Electro Baby

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A while back I had a black Yashica Electro 35GTN. It looked beautiful, and the images it was capable of were (and still are) amongst my favourite I’ve ever taken. In fact, quite probably the best photographs I’ve taken without using an SLR.

So you’d think it would have become an instant favourite and remained at the core of my collection of cameras… 

But due it’s bulk, weight, slightly tricky to focus rangefinder, and awkward metering lights, it was more frustrating than enjoyable to use.

Whenever I get film back from the developers I love discovering photographs I’ve taken that thrill me. But the process always outweighs the results.

If I don’t like using a camera much, it doesn’t matter what it’s capable of.

Some time later (maybe two years) I explored the Electro line again, wondering if there might be a sibling that offered some of the best parts of the 35GTN (looks, build, lens, reliable metering) but without the “flaws”.

Enter the tiniest Electro 35 ever made, the 35MC. 

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Face on, it’s smaller than a smartphone, or if you prefer, the main body is about the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes. The depth of the body is doubled by the protruding lens, but it still remains pretty tiny overall.

Now there are no shortage of diminutive compact 35mm film cameras available.

But most of them are plastic, have Auto Focus (AF), Auto Exposure (AE), and tiny viewfinders, so there’s little control, and they’re not much fun to use.

The Electro 35MC has a rather capable Yashinon-DX 40mm f/2.8, four elements in four groups lens, and even better, you have complete control of the aperture, from f/2.8 to f/16. The camera selects the shutter speed to give the correct exposure.

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Focusing is, for me, far preferable to either AF or a rangefinder – via zone focus (or scale focus).

You set the lens to the distance the object is away, and shoot. This sounds difficult, and many people struggle to estimate distance accurately.

But I really like it, and if you allow yourself a little margin of error with the aperture chosen, it’s really simple to get your subject in focus.

For example, focusing on something two metres away and using an aperture of f/8 is going to give much more leeway in the focusing than using f/2.8. Plus the relatively wide 40mm lens helps too, giving a greater depth of field at all apertures than a 50 or 55mm lens would.

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My first film camera was a Holga 120N. After wanting to shoot closer with it, I bought a simple push on close focus lens kit. The lens filters were marked with the distance from subject you needed to be for optimum focus – 20, 50 or 100cm if I recall.

Not wanting to carry a tape measure everywhere with me, I quickly devised a way of measuring with just my body. With my fingers stretched wide, the tip of my little finger across to the tip of my thumb is almost exactly 20cm.

With arm outstretched to my side, from the tip of my fingers to my opposite shoulder is 1m. Later I calculated that 0.9m – the minimum focus of many rangefinder and compact cameras I’ve used – was a little less, from the tip of my outstretched hand back to the middle of my chest.

So focusing with the Yashica Electro 35MC (as with my beloved Konica C35 EF3, also zone focus), with its minimum focus distance of 0.9m, was a doddle. 

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Aside from focusing, all I needed to adjust was the aperture of course. I played it safe (partly to help with accuracy of focus) and mostly used f/5.6 and f/8, occasionally dipping to f/11 for brighter scenes and f/4 for dimmer ones. This reflects how I use an SLR, nearly always these days on aperture priority also.

Most of the time I was using the 35MC for the first test roll, I was simply marvelling at its tiny dimensions.

Also, and despite its size, it feels a class act, really solid, well made, and almost entirely glass and metal, as all cameras used to be.

Actually there is more plastic in the MC than you might realise, but the crucial parts are metal, and you feel their reassuring cold presence on your fingers.

The viewfinder doesn’t look much from a distance, but when your eye is up close it’s actually very respectable, especially for such a little machine.

The framelines are clear, and although there are zone focus symbols up the right hand side, whatever it is that’s supposed to highlight the relevant one of these, doesn’t work on my example, so I ignored them.

As much as I love the immersive experience an SLR viewfinder provides, sometimes it’s very refreshing to make your adjustments on camera first, so when you raise the camera to your eye all you see a simple outline in which to frame your shot, and nothing else (no microprisms, needles, LEDs, numbered scales, icons etc) to get in the way.

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The wind on is subtle and short, and the shutter very discrete. My example, in highly polished silver (easily the shiniest camera I’ve ever had!) is not the most anonymous looking in a crowd of people, but a black version is available, and given their compactness and quietness, they would make an excellent camera for urban environments.

So, two questions come to mind.

First, is the 35MC the Electro I’ve been looking for, where the 35GTN frustrated me?

Well, in many ways yes – it’s far more fun to use, easier to focus and to set the aperture, very small and light and can’t help but bring a smile when either using it or just looking at it.

Obviously the lens is vastly smaller (though wider at 40mm) and less sophisticated, and it’s unfair to directly compare it with its big brother’s wonderful 45/1.7.

Having said that, the little 40/2.8 impressed me far more than I expected, and in terms of sharpness, focus, and colours, I was more than happy, especially from a (very) compact camera.

25254108574_2bb18dca49_cThe second question is – Is it unique in my collection, or put another way, am I going to keep it? 

The two most immediate rivals are the aforementioned Konica C35 EF3, the only camera I have two examples of – one red and one black – and the Olympus XA.

The EF3s are also zone focus, but the lens is slightly wider at 35mm (my preferred focal length in a compact) and more sophisticated (five elements in five groups). I’m being picky, but if anything the C35’s Hexanon just edges the Electro’s Yashinon in the final image. But it’s fully AE, with no aperture control.

The XA is a rangefinder, so a bit trickier (for me) to focus, and, miniature marvel that it is, doesn’t feel like you’re using a “proper” metal camera, like the Electro does. Again the XA’s Zuiko lens might just have the edge over the Yashinon, and it is also aperture priority metering.

Being fresh from using the Yashica, I would take it in preference to the Olympus, mostly for the easier focusing, clearer and simpler VF, and for feeling more like you’re using a camera.

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Given any one of these three cameras, and told it was the only compact I was able to use for the rest of my life, I’d have a smile on my face.

But I suspect the size of my smile would be largest for the Konica, very closely followed by the Yashica, then the XA. The prices I paid for the three just compound this result – Less than £10 for each of my C35 EF3s, around £30 for the Electro (inc postage from Germany) and around £45 for the XA.

If you’re looking for a very compact, manual focus and manual aperture priority camera, capable of excellent results, than the Electro 35MC has to be a frontrunner.

I’m keen to try some black and white film next, most likely Ilford XP2 or Kodak BW400CN.

The Lost Lovers – Part One

This is the first in a series of posts about cameras I have known, loved and lost. I plan to look back at why I loved them (“Romantic Reverie”) and then why I ultimately sold or donated them (“In The Harsh Light”).

First up, the Yashica Electro 35GTN.

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Romantic Reverie

The Yashica Electro 35 GTN was hands down one of the, if not the, most handsome camera I have ever owned. The classic chrome versions are very elegant also, but for me, in black they were even more beautiful.

From the top looking down, all those magical numbers and dials – which three years ago would have had me utterly baffled and immensely intimidated – just added to the allure and mystique of the Electro.

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It felt like a proper, old school camera, with a real heft, solid build, and that large 45mm f/1.7 hunk of glass at the front.

Even better, it took amongst my favourite photographs I’ve taken with any film camera, and the rendering and colours produced by the “Color-Yashinon” lens still delight me.

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I chose the Electro 35GTN as my companion for a “one month one camera” project last summer and shot 10 consecutive rolls with it – vastly more than I’ve managed consecutively in any camera since – yielding many gems.

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In The Harsh Light

Yes it was undeniable handsome and made wonderful pictures, but that’s not enough.

In practice the Electro was bulky, heavy and clumsy to carry around and use…

The aperture priority mode is fine – and I would prefer this to the shutter priority of many rangefinders of this era – though the lack of info on the shutter speed the camera is choosing can be frustrating.

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Added to this, the over and under exposure warning lights were helpful to a point, but unfortunately the camera only lets you know if you’re under or over, not if exposure is ok. If you are within the acceptable exposure limits of the camera, it will of course take the photograph, but you have no visual indication.

What I ended up doing was setting the aperture fully open or fully stopped down, half pressing the shutter button to see the under or exposure light come on, then whilst keeping it half pressed, moving the aperture ring up or down until the light went out, which would mean I was confident I would get an acceptable exposure.

This did work, and the camera exposes very well, but I did find it a bit awkward (which the camera’s overall weight and bulk didn’t alleviate) and long winded. It seems to me an obvious oversight to not have included a simple green “OK” light to show you the exposure was within the limits of the camera, in additional to the yellow and red under/over lights.

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Also, the rangefinder wasn’t great, for me. I was able to remove the glass and clean it, which made a significant difference, but I still struggled to focus much of the time. Compared to an SLR, I found it tricky to focus, and it quickly tired my eyes. I couldn’t shoot more than a roll of film without needing to rest my eyes.

These fairly major downsides, meant that for me the Electro 35GTN began gathering dust on my shelf, in preference to cameras that were ultimately easier and more enjoyable to use.

The images the Electro 35s are capable of are quite wonderful, and the colours and textures I love.

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But, as I’ve found time and time again, for the kind of photographer I am, and for the reasons I photograph, the experience of using a camera is more important than the end results.

On the final outcome I’d likely give the Electro a 9/10. But for enjoyment of use it’d struggle to score about 5 or 6.

So, sadly, it had to go.