This is the affordable side of the sought-after rangefinders from the 70s, not as popular or full-featured as the highly regarded Canon Canonet QL17 GIII or the Konica Auto S2 but it's a great user camera with a very sharp, fast lens and outstanding autoexposure metering. Careful when buying one, though (see below). I personally don't think they're nearly as well-made as the above-mentioned cameras (see below). On the other hand, it's an inexpensive way to get yourself some truly wicked glass, which really has to be seen to be appreciated! I use mine in settings where I might not feel comfortable taking a more valuable, heavier camera, like parties or events where I'm moving and there's lots of people around.
The Yashica Electro 35 (of which the GSN was the last, you can spot it by the hot shoe) was revolutionary for its time, being the first camera with fully electronic automatic exposure. It used an electronic relay rather than a mechanical galvanometer for measuring light. (I'll go out on a limb and guess that is what 'electro control' means when you see it on subsequent automatic exposure cameras such as the Hi-Matic E) There is a black model (GTN) which is more collectible, being cool and all. I'm told that the Hong-Kong made models are not as robust as the Japanese made models, and having looked inside both I can tell there are some very slight differences but couln't tell one from another in a blind taste test. There are also available auxiliary lens kits with a tele-wide finder that give down to 36mm and up to 68mm focal lengths by screwing onto the front of the lens, which is of course not removable.
Followup now that I've successfully repaired and used one: holy crap this camera takes nice pictures! I can see now why they have a cult following. After staying up till 2am replacing the light seals (this after the wiring fix, see below), I took my better GSN to the AIDS Walk in Golden Gate Park and shot a roll of expired Kodak Gold 100, just trying to get crowd shots, etc. in the chilly overcast conditions and also test out my little rangefinder. I don't think I've ever seen such vivid and accurate color in any of my photographs! The exposures were almost all even and perfectly exposed. I was so impressed I didn't even know what to say. It did take a little getting used to shooting with the GSN because it feels so much like an SLR that I forgot a bit about proper framing, even though the viewfinder is parallax-corrected. And I can see that my zone prefocussing for grab shots could use some work. Note: the sample I included is mostly for the subject matter, not because it was the sharpest or most vivid of the roll...just the most interesting ;)
I was at the lemur exhibit at the San Francisco Zoo in early 2003 with my trusty GSN -- not its first trip to the zoo, mind you -- when my camera caught the eye of a professional-looking photographer. He was using a fancy modern Nikon and had that look of recognition as he smiled and admitted that he had an Electro too. We got to talking about classic cameras as we were shooting... he had recently acquired a Spotmatic and gave me a tip he discovered for de-yellowing an old Takumar: put it in a windowsill for a week. I said 'what a great tip, I'll put it on my website.' He said, 'oh you have a website?' 'Sure do..' He got a funny look. 'Is your name Matt?' he asked. 'Yes it is...' 'I've read your website, it's great!' WAIT, that's not the end of the anecdote. Still at the zoo on the same day, I ran into another older photographer at the penguin exhibit who was merrily shooting the penguins with his Minolta SRT 101 and a BEAUTIFUL Rokkor-X 200mm lens. He saw my Electro when I asked him about his Minolta, grinned, and revealed the original Electro he had stowed in his battered Domke bag as a backup shooter. 'Can't beat the Electro!' BUT WAIT, that's still not the end! I then ran into the first photographer again, Edward, I think, from Santa Rosa, who also has a Leica M5 as does his boss. I asked him how it is as a shooter and he said the 50mm lens is amazing, but the 35mm lens is not very impressive. I told him about russian glass and how much I liked my Jupiter-12 and he looked like he'd consider it. He then told me he once went into his boss' office with some pics and asked which camera he thought they came from. His boss considered, Nikon or Leica and thought they were so sharp and colorful they must have been from the Leica. And he was proud to say neither, they were from his old Electro!
OK now I'm done. Thanks for indulging me.
For the record, the feel of this camera is in fact solid and it does seem like a nice piece of work from a user's perspective. The reason I said I didn't think it was that well made has more to do with what I saw taking it apart: that the mostly hollow top cap is prone to denting, that the glue holding in the little plastic LED covers is weak and they tend to fall off all by themselves (you're lucky to find an example with all its little doodads intact, I think), that kind of thing. It just feels more like a lower-end consumer camera than something like a Hi-Matic. On the other hand it has a large bright parallax-corrected viewfinder, outstanding glass, and is in fact fun to use. Not to mention that it takes outstanding pictures, and isn't that the point after all?? (Look here if you want to see inside the Electro yourself.)
My first couple (!) of Yashica GSN cameras came to me with gummy light seals and corroded mercury batteries in the chambers. See my light seal replacement tutorial for how to replace the light seals. Here's what to do if you've got the corroded battery problem: to even get the battery cap off required pinching a nickel in a Vise-grips and cranking it open. (Don't use anything besides a nickel, I mean it!) Soak the battery cap in white vinegar for a few hours, then it easily wipes clean. Take off the bottom cap of the camera with a small Phillips screwdriver and swab any corroded areas with more vinegar on a Q-Tip. Don't make the mistake I did of trying to pull out the battery holder, there's no slack in the wire connecting the chamber spring and if corroded it will break off. If you do this as I did, you can thread a longer 24-gauge wire through the camera at the battery check button cover: note the solder point of the broken wire, clip it, and solder the new wire in place and then to the protruding end of the spring at the bottom of the battery holder. Put it all carefully back together. This is all easier if you take off the top cap too but that requires a little spanner (I actually use an angled tweezer with sharp points) to get off the wind lever and film setting wheel. You will probably want to do this anyway while you're in there so you can get a little Windex on the rangefinder glass and mirror to make it EXTRA bright. See my Yashica Electro Inside page for more details.
Did I say my zone prefocusing needs work? It may, but what needed more work was the rangefinder, which was sadly out of adjustment (noticeable mostly at close range). Now I'm surprised I got any good pictures on that roll! Thanks to the very sage Winfried of the The Classic Camera Repair Forum and elsewhere, I was able to easily adjust the focusing (the service manual says nothing about adjusting the rangefinder, go figure!). Make marks on the ground (sidewalk? garage floor?) for 3', 7', 10', 15'. Take off the top cap and slightly adjust the crosspoint screw near the rangefinder mirror until it focusses properly at the different distances including infinity (focus on something about 100' away). BTW it's not a true Philips screwhead, a thin slotted screwdriver is probably better.
Tips & Tricks
The shutter defaults to 1/500 without a battery present. There are two other settings besides auto: Bulb and Flash. When set to flash the shutter fires at 1/30.
Problems with these old compact rangefinders are 1) the foam light seals have all disintegrated and need to be replaced, not too hard for the enterprising DIY-guy and 2) they often use batteries that are hard if not impossible to come by these days such as the 5.6 mercury battery the GSN wants. Luckily for us there's the Yashica Guy who sells a patent-pending adapter that fits exactly in the battery compartment and allows the use of a current model battery. Yay! Nice guy, too. If you can't spare the cash for the neat solution, don't bother with the taped-together 1.5v batteries, since the 6v 28A or 4LR44 ($3.50, Radio Shack) is exactly the replacement for 4 LR44 1.5v batteries, (the same as included with the Yashica Guy adapter). To take up the slack in the battery chamber you can get a little spring from the hardware store - I found a good little conical spring that fits just right for $.50. You can also use one from a broken flashlight or elctronic toy, pick somehting up cheap at a yard sale or second hand store. I also wrapped the battery with a little foam to keep it from moving around. Here's a picture of my setup:
To be fair, the supersharp lens on these cameras is so fast that if you just put 400 ASA film in it and shoot manually with the default speed of 1/500 (eg the only one you get when there's no battery), you can get great pictures in most lighting situations following the 'Sunny f16 rule'. But with the battery installed you'll quickly find as I did that this camera does some of the most amazingly accurate automatic exposure I've ever seen, in just about every lighting situation.
- For more repair info see my inside the Yashica Electro page!
- Also for advanced electronic troubleshooting here's section of the repair manual in PDF form
- The Yashica Guy's Homepage
- Rangefinder Camera Best Buys Links page at Medium Format Home
- An essay extolling the virtues of the underrated and long-lived Yashica Electro series
- Here's the manual (PDF)
- Parlez-vous francais? Here's a nice little GSN page complete with embedded shutter sound
- ArtemisWorks Photography has a nice section of photos taken with the Electro