The Yashica Electro 35 series of rangefinder cameras were produced in great numbers in the 1970s. The internet hive mind, filled with whatever ideas percolate through the collective consciousness of people interested in running film through old cameras, has judged them and largely found them good – “poor man’s Leica” is a term that you find, and this is meant positively. The GSN variant purportedly features corrosion-resistant gold-plated interconnects and commands a slight premium because gold is obviously better than not-gold.
Enter me. I'd been sniffing around the Leica mystique for a while, like a hungry coyote that doesn't quite trust a morsel of possibly poisoned meat. I wanted to muck around with a rangefinder (for the usual slew of wooly, misguided notions). I wasn't sure enough about the whole thing that I wanted to go all-in on a Leica, though. And so I picked up an Electro 35 GSN for less than the cost of a Leica lens cap.
Here's the short version of this review. Yes, the Yashica Electro 35 is a poor man's Leica, but not in any optimistic, egalitarian sense. More in the sense that the poor man doesn't have access to the expensive material things that the rich man does, so he makes do with something cheaper and gets on with his life. Like a Leica, the Electro is a 35mm rangefinder camera. If you want to take good pictures, you can certainly do it with the Electro, just as you could with a Leica or a thousand other cameras. And if you don't know what you're doing, the Electro will work better for you than a Leica of similar vintage because it automatically sets the shutter speed for you.
If you want a basic understanding of what using a rangefinder to focus a full-sized 35mm camera is like (I did), well, the Electro kind of delivers. You can indeed align a fuzzy yellow patch with the main image in the viewfinder to focus. The viewfinder on my mine was decidedly low-contrast, and I suspect this will be the case for most Electros: they aren't expensive enough to make servicing economically likely, and the viewfinder housing is hardly hermetically sealed so you're going to be looking through thirty-plus years of gently deposited gunge. Just think, there's particulate from leaded gasoline in there, maybe even some residue from atmospheric nuke testing.
So yes, it takes pictures. But if you're after the gladdening solidity of a metal camera, the tactile experience of exquisitely precise mechanical controls, the whiff of a past that you suspect, in heart if not mind, is somehow better than our present, the Electro is likely to disappoint.
“Fie on you!” exclaims a happy Electro owner somewhere. “This wonderful camera is indeed made of metal!” To which I agree, yes, it is. Like a can of lighter fluid, which is what the camera feels like in your hand. It's heavy (a mostly full can), but it's even bigger than the weight suggests, giving it a hollow, chintzy feel in comparison to the better metal-age offerings. The back of mine moved when you pressed on it, which seemed to be by design. That's what light seals are for, right?
The aperture ring had a soggy, mushy feel. Maybe this was just my sample, but I'm dubious, since the camera seemed to be in good shape in general. It did give some tactile feedback at a stop, but not much: rather than click into position, it kind of slumped.
The focus ring is narrow and close to the body, with two stubby tab-like things for grip. Turn that ring and you'll encounter my biggest gripe about the Electro's ergonomics: your left hand, on the ring, will run into your right hand, gripping the camera body. Why, you may wonder, is that happening, especially if you have effete little 21st-century-man-fingers like I do? A puzzled look at the camera reveals that it’s because the Electro's lens is skewed towards the right side of the body. Maybe people of the era had a different way of holding a camera, since lost to the sands of time.
And then there's the shutter button. I should say, shutter pole: you could fly a flag off that thing. The Electro's shutter release has enough travel to earn frequent flier miles. Forget about shutter lag: you need to plan enough time to drive that button all the way into the camera body before the shutter even knows something is up.
This design decision is tied to the way the camera's meter works. Now, if you've chosen a reasonable aperture for your scene you can probably just mash the button and get a properly exposed shot. But if you take your time and ease it in there, you might notice some lights in the viewfinder. Somewhere near the beginning of the press, you might see a red light if the meter decides you need something faster than the 1/500th sec minimal exposure time -- you can stop down until the light goes off. Then there's a lull as the button continues on its merry way until you get down around the bottom third of its trip, where a yellow underspeed warning lights if you're into shake-induced blur territory (the camera can still make a properly exposed shot if you insist, but you'd better have steady hands).
So, with the lights, no news is good news. But the setup can be annoying -- you'll hopefully have an idea if one or the other condition applies, but knowing for sure means exploring along the button's travel to find the right zone. Is this a common approach to metering in cameras of this epoch? I don’t know, honestly, but in the modern era it feels pretty kludgy.
When you finally work that button all the way down, you hear a dry snap. That's the leaf shutter doing its thing. It doesn't sound nice to me, but I suppose that's even more subjective than the rest of the stuff here, so don't worry about it. On the up side, it's definitely quiet, even by contemporary mirrorless standards.
You've taken a picture! Time to wind on and rearm the shutter. The lever that does this lacks the smooth, ludicrously refined feel of a rich man's Leica. But I guess it's good enough for poor people, or in any case, all they're going to get from Yashica.
The Electro is fine, OK? It has its charms. With every other camera maker undermining the retro-osity of rangefinders with new models that look old, the Electro still manages to look retro. Maybe not classy, Leica M3 retro, but the tinsel-and-glitter retro of the decade that birthed it. I guess it was cool enough for Spiderman 4, in which, I learned from some Spanish guy's eBay ad, the Electro apparently features. I’d be more impressed if it was in the first one.
Despite its glam looks, the Electro's shutter makes it relatively discreet to shoot.
And the Electro makes fine pictures. You can't take that away from it. That hulking (by rangefinder standards) 45mm lens works as well as any other normal double-gauss design, which is to say very well indeed, and the auto exposure beats sunny 16 most of the time.
But the Yashica, despite being metal, is not Metal. It does not rock. It's not particularly fun to shoot, or comfortable, or beautiful. If the Yashica Electro asked me to write it a recommendation, I'd wince inside, then feel like a bit of jerk when I sat down and really pondered my problems with it, but still would have trouble putting a good spin on it. There are just things that are so much better out there.
If you're still curious about the Electro 35 after reading this, the cost of entry is low (usually under $50), and you can always sell it on for about what you paid. I suspect that this kind of recycling, as much as their abundant production run, helps explain why there are so many on eBay. That’s where mine went: catch and release.