The Best Camera For Beginning Film Shooters? Maybe!

Although words like "best" and "ultimate" are fun to throw around, of course there is no objectively best camera out there for a beginner. But to me, the Yashica Mat 124G is pretty close for a variety of reasons. From its handling to price, there is a lot to appreciate in this little gem. Here are some of my favorite features and why I think a person starting out in film photography might be in hog heaven with the little Yashica.

Fun, fun, fun

First and foremost, this camera is fun. It's all manual except for the light meter, which is practically useless anyway. But as soon as you open a TLR (twin lens reflex) camera, you're almost guaranteed to smile. The world is just different when you're looking down onto the ground glass. And even though, historically, I've been a fan of prisms over waist-level viewfinders, the simplicity of this camera won me over. It's lightweight, simple to load, and easy to grab and go. Just lock the shutter, throw it in a bag, and head out for a day of shooting. It has a sharp, fixed 80mm (50mm equivalent in 35mm style cameras) f/3.5 lens, aperture and shutter speed controls, and a quiet leaf shutter that can sync at all speeds.

Also, I believe the best way to get excited about trying something new is to make sure it's very different from what you were doing before. Using a TLR is novel. The viewfinder is big. The image on the ground glass is reversed laterally. It's entirely different to hold this camera than a 35mm style camera. There's a definite learning curve involved, but the camera is so simple and fun that it should keep you interested.

It's a Conversation-Starter

I don't know about you, but I love speaking to other photographers and people who are interested in photography. I find that networking and trading stories helps build my passion for the art. When you break out this puppy, you're guaranteed to get some looks. People will talk to you about the camera, and because it's so unusual looking by today's standards, people are more likely to pose for you. Seriously. I find that the more unusual the camera, the easier it is to convince a stranger to sit for you. That said, if you're into getting that candid moment, it might be tough because people will see you coming from a mile away.

It's Cheap!

The shop I borrowed the camera from, Englewood Camera, had it for about $250. You just can't beat that. If you're thinking of sticking your toes in the waters of film, a low barrier to entry is a definite bonus. Also, because these cameras are older, they've already depreciated; and should you decide to sell it, you can likely get back exactly what you paid for it.

If you've been toying with the idea of getting a film camera, definitely give a Yashica Mat 124G a chance. You really can't go wrong with it. Check out the video above for my more in-depth review of the body and its workings! If you have any questions or comments about my experience with the Yashica, sound off below!

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Does the camera take filters?

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yes, it does. It takes Bay-1 filters, common on TLR cameras. You can also get an adapter so you can use filters you may already have. Keep in mind, though, that if you adapt larger filters you may obstruct the viewing lens.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Yes, as explained above. There are also wide-angle and telephoto adapters, sort of like poor man versions of the Rollei Mutars. They ... aren't that good.

Back when I was shooting professionally (before I discovered computers in the late 70's), I ALWAYS had a Yashicamat 124G in the trunk as a spare. The closest thing to an indestructible camera I have ever encountered. And it's fun!

Anonymous's picture

I still have and use this little beauty. Along with my old K1000, they represent my foot that is still in the old school.

Natalie P's picture

Although the novelty is definitely there, the cost of 120 film and the intimidating TLR system isn't the "best" film camera for beginners. My first film camera was a disposable camera and I quickly moved onto a Pentax p30n because I stumbled upon it in a flea market. It had a functioning light meter and easy to use M mode. I could get my photos developed at CVS (when they had those services, lucky me). Now that there are light meter apps and more tutorials online, sure, this would be an awesome first camera to have, but not too practical.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Well I think if we're being honest, practicality is right out the window with film, whichever format you choose. Practical would be shooting digital. That said, 120 film is pricier, per frame, that's true. But you don't shoot 120 film like 35mm. You're usually more considered in which shots to take. I don't think if I were to get into film today I'd want to take my film to a drug store for development and prints, either. The results you'll get are a crap shoot at best.

Perhaps that's why I think medium format is a better move for someone just getting into it. That novelty is more likely to keep you interested, and the activity of shooting is completely different. Sure, it requires a little research, but if someone wanted their experience to be just like shooting digital, why try it out at all?

Not really. A person that wants to shoot film could buy a late 90s 35mm SLR that would be ridiculously more easy and convenient to shoot with than the Yashica. Good AF, no upside down backward image, good metering, auto film load and advance, etc. Heck my last 35mm SLR even allowed me to rewind the film midroll while leaving the leader out to reload later on. I could switch from slow to fast film as I wanted without having to finish the roll. The only advantage to using something like the Yashica is the crazy sharp and creamy smooth images it produces on a much bigger piece of film. When competently printed the results are absolutely stunning. Much more so on traditional photo paper. Inkjet blows.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You hit the nail on the head there. The Yashica is demonstrably different to a 35mm style camera, both in handling and quality. To me, there's no point to going to 35mm as it's just more of the same. Plus, if you're doing your own scans, it's more difficult to scan than 120.

And just FYI, I know I'm probably in the minority with my distaste for 35mm, so I can completely see why someone would want to go that route first. Different strokes for different folks!

I have to disagree on the scanning part Hans. It is actually quite easy and affordable to get a good dedicated film scanner that will do a better job of scanning 35mm than a flatbed does for medium, used or new. Of course the medium film has an area numerous times bigger so the quality will very obviously still look better, but you're definitely not getting the best of the medium film with a flatbed, unfortunately, and you have fewer options available.

You're not alone in not being a fan of 35mm film. It was fine for me decades ago when there was nothing better besides larger film. Nowadays someone can shoot with a comparitively tiny 1" sensor camera and get similar quality to 35mm film, and better at higher ISOs. Meanwhile the best of APS sensor cameras can actually match the look of medium film with surprisingly large prints. Pretty amazing when you think about it.

If I recall correctly you started shooting large format film. Now that is where film newcomers should venture, especially 8x10, if they really want to see what film is capable of. Of course it's certainly not the easiest and the cheapest kind of film to shoot.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I definitely don't doubt your assertion about dedicated film scanners. I've never had the chance to use one, personally. But I've also never sought one out since medium format ones are expensive and I don't care much for the smaller format.

As for large format, I'm in love with it, but if medium format is intimidating, large formats may cause some soiled pants. Sooo many ways to mess up. I'm sure there are some I haven't discovered yet, but I bet they are coming.

No you are 100% right on the scanning part.

35mm film needs alot more definition in the scanner to properly enlarge a print. The 120 negs are bigger to start with and so the definition needed is easier to find in common scanners. It's basic math.

Stephen Fretz's picture

Nope, I'm with you - MF makes much more sense in the digital era, as when properly scanned it can deliver amazing resolution and color - 35mm film is now thoroughly outclassed by today's DSLRs.

Natalie P's picture

Absolutely, if you have the budget to get this camera and practice with 120 film as a beginner then do so. But the practicality with 35mm / SLR / point and shoot is that when you're a beginner you are likely to go through more film regardless. My takeaway is that film - 35mm is nothing like shooting digital and kept me interested because of the accessibility.

For someone who has no photography experience or only digital photography experience - film will force you to be more conscious of the shots you take whether it be 35mm or 120mm. But 120mm is trickier from the start. Sometimes when you wind it, it doesn't wind correctly and you get a shot on half the slide you were looking for or it gets jammed.

35 mm is more reliable when practicing, offers more affordable camera options - will absolutely give you the experience of film without feeling even more upset/guilty when you get a blank roll back or messed up images, because it will be lighter on the wallet and you took 24 to 36 shots at once, unlike the 12-16 of the 120m (you can get really cheap color film on ebay, don't think there are cheap options for 120mm).

When you're experimenting as a beginner, going to a drug store is a cheap option and the one I went to created great images (for me at the time), for my disposable shots. It all depends on the people that work there, honestly. Below is one of my very first shots in 2009. Those are pretty awesome colors for a disposable camera.

I'm not trying to convince anyone to get their film developed at drug stores, because for the most part that's not a great idea. There aren't many that are doing that anyway.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You have some really good points here. But a lot of it is predicated on the reliability of one format over another. Ive had cameras jam on 35mm and 120mm. Ive seen perfectly good nikon cameras chew through a roll of 35mm for no reason. Then Ive seen Leicas that have churned through hundreds of rolls like butter, not a hitch in sight. Like anything else, you can put as much or little money/time/effort into something as you want. But I think most of us look at film through a lens of familiarity with 35mm. We think medium format is hard because it's unfamilar. The reality is that the cameras are usually simpler to operate. For me, its about the process. What fun is there in a point and shoot? As far as process goes, I mean. And if you're sending it to a lab, at what point are your hands on the work? Why not use a cell phone? Im not being contrary here. It just seems like if we are making it as easy as possible, theres no point in trying something new. I have faith that people can push beyond the familiar. Just because something is easier or more familiar doesnt make it better for them in the long run.

Natalie P's picture

So what you're saying is that you think someone who is a beginner will dive head first into learning how to operate a new format, invest into a lot of equipment and learn how to develop their own film basically at once. The only cameras I've had issues with jamming and loading issues is 120mm -- and I have 15 different film cameras, but that's personal experience. You are a professional photographer and I'm not, so our perspectives are different in that respect. My time and money from the start is invested differently into my passion hobby than your professional career. I still don't know how to process my own black and white film, which I actually just got the basic supplies for now. I never disagreed that your camera of choice is bad or worse than 35mm (obv 120 mm provides higher quality images), I'll just stand by the fact that I don't think its the best but within the context of budget, time-limits and actual level of beginner. Props to any beginner that reads your article and gets inspired by it!

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

My first photoshoot ever was with 35mm Zenit... with leader improperly hooked. I ended up with blank roll :D On 120 at least you know that the film is moving before you close the back...
35mm was created so photographer can shoot more and faster than with MF and LF. It was made mostly for photojournalists.
Today if someone tries film, it is usually because they want to slow down and think before taking the picture.

Natalie P's picture

haha the Zenit. I loveee Soviet cameras. did you improperly hook the film or there was something wrong with the camera? Yes, so get a Nikon F and you'll definitely slow down and think before taking a picture. :)

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

It was definitely operator's error
I use RB67 and Crown Graflex 4x5 from time to time.

@Roman "My first photoshoot ever was with 35mm Zenit... with leader improperly hooked. I ended up with blank roll :D On 120 at least you know that the film is moving before you close the back..."

But that's not an issue with a modern 35mm film camera.

"Today if someone tries film, it is usually because they want to slow down and think before taking the picture."

If a photographer is truly serious about slowing down and thinking then he or she wouldn't need to use film, they could continue shooting digital.

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

I am not compering anything to anything. What's your point?

I never said you were making a comparison. I was simply responding to what you said and the built-in comparison in such a statement.

Stephen Fretz's picture

I've still got a local minilab (MotoPhoto in Paramus NJ) that charges $5 for C41 developing (35mm or 120 - same price per roll). I scan the 120 stuff with an Epson V600.

WARNING: some drugstores now only give you a CD and prints; they THROW OUT the film after developing it. Found this out when I gave my daughter in Virginia my Nikon F2.... was shocked and appalled.

Natalie P's picture

I have the Epson V600 too :)

Kirk Darling's picture

I had one of those in the early 70s--it was my first money-making camera. They cost now used the same number of dollars (2017) as they cost new in 1972 (and I think the camera was discontinued in 1974). Darned sure wish I still had my old one--but I sold it after a couple of years to buy a Mamiya C330...and I wish I still had that, too.

That was one of my first cameras. My sample produced ridiculously sharp photos, especially when I hand printed them myself in my darkroom with the Fujinon lens I had at the time. That said, I could never shoot with something like that again. Old timer that has no interest going back to something so slow and cumbersome, and now prohibitively expensive to get the kind of prints I would want from them. The young hipsters can have fun with that old stuff if they want.

Robert Raymer's picture

Are you talking about someone new to photography and film, or someone who is an "experienced" photographer that is new to film? Either way, I don't think I would recommend a TLR to either group, and probably wouldn't recommend any medium format camera. While I personally think 35mm film is a waste of time for me since, I also happen to think that it is the best place to start. Compared to medium format the cost of 35mm is usually cheaper per roll with more frames per roll and cheaper to get developed and scanned at a lab. It is also much easier to load/unload. If learning to develop the film on their own is planned 35mm is both easier to spool and cheaper as you can usually develop far more frames with a given amount of chemicals than medium/large format. Additionally, all of the things I love about most medium/large format cameras (waist level finders, backwards and/or upside down viewfinders, etc) are things that complicate the process for someone just learning to shoot that way. Lastly, I think as far as learning/breaking into film goes the fact that there are so many 35mm film cameras and lenses from major players (nikon, canon, pentax, etc) available for cheap on the internet/ebay is a huge plus for the format when it comes for learning for cheap(er), plus, many though not all of todays lenses are backwards compatible with the mounts of their 35mm film camera counterparts.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I agree that 35mm is a much easier prospect for most shooters. But in the end, I believe a beginner (either to film or photography in general) is enchanted by the unfamiliar. To me, and I'm surely biased on this, there's little incentive to shoot 35mm as it's just more of the same. I know that I'm much more likely to stick with something if I'm seeing some sort of benefit from it. With 35mm, where's the benefit? You work twice as hard for images that are of an inferior technical quality.

I love film, but I'm also busy. I can't justify taking the time to shoot a format that doesn't give me anything extra. Believe me, I've tried!

Robert Raymer's picture

I dont disagree that 120 is a far superior format than 35mm in almost every way, from shooting experience, to refinement of technique, to final product, and the list goes on. Personally, If I am not shooting digital I shoot only 120 or 4x5 and have no use for 35mm, since I find the benefits of digital far outweigh those of shooting 35mm. Still, solely from an ease of use, cost, and availability perspective I think 35mm is superior specifically when it comes to an introduction and learning. Regardless, that is just my personal opinion, and I am far from an expert.

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