On living with a Samurai

A quick glance at the statistics for this blog shows that, by a wide margin, the most searched-for term that leads people here is “Yashica Samurai Z.” This seems a bit odd at first glance, given that the Samurai Z was a camera that didn’t have a lot of mass market appeal, meaning it was short-lived and there probably aren’t many in circulation. This is in no small part due to the fact that the half-frame format was long past its peak by 1989, when the Z arrived.

The Yashica Samurai Z in all its 1980's glory...
The Yashica Samurai Z in all its 1980’s glory…

So why are people searching for this so frequently? Well, for one thing, there isn’t much information out there about these cameras – not surprising in light of its obscurity. And it is a fascinatingly unconventional design with a lot of technical highlights. They do seem to have developed a bit of a cult following (oh, Lomography, is there any unloved thing you can’t convince hipsters is cool?), though one cannot help but think that more people want to join the cult than can be supplied with Samurai Zs.

As I’ve mentioned, I happen to be an inadvertent member of the cult; my father gave me his old Samurai Z a while back when I started to return to film photography on a more regular basis. He bought it new in Asia several decades ago, and it still works perfectly. Aside from the test roll I ran through it after he first handed it to me, however, it has been sitting on my camera shelf. I have nothing against it; I simply find myself gravitating toward cameras that allow more manual control (the Samurai offers essentially none) or that are more easily pocketable (the Samurai isn’t).

In light of the number of searches that have led people here, I felt it would be a good idea to load up some film and report back on what the Samurai was like to use beyond mere function testing. So, with a roll of Kodak Gold 400 in place, the Samurai and Your Humble Filmosaur headed out to see what was what.

Using the Samurai is an odd mixture of simplicity and inconvenience. It is ergonomically designed to fit easily in one hand, and does so perfectly; the plastic grip area can be slippery, but with the hand strap in place it is all quite secure. All the primary controls are right where you’d expect them to be – the zoom toggle and the shutter release fall directly under the index finger. The viewfinder is a good size, reasonably bright, and even works well with glasses.

But for all those good points, you never get past the fact that it is still a big camera. There will be no stealthy street shooting with a Samurai. When you’re carrying it, your right hand is not good for anything else, and it’s not like you can just slip the camera in your pocket when you’re not using it. The secondary controls are those microscopic recessed soft-touch buttons so popular in 1980’s electronics, and require multiple presses to cycle through their associated options, an experience that reminds me of scrolling through menus on a digital camera. The autofocus is twitchy, and the zoom is loud and rather leisurely. It’s hard to decide if the design is inspired but imperfectly executed, or ill-conceived but nonetheless clever.

Press a button!

Aside from the unconventional design, it’s those secondary features that set the Samurai Z apart. How many other cameras allow you to shoot multiple exposures on a single frame (including up to five within a quart of a second!), shoot up to 4.5 frames per second continuously, and program timed exposures over a 24 hour period, all right out of the box and with no additional equipment? The problem, of course, is that none of these functions are quick to access. One needs to become quite familiar with the controls and plan ahead to make the most of them. Again, it feels somewhat like operating a menu-driven digital camera.

So it’s not the easiest camera to use, in spite of what appears to be a design intended to make it exactly that. It’s a bit too complex for operation to be truly simple, and more advanced feature set combined with the limitations of 1980’s technology don’t help. But what about the photos? The ability of a camera to produce quality images buys an awful lot of tolerance for other quirks and imperfections. We will have a look at those when we get to Part II of our investigation. Stay tuned….


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