Blown out portraits of swimsuit supermodels. Hashtagged and upvoted shots of trendy streetwear-covered, moody-looking youngsters. A price tag that makes hypebeasts and unscrupulous camera flippers alike lick their lips. You know which camera I’m talking about. It’s none other than the poster child of the 35mm point-and-shoot inflation bubble, the favorite camera of questionably-motivated fashion photographers the world over (you know who I mean). It’s the Yashica T4.
But do we really know what this camera’s about? I think not. The T4 is one of those cameras whose reputation often far eclipses the more salient points of its design, operation, and capability. We know this camera as being capable of a certain look (a e s t h e t i c) and associate it with a very particular kind of photography. It would then be easy to dismiss the Yashica T4 out-of-hand as an overhyped darling that doesn’t deserve any more consideration than the next 1990s point-and-shoot with a 35mm lens.
When the task of reviewing this camera fell into my lap, I almost did just that. After a few weeks with one I’ve found my position hasn’t really changed, but my appreciation for the camera has deepened. And it’s done so for true and honest reasons.
What’s a Yashica T4?
The first interesting thing about the Yashica T4 is just how uninteresting it is. For anybody who experienced products and design go the late 1990s through the early 2000s, the Yashica T4 will look and feel like everything else made in that era – weirdly bulgy and oddly slippery. Its specs don’t encourage either; it features a 3-point infrared autofocus system, a stepless shutter that bottoms out at one second and tops out at 1/700th of a second, a decent EV range of EV 3.5-17, a DX code reader that reads up to ISO 3200, and a decent looking integrated flash that’ll give you that head-on-apply-directly-to-the-forehead look. Decent specs for a point-and-shoot from the 1990s, but nothing that sets it apart.
The saving grace of the Yashica T4 (and the reason why so many Yashica products from the ’80s and ’90s were so great) is the fact that it features glass designed by German optical powerhouse Zeiss. The Yashica T4’s Carl Zeiss T* 35mm f/3.5 Tessar was and is still considered one of the best lenses ever dropped into a plastic point-and-shoot, and the reason the T4 has stood the test of time.
Even so, there’s still stiff optical competition for the Yashica T4. The Nikon Pikaichi L35AF features a faster and equally renowned 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar pattern lens, as does the much-hyped Olympus Mju-II and the higher end Contax T-series of cameras.
So what’s the deal with the T4’s lens? It’s a sharp and contrasty lens owing to the timeless Tessar designed and perfected by Zeiss, and it renders colors very well owing to the same’s T* coating. But other lenses do these things too. It focuses down to 0.35m, which is a welcome feature in a point-and-shoot camera, but it isn’t a feature exclusive to the T4 by any means. In fact, I’d wager the T4’s legacy was cemented the moment “Carl Zeiss T*” was printed on the lens surround.
If the T4 doesn’t offer anything different other than the Zeiss name and an above-average lens, then it doesn’t really amount to much in the 35mm autofocus point-and-shoot segment. While all that is true, in practice, the T4 performs at a level higher than almost every other point-and-shoot I’ve ever tried. While it doesn’t completely demolish the competition in terms of raw capability or image quality, the T4 has a leg up in terms of design. The T4 is one of the most well-designed point-and-shoot cameras out there, creating an overall package that’s everything a point-and-shoot should be – effortless, but capable.
The Yashica T4 is a surprisingly flexible, capable camera. There are only three buttons on the top plate – the shutter release, a self timer button, and a flash mode button which doubles as a mode selector. A sun symbol appears on the LCD for daytime fill-flash, a night time symbol for low-light shooting with no flash, and an infinity symbol for infinity focus lock meant for landscape photography. All of these modes make for a surprisingly versatile camera, and the button used to switch between them isn’t an annoyance. I usually balk at the push-button menus of the 1990s, but there are so few modes here that switching between them is no more of a bother than manually focusing or setting shutter speed or aperture on a manually operated camera. Though it should be noted that every time the camera is turned off, the modes reset. Shooters who want to shoot with no flash will need to remember to turn it off every time the thing restarts, or risk startling a candid subject.
Just beyond the trio of buttons lies a switch that unlocks the camera and pulls back the shroud that protects the T4’s Carl Zeiss T* lens. It seems like an innocuous feature, but the placement and operation of this switch is perfect. We’ve said much about the convenience of the clamshell on/off switch featured on the Olympus XA and Mju series of cameras, but there really is no better way to unlock a lens than the small switch found on the T4. It’s a small feature, but in practice it lets the shooter be a step quicker than they would be with other cameras, which is essential for street and candid photography.
Speaking of those styles of photography, the T4 is a stellar camera for situations which require an observant eye and a quick trigger finger. This is down to both the T4’s unlocking switch and the incredibly quick and quiet action of its autofocus and shutter release. Too often do point-and-shoots wail and whine away for a couple of seconds before taking a photo; the T4 takes care of its business within a half second, and takes care of it quietly. For more discerning shooters, it is possible to utilize the shutter release as an AF/AE lock with a half-press for more precise composition and exposure control, but this doesn’t add more than another half second to shooting time. In tandem with the slick action of the T4’s unlocking mechanism, it’s possible to unlock, shoot, lock, and stow away the T4 within about four seconds.
Much can be said about the T4’s functional drawbacks. For example, the T4 doesn’t have a manual aperture selector. It doesn’t have a manual focus override. It doesn’t have a manual ISO selector. It’s also plastic and electronic, which for some is enough to warrant eternal damnation. But to these points I will counter that these are only drawbacks if you use the T4 as your only camera.
There’s a strange notion that all cameras must be evaluated as if they were going to be your only camera. I find it much more productive to view cameras in context, especially when it comes to the point-and-shoot set. For me, point-and-shoots act as secondary cameras or part of a larger camera system. For quick, casual grab shots, the point-and-shoots will do just fine. For considered shots which will require finer manipulation of exposure, control over depth-of-field, and pinpoint framing, a pro-spec SLR or rangefinder should be used.
Considering this, the Yashica T4 plays the point-and-shoot role admirably. It’s quick on the draw, capable enough to grab a wide variety of shots, and designed well enough for anybody to operate. It won’t do everything a fully-equipped SLR can, but expecting such acrobatics from a point-and-shoot is preposterous to begin with. When used with its limitations in mind, the T4 can offer one of the most effortless and enjoyable shooting experiences among point-and-shoots.
The Buyer’s Guide
Even though the T4 is absolutely deserving of praise and is a great camera in itself, I can’t recommend the T4 to the average shooter in good conscience. Why? Price and hype.
The Yashica T4 has one of the most obscenely inflated price tags in photography, which comes in currently around $500. That’s simply absurd. Nobody should be shelling out five Benjamins for a point-and-shoot from the ’90s, no matter how good it is. That kind of money should be reserved for a first-rate pro-spec camera system, not a point-and-shoot. In fact, for that kind of money you could probably fund an entire system, lenses and all, and still have enough for an equally capable point-and-shoot.
At this absurd of a price point, you aren’t paying for the camera; you’re paying for some weird conception of what this camera represents. Considering the bulk of that image is unfortunately constituted by a gross looking photographer-creep and an overplayed style of portraiture that any camera with a flash can accomplish, the T4 isn’t worth $500.
I should stress that none of this is any fault of the T4’s, and if you find one at a thrift store for a hundred bucks, buy it! It’s a nice camera. But it should be said somewhere on the internet that, at $400 or $500, there’s nothing about the Yashica T4 that makes it deserving of this inflated price tag more than any other decent point-and-shoot. There’s just not much to it.
The T4 just got caught up in being handled by a controversial and popular photographer, and in the infamy and social media hype that followed. Perhaps we can (and should) look to other point-and-shoots as good secondary cameras or casual everyday cameras, and appreciate them for what they are without hype or expectation.