I’ve been fascinated with Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras ever since I can remember, and even before I knew what a TLR was — I just knew them as these beautiful, quirky little photograph-taking boxes that appeared in the hands of famous and not-so-famous people dressed in 1950s and 60s attire. They had appeal, they had charm, they had everything vintage-loving hipster millennials like me find attractive.
In short, before I knew what a TLR was, I lusted after them for their gorgeous looks.
By a strange twist of fate, I can pinpoint the exact moment I learned about TLRs: I was in my mid-teens, somewhere between using my parents’ cheap, auto-everything, 90s point-and-shoot film camera and buying my first ‘adult’ DSLR. Like every good teenager, I was also into playing the guitar (badly), and during my attempts to learn some bossa nova songs I came across João Gilberto’s wonderful ‘Desafinado.’ Portuguese-speaking readers may be able to identify the line ‘Fotografei você na minha Rolleiflex’ (I took your picture with my Rolleiflex), which immediately sent me on a frantic google search where I learned all about the most famous TLR of all time, what a TLR is, and how these wonderful machines work. From then on, I knew I wanted a TLR; more specifically, I wanted a Rolleiflex.
…then I learned how much a Rolleiflex costs and decided that I could not spend hundreds of Pounds on what would be (at the time) merely a decorative object.
Fast forward a couple of decades to 2019, when I became re-acquainted with film photography. The TLR once again played a big part in that: one of the main reasons why I returned to film was because I wanted to try medium format at a reasonable price, ideally in the sub-£50 division. Enter my first adult film camera, the Lubitel 166B. I don’t know what kind of narcotics that camera was covered in, but it got me hooked.
Soon I threw my explanations about ‘trying medium format’ out of the window, bought myself a series of 35mm cameras, practically dropped my DSLR completely (except for digitising negatives and a handful of other applications). I started to home-develop my own negatives, began to bulk loading my own film, and even started to learn about darkroom printing (and thanks to the lockdown still in place as I write these lines, I am now the proud owner of a makeshift one).
As I dove deeper into my film journey, I grew slightly more disappointed with my original medium format choice. The Lubitel gets the job done, but does not give me the same pleasurable experience that I get from my other film cameras: the viewfinder is dim, the focusing is incredibly difficult, advancing to the next frame is like defusing a bomb (closely watching the little red window at the back of the camera, inching towards the next number on the backing paper) and often forgotten. Despite still loving my Lubitel, I wanted a better experience with a medium format TLR; nay, I deserved a better experience. This is the moment that I bought the camera I want to tell you about: the Yashica-B.
If you are still reading this review, thank you! From this point onward, I promise, it will be a (mostly) straightforward article, although, I must warn you, I love this camera. Do not expect an unbiased opinion. In mid May 2020, as I write, Britain is still under COVID-19 lockdown, so I am yet to put it through its proper paces. I ran a few rolls through it, mostly at home and in the local area, so the sample photos are a little ‘domestic.’
I bought my Yashica-B through eBay in April 2020 but I truth be told, specifically buying a Yashica-B was not my intention. In fact, I knew nothing about the camera and the person who sold it to me knew even less. I bought it because the price was right, it looked in good condition, and because the reviews and opinions about other Yashica TLRs were mostly very positive, though the vast majority tends to focus on its bigger younger brother, the Yashica-Mat 124. When I bought my Yashica-B there was virtually nothing online about this particular model, with the little there was often referring to its rarity, and that is the reason why I wanted to write this review. First, a little history.
A super quick Yashica-B history
And I really mean only a little — there is very little information about this camera. It was released, as you might expect, after the Yashica-A but, surprisingly, seems to post-date the Yashica-C. According to Paul Sokk’s research, its production ran from 1958 to 1961 (though others give it even smaller production runs). It also arrived on the market at roughly the same time as the Yashica-D.
Going by the serial number pattern on Sokk’s website, my particular copy seems to have left the factory in April 1960. By all accounts, the Yashica-B is a fairly rare camera, though I was unable to find any specific numbers relating to production.
The price of the handful of copies available on eBay at the time of writing seems to confirm this (north of £300), often with accompanying claims to its rarity. It is available in two colours (grey and black, grey often said to be rarer, but I have seen more of these for sale than black models) with a handful of smaller trim differences, but all versions seem to have the same features.
Its sale seems to have been limited to certain markets, possibly only to Europe. It seems to have been pitched at the amateur user, slightly more advanced than the “A” model and a little more economic than the “D” model. Either through lack of popularity or, more likely, because its audience was already served by other models in the Yashica line, the Yashica B was never updated with any of its siblings’ features.
On the camera
The Yashica-B is a relatively small roll-film camera (120 only), capable of producing square 6x6cm negatives. It is completely constructed in metal and, therefore, a deceptively weighty camera for its size, though this is hardly noticeable in action, given that you would usually need both hands to operate a classic TLR.
Every aspect of it feels very solid and durable and would probably withstand a considerable fall without much damage (in fact, in its sixty years of life, it likely did), though I would not be particularly keen to try this theory (neither with this nor with any of my cameras). The leatherette is heavily textured, which makes it easy to grip even with only one hand; the advance and focus knobs on the right-hand side of the camera are big and smooth, and easy to locate and operate without taking your eyes from the viewfinder; the shutter button is responsive and positioned just below the taking lens, slightly to the right from the photographer’s perspective, in its classic TLR location.
This is a completely manual camera with simple controls and a relatively small amount of options, so there aren’t really any ‘features’ to speak of. The shutter is a simple Copal with a choice of four speeds (1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/300) plus bulb. The ultimate impressionist measure of camera quality — the shutter sound — is incredibly satisfying but relatively quiet, as it would be expected from a leaf-shutter.
Like many entry-level TLR cameras of its time, the shutter needs to be cocked before firing: this is done through a sprung lever (meaning it returns to its default position after cocking the mechanism). Apertures range from f/3.5 to f/22 in stepless increments, which makes available any aperture within this scale, though only full stops are marked. Shutter speed, aperture and cocking lever are all mounted around the taking lens.
From the photographer’s perspective, the right side of the camera is where you will find the film advancing knob and the focusing knob. The film advance, like everything else about this camera, is completely manual but features an automatic mechanical frame counter: once you reach the next frame, the knob stops turning; to release it, you have to remember to press the button at the centre of the knob as you turn.
Being used to the film advance in the Lubitel, this is a small mercy: it means that I can feasibly take two frames without moving my eyes away from the viewfinder in under three seconds (just enough to cock and fire the shutter, advance the film until it stops moving, cock and fire the shutter again) — who needs the 20 frames per second of modern cameras? The outside ring of the advance lever also has an ASA/DIN film speed setter but, as the Yashica-B does not have any metering, this serves only as a reminder.
The distance scale is printed around the focusing knob (in both meters and feet in my copy), along with a depth-of-field scale. The focusing is smooth and responsive, offering just the right amount of resistance to my taste. It takes one turn from infinity to its closest focusing distance of just under one meter (or 3 feet).
The viewfinder is one of my favourite things about the Yashica-B: it’s big, it’s bright, it’s completely covered in ground glass, all of which makes focusing relatively easy and pleasurable. Like most other TLRs, the hood also includes a large magnifying glass which further helps with focusing; and again, like most other TLRs, pushing the central square section of the hood reveals its ‘sports viewfinder,’ i.e., a metal frame that allows for eye-level operation.
Finally, the Yashica-B also features a self-timer giving you about 10 seconds before firing the shutter and a PC port for flash syncing; the flash is X-sync only, and, thanks to the leaf-shutter, it is capable of syncing at all speeds.
Twin Yashikor lenses
The Yashica-B sports two handsome triplet 80mm Yashikor 3.5 lenses (the viewing lens is, of course, fixed at f/3.5). From what I understand, the taking lens has coated elements, but if you are looking for a complete and accurate description of the lens formulae and nitpicking over aberrations and distortions, you are dealing with the wrong person.
Paul Sokk has a much more knowledgeable discussion about all these things, go read that. The Yashikor lens featured on the Yashica-B were common to a lot of the Yashica TLRs of the same age, including the Yashica Flexes, the Yashica-A and the Yashica-C. What I can tell you is this: I love how the viewing lens performs; and I love the results of the taking lens. It is sharp and detailed, with just a hint of softness that tells you that you are dealing with vintage glass, not with hyper-real modern technology. But, as I say, I’m not a lens-nerd, so take my opinion with a pinch of salt.
In action, the Yashica-B shines like the bright star it is. It’s size and weight means it fits perfectly in my hands, all controls within easy reach of my fingers. The layout of the buttons and knobs is intuitive. The viewfinder is the star of the show for me: it is bright, detailed, and even features a handy rule-of-three guide that is especially useful when you want to make absolutely sure your verticals are vertical and your horizon is levelled (easier said than done with a TLR).
Also, take note, this is not an absolute fact: no doubt my assessment of the viewfinder is heavily influenced by my previous experience with the Lubitel 166B, which has a famously bad viewfinder and a tiny central focusing screen area. Compared with that, the Yashica-B is the champion of the world and that is definitely how I see it. In absolute terms, is it the best viewfinder in any TLR? Probably not. It is, however, very usable and, as long as there is enough light for that f/3.5 aperture, very bright. Admittedly, it suffers slightly indoors, but take it outside and you will see the world in glorious detail.
Not everything is perfect in Yashica-B-land, even for such a biased observer like me. Its biggest drawback, in my view, is the location of the shutter speed and aperture levers. Positioning them around the taking lens is common to most Copal equipped TLRs, but that is of little comfort to me.
In effect, what this means is that you are forced to look the Yashica-B in the eyes whenever you need to adjust either shutter speed or aperture which is, of course, often. More advanced and later models addressed this shortcoming by making use of two small Rollei style knobs between the taking and the viewing lens, with a small window above the viewing lens displaying the selected aperture and shutter speed.
Shutter speeds are also a little disappointing. No sixty year old consumer camera would win any fastest shutter contest, but the small number of options on the Yashica-B might leave you scratching your head on very bright days or, more likely, whenever you need slower shutter speeds for indoor still-life. My advice is to stop the lens down, use a cable release, bulb mode, and embrace the overexposure.
Some might also miss any sort of multiple-exposure prevention. Though I am prone to the occasional accidental double or even triple exposure, this is something I can live without. Occasionally, I even enjoy the results!
After all this, do I still lust after a Rolleiflex? Well, yes, but much in the same way I also lust after a Hasselblad 500C or original Nikon F: they are iconic cameras that I could never afford. The Yashica-B, perhaps thanks to an out-of-character stroke of luck, I can.
Writing this review only reminded me of how featureless the camera really is: the small number of shutter speeds available, the relatively slow f/3.5 aperture, the lack of bells and whistles. There are no rational reasons to recommend this camera over its more advanced siblings, or over any of the myriad TLRs out there. Rationally the Yashica-B is a solid, if modest, performer. But there is very little rationality about our shared hobby: rationally, we would be saving big bucks by sticking with digital cameras rather than buying film and chemicals, or sending the negatives to the handful of labs still operating; rationally, spending hours developing film instead of a couple of minutes in a RAW editor is a ridiculous waste of time.
Every film photographer has their reasons to keep shooting film, but most reasons have to do with enjoyment, not rationality. The Yashica-B, to me, is a supremely enjoyable camera. Everything about it fills me with joy: it feels right in my hands, the quiet but decisive shutter is a symphony to my ears, the world feels just a little less pandemic through that brilliant viewfinder that stole my heart, and it looks gorgeous standing proud in my small collection of old cameras.
There is also a small but undeniably persistent thrill in owning something that has been described as ‘rare’ (though I still have my doubts about it). Finally, you can’t really argue with results: as a photographer, I’m more keen than talented, but I love the photos that come out of this camera. If you want the quick version of this review, here it is:
I love it, and you might grow to love it too, despite it all.
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