*At the very end of this post, there is also a YouTube video I made reviewing this camera. Check it out!*
Oh the Yashica Mat 124G. Where do I begin?
When you are searching for a camera to begin your venture into a certain format, is it important to get the very best, most expensive camera on the market? Will getting the very best inspire you that much more? I am not sure that it will.
The Yashica Mat 124G was my first introduction into medium format film photography, and I would argue that it is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the format. But, let's be clear here, this camera is not the best camera out there. It is not even the best in its class. Film photography, however, is all about working with and around the constraints of your gear in order to leverage the inherent strengths.
So let's start there. The Yashica Mat 124G is a medium format twin lens reflex camera that shoots 120 or 220 film. The lens is a Yoshinon 80mm f3.5, and it is sharp. Very sharp. Combined with the huge negatives that come from medium format, you will never want for detail with this camera. This particular model also comes with a light meter which is alright when it works, and I will get to that later. The best feature, however, is not a feature at all, and that is the price. If you are on eBay, you can find these all day long in great condition for under $200. To put that into perspective, the Rolleiflex 3.5f regularly goes for 4 or 5 times that amount. If you are looking at a Yashica Mat 124G over $200, you should consider another offering because $200 is really the max one should pay for an excellent condition one. For the price, this camera cannot be beat. I do not know of many other medium format cameras that are cheaper and have the same performance.
But of course with that price comes some drawbacks. For one thing, this is a waist level viewfinder camera, which by its very nature can be problematic. Some people love these things, I am kind of split. I have a love hate relationship with waist level viewfinders and that is mostly due to the fact that they are mirrored. It is tough to explain but, if you are pointing your camera at a subject and, looking through the finder, you realize that the subject is too far to the left, and must move to the right, on most cameras, you would move your camera to the left to get the subject into the correct spot. For this camera, however, that is backwards, and that confuses the hell out of me. If your subject needs to be moved to the right in the frame, you must move your camera to the right. This is not a natural movement and is one that you must get used to. It makes framing so slow that I couldn't even begin to consider using this camera for any kind of street photography or something where speed is required.
On top of that, the ground glass inside the viewfinder is very dim. In bright daylight this is not an issue, but get into just a little shadow, and you will have a very hard time focusing this camera, making it very slow to focus. There are companies that will swap out the ground glass for a brighter one, but that is more money to spend.
Now about that light meter I was talking about. The Yashica Mat 124G comes with a built in light meter. But, given the age of the camera, the battery that it requires is no longer being made. The one it needed was a mercury battery and those have all been discontinued. Adorama and B&H do sell one that does fit the camera though and they are pretty cheap (in the video I said $45, I must have been thinking about something else... or I was delusional...). When I first used the light meter about a year or so ago it worked fine. I have read that the light meter isn't very accurate though and I did always feel like my photos were just about a stop or so off. So all in all, I am not sure the hassle of finding a battery is really worth it.
Lastly, this camera's shutter is not very fast at all, only going up to 1/500th of a second at its fastest. This makes even ASA400 speed film difficult to work with if you want to shoot in daylight. Luckily this lens does stop down to an insane f32 which does help when the shutter fails to be fast enough for the light at hand, but hinders your depth of field options.
In conclusion, despite its imperfections, the Yashica Mat is perfect for anyone on a budget and looking for a cool camera. Not only does it take beautiful images, but I personally think the camera looks beautiful too. There is never a day where I do not get stopped and asked about this camera when I have it out (that is sometimes a drawback too). So if you are looking for a way to break into medium format photography without breaking the bank, the Yashica Mat 124G is the perfect way to do it.