Yashica Electro 35 GSN

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's a bargain among the old-camera set, but it's a bit of a DIY project.

The Long Version: I'm one of the transitional generation of photographers who remembers film even though I never really used it. Sure, I had a cheap fixed-focus 35mm P&S camera when I was a teenager, and a 110 format before that, but I hardly ever used them. The first camera I bought as an adult was Canon's original APS Elph, and it probably saw less than twenty rolls in four years. Then I bought one of those newfangled digital cameras, a 4-megapickle S400 Canon Elph, and that was the end of my film days. But my first memory of a camera was my mother's Canon AE-1, and even digital SLRs never quite measured up to that mechanical experience. I felt like I was missing my roots, and went looking for a simple and cheap film camera that I could very lightly use.

One of my requirements for a film camera was that I wanted it to be older than I am. When it's already an anachronism, why go half-way? After doing a bit of research, I got interested in the Yashica Electro GSN as being an older camera that could be found on-line for not very much money. They have some aging issues, notably with light-seals and wiring, but they also have a lot of fans who have put some great information online. Google is our friend, but here are some quick links to ben bockwell and Matt's Classic Cameras. They're both worth checking out for more specifics if you're interested in getting one of these cameras, but then hit the broader `net to learn more about its traits and what to watch for with them. This isn't a technical review; others better than me have done an excellent job there already.

Rick Mercer (left) preparing for a rant; Yashica GSN with Kodak Gold 400 film.

While I was looking for a camera on-line, I learned that one of my colleagues had bought a camera that sounded like a Yashica Electro 35 at a garage sale for $10. It turned out to be the GSN model, which was my best-case find, and in nearly perfect condition. The only catch is that its original battery has been discontinued, so she couldn't use it or even tell if it still worked. (This keeps their ebay prices low, but there's also several online sources to build/buy adapters to use new batteries, including the ebay one that I had already bought.) I paid her $20 for the camera; if I also count the cost of the battery adapter, battery, craft foam to replace the light seals, and a roll of film, the camera was ten dollars more expensive than the neck strap I put it on. While I usually use a wrist strap and carry my camera when I'm shooting, this design predates scientist's discovery of the shape of the human hand. It's small, but it's heavy and awkward: a decent shoulder strap is almost mandatory.

The older Yashica G that I'd already bid on with ebay arrived a week later. It's a less refined camera overall, and I prefer my GSN, but it's also a good camera. Current prices for the GSNs on ebay are higher than I remember, so it's also worth looking at the older variants. I'm not sure I'd want to go over $70US for a GSN, even if it's been proven to work. These were never meant to be expensive cameras.

The shooting controls of the Electro are simple: aperture ring, focus, film speed, shutter button and wind lever. Shifting the film speed works as an exposure compensation control, otherwise the camera is strictly aperture-priority. That actually matches how I shoot with my DSLRs, but what hurts is that there's only an 'under' and 'over' light to warn about shutter speed problems. I also get confused between the aperture ring (ribbed) and the focus control, and am very slow with the rangefinder manual focus. The rangefinder design does have a lot of charm, but there's a reason why SLRs dominated the market from an early age.

I don't doubt that photographers with a good sense of light who dedicate themselves to this camera would make it sing. Perhaps even I could do it if I was to put away my other toys for six months, but like purity and thrift, there are many admirable traits that I almost wish I had. This is a wonderful camera that's a cheap way to shoot film, making it great for starving/student artists and working camera collectors alike. It does exactly what I wanted it for, which is a bit of a history lesson and an occasional indulgence. It has only had a half-dozen rolls of film run through it in the year that I've owned it, but it will get more use in the future. Despite the limitations of the dated design, I know that I'll occasionally have a craving for the GSN's character and the experience of using it.


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