The Yashica Electro 35 GSN: An Un-Compact Compact

The Yashica Electro 35 GSN: An Un-Compact Compact

Introduction

The analog camera market ebbs and flows over time. As the market matures, certain cameras become more or less valuable depending on things like rarity, simplicity, design, and, of course, which YouTubers are using them.

The Yashica Electro 35’s celebrity endorsement? The one and only Spider-Man. Even if it wasn’t the best one, the web-slinger reaches for an Electro 35 when he needs to take photos of.. Himself. You know, cause that’s how he makes money? ..It doesn’t matter.

So how does the Electro 35 not have more clout? Is Kendall Jenner more famous than Spiderman? Don’t answer that, I don’t want to admit that it’s true.

On paper, the Electro 35 sounds like a lot of other compact rangefinders. It has a 45mm lens, a coupled rangefinder, and aperture-priority auto exposure with two LEDs in the viewfinder to signal over or under exposure. Plenty of other cameras will have this exact feature-set. What’s so special about the Electro 35?

To be objective, there are a few differences. The most noticeable one is how much bigger and heavier the Electro 35 is than other fixed-lens rangefinders. While a Konica C35 might feel like a toy to some people, there’s no mistaking that an Electro 35 is a real, solid camera.

My Day with the Electro 35

And that’s what I felt as I walked around the gray streets of Tampere, Finland with the Electro 35. With its thin strap slung around my neck, the camera kept smacking into my stomach. I’m normally a wrist strap person, but this Electro 35 had its original strap and I wasn’t about to desecrate it for the sake of my comfort. 

Until I abandoned the neck strap and just wrapped it around my wrist, the knocking into my stomach did make me wish the Electro 35 was lighter. Or perhaps heavier, so it wouldn’t be swinging as much. As is, it’s the perfect weight to swing around and do some damage to my internal organs.

I could have put it in my bag, but I didn’t want to. The Yashica Electro 35 is a camera that demands, and feels most at home around your shoulder, facing the world, and ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. I mean, it is the preferred camera of renowned superhero photojournalist Peter Parker, after all.

Design

Simply, it’s beautiful. The lines are simple,  rounded rectangles forming the basis of the design. The camera is a large rectangle, with the rangefinder and meter using rectangular windows. The logo is a rectangle, and the LEDs on the top of the camera are as well. Even the large battery check area on the back of the camera is a rounded rectangle, although the actual battery check button is a circle.

The Electro 35 is coated in solid, semi-shiny metal that echoes something Zeiss Ikon would use. It's a far cry from the matte metal or even metal-painted-plastic that was common in cheaper film cameras. Many of these cameras, even if they’re popular nowadays, feel cheap in the hands. Cost cutting was the name of the game, and compact rangefinders were firmly consumer-grade cameras. The Electro 35 doesn't have this issue.

The whole thing feels smartly put together, as well. The knurled edges of the shutter lock were something I, as a fidgety person, played with constantly. It can be turned with one finger, too, which is *chef’s kiss* perfect. The ISO dial next to it is also beautiful, simple, and can be used with one finger.

Even the fonts and motifs used on the camera are beautiful and interesting. The retro-futuristic “ELECTRO 35” engraving on the top is iconic, as is the atomic symbol Yashica placed prominently on many cameras from this period.

Issues

Is it perfect? No, of course not. The size may be a turn off to some. Cameras like the Canon Canonet QL17, Olympus 35RC, and Ricoh 500G are smaller, and still offer more creative control. The Canon even has the same maximum aperture of f1.7, which I imagine was how Yashica differentiated the Electro 35 when it released in 1966.

One thing that could be a problem is the location of the light meter. It’s on the top right of the camera, in a position that could easily be obscured by the hand. It’s nice looking there, but I worried about it a few times while I was shooting. It’s also not ideal for black and white shooters, as filters will not work properly with the Electro 35.

Another area of issue is the rangefinder. For a camera of this size, it’s a bit small. It’s easier to excuse a small rangefinder when the camera fits in your pocket, but the Electro 35 is a neck-residing citizen and so I think it’s fair to expect a bit more. 

I had no trouble focusing while walking the streets of Tampere, but soon I grew disheartened by the weather and wanted to find some color. Little sun reaches central Finland during the winter, and it was a particularly cloudy day to begin with. Gray city streets and gray skies? I needed to find some color.

The Forest

Luckily, there are stands of evergreen trees about 15 minutes from my office, that provide a pop of color all year round. Take that, seasonal depression!

Taking the Electro 35 into the forest is a mixed bag. Its aperture priority system means it's always ready to shoot, provided it has enough light. The Compur Elec shutter is also very quiet. 

That’s perfect, because Finnish forests are a level of quiet that the United States simply does not have. I would feel bad adding the mirror slap of a Pentax 6x7. I feel bad adding even the sound of my clumsy, Vans-clad footsteps.

The rangefinder, though, struggles enormously in this setting. Most rangefinders would have trouble with dark and textured backgrounds. This style of focusing is easier with straight, contrasty lines. But the Electro 35 also has a darkened window for enhanced contrast in the rangefinder patch. Combining that with the dark trees meant that anything outside of the actual rangefinder patch was.. Difficult to interpret.

It was cold, so my breath was fogging everything up, too. On top of that, the helpful viewfinder LED arrows illuminated INTO the fogged lens when the shot was too dark. This basically colored the entire viewfinder window. It was frustrating, and I had to stick my gloved finger into the viewfinder on more than one occasion. I just truly couldn’t see what I was looking at.

I think these would be difficult conditions for almost any rangefinder, though, so it’s hard to fault the Electro 35 too much. There’s a reason why rangefinders faded from popularity in favor of the SLR. They simply struggle in certain situations.

Shooting Experience

Despite some unfavorable conditions, the Electro 35 was an enjoyable camera to shoot. I’m always a fan of cameras that are ready to go at any time, and the Electro is just that. Its shutter press is a bit long, but it just clicks and is done. Once you’ve figured out general light levels in whatever environment you’re in, you can just focus and fire away.

The focal throw is a bit longer than a lot of compact rangefinders. Combined with the increased rangefinder baselength, the Electro 35 should be more accurate than a lot of its competitors. The Electro 35 also focuses down to 0.8m, slightly closer than the 1m standard of a lot of rangefinder lenses.

General Whining

But what about those LEDs? There are two colored LEDs on top of the camera, with two corresponding lights inside the viewfinder. They’re meant to tell you if the shot will be over or underexposed depending on your selected aperture, and basically will only pop on when you ought to change your settings.

In theory, this is a simple, effective system. In practice, I’m less sure. While the LED did work most of the time, I had some issues with a “dead zone”. I would half-press the shutter and get no light at all. Then I'd have to wiggle the shutter up and down a bit before finding the right spot for the LEDs.

I’m not sure if that was an issue with the particular model I used, and it’s probably something I could even get used to rather quickly. Generally, I'd expect the meter to turn on as soon as the shutter was pressed.

This isn’t so much of an issue under normal conditions, but I was in a dark forest where sometimes even f2 wouldn’t cut it. This made accessing the metering sweet spot crucial. Unfortunately, my cold, gloved hands were perhaps less dexterous than they might otherwise have been, so I had some issues.

Another thing I would have to get used to if I became a long-term Electro 35 user is the click of the advance lever. I have a habit of winding directly after shooting, and the Electro 35 makes a click when you wind. I thought the shutter was firing, and it made me question whether or not something was wrong more than once.

If you’re following the theme here, the Electro 35 has basically done nothing wrong. Most of the issues I’ve had with it have been circumstantial, or issues with me rather than the camera. It’s a beautiful camera that excels in situations where rangefinders excel. 

The fast aperture and leaf shutter were crucial in these low light situations. With its weight, I'm sure the Electro 35 was more usable in low light than its competitors. The aperture is ever-so-slightly faster than the 45mm f1.8 Rokkor found in the comparable Minolta Hi-Matic 7.

The Photos

Took me long enough to get here, eh? Let’s take a look at what I managed to capture with the Electro 35.

The lens is great. It’s not clinically sharp, and there’s some distortion and vignetting at the widest apertures. If given proper light and a good scene, though, the lens will wow you. 45mm is a nice focal length, very similar to the human eye, so distortion is obvious. 

You can notice the lens' faults in some of the forest shots, where light was really at a premium. Switching from Portra 400 to 800 only did so much as I entered the moody forests outside of the city. 

All lenses from the 1960s have flaws, but not all lenses are as sharp as the Electro’s 45mm f1.7 Yashinon. There’s also a pleasant nature to the bokeh, in my opinion. At f1.7 it’s even a bit swirly towards the edges. If that type of character is your thing, and you know who you are, this lens has it.

I was also quite impressed with the Electro’s night work. These scenes were difficult to meter due to the strong light and dark backgrounds, and all done handheld. But the Yashica had very little issue with them. There’s one shot with a door where the sharpness made me say “wow” out loud. Well, I didn’t actually say it, but I thought it.

At the end of the day, this lens is wonderful for what it is. Sure, there’s light falloff and softness wide open, but I found that it added to the moodiness of some shots. The vignetting accents the forest's mystery, which is a nice effect. In real life, the forest’s stillness is accentuated by its silence. The only ever-present sound in the forest that day was the Electro 35’s shutter.

Conclusions

After spending some time with the Electro 35, I’ve decided that it’s worthy of being Spider-man’s camera. I think Tobey Macguire did the best job, but Andrew Garfield’s portrayal brought this camera back into public consciousness. It's gained a surprising level of familiarity in the analog community.

I had a good time with it, despite becoming well-acquainted with the camera’s limitations. I put the Electro 35 into quite hostile territory for any rangefinder, and I was impressed with the results. Getting 25-30 usable shots from 3 rolls is impressive, especially since I was still figuring out the camera’s intricacies. But regardless of what I threw at it, and my own inadequacies, the camera's metering system did an admirable job.

Should you get one, though? If you’re a rangefinder user who’s ever felt like the compact rangefinders are too small, flimsy, or cheap, yes. If you're looking for a camera that's quick to react, then yes. If you’re looking for a fast lens with plenty of vintage character, yes. If you’re looking for a beautiful piece of industrial design that you’ll want to carry with you everywhere, yes. Most importantly, though, if you’re looking to take. More. Pictures. Of. Spider-man! Then yes, the Yashica Electro 35 is a great choice.

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