Saturday, 14 June 2014

Yashica FX-3: Get Back, Girl

Remember when I wrote about the Olympus XA? That was awesome, wasn't it? I started the post with a homage to the oulipo literary movement and wrote the first few paragraphs without using the letters X or A or the Greek character μ, which was great fun. But difficult, because A is a vowel, and vowels are pretty much indispensable if you want to write coherently in English.

Also, the human body needs vowels in order to survive. Go without and your skin turns yellow and your fingernails fall off and you become sick and eventually die. But if you use a diverse mixture of good solid ordinary words, and you occasionally go outside in the sun, you don't have to worry about a vowel deficiency, because they are present in words such as and and the and it and you and and and oleielou.

Mr Moulay Hicham El Alaoui, first cousin of Morocco's King Mohammed V, has an unusually vowel-enriched surname, and so he only needs to address himself three or four times a day in order to get all the vowels he needs.

So, if you're ever feeling under the weather, climb a sequoia tree - but only if you are authorised, and be sure to do so tenaciously - and when you reach the top, engage in dialogue with the ghost of an Omeisaurus.

A Yashica FX-3 with a Carl Zeiss 50mm f/1.7 and a 35-70mm f/3.4

It's good to set yourself challenges. It keeps you on your toes, so for today's post I'm going to replace all the words with Beatles song titles. The trick with something like this is to do it seamlessly, so that the audience doesn't twist and shout. (pause) (thinks hard) Help. (pause)

(longer pause)

I hate to ask, but are friends electric? Only mine's across the universe and there's just me and my pony etc the Yashica FX-3 was launched in late 1979, and judging by price lists in old issues of Pop Photo it sold for around $140 with a standard 50mm f/2, which put it on a par with a Pentax K-1000, about $50 or so cheaper than the other budget choices of the time (the Olympus OM-10, Pentax ME, Nikon EM and so forth).

Nowadays they're incredibly cheap on the used market. Three reasons: they were cheap when they were new, film is dead, and the Yashica lens mount was discontinued in the 1980s. The lenses themselves can still be used on most modern digital SLRs with the appropriate adapter, and some of them - the Contax-branded models in particular - were apparently very good.

At this point you're probably thinking "why doesn't he just write about the camera? Why does he need to fill the first half of the blog with stuff about vowels? And isn't Are Friends Electric by Tubeway Army, not the Beatles?". The answer is that I have to warm myself up. Like a spitting cobra, or Bruce Lee. Or unlike Bruce Lee, because he was always ready for action. Also, the FX-3 is very generic. There isn't much to say about it.

Yashica had a range of own-brand lenses. The ML models were multi-coated; there was a cheaper range marked DSB that was single-coated.

Look, if I was doing this for money I would warm up off the page, and the article would be lean, focused, and sinewy, again just like Bruce Lee. It would have 3-4% body fat instead of 15-20% body fat. It would die at a young age of an enlarged heart, but everybody would think that it had been killed by the Yazuka because it was on the verge of betraying the secrets of kung-fu. You dear reader would need to read slower in order to see the punches, otherwise you'd think that I was cheating. My words would knock you out of your chair from a distance of one inch.

Despite the low price the FX-3 feels surprisingly well-made, with a metal body and a plastic top plate. It's both lighter but feels tougher than the Fujica ST605 I wrote about a while back. The wind lever in particularly feels more solid. On the other hand mine has a sticky mirror - it hangs up for a split-second after the first shot, and settles down after that - and apparently the mirror can become misaligned if the camera is subjected to heat for too long. Not generally a problem in the UK.

The earlier FX-2 and FX-1 were similar cameras with all-metal bodies; Yashica also sold an aperture-priority equivalent, the FR. The contemporary, Yashica-produced Contax 139 apparently used the same shutter mechanism but had more sophisticated electronics and was presumably made from tougher materials.

The FX-3 has a spec that was classic albeit old-fashioned in 1979. Top shutter speed 1/1000th, manual focus, mechanical shutter, match-needer-meetle. But there was still a market for a cheap manual focus SLR as a backup for professionals or a first camera for amateurs, and here in the UK you could still buy manual-everything Praktica MTLs from Argos until the middle of the 1980s.

I call it "the churn". London is a framework of buildings that are temporarily occupied by businesses that come and go; and over a longer timescale the buildings themselves are modified and demolished, as if the city itself was a living creature.

From a modern perspective three things set the FX-3 apart from the typical mid-1970s Praktica or Chinon SLR. It uses standard SR-44 batteries rather than discontinued mercury cells, it has +/- LEDs rather than an actual needer - neetle... needle, needle meter... meter needle - and it takes Contax lenses, which rock!

Mine has a patina. The top plate is plastic, the rest brass. The original leather had fallen off - I got a replacement set from this chap, specifically "deep jade". The body was apparently made for Yashica by venerable OEM source Cosina, the lenses were built by Yashica to Zeiss specs; ten years earlier this would have been controversial, but in 1979 Japan was in the process of taking over the world and I remember a sense that we deserved it, they beat us.

Zeiss compatibility was one of the big selling points of the Yashica SLR range. At the time Zeiss had a partnership deal with Yashica, and all of Yashica's own-brand and Contax-brand SLRs used the same lens mount.

The Contax SLR range was launched in the mid-1970s as a high-end manual focus system for the wealthy hobbyist, and it sold well enough to remain in production throughout the 1980s. Yashica was bought by Kyocera in the 1990s and was eventually killed off in the early 2000s, taking the Contax brand with it. It's a fantastic brand name, though, so I imagine it will come back at some point.

Zeiss nowadays makes autofocus lenses for the Sony Alpha system, and also a range of manual focus ZE and ZF lenses for most popular camera and digital cinema mounts. They aren't cheap, but they're all of a high standard and regularly get good reviews. The modern manual focus lenses are in some cases descended from the old Contax/Yashica lenses, and so the Contax/Yashica range is a clever way of getting hold of good-quality lenses at a relatively low price.

I have a couple of Contax lenses - a 50mm f/1.7 and a 35-70mm f/3.4 zoom - and I was curious to see how they performed on a film camera, hence the FX-3. In both cases they essentially outresolve my film workflow, so I can't judge sharpness; they're sharper than my Epson V500 can resolve.

When you take sheer resolution and sharpness out of the equation the 35-70mm f/3.4 suffers from a boring specification. I think of it either as a slow 35mm that zooms in a bit, but not very far, or as a very slow 50mm that zooms back and a forth (a bit (but not very far)). It has a macro feature at the 35mm end that involves focusing past the normal détente, at which point you fine-tune focus by zooming in and out and rocking back and forth on your heels. Macro is one of the few reasons to stop down beyond f/3.4, for the depth of field rather than extra sharpness.

I, er, barely used the 50mm f/1.7 in the end. The convenience of a zoom won out. Four long years ago I tried it out on a digital body vs a Canon 50mm f/1.8, and it has nothing to prove, it is a very sharp lens. Neither the 50mm nor the 35-70mm have particularly attractive bokeh. They are hard, manly lenses for men. My recollection from using the 50mm on a digital body is that the colours were vivid and the sky had a purple tint, albeit that I was using a polarising filter at the time:

And that's the FX-3. Nowadays it's a little bit pointless. If you have a clutch of Zeiss lenses and you're a fan of film, a used Contax body isn't much more expensive. And if you're trying out old film cameras for the sake of nostalgia, you probably don't have a clutch of Zeiss lenses.

On the other hand they're dirt cheap, because the original fake leather cover rubs off and they end up looking incredibly tatty. It looks better with the coating completely rubbed off; I contemplated using gaffer tape instead, or paint, but dammit I have standards. The replacement coverings are economically bananas, because no matter how much you tart up an FX-3 it's not going to be worth very much, but again I have standards.

And one of those rubber horse masks. I have one of those rubber horse masks. You know, with the bulging eyes. I have one of them, comma, and standards.