Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Voigtländer Bessa

24

100_5514I enjoy old Kodaks and Arguses, and I had a great time with a vintage Minolta not long ago. But nosing around eBay and vintage camera forums has given me an appetite for more refined equipment. Consensus is that the Germans made the finest lenses and wrapped them in well-designed, nearly indestructible bodies. Collectors fawn over their Zeiss-Ikons, Rolleis, and Leicas. But the granddaddy of all German cameras and the oldest name in photography is Voigtländer, which made its first optical instruments in 1756. Out of respect for its long history, and because I think umlauts are cool, I decided to start with Voigtländer.

When I saw the very large price tags good original or even restored Voigtländers go for, I said gack. I have other ways I need to spend hundreds of dollars right now.

Then I noticed that a particular medium-format folding Voigtländer, the Bessa, routinely sold for well under $100. When new in 1929, it was marketed to the serious amateur who wanted the Voigtländer name and fabled build quality but at a price that was not entirely out of reach. I kept watching and bidding and finally snagged one for about $30. Based on the lens’s serial number, my Bessa was made between 1937 and 1942.

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Voigtländer made over a million cameras using the Bessa name through 1957, but the original Bessa was made through 1949 with several years off during World War II. Voigtländer added features to the Bessa several times during the run, so earlier examples lack the folding viewfinder, the door-mounted shutter release that retracts when you close the door, the bellows and lens that extend on your own when you open the door, and the ability to take 6×9-cm or 4.5×6-cm photos that come with my camera. Voigtländer made the camera with a range of lenses, starting with the entry-level Voigtar and moving up in sharpness from Vaskar to Skopar to Color Skopar, all uncoated, I think. They also made the camera with a range of shutters, from the simple Prontor to the higher-quality Compur and Compur Rapid. Bessas with the better lenses and shutters edge back into gack territory. My camera comes with the Voigtar lens (at f/4.5) and the Prontor shutter, which kept the price down both now and when new.

Another reason the original Bessa can be had for reasonable cost is that it has no rangefinder, leaving focusing to guesswork. How far away is the subject, anyway? Six feet? Eight? Guess wrong, and the shot is wasted. A rangefinder finds the distance for you, eliminating out-of-focus shots, and even collectors appreciate that. In general, a great way to score quality vintage glass on the cheap is to look for cameras that lack a rangefinder.

Even though the Bessa was a fairly pedestrian camera by Voigtländer’s standards, it is still full of excellent design. For example, it has a clever film delivery system that simplifies loading. A little panel over the film spool holds the film in; swing it out, drop a roll of 120 film in, and swing it back, no spindles necessary. It also comes with a mask that lets it take 4.5×6 photos. Just insert the mask into the slots, as the photo below shows. The pop-up viewfinder even has a separate pop-up mask so you can frame 4.5×6 shots.

Bessa film transport

Also check out the back and its two exposure-counter windows. That little knob between them opens the windows so you can see which exposure you’re on. If the 4.5×6 mask is not inserted, twisting the knob opens only the bottom counter window. If the mask is inserted, twisting the knob opens both windows; the top window counts the smaller exposures. At least it’s supposed to work that way; it’s broken on my Bessa. And the knob itself is prone to falling out.

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The Bessa also tries to make focusing less error-prone. The focusing ring shows distance in feet, but it also includes an upside-down triangle and a circle. At f/8, focus to the upside-down triangle and everything between eight and 16 feet will be sharp. Focus to the circle and everything 20 feet and beyond will be sharp. If you’re a good guesser of distance, use the depth-of-focus chart on the back to get results with greater depth of field.

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Unfortunately, my Bessa has issues. The shutter sticks below 1/25 second. The waist-level viewfinder is pitted. The folding viewfinder is supposed to pop up automatically when you extend the bellows, but it sticks and you have to pry it open. These problems can probably be solved with a good cleaning and lubing. But most disappointingly, the lens is cloudy. It may just need cleaning, or it may be permanently damaged.

Despite my Bessa’s problems, this sturdy camera is crammed with well-designed coolness. It is the stuff. If Homer Simpson collected cameras, he’d pick this one up and say Voigtländer, ohhhhh. Except Homer couldn’t pronounce the a-umlaut, I’m sure.

Update: I finally did put a roll of film through this camera. See some of the photos here.

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24 thoughts on “Voigtländer Bessa

  1. Lone Primate

    I’m always impressed by the finds you make, but I often wonder of what use they are other than as proud keepsakes… but do you mean to say that film for this camera is still to be had? Now that’s impressive… in an age where if your Mac’s running an OS with the wrong decimal point, you can’t run emerging programs. :)

    1. Jim Post author

      You can absolutely still buy film for this camera. It takes 120 film, which is still in use today, primarily for portraiture. You can get 120 from most camera stores, and you generally have to get it developed there too, but it’s entirely doable.

      I like to actually use my old cameras from time to time, just for the pleasure of it, but mostly they do just sit on shelves for me to look at.

  2. Mason

    I happen to own a similar version of the bessa. This is irrelevent to my comment but may be interesting to some. The only picture that can be paired with the camera mentioned shows a crowd watching the hindenburg just before it’s demise.

    Anyway, I have been trying to find film for this camera all day and have made no progress until I read jim’s comment. Is this true. I went to a camera store earlier today and asked if there was any way to obtain film for the camera and the man said “good luck” and gave me two companys to contact but they have not emailed me back. If anyone can help please email me at yadigg117@aim.com. Thank you.

    1. Jim Post author

      I’m a bit puzzled, really. All the Bessas I’ve seen or read about take 120 film, and you can buy it in any camera store. You might just buy a roll of 120 and see if it fits in your camera.

  3. Marc

    I own this EXACT model. Serial # 2379852. I’ve never used it. Appearance wise . . . it looks to be in the same shape yours is in. My grandfather picked it up off of somebody when he was in Germany in WWII. Prior to reading your blog I knew nothing about it . . . other than it was German . . . and it was old. Thank you for the info.

  4. matt

    Hi, I’ve got almost exactly the same model at home (except the shutter, the one I have has the Compur shutter) and I was wondering, whether you know how to clean the lens or how to open it somehow in order to clean it from the inside.

    Thanks

  5. Don

    We found and old bessa camera in our barn, apparently it was my dad’s when he was in the war… trying to find a serial number does anyone know where we could find it? it was still in the case just kind of a cool find.

    1. Jim Post author

      The lens’s serial number is what you want. Check the post above for a link to a page that maps lens serial numbers to the years of manufacture.

  6. Jake

    Where do you find the serial number on the lens? I recently received an original Voigtlander Besse camera, and I’m curious to know when it was produced. I can only find the serial number on the film door. It appears to be in good shape, but the leather on the body is considerably more worn. I believe it went through a war, so this is not surprising.

    1. Jim Post author

      Jake, on my Bessa it’s on the ring around the lens. It says, “Anastigman Voigtar 1:4.5 F=11 cm” and “Voigtlander-Braunschweig Nr. 2248123″. That last bit is the serial number.

  7. minimodi

    Hi Jim! Thanks for a great site!

    I’m trying to figure out the manufacturing date of my Voigtländer Bessa (think it’s the same as yours) and I wonder if you know what number is the actual serial number for the camera – the one on the lens? (on my: 1 113 753) – or the one inside the back on the door below the sticker? (on my: 622 579)
    Both numbers indicates a possible range of years according to the “lens serial number link” you refer to… 1937 – 42 or 1929 – 33.

    Thanks a lot!
    /Jonas

    1. Jim Post author

      Hi! On my camera, which is the only one of these I’ve held in my hands, I found only the number on the lens. The age of the lens is “in the pocket” for the years the camera was made (per info I found around the Internet), so I’m going with it! Hope that helps.

  8. Neil

    Great site, love the personal experiences with cameras. I have this model and it takes great photos. It’s worth hunting down another one. The lens is uncoated, so be careful to shade it if you’re shooting in the sun. Here’s a link to some shots from it. Since mine was made between 1935 and 1938, I’m shooting subjects that were either made, or around in 1936. I’m calling the the *36 project.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/neilkesterson/tags/bessa/

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