Classic Cameras: Kyocera/Yashica Samurai X3.0

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What looks like a camcorder from the 1980s, takes upwards of 75 shots per roll, and is really an SLR with a built-in 3x zoom lens? The answer: the Kyocera/Yashica Samurai X3.0. This uniquely little, albeit somewhat big, camera is a half-frame 35mm film camera, meaning that instead of taking 24 x 36mm images, it records 17 x 24mm images. And since these frames are half the size of a standard 35mm frame, you get twice as many frames per roll. Half-frame camera aside, what really drew me to this camera was how strange and distinctive it looks. It has that futuristic appeal that only something from the late ’80s could have. It’s hideous, but I couldn’t resist.

I first became enamored with the idea of half-frame cameras during a rebellious phase that saw me eschewing the demands of the medium and large format photography with which I’m usually involved. I'm not really a fan of grainy photos and, thus, I’ve always gravitated to larger film formats for their inherent cleaner image quality. Sometimes, though, the size and weight of these cameras brings me down. But why stop at regular old 35mm when trying to save weight? If I’m going to sacrifice image quality for weight, why not just go all the way and get a half-frame camera? So, I did. And after trying several various half-frame cameras, I contradictorily ended up with one of the largest ones available, with the Samurai X3.0.

Even though this camera isn’t saving me any size or weight, the very distinct ergonomic shape looked like something I could get behind. More than even the performance of the camera, it was this strange grip and marketing for one-handed use that first caught my attention. The unique T-shaped protrusion on the right side of the body gives you a secure, and for me a very comfortable, grip on the camera. The center prong of the T fits between your fingers, the bar rests against the backs of your fingers for a solid grip, and this whole configuration places your index finger right on the shutter button. While this worked well for me, whenever I handed the camera to someone else to check out, they would invariably hold it wrong, be confused, and have their fingers covering up the lens. The one point of contention I did have for the grip is that it forces you to cock your wrist in a certain way, where taking a horizontal photo is the more uncomfortable position, versus a vertical shooting orientation. As someone who naturally sees compositions vertically, though, this wasn’t much of a bother for me.

The other point of the physical design that was a bit off was my initial understanding that the reasoning behind such a unique form factor was to promote one-handed use. Now, I don’t have the largest hands, but there is no way you could effectively use all the controls on this camera with one hand unless you have exceedingly long fingers. The positions for the zoom buttons are a good bit out of reach, the on/off switch is way out of reach of your thumb, and the few rear buttons are completely inaccessible with one hand. But fear not, as using a second hand to shoot is a) normal and b) can be pressed against the top of the camera for more support and stability. In fact, when turning the camera on its side to shoot vertically, the left hand fits perfectly over the top and gives easy access to adjust the zoom controls.

Beyond the ergonomics, what also drew me to this camera was the fact that it is an SLR. Most half-frame cameras, besides the well-known Olympus Pen F, are simple viewfinder cameras with fixed prime lenses. Having an SLR design, though, gives you greater compositional accuracy and, in the case of the Samurai, the ability to have a zoom lens. Being a half-frame, with its inherently small film format, the viewfinder isn’t the biggest, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. It’s certainly no Nikon F or Hasselblad finder, but, for what it is, the finder is bright, clear, and uncluttered. There is a single spot in the center, which is used for both exposure metering and autofocus. This system is quite basic by today’s standards, but it is the way I often configure my DSLRs as I’ve grown accustomed to the focus/meter-then-recompose method of shooting.

Working with the center spot, you simply point it at the area on which you wish to focus and meter. The downside is that this area must be both the area you wish to focus on and the area you wish to meter… but what can you realistically expect from a camera like this? Once you’ve chosen this key spot, you lock-in your focus and metering by half-pressing and holding the shutter button prior to shooting. Some more unfortunate-but-what-can-you-expect news, the autofocus on this camera is very slow! And very noisy! And it only gets worse, the dimmer the lighting conditions. It is a fully automated camera, too, so there is no manual-focus override to help quicken your spontaneous shooting times. Regarding exposure, the only real control you have is to have the flash fire automatically when necessary, to have it always fire, or to not use the flash at all and make use purely of the 2- to 1/500-second shutter-speed range.

The back of the camera contains few controls: a Mode button for choosing how you want the flash to operate, a Drive button if you want to do some pseudo high-speed shooting, and a Date button (with corresponding Set buttons) for having a time-stamp printed on your images. A manual film rewind button is also available for rewinding your film mid-roll. More automated still, the camera is designed to work only with DX-coded 35mm film cartridges (from ASA 50-3200), so that took away the ability to potentially work with bulk-rolled films or some of the more experimental films that come in blank cassettes. If you use a film in a non-DX-coded cartridge, it will default to ASA 100. One other esoteric note to point out: the Samurai takes one 2CR5 battery, which is decidedly annoying to find, compared to much more desirable AA or even CR123 batteries.

Saving, perhaps, the best for last, the good news for the Samurai is that it does have a seemingly nice lens! Besides the film format and bizarre design, this is the third aspect of the camera that won me over. As I mentioned before, most half-frame cameras have a fixed prime lens. The Samurai, on the other hand, has a whopping 25-75mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom. This wide-angle to short-telephoto 3x zoom is what really sealed the deal for me, which is probably the most surprising thing about this camera, since I am typically an adamant prime-lens user. To be honest, it’s hard to tell how legitimately good (or bad) this lens is, since the film format is so small. Once you zoom-in to the film scans or look at the film with a loupe, the grain becomes so prevalent that hyper-sharpness is a bit of a moot point. But for the format it’s designed to work with, I was pleased with the sharpness and general lack of overbearing aberrations or distortion. Like much of the rest of the camera, it might not be the prettiest or most efficient thing, but it simply worked and felt reliable. And one other point worth mentioning, the lens does have a convenient 49mm filter ring for attaching a filter or a lens cap.

The Kyocera Samurai X3.0 was certainly an impulse buy for me, but it’s one I’m not regretting. Despite all the inherent drawbacks, it’s a camera that proves there is still fun to be had in photography. I brought the camera along with me for a recent visit to Mexico City and loved the simplicity of carrying a single, self-contained camera to do all the shooting on my trip. It’s a bit more cumbersome than an iPhone, sure, but considering I set out to just make some fun travel photos that weren’t too serious, it filled the bill perfectly.

What’s your favorite “just-for-fun” camera? Do you have any impulse-buy cameras that you just had to have for no real practical reason? Have you ever shot with a half-frame camera? Let us know in the Comments section, located beneath this article.

6 Comments

I love the half-frame format and the Samurai, a late entry to my half-frame collection. This is just a FUN camera.

When I used to shoot color film and have it processed locally, the processors would put two shots on one picture. While this worked as a kind of proof sheet, the brightness was always off because of the clear band (black on the print) between pictures.

Jump to NOW. I still shoot 35mm but I develop the negatives myself, and scan them into a computer to do what used to be my darkroom stuff using Photoshop.

I use 35mm bulk film in 100 foot rolls. B&H sells both the bulk film and loaders. However, I also use DX encoded film canisters (100 and 400 ISO) that I found on e-bay. The film canisters that B&H sells are NOT DX encoded. 

The Samurai is my most modern and most automated half-frame, and except for my Canon DIAL, it is the camera I get the most comments and questions about. Most people think I am taking movies.

Bjorn, thanks for the article. It makes me want to jump into the old camera closet, find the Samurai, and start shooting.

Thanks, Lou. I can definitely relate to many people asking if the Samurai is a camcorder while I was shooting with it.

That's a good point about getting the DX-coded bulk cassettes for this camera, especially so that you could roll 12- or 18-exposure rolls so you can get about 24 or 36 half-frame exposures. As nice as getting almost 75 shots per roll is while traveling, sometimes it's a tough situation to finish a whole roll when you want to shoot ASA 200 film in the daytime and ASA 800 or 1600 film at night.

I love having too many camera and like this one in particular. They made a transparent demonstrator version which I bought a long time ago.

It actually takes pictures but as you might imagine it's not light-tight so that creates a problem but it's cool to see it work.

I agree, there's something about this camera that makes me think I'll be holding onto it for quite a while.

I'm jealous of your transparent version of the Samurai, as I'd love to see the inner-workings. Especially how the viewfinder is designed. Also, for fun, we do have a transparent version of the Lomo Konstruktor available:

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1019812-REG/lomography_hp135trans_konstruktor_diy_kit_transparent.html

Hi Bjorn, wonderful article....too many cameras bought on impulse... you know you are a photo addict when you have brand new cameras bought on sale and still sitting in the boxes - not used. The Yashica Samurai 3X brings back memories because I bought one in my teenage years and still have it (in case someone wants to buy it) with the original box and manual ! What was attractive to me was the weird design (beauty in the eyes of the beholder as they say), the quality of the lens, the simple programming choices, and best of all the 1/2 frame film design. When one rolls your own film canisters...and prints your own photos...it was a pleasure to go through 1/2 as many rolls of film. Only problem was when the rolls were occasionally given to a photo place to develop and print...one had to tell them over and over they are 1/2 frames. Some of the time they came back with no printed photos as they did not have a half frame mask. Anyone want to buy one! Regards.

Thanks, Dave. I definitely know the feeling of having too many cameras! And I agree, I really love getting twice as many frames per roll with this camera. It meant I only needed to pack 10 rolls of 35mm film for a full two-week trip (and I still had some film left over). I haven't had any prints made after having the film developed, but I have seen elsewhere online that people sometimes just get two frames printed on the same sheet using the regular 36 x 24mm frame...and I guess you could trim down the prints if needed.

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