12.01.2016

The Minister is My Friend: The Yashica M II

Friendships are always a mixed bag.  Some are marked by a certain sense of overreaching influence, where a person tries to give you guidance, whether solicited or not, and then that person all but expects you to follow their guidance to the letter.  Then there are those aloof friendships that lack any real involvement or guidance whatsoever, in which either party just does as they please without any mere mention of what might be best.

The best friendships however, in my humble beliefs, are the happy medium of the extremes listed above; those in which you are given some gentle guidance that is clearly spelled out, but are still given the latitude to make your own decision, knowing you are ultimately responsible for the outcome of your decisions.

Cameras can often run this same sort of gamut of influence.  There are those that are overbearing and force you to set exposure settings as they choose, or even to focus upon what they see as the focal point, with little to no latitude to change this up as you see fit. Conversely, other models offer you little or no assistance in your photographic mission, having no assistance in focusing, composition, or exposure settings. 

And then there are those which also strike that perfect balance between helpful and obnoxious, handily giving you all the information you need to make a great photo, and allowing you to choose what bits of these vitals you elect to implement in composing and shooting your photo, and letting you relish or revile the outcome, while patiently ready to give you that guidance again whenever you call upon it.  And to me, there are few which do this as successfully as the Yashica M-II rangefinder camera.


Three extremely similar cameras in build and specification, though only one truly carries the "Minister" moniker. 

The 1962 vintage M-II is oft referred to as the "Minister II," though this is sort of a blur with reality in a few ways.  First of all, there are no Yashica cameras carrying a nameplate reading "Minister-II," but rather cameras carrying a "Minister" front badge and an engraved "II" preceding the serial number in the top plate of the camera to designate the succession from the original Minister series.  Meanwhile, other cameras, such as mine, have no "Minister" marked badging (but spaces for such labels to fit) and an engraved "M-II on the front left of the top plate.  

Models marked with "Minister" typically stop down only to f/16 and top out at a 1/500 shutter speed, while the "M-II" models top out at a 1/1000 shutter speed and stop down to f/22.  Despite this, I still tend to like the name "Minister" when referring to my M-II cameras simply for the novel name, and because the latter title sounds more like a Star Wars Droid. Alternatively, I will sometimes call these by the amalgam "Yashmii."

The "Minister" name is admittedly an odd duck for cameras, but this camera is a product of a maker who made a predecessor to this line called the "Campus."  In today's era where product model names are simply created on account of how they roll off the tongue, these labels of decades ago simply seem strange.  Presuming that no governmental or religious connotation was implied by the name, I'm left to wonder if the name is more a play on the "Mini" in the word, given that the cameras have a somewhat modest form factor.  It's almost as if it is an amalgam of its own for "Mini Hipster" or something of the like.  Pure speculation on my part however.


The simpler Minister labeling at the bottom, with fewer distances noted on the focusing ring, Note the M-II's presence of a 1/1000 shutter speed and f/22 setting that the Minister lacks. 

Aside from the difference in top speed and the possible cosmetic nuances, both the "M-II" and the "Minister (II)" operate in an identical fashion that is very pleasing to the photographer who seeks guidance while still maintaining full control.  And this guidance is presented in an entirely intuitive way that makes for a very relaxed and pleasant shooting experience whether this guidance is followed or not.  More on that a little further down.

When it comes to written coverage of Yashica rangefinders, it seems that more than 90% of the focus is upon two models in particular: the speedy Lynx models with either the 1.4 lens or 1/1000 top shutter, or the revered Electro series of the late 1960's.  Models such as the Minister/M series have been largely relegated to relative obscurity compared to the twin titans of the Yashica lineup.  And that's fine with me, as I can readily pass up the overly controlling setup (or aging electronics) of the Electro for the easy breezy feel of the lesser known Minister and its bretheren. 


Besides, the tendency to overlook models other than the Lynx and Electro was likely a great assist in my picking up the Minister in the first place.  In what will be regarded as one of the best "buy it now" scores I have ever had of ebay cameras, I snagged the M-II and a pair of its Yashica relatives for under $25.  Add on shipping and each camera came out to less than $12 in total cost.  And in a humorous twist of serendipity, the camera of the trio that I expected to take the initial hankering to was a YL model with a faster lens.  But the instant I picked up the M-II, it was obvious to me that this was the jewel of the set.




There are variants in the M-II badged cameras as well.  The earlier version, at right carries the YASHICA emblem under the light meter window, while the later version has a gold plate near the bottom of the camera.  The font on the meter readout was also greatly improved on the later version, from a difficult to read narrow typeface to a thick one that was far easier to read.  The Zebra lines also changed from red to blue. 


So what makes this 54 year old camera so charming to me?  The short answer is a combination of gleaming finishes, intuitive controls, and an awesome feel.  Clad in a rugged case and topped with an impressive engraved chrome top plate, the Minister feels far more polished than any consumer electronics item made today.  And this fit and finish carry over to the operating fixtures: a smooth soft shutter release, fluid focusing ring, and a silky smooth film advance.


However, the best feature that complements this camera so nicely is the intuitive and easy to learn operation of this camera.  With a working in-camera light meter, and merely adequate lighting conditions, anyone can take excellent photos on the Minister with a minimum of effort.  One starts by simply setting the film speed on the novel scroll that aligns next to the meter reading.  Point the camera at your scene and take a reading.  The needle will point to a light value reading on the dialed up display on the meter.  One then simply dials in that number on the ring at the front of the lens barrel and every valid combination of shutter and aperture is already set to take a photo.  The only thing left to do is pick a desired combination based on either shutter speed or depth of field, and then compose and focus the photo, and take it.  

While many cameras of the era have such a feature based on a Light Value (LV) scale, the Yashica is the best application I've yet to see of one.  It's simple to use, and just about as simple to choose not to use.  The inner dials for aperture and shutter speed spin pretty freely OUT of the Light Value set of combinations, and the light value readings can easily be dialed back in by using the outermost ring, or you can simply elect to continue to select shutter and aperture combinations of your choice.


Even if one uses an external meter or goes with the Sunny 16 rule for setting exposures, it is easy to change aperture or shutter speed settings and keep the same exposure values by simply rotating the silver ring that links the two settings.  Changing away from these settings is a fairly easy matter of rotating this silver ring to pull up the desired shutter speed for your shot, and then rotating the outer EV ring to change the aperture.  It's sort of challenge to convey how easily the system works on this camera, but in picking one up, it is able to be figured out within seconds.  


And figuring this easy to use system out was something that I not only did quickly, but enjoyed.  Shooting with the M-II was both a breeze and a joy.  It was easy to lock in my settings and then alter them for desired depth of field, or change them altogether if I felt as though I wanted a bit more shadow detail that I expected to get from the initial settings.  

The rangefinder worked fine, the shutter release and film advance all felt perfectly fluid, and there were honestly times when I not only forgot I was using a camera that was nearly a decade older than me, but even that I was using a used camera.  This camera literally felt flawless in just about every respect.

If I HAD to pick one gripe about the M-II, it would be the desire for a faster lens, but this is actually grasping at straws.  In fact, given the moderately lit situations that I typically shoot in, having the 1/1000 shutter speed is actually more of a benefit than a faster lens.  After all, what good is a fast lens if you do not have a fast enough shutter speed to force narrow depth of field? Having a 1/1000 shutter speed allows me to go to f/2.8 more often.  If I were in a similar situation with a camera with a 1/500 top speed, the fastest aperture I could shoot would be f/4.  

Having shot with a number of other compact rangefinder cameras since picking up the M-II, I can honestly say that few if any have truly approached the outstanding product that is here in this largely forgotten model from Yashica.  If you get a chance to pick up a working M-II for a good price, I can honestly say that you shouldn't be disappointed in any way.  


For my first shots on the M-II, I loaded up with some Eastman Plus-X 5231 film and rambled through areas near Sugarloaf Mountain on a dreary day.  Though the film was fairly grainy, the results came out pretty well given that the camera was using a selenium meter that is over 50 years old. 

School Days, School Days, oh those Golden Rule Days. 

An abandoned machine molders in the woods near Sugarloaf Mountain.

A new building near Twinbrook Metro features a handy bit of sculpture perfect for testing rangefinders and exposures.

Ruins are always favorite photographic subjects for me, though I tend to find non-leaf seasons to provide the best settings in which to both find and capture them.

The Strong Mansion provided some nice terraces to spotlight in photos.  I do wish I'd have slowed down a bit more to do some better framing of subjects. I can't even blame adjusting to the camera as a symptom for my haste, since this camera is so easy to learn.

A lot of shadow and gloom and yet the M-II still manages to pull out a decent exposure using the settings suggested by the well aged selenium meter! 


Along the C&O Canal are a number of structures that make great subject matter.  The ruddy exposures were unavoidable due to the dreary lighting of the day.  


One of my favorites, the Poffenberger Road Bridge, renders quite well through the Yahinon lens of the M-II.

Near the end of the roll, the sun briefly peeked out to allow me to capture a great shot of the Sumantown Road Bridge.  

For a few shots, I switched to Rollei Retro 80S.  And it is situations like these where the 1/1000 top speed is more desirable than a faster lens.  I was able to shoot this wide open at f/2.8, and would have had to stop down to f/4 if I'd only had a 1/500 top speed.  The focus point is PRECISELY where I set it, leaving a sharp point of focus and lovely diminished backdrop.

Another shot taken at closer focus reveals just how sharp the M-II's lens is. 

A general shot on a sunny day shows similarly sharp focus. 

A shot taken on Agfa Precisa CT 100 shows decent exposure in a very challenging lighting situation.  Again, excellent sharpness on the point of focus. 

A bit of overexposure, but still the results show a great sharpness across the frame. 

I aim, I focus, I shoot, and the M-II gets it right.  What more could you ask for?

Not too interesting composition wise, but this camera does continue to prove itself again and again. 

Posting photos of late spring given the season does make one sentimental for the warmer seasons that have since passed. 

I was curious if the skyline buildings in the backdrop would show in this shot, but they appear to have been washed out. 

Particularly close focus is nailed, while out of focus areas are rendered a bit distractingly.