This camera stands out on the shelf, and for good reason: it’s big, it’s old, it looks like a machine. And that it is. The Yashica MAT-124 G is a camera I picked up (for much too much money) when I was living in Tokyo and became ever-so-slightly obsessed with street photography and old film cameras (the camera was made some time in the 1960s). It’s my only TLR (Twin-Lens-Reflex), and my only medium-format camera. In layman’s terms that means it takes big square photos, not small rectangular ones.
The evolution of cameras as mechanical devices is interesting to experience for yourself: the twin-lens system (where you look through one lens, and the photo is taken with the other) was a very simple mechanical solution to the problem of how to see what the camera ‘sees’, and made for cameras with very few moving parts. The lack of a mirror reflex system (as required in an SLR) made for a very quiet shutter as well. Focussing was a genuine mechanical action of turning a knob and moving the lens mechanism backwards and forwards. I could understand how it worked. It was a box for capturing light.
And capture light it could! Like many of my older cameras, its light meter was long dead, but I bought a small mountable light-meter from Voigtlander, because I wasn’t willing to take the risk of relying on “sunny-16” or taking guesses with this one, partly because the film and developing was expensive, partly because I thought the camera deserved a little more respect. It was a worthwhile addition, particularly for taking shots in dark conditions. It took a while to line up a shot, focus, check the light meter reading and take the shot, but it was worth it: the quality, mood and depth of the images still beats any other camera that I own.
Its size meant that it also got all sorts of strange looks from passers-by, but because it’s a top-down viewfinder (you look down in the top of the camera to focus), it looks like you are fiddling with your camera rather than lining up a shot, which made it great for candid shots on the crowded streets of Tokyo.
I pretty much stopped using the camera when I returned from Japan (I think I shot maybe only one or two rolls of film in Australia). It wasn’t just that the novelty had worn off (fun as it was, it sure was cumbersome). I really couldn’t justify the expense, and had been overtaken by the digital camera mindset of “take hundreds of photos and edit like crazy”. Instagram on my iPhone is fulfilling my ‘old looking square photos’ needs for the moment, but I’m sure one day I’ll want to go back to the slow photography of the TLR.