After Shin Yasuhara left his job at Kyocera, the large Japanese high technology company, he set out on designing his own dream camera. In the 1990’s the major Japanese camera manufacturers had long since been concentrating their efforts on making SLR cameras and smart auto-focus compacts and had no intention to go back to making manual focus rangefinder cameras.
Mr Yasuhara had other ideas, as he felt that there was still room in the market for a camera that emulated most of the features of a rangefinder Leica, but with a TTL light-meter with electronic readout, a modern design shutter and with a Leica screw lens mount, taking advantage of the wide range of excellent Leica thread mount lenses available on the used market.
While he was at it, he wanted a more compact shape, with a hinged rear door for fast film loading, no removable take-up spool and a really large viewfinder window that was easy for spectacle wearers to use.
For the shutter mechanism, which is the heart of the camera, he decided to use the established and reliable Copal vertical metal shutter, commonly fitted to SLR cameras. This decision was sensible since it meant that a huge part of the design process was now taken care of, but it did lead to some issues later on, as I will explain.
When his design was nearly complete, Mr Yasuhara went to find a manufacturer willing to make his camera, but had no luck in Japan. Instead, he approached the Phenix Optical Company, based in Jiangxi, China, who agreed to make his camera and also to make the camera for the domestic Chinese market under their own brand. Phenix are the biggest camera manufacturers in China and make cameras for a lot of other brands, for example the respected “Widepan”.
In 1998 Yasuhara-San announced the forthcoming camera, to a very enthusiastic response from Japanese photographers and photo magazines, who saw the potential of the design.
A couple of thousand pre-orders were taken, and the cameras began shipping in the Spring, of 1999. The name “Isshiki” was given to the camera, which in Japanese means “Complete” or “All you need” and is embossed into the top plate in Japanese Kanji characters. For some unknown reason, the camera is also named as “T-981”, which is a mystery that only Yasuhara-san knows the answer to.
As the finished cameras began shipping, a few issues began to be reported. The otherwise excellent Copal vertical metal shutter, was designed for use in SLR cameras, which have a mirror in place that shields the shutter from light between exposures, and especially when changing lenses. The Isshiki has no capping blind to protect the shutter from light, so some fogging issues began to be reported. There was nothing to be done except warn buyers of the problem, and suggest that they use a lens cap when possible and not to change lenses in direct sunlight. (I have carried out a test of sorts by carrying the camera around with no lens cap on, and sometimes with no lens at all, and have not found any light leaks).
There were some reports of back focus issues as well, but given that a vast range of lenses from different manufacturers, some of whom did not adhere meticulously to the Leica screw mount specification, were being used, it was not entirely surprising. (I have done my own testing on this issue, see results further below).
So the Isshiki was born, with a few teething problems and sold steadily in the Japanese home market, but never in high enough volumes to allow Yasuhara-san to design a mark II. In total somewhere between 4000 and 4500 were made, along with a Yasuhara-branded 50mm f/2.8 lens to match the camera.
The production ceased in 2001 and the company closed its doors in 2004, only to re-open them again in 2007, and is still making niche lenses of unique designs, notably a fisheye lens for mirrorless cameras and currently a super macro lens with integral led lighting.
The remaining stocks of new T981s were purchased by the Lomography enterprise, and sold via their website under their “Rarest Jewels” banner. They sold out fairly quickly.
Although it did not take the market by storm, the interest in the T-891 raised a few eyebrows at Konica and Voigtlander, who were then inspired to design the Hexar and the Bessa respectively. It is possible that neither of these cameras would have been produced had it not been for the work of Mr Yasuhara.
Hands-on with the T981
First look and the overall size compared to a Leica M6 is that it is shorter and is a bit thicker. In the hand, the grip is very good and the weight of the camera is reassuringly heavy, I have been told it is built on a solid brass frame but not taken it to bits to find out.
The ergonomics are very good (for me) with the viewfinder showing a huge field of view even in glasses, and the bright frame lines for 50mm. Unusually, the moving part of the rangefinder image is actually brighter than the stationary panel and is very clear to pick up visually and match to the static image. There is parallax correction of the bright frame as you would expect.
There is an electronic metering system built in, with a “two red dots and a green one” type of display. The meter cell reads off the shutter blades, and the center shutter blade is light grey to provide a reflective panel for this. I was not able to test the meter as the one I have is not working.
The film wind-on is a solid one-piece aluminium lever which is a pleasing shape and a short single throw advances the film and cocks the shutter. There is a standard type exposure counter beside the wind on lever. The shutter speed dial is very nicely made, reminding me of those found on newer Contaxes, with a raise and turn collar to set film speed for the meter. There is a red dot on a pillar to mark the shutter speed index.
Moving from right to left on the top plate we find the hot shoe, which is half-sunk into the top plate. It is not flush with the top plate as on a Leica M, but up sticks up a couple of mm. It is not a problem, but it might have looked better with it fully recessed. The engravings in the top plate are cleanly done, with the name of the camera “一式 T981”, serial number and Yasuhara Co.,Ltd. under that.
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The rewind knob and flip out crank are smaller than on an M4, but work perfectly well (see comment below). On the back are the flash sync socket and the viewfinder window, which is unusually large and helps spectacle wearers like me.
On the front is the distinguishing feature, a huge viewfinder and rangefinder window. The rangefinder base length is a lot shorter than a Leica M at 35mm, but is fast and bright in use and allows for easy focusing. The top plate and viewfinder housing are an interesting shape.
Instead of perfectly rounded ends like a Leica M, or angled large facets like a Canon rangefinder or a Nikon F, Mr Yasuhara decided on a curved but at the same time faceted design that I have never seen before. I find it pleasingly different.
It is then that we notice something unusual about the top cover and the viewfinder frame plate that is attached to the front by screws and holds the glass panels. The screw on plate is perfectly flat, but the top edge of the viewfinder housing is very slightly curved.
When I first noticed it, I had to look twice and then I realised what was going on. The lines of the camera are very carefully designed, in a way that I can only describe as a very subtle Japanese artistic way. The front of the camera is ruler flat but the back is slightly curved to fit the hand more comfortably. The dimensions of the body and the placement of the controls suit a smaller hand, the shutter button falls naturally under your finger, you don’t have to fumble for it. You can advance the film without removing the camera from your face. The more you handle the camera, the more comfortable it feels.
The satin chrome finish is not as non-reflective as a Leica M, or as silky smooth as a Contax, and at first I thought it was a little bright, but compared to the finish on Canon rangefinder lenses for the Canon 7 and similar, it is about the same and matches well. When you look very closely, you can see that some parts have not been fully polished prior to chrome plating, and some machining marks are showing in the hot shoe and the exposed edges of the viewfinder window plate. This is down to the camera being made to a price, I suppose, it is not a Leica price, after all.
I have spent some time and film to get to know it, and in use it can hold it’s own with equivalent Voigtlander Bessa’s and Konica Hexars. Although the quality of the finish is not perfect, it is an all-metal design (the only external plastic I could find being the rewind button on the base plate).
All the exposures I made with the camera were as sharp as I expected from the various lenses I tried, from Canon LTM 50mm F/1.4, and Canon 35mm F/2.8, to a 25mm Voigtlander Snapshot Skopar, which suits it very well. There was no fogging between frames, even though I deliberately changed lenses in normal daylight, and walked about with no lens cap on. The frame spacing is a little variable for some reason, with sometimes a 2mm variance in gap either way. This is not a problem in use.
Shutter accuracy was not tested on a machine, but changing speeds sound right and had the expected effect on exposures.
The shutter is quiet and the sound is not a sharp click as you might expect, rather more like a cloth shutter. When I had finished my first roll, I went to rewind and noticed the direction of the arrow on the rewind crank. It points anti-clockwise, not clockwise like every other 35mm camera I have ever used. When I had rewound the film I looked at the way it worked. Pulling up the rewind knob opens the back as you would expect, but then it gets weird.
The knob and the actual dog that engages the spool in the film cassette are not in line, they are offset by about half a centimeter. The reason is, that there are gears that connect the rewind knob to the film dog and that causes the dog to spin in reverse! Why Mr Yasuhara did that I have no idea, there must have been a reason because you don’t design something like that for fun.
The more you look, the more you see. Some camera top plates are stamped out of sheet brass or steel, and others made of aluminium or other light metal alloys are cast in a mould. The master shape for the casting mould is created nowadays by CAD CAM machines or 3D printers, but back in the 1990s, it was often wood or clay, or a mix of both. As I looked at the lines and angles of the camera, I saw that where it was allowed by form and fit, the shapes were hand carved, not machined on a milling machine.
In other words, the shape of the camera is deliberately not rigidly square and symmetrical as a Leica would be, there is an organic, hand-crafted element that has been retained from the original shaped models of the camera through the manufacturing process.
This is a uniquely Japanese concept and is called “Wabi-Sabi” which describes a kind of perfect imperfection. This camera has it and I find it refreshing in today’s world of clinically perfect cameras.
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