Sometimes Thinking Doesn’t Just Get You in Trouble

We’ve discussed the merits and limitations of the Yashica Samurai Z here before. After shooting several rolls of various color films with it, Your Humble Filmosaur has frankly been at a bit of a loss as to just how to use this particular camera effectively, meaning in such a way as to produce satisfactory images with reasonable consistency. Half-frame 35mm produces a pretty small (18x24mm) negative, meaning that grain and softness that might be acceptable in full-frame 35mm or larger quickly become problematic in half-frame.

Now, you might be asking, why this sudden concern about sharpness and resolution? Isn’t this the same Filmosaur who was just recently extolling the virtues of Tri-X and pre-war lens designs? If I wanted razor-sharpness and lack of grain, I’d be out buying modern lenses and film emulsions, right? Well, my preferences for the classic over the latest-and-greatest still hold true, but there comes a point where grain and/or a lack of sharpness becomes less about achieving a certain look and ends up just being distracting. The latter condition is what I’ve found with more of the Samurai’s photos than I would prefer. Something had to be done.

A potential solution came about not as a result of deep thought or some sort of startling revelation. The reality is far more mundane: I spotted some short-date Kodak T-Max 100 on sale at my local camera shop. Much of what I’d heard about T-Max, including from at least one of the employees at that very shop, was not exactly complimentary: it was far pickier about exposure than Tri-X, it looked clinical and lacked Tri-X’s character, and it was expensive.

So why buy it? Well, as I thought about what camera I might conceivably use it in rather than Tri-X, the Samurai came (eventually) to mind. Once that clicked all the basic objections fell away rapidly. The film was cheap because it was on sale and about to expire, plus I’d get 48 frames rather than 24; the Samurai being auto-exposure only and TTL metered, it should be exposed accurately; and the sharpness and fine grain that could detract from a larger negative might just help to mitigate the grain and softness I’d been trying overcome with the half-frame Yashica. So I grabbed a couple rolls.

Being a half-frame camera, even a short 24-exposure roll takes forever to finish. But when I finally got it done and saw the results, I realized that I had chosen wisely.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

And that’s an unsharpened 1200dpi scan; I could probably tease out a little more from a higher resolution scan with a bit of subtle post-processing. Regardless, the quality right off the scanner is far higher than I’ve seen from anything else I’ve tried in this camera.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

I think it’s always a good idea to click the photos for the higher resolution view, but I really recommend it for these. I find it frankly startling how much detail is visible out of such a small negative.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

The vignetting on the wider shots is the result of experimenting with a lens hood on this camera in an attempt to improve overall image quality. Apparently I need to go to a wide-angle hood to avoid this problem.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak T-Max 100

The lens on the Samurai doesn’t produce the prettiest out-of-focus effect, but honestly the clarity of the in-focus areas is so drastically improved from what I’ve been seeing that I don’t really care.

Film choice matters; anyone who shoots film knows that. But my experience with T-Max in the Samurai has reinforced the importance of matching film to camera (or lens), at least if you’re interested in getting the most out of both. I hadn’t been particularly happy with the results I’d seen with other films I’d tried in the Yashica, and I don’t think I’d like the more modern look of T-Max in with my old cameras and lenses, but this combination works, and works well. Apparently owning more cameras than you need and opportunistically buying cheap old film can actually teach you something, if you’re willing to actually stop and think for a minute or two.

On Living with a Samurai, Part 2

When last we left our Yashica Samurai Z, it was out for a bit of a test to see just what this slightly odd piece of 1980s technology was capable of, in the hands of Your Humble Filmosaur. Well, after considerable delay (mostly due to the 74 exposures I managed on the roll, but also some issues with the processing) the results are in.

The biggest issue with getting decent photos out of the Samurai seems to me to be that the sheer number of exposures available promotes – at least in me – a considerable amount of impatience, which in turns tends to lead to rather haphazard shooting. I was so focused on finishing the roll that by the time I got to around 60 or so on the counter I was just blasting away at anything.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400

This was made worse by the fact that I was experimenting with the double-exposure function, so I probably ended up clicking the shutter a hundred times in the course of the roll. Using the double-exposure randomly  – taking the first exposure then waiting a while before taking the second, with no specific connection between the subjects – occasionally results in something interesting, but more often than not doesn’t really amount to much. Choosing two related subjects and applying one over the other makes for a better hit ratio, but obviously requires some planning.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400

The shot below mimics one in the Yashica user’s manual.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400

The one-handed operation and full automation makes is pretty easy to shoot on the fly; you really don’t even need the viewfinder with the lens set wide. Color rendition is fairly accurate and exposure control seems consistent. Sharpness is frankly lacking under close examination, but this really can’t be considered a surprise given the half-frame format. A little post-processing (all of the shots here have been tweaked a bit for sharpness) does improve things, but you always have to keep the small size of the negative in mind.

Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400
Yashica Samurai Z, Kodak Gold 400

Still, you can get some decent images out of the Samurai (as ever, it’s the poor craftsman who blames his tools), and if you know you’re going to be shooting a lot of frames and you don’t need to blow up the photos too far, it’s a good and flexible choice if you insist on shooting film. Regardless of how impressive they were twenty years ago, however, the advanced features do seem rather diminished when you consider that digital can replicate them pretty easily in most cases. It’s a fun camera to use, and a capable one, but not without its limitations.

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….