Yashica is another of the Japanese camera makers that flourished during the golden years of the 35mm film format, producing long lines of rangefinder cameras, slrs and lens-shutter compacts from the end of the 1950s through to the middle of 1990s. it all began in nagano, Japan, in 1949 with a small company called Yashima seiki which began making the components for clocks. in the early 1950s it expanded into making parts for cameras and, in 1953, launched its first complete camera, a 6x6cm twin lens reflex called the Yashimaflex. later that same year the company name was changed to the Yashima optical industry co., and the subsequent Tlr models were known as Yashicaflexes, including the s (1954) which was the first Japanese camera to have a built-in selenium cell for metering.
while Yashica is arguably better known for its 35mm cameras, it maintained its 6x6cm Tlr line virtually throughout its existence, the last-of-the-line Yashica mat124g remaining in production from 1970 until 1986. This made it the last of the Japanesemade fixed-lens Tlrs to remain available and its longevity was mainly due to its combination of affordability, reliability and affordability (compared to the models from either china or russia). for a brief time in the late 1950s and early 1960s Yashica also marketed 4x4cm Tlrs (which used 127 rollfilm) and it also dabbled with 8x11mm minox-style ‘spy’ cameras, plus a 16mm subminiature. additionally, along with most Japanese camera makers during the mid-1960s, Yashica built a number of halfframe 35mm compacts, including a couple of interesting designs – the vertically-styled rapide from 1961 and the sequelle from 1962 which looked like an 8mm movie camera and was, in fact, the very first Japanese still camera with a built-in autowinder using an electric motor.
in 1958 Yashima purchased the nicca camera company and the
combined operation was renamed Yashica Co. Ltd. Significantly, the Nicca acquisition provided access to a line of 35mm rangefinder cameras which Yashica subsequently began further developing, starting by moving away from Leica lookalike styling. Built-in metering and automatic exposure control appear to have almost been twin obsessions for Yashica and its ‘Electric Eye’ (EE) system – which was based on a selenium-type cell to give automatic aperture setting – first appeared in the EE 35mm rangefinder camera in 1962 and the Model E 6x6cm TLR in 1964, the latter being a first for a Japanese camera of this type. Initially, the EE cameras had a singlespeed shutter, but with the half-frame Electro Half, launched in 1965, Yashica progressed to an electronically-controlled shutter and fully automatic exposure control… both firsts in a Japanese-made camera. In 1966 Yashica installed this technology in a full-frame 35mm rangefinder called the Electro 35 which had a CdS-type light meter (non-TTL though) and a 45mm f1.7 fixed lens. The electronic leaf-type shutter, made by Copal, had a stepless speed range from 30 seconds to 1/500 second. There was subsequently a line of Electro 35mm models which added features such as an expanded film speed range and a flash hotshoe. In 1972, the Electro 35 MC was introduced with a much more compact body – similar in size to the Rollei 35 – and a 40mm f2.8 lens. It was followed in 1973 by the midsized Electro 35 FC and, in 1974, by the 35 GL which switched to an SBC-type exposure meter with the cell located on the lens so it compensated for filters. In 1975, the 35 GX upgraded to an SPC metering cell. The huge success of its 35mm rangefinder cameras put Yashica among the top five camera makers during the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, but by now it was turning its attention to 35mm SLRs.
Again, it inherited a 35mm SLR line after taking over the defunct Zunow operation in 1961, although it had already built its own Pentamatic and Pentamatic II models by then. Zunow’s 35mm SLR, launched in 1958, was an ambitious design with interchangeable viewfinders, auto diaphragm control, an instant-return mirror and a bayonet lens mount… so it incorporated many firsts, but was produced in such tiny numbers (apparently less than 500) it isn’t considered to have been a commercial success. Nevertheless, Yashica would have undoubtedly learned something from Zunow which, when combined with its development of metering and auto exposure control systems, represented considerable potential. The Penta J-3 from 1963 had a built-in CdStype meter which was non-TTL and the J-5 (1964) added auto diaphragm control, but TTL metering was introduced in 1967 with the TL-Super while the TL Electro X, launched in 1968, was the world’s first 35mm SLR which used lights in the viewfinder as exposure indicators. It was also first with stepless electronic shutter speed control.
After 1976 and the alliance with Zeiss to relaunch the Contax brand with an advanced 35mm SLR system, Yashica adopted the new Contax/Yashica (C/Y) bayonet lens mount – which was one of the first with an electro-mechanical interface – for its own cameras too. In fact, development of Contax and Yashica 35mm SLRs now went largely hand-in-hand. This ‘twinning’ included the Contax RTS and Yashica FR (1976, although the latter wasn’t quite as well-specced, it accepted various Contax accessories), the Contax 139 and Yashica FX-D Quartz (1980), and the Contax 159MM and Yashica FX-103 Program (1985). However, there was also a very successful line of budget-priced Yashica 35mm SLRs (FX-1 to FX-3 Super 2000) and the brand started out in autofocusing with the 230 AF, which was launched in 1986 and packaged with a novel clip-on accessory flash.
By now Yashica was part of the giant Kyocera Corporation which had acquired the camera-maker in 1983, and those resources undoubtedly helped fund the new AF system which included a range of lenses. Ultimately though, it wasn’t successful and Kyocera abandoned the system in 1994, but the budget FX line continued (with at least some models built by Cosina) until 2002. Kyocera had more success with the Yashica Samurai range of camcorder-style ‘bridge’ 35mm SLRs – with fixed zoom lenses – which were first introduced in 1987 and revived the half-frame format. Yashica-badged 35mm compacts also continued to sell well during the 1990s, many models having Zeiss-endorsed lenses, but with digital imaging demanding increased investment (and Contax becoming ever more costly to run), Kyocera decided to exit the camera business completely in 2005.
In reality, under Kyocera, Yashica had been playing second fiddle to Contax for quite some time and, at the end, there really wasn’t much left of the marque that was once among the top five camera-makers. And while Yashica never quite had a ‘big bang’ technological breakthrough, it pioneered many small developments which, collectively, contributed much to photography during the second half of the 20th century.
“While Yashica is arguablY better knoWn for its manY 35mm cameras, it maintained its 6x6cm tlr line virtuallY throughout its existence.”