“Like our eyes, cameras can see and make pictures of everything. You can use the camera, as the poet William Burroughs did, to discover what’s on your mind, even your subconscious. In the process, you might discover ideas you’re more comfortable with or ways of making pictures.”
- Charles Harbutt
I subscribe to the adage ‘the best camera is the one you have with you. Now, for nearly everyone that would be a smart phone but this a community based around film, and we are not nearly everyone. The camera I always have is my Yashica T4, and this review will explain how it suits the way I see things and why you might want to give it a try.
The above quote from Harbutt goes some way to illuminate what I love about photography – the freedom to explore and be surprised by the world and ultimately, yourself. It also adds a philosophical slant to why I am attempting to over explain a point and shoot. I really don’t think you need that much technical knowledge to make a great picture - the T4 is almost fully automatic - but an awareness of how a camera works (and its limitations) allows you to shoot without thinking of it as a tool and more an extension of your thoughts.
Yashica T4 Build Quality
First off, an admission - I am sort of reviewing two cameras which are for all intents and purposes the same. The Yashica T4 has a super sharp Zeiss T* 3.5 / 35mm lens, 3 beam autofocus and a programmed shutter running from 1 to 1/700th of second.
The Yashica T5 has exactly the same stats but features a tiny but surprisingly useful waist-level finder (called a ‘super scope’) for composing shots at weird angles. It is also allegedly better weather sealed, so for these reasons, the T5 is a fraction larger. Aside from this and a couple of small aesthetic differences, they are virtually interchangeable so this review will cover both.
It is hard to deny the camera itself looks and feels ‘plasticky’ but this isn’t to say it isn’t well made. Mine have travelled through the Sahara, Iceland and the UK for the last three years so needless to say they have got overly hot, pretty damp, and dropped plenty of times to no ill effect.
You can see the slight differences between the models in body size and placement of buttons in the T4 (black) and T4 (silver). The brown tape on the T5 is from falling down stairs. Still works 2 years on. The Super Scope is also great for pictures of cats.
The T4 is compact and light to carry all day and its simplicity means you can have it out of your pocket and shooting in no time. The quick autofocus and Carl Zeiss lens mean I’ve captured crisp, nicely exposed shots in seconds that would have had me deliberating for ages with an SLR.
However, it doesn’t come without its limitations, for example the ‘mode’ buttons are impractically small and you have to mash them several times to turn the flash off, only for it to come back on again for the next shot. I’ll try to cover the T4’s idiosyncrasies because I think they are worth persevering with to get such nice results.
Yashica T4 Lens and Focus
The Carl Zeiss Tessar lens is probably the biggest selling point of the T4, producing very sharp pictures and giving a fairly shallow depth of field for a maximum aperture of 3.5. It can also focus pretty close at about 30cm. I find the 35mm focal length suits portraits and lends a natural perspective for street work. The lens retracts into the body when you switch the power off to keep it clean and dust free – even with heavy use on my second hand cameras, this hasn’t ever failed.
Auto-focus is usually an area for contention, and this is especially true for the Yashica. I am really not a perfectionist and would much prefer to take a shot which might turn out a little wonky than for it never to exist. For that reason, I’m willing to forgive how weird the focus can be at times. Technically speaking it has three infrared beams, one spot in the middle and two outer brackets, but in reality I think it just uses the centre spot. If you want to focus on something that isn’t precisely in the middle of your picture you’ll need to half depress the shutter button with your subject centred, recompose and shoot. It might be because my cameras get bashed about, but I can’t half depress anything – it just goes off. For me, this isn’t the end of the world, and the majority of my shots come out as expected.
Yashica T4 Flash
The T4 loves to flash, if it is a little dark or even broad daylight when something needs a fill, it’ll blitz that shot. A lot of the time this can feel overzealous but the exposure is still usually spot on.
For this picture the sun was behind the subject but it was still a very bright day so I didn’t expect the flash to fire. It did, and I think it exposed the photograph better for it; however there are situations where flash is not desired and it can be a pain to switch it off. You have to hit that tiny button 3 times to get the ‘flash off’ icon and after you take the shot, it flips back to auto i.e. flash back on. No real defence of this, other than simplicity of the body design - it is the one really dumb thing about the T4.
Yashica T4 ISO
The T4 is a fairly modern camera so it will automatically read and accept a wide ISO range. Unfortunately this means if you enjoy look of pushing and pulling your film, you can’t unless you hack the DX code on the film canister or roll your film into a different canister.
One anachronism I found is that the DX code reader only accepts ISO numbers rounded to a hundred. For example, Portra 160 is read as 100, so it will ever so slightly overexpose (which I actually quite like).
Yashica T4 Price and Alternatives
The T4 has risen to cult camera status (and price) not only because of its technical qualities but more specifically, its most famous user - Terry Richardson. He uses them to create his style which appears to be casual, spontaneous, flash heavy ‘snapshots’ that you would recognise from his portraits of Barack Obama, Lady Gaga and fashion work for Harper’s Bizarre. (He may also be a terrible person.) This has bumped the cost up considerably and I’ve seen eBay prices vary from $100-300, but your mileage may vary, especially in thrift stores. Here are a couple of alternatives you might want to check out:
A cheaper alternative is the Olympus MJUII / Stylus Epic. It seems pretty hard wearing with a faster f/2.8 lens.
The previously way more expensive Contax T2 or Nikon 35Ti are now coming down in price, made from better materials (like titanium!) and feature more focusing modes.
The others in the Yashica T family. Whilst the T4 and T5 are the most sought after, there are zoom models and the T3 even has a faster lens. I’ve heard mixed reviews of these but for a fraction of the cost, it might be worth having a play.
"To head out into a city with a camera is still fundamentally about collaborating with chance. A successful street photograph brings into the world not only something that wasn’t there before but something that could not have been anticipated"
The Yashica T4 is a camera I can use from morning to night with the confidence that it can cope with nearly everything. It is especially great for street shooting - quiet, unimposing and its simplicity means I can concentrate on the composition above anything else.
In over-thinking or trying to set up the ‘perfect’ shot I can completely miss it. Through metering the incidental light and practicing fine, manual focussing it would be possible to get a technically superior photograph, but sometimes the picture just needs to be made and there is no second chance.
There may be prettier, more considered cameras out there, but for me this unassuming plastic point and shoot is the solution to the trade-off between image quality and the speed that my brain works at .