cutoff or if Lumaxar and Yashinon lenses intermingled for years. The 4-element Yashinon taking lenses also have a maximum aperture of f/3.5.

All the viewing lenses are reportedly three-element designs. The earlier Yashica-Mats had f/3.5 viewing lenses, though some Yashica-Mats in the late 1960s had f/3.2 viewing lenses. Starting in 1971, the Yashinon viewing lenses opened up to f/2.8.

Yashica-Mat right side
The right side of the Yashica-Mat has the folding advance crank lever and frame counter. The crank doesn’t go all the way around, but is fast and fun nonetheless. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film advance, a folding crank lever which automatically advances one frame at a time, and also cocks the shutter, is the primary feature borrowed from the Rolleiflex. Internally, the Yashica-Mat and all the other 6×6 Yashicas are much more closely related to the lower-end Rolleicord models. The frame counter is in a small window on the right-hand side above the advance crank.

The crank doesn’t go all the way around like a Hasselblad, rather, just forward and back. It will go all the way around when you first load film or when you go beyond the last exposure. In between, though, wind the lever forward about one half turn to advance the film one frame, and then turn it back to set the shutter.

The Yashica-Mat takes 120 roll film and makes square 6×6 centimeter images (really more like 56 millimeters wide by 57 millimeters high). The focal length is fixed but the lenses have Bay 1 mounts to which filters, lens hoods, and close-up lenses can be fitted. This model cannot use 220 film, though the later Yashica-Mat 124G can.

The shutter and aperture controls are dials mounted to either side of the gap between the viewing and taking lenses. Mine have small leatherette discs affixed to them, but some were polished in the center or had other ornamentation. The leatherette discs are repeated on the film spool holders on the left side of the camera.

The spool holders pull out against spring tension, and can be turned either direction a few degrees to lock them in the “out” position for changing film. Rotate them back and they pop into the camera to hold the film spools. After swapping the empty spool to the take-up side (toward the top of the camera) and loading the new film, be sure to advance it until the start mark on the film’s backing paper aligns with the red arrow next to the film path inside the camera.

Yashica-Mat focusing screen
Looking down at the focusing screen of the Yashica-Mat. Yes, that’s a bagel at the minimum focusing distance. The grid lines are a nice addition. (Daniel J. Schneider)

To open and close the camera back, turn the knob on the bottom of the camera in the direction indicated by the arrows labeled “O” (open) and “C” (close) to engage or release the latch. On my camera, the Open arrow has enamel in it, while the Close arrow does not.

The viewfinder is of the waist-level variety — like most twin-lens reflex cameras. The flip-up hood features a spring-mounted center panel that can be pushed in partway to release a magnifier.

Pushing the panel in and down all the way will latch it into “sport” mode, where a small hole in the back panel of the hood, and the large square vacated by the moving panel, form a viewfinder for framing fast-moving objects. A small silver button on the back right corner of the viewfinder hood releases the panel from sport mode. Refer to the manual for more details.

Yashica-Mat controls and hood
In this view you can see the displays for the shutter speed and aperture controls — displayed above the viewing lens, facing up. I also have a Yashica Bay 1 lens hood installed on the taking lens here. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Focusing is done using the focus knob and the ground glass focusing screen in the viewfinder. Instead of a pentaprism like an SLR, a TLR uses a simple mirror, so the image on the focusing screen will be horizontally reversed, which can take some getting used to. Some have said that Yashica focusing screens tend to be brighter than those of competing Rolleicords.

The Yashica-Mat has no light meter, but it does have a PC sync socket and a switch to select between M- and X-sync flash modes. A tiny lever with a dot of red enamel on it, under the bottom center of the taking lens (the lower lens), is the self-timer.

The entire front plate moves in and out, carrying both lenses and the shutter with it, when focusing. The edge of the front plate seems to conceal a light baffle of some sort allowing it to telescope in and out. The diagram in this article (Romanian) might help make better sense of the way the front plate works.

The shutter release is on the lower-right (as seen from behind the camera) corner of the front plate. The shutter release button is mounted in a collar threaded for a “Leica nipple” cable release adapter.

Functionally, this is a very simple camera.

Downtown Arvada
Festive lights adorn the trees lining the streets of old town Arvada, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)

My thoughts

As I mentioned, when I got the camera it had a few imperfections. Most notably, the focus knob was wonky, working a bit sometimes, but mostly spinning without effect.

Also, there was a bent-up paper clip holding the self-timer lever to the flash sync mode switch. I can only theorize that a previous owner had trouble activating the self timer by accident and wired it in the off position to stop that. I removed the paper clip and tested the timer — it works fine.

The focus knob was a tougher nut to crack. But not much. It turns out the focus knob is just bolted in place with a nut. It’s attached to a shaft that’s splined into gear teeth that move the front plate in and out.

You’d think the knob would be engaged mechanically with the shaft in some way — splines, notches, maybe just a square hole in the knob mated to a square boss on the end of the shaft. But no, it’s just pressed on lightly and held in place with a nut. It seems to be relatively common for the nut to come loose, leaving the knob loose and making focusing difficult or impossible.

Observatory Park Denver
Chamberlin Observatory in Denver’s Observatory Park after an overnight snow frosted the ground and the trees. (Daniel J. Schneider)

To cure the problem, use a pin spanner to unscrew the plastic cap in the center of the knob. Find a socket that fits the nut inside and has thin-enough walls to fit in the center of the knob. Make sure the front plate is all the way in and the knob is aligned to the infinity mark. Tighten the nut. Violà!

After fixing those two minor issues, I immediately started putting film through it. I love the crank winder — the feature that I bought it for in the first place. It’s been a fixture in my bag ever since.

The crank is fast. You can really burn through frames if you want. But it’s also just got a beatnik-esque cool factor that Allen Ginsberg would envy. You will get looks and comments on the street.

I did make one other alteration. I decided to clean the camera thoroughly, expecting to find who knows what in the viewfinder like I had with the Yashica-D, because it wasn’t all that bright. I expected the extra stop of light in the viewing lens to make a visible difference versus the f/3.5 viewing lens in the D, but it wasn’t there.

I carefully compared the brightness of the viewfinders in the Yashica-D and Yashica-Mat in a dim room with a single light about 10 feet away, and found them roughly equal — with the D possibly being a little brighter. Then I opened up the Yashica-Mat.

16th St alleyway
A skyway in an alley off of 16th Street Mall in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I found that the mirror in the viewer — a first-surface mirror silvered with actual silver — had some desilvering that likely contributed to the dim viewfinder. A thought occurred to me — the Yashica-D was in pretty rough shape but the mirror was flawless. So I swapped the mirrors, and the difference was like night and day. In a follow-up comparison, the Yashica-Mat is now at least a full stop brighter — maybe close to two.

I gave the Yashica-D to a friend for his daughter to experiment with, since, rough as it is, everything still technically works and it can make a good picture.

Everything about the Yashica-Mat just fits for me. It sits comfortably in the hand and focus is easy to achieve, with or without the magnifier (although I find myself using it most of the time). Months later, the focus remains smooth and functional.

I also tested the shutter speeds and they are fairly accurate with the numbers centered in the shutter speed display, none measuring more than 20% off its target, and most nearly perfect. The aperture works nicely and the blades are clean and smooth. And, oh, the pictures it can take!

Outside Wiggins Colorado
Hay, straw, oats and welding supplies. A garage outside of Wiggins, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Is it perfect? No. It’s got a few foibles:

Changing the film can be a little finicky. It takes care and a little effort, and I usually try to find a place to set things down. And the film speed reminder dial on mine is loose enough that it’s not reliable — it moves all the time going in and out of the bag.

The aperture and shutter speed settings don’t have any kind of detents that lock in at the marked settings — you just have to get the numbers centered in the window above the viewing lens (visible when looking down from the top of the camera). I wonder how accurately I’m able to set the aperture sometimes, but then, it doesn’t matter that much. Most of the time I’m in an aperture like f/5.6 or f/8 where being a little over or under isn’t going to have any noticeable impact on the image.

When holding the camera, I do sometimes feel like I need to be careful not to squeeze the front plate into the camera too much, for fear it may affect the relationship between the two lenses and thereby the focus of the image.

That’s really all I can think of. Let me show you some more of the photographs I’ve enjoyed making with the Yashica-Mat in the last few months, and maybe that will demonstrate what I like so much about this camera.

Maybe someday I’ll get a Rolleiflex (if you’re listening, Santa, a 2.8C with a Zeiss Planar would excuse you from all future Xmases), but until then I’ll be very happy with the Yashica-Mat.

Now, about those examples…

Students in downtown Littleton
Junior high students paint a utility box as part of a public art project in downtown Littleton celebrating the town’s 125th anniversary. (Daniel J. Schneider)
16th Street Piano
Impressive piano playing on the 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Ruth Memorial Chapel, Parker
The Ruth Memorial Chapel in Parker, Colo., as seen from the side entrance of Parker Consolidated School and its public art. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Creek bed at Rocky Flats
A creek bed at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in late winter. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Pond at Rocky Flats
One of several large ponds at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Railroad track in downtown Arvada
Sunset in old downtown Arvada, where the tracks pass the water tower. (Daniel J. Schneider)
A handprint in the snow
A handprint found in melting snow at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Rocky Flats walking path
One of the hiking paths at Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge in late afternoon winter sun. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Downtown Littleton
Sunny sidewalk in downtown Littleton, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Caboose rust
A rust spot and the undercarriage of the caboose parked at the Parker, Colo., railroad depot. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Parker train station
The former Parker, Colo., train station now houses offices and a restored Rio Grande Railroad caboose. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Caboose interior
Interior of the restored Rio Grande Railroad caboose at the former Parker, Colo., railroad depot. (Daniel J. Schneider)
An oil tank at an abandoned house
A tank — probably for heating oil — outside an abandoned house near the site of Hoyt, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Yashica-Mat TLR camera
Author Rating