Down the Road

Roads and life and how roads are like life

Voigtländer Bessa

34

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.

Voigtlander Bessa

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.

Voigtlander Bessa

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.

Voigtlander Bessa

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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34 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/

  9. Bob Pierceall

    I have found the Voitlander and tons of photos taken with it by my father as he traveled through Europe during WW2. Can’t find a model/serial number for idetification.Very intriguing,need any help in trying to identify and year made/purchased if possible. THANKS

  10. eppaar

    When talking about range finders or the lack thereof, one should realize that the majority of cameras used by amateurs, until the rise of the SLR, didn’t have them. The folding camera, like your Bessa, was the, after the box camera, the most popular design used by non-professionals. Although a few did have rangefinders (especially after WWII) they were expensive. So what did people do without a rangefinder?

    1) They became adept at estimating distances. It is not as hard as it seems.
    2) Used a “pocket” rangefinder. Many were made for photographers — I have two in my collection.
    3) Used depth of field to establish a zone of sharp focus. Many cameras had DOF tables or calculators (The early Retinas had one on the bottom plate).

    It should also be noted that while a range finder is very useful for stationary objects it is useless for moving subjects. By the time you used the rangefinder to focus, the subject had moved on. This when the depth of field becomes important.

    We are spoiled by modern digital cameras.

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      I’m glad you brought up shooting using DOF for a zone of sharp focus. This is a technique I really want to learn. I’ve got film in a guess-focus Voigtlander Vito II right now, which is the perfect camera to try this on.

      1. eppaar

        Jim,

        Would you like me to explain the DOF scales on your Vito (and on a number of other of your cameras) or would I be bringing coals to New Castle?

  11. Peter

    Depth of field is the area before and beyond the focus point that will be in focus. This area for film cameras is determined by a) the focal length of the lens and b) the ƒ stop. For digital cameras the type of sensor comes into play, but that is another problem.

    Almost all post WWII cameras and some prewar cameras have a DOF scale on the lens barrel which makes using it easy. I am going to use the Retina IIa as an example as it is a camera that we both have.

    If you look down on the lens barrel you will see the first the distance scale and then the focusing indicator (the Δ shaped mark in the middle of the barrel). On either side of that mark you will see the ƒ stops. Let us assume you are shooting at ƒ8. Set the infinity mark on the distance scale to the ƒ8 mark on the right side. On the left side the ƒ8 mark reads around 12 feet. This means that everything from 12 feet to infinity will be in focus. This, by the way, is called the hyperfocal distance.

    You can also use DOF field to isolate a subject. Suppose you want to take a picture of someone. You will want to blur that background so that the individual stands out . In this case you will want, if possible, to open up that camera (the wider the lens is open the narrower the DOF). Then you will want to first find the distance to the subject and then place that distance on or slightly beyond your chosen aperture. This way the subject will be in focus but the background will be blurred and the
    subject will stand out.

    DOF tables are available on line. Cameras that don’t have the scales on the lens often have them on the camera. The Bessa has a plate with them back. The Retina I has it on the bottom plate.

    1. Jim Grey Post author

      Aha yes. I think I’ve been doing this without knowing what it was called! Not perfectly; I’m still figuring it all out. There’s a risk-averse part of me that feels better when I use a light meter to set exposure and set the focus precisely to (my guess at) the distance. I just shot my Vito II without using such precise focus; we’ll see how it goes.

      1. eppaar

        Jim,

        The portrait that your son took of you would have been improved of the back ground was blurred even more. By all means use your exposure meter, but then choose your aperture according to the what you photographing. Understanding and using DOF can vastly improve photographs.

        By the way, I was in your field, although my main focus was main frames. Only towards the very end of my career did I deal with PC’s.

        1. Jim Grey Post author

          I came in as the mainframe era was fading. I’ve encountered mainframes in my time, however; many large legacy systems still run on them. I worked on a Medicare contract, and from that I know all Medicare beneficiary data is on mainframes. We built a Web front end to access and manipulate that data.

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