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.

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, Voigtländer marketed it to the serious amateur who wanted the 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, Voigtländer made my Bessa between 1937 and 1942.

Voigtlander Bessa

Voigtländer made over a million cameras using the Bessa name through 1957, but this original Bessa only 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 mask that lets you switch between take 6×9 or 4.5×6 photos.

Voigtlander Bessa

You could buy 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. In general, a great way to score quality vintage glass on the cheap is to look for cameras that lack a rangefinder.

Voigtlander Bessa

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 above shows. The pop-up viewfinder even has a separate pop-up mask so you can frame 4.5×6 shots.

Also notice the two exposure-counter windows on the back. 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.

The Bessa also tries to make focusing less error-prone, presumably for some standard film sold during this camera’s time. 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.

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. And the lens is hazy. This poor old girl needs a solid clean, lube, and adjustment.

If you like old folding cameras, by the way, also see my reviews of the Ansco B2 Speedex (here), the Certo Super Sport Dolly (here), and the Kodak Tourist (here). Other Voigtländers I’ve reviewed include the Vito II (here) and Vitoret LR (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

This camera’s issues didn’t stop me from spooling a roll of Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros in and seeing how she handled.

House for sale

The verdict: she handled fine. I avoided the slower shutter speeds and relied on Acros’s exposure latitude to make up for however far off the faster shutter speeds might be.


I did sometimes have a little trouble framing shots through the tiny brilliant viewfinder. But just check out that swirly bokeh. The lens also delivered good sharpness and moderate contrast.

Off kilter mailbox

Not surprisingly given the lens’s haziness, there was some flare/ghosting in direct light.

On the golf path

I didn’t go far with the Bessa: every one of these photos was made in or near my yard. This is my street, which is being rebuilt after the city laid new sewer pipes in it.

Down my street

To see more from this camera, check out my Voigtländer Bessa gallery.

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.

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.


43 responses to “Voigtländer Bessa”

  1. Dani Avatar

    very, very cool.

  2. Lone Primate Avatar
    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 Avatar

      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.

  3. Michael Avatar

    I’m surprised the units aren’t metric. When did Germany adopt that system?

    1. Jim Avatar

      The company made versions for various countries and units of measurement.

  4. Mason Avatar

    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 Avatar

      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.

  5. Marc Avatar

    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.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Very glad to have helped you fill in the gaps, Marc!

  6. bgillin Avatar

    how about posting some pics you took with this camera?

    1. Jim Avatar

      Because I haven’t gotten around to using it yet! I need to clean up the lens and see if its cloudiness is permanent or not.

  7. matt Avatar

    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.


    1. Jim Avatar

      Matt, unfortunately I’ve never taken mine apart.

  8. Deidre Avatar

    I own a 1935 0r ’36 Bessa with a Skopar lens and a Compur Rapid shutter, and I have been looking for information about it. This was a valuable read. Thank you.
    I found a PDF of the manual here:

  9. Jim Avatar

    Thanks for chiming in, Deidre, and I’m glad you found this post useful!

  10. Don Avatar

    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 Avatar

      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.

  11. Jake Avatar

    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 Avatar

      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.

  12. minimodi Avatar

    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!

  13. minimodi Avatar

    oh sorry, didn’t read the comments for this post… seems like you’re pretty sure it’s the number on the lens… is it (?) ;)

    1. Jim Avatar

      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.

  14. Neil Avatar

    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.


    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I did eventually shoot with this camera – search the site for that post! The lens does nice work.

  15. Bob Pierceall Avatar
    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

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      In the text above, there’s a link to a document that will help you pinpoint the manufacture year of your lens. I’d use that as a basis.

  16. eppaar Avatar

    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 Avatar

      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 Avatar


        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?

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’m still figuring it out, so feel free to bring the coal.

  17. Peter Avatar

    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 Avatar

      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 Avatar


        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 Avatar

          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.

  18. eppaar Avatar


    You have become “an occasion of sin”. I got so fascinated with the Bessa that I had to have one too. Although I paid more than you did, it was still well short of the “gack” stage. I would guess that mine is a post war model as the lens is coated and it is synchronized for flash. It is in perfect condition and looks like it is brand new.

    One advantage of the film delivery system you described is that it would take both 120 and 620 film as it was not dependent on the spool size. When the Bessa was first introduced there were a couple of other film sizes that would fit.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ooh, sorry I led you to stumble! I did eventually shoot my Bessa; results are here:


      You’re making me want to shoot my Bessa again. I have a whole bunch of E100G and Tri-X in the fridge in 120…

  19. Keith Walker Avatar
    Keith Walker

    The first camera I bought was a Bessa II with a coupled rangefinder, a lovely camera but as I did a lot of mountaineering found it too bulky so changed it for a Voigtlander Vito II, a 35mm camera and a real gem

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I have a Vito II around here somewhere. I’d rather shoot it over the Bessa too!

  20. Wayne S. Avatar
    Wayne S.

    I have one and I love this camera,so simple and yet it takes such beautiful medium format images.The lenses even ,from that era-non coated,not computer designed(albeit slide ruled) were so nice!
    And unlike many Kodak designed 620 only film cameras of the day we can still get 120 film today in many flavors!
    Thank you ,Jim, for this nice write up-as always!
    Wayne Salvatti

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s the great thing about the non-Kodak folders for sure, they tend to take 120!

  21. kennethwajda Avatar

    2142229 is my serial number. Just found this camera in box since my last move, and it’s loaded (probably with HP5) and was tucked away. Now I have to take it out and shoot it. Same specs, same shutter and Voigtar 11cm f4.5 lens as yours. Fun!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nice! Mine was in iffy shape so I sold it on. Judging by the bokeh I wonder if this lens is a triplet? Do you know? Anyway, I hope you’ll publish your results from your Bessa on your blog.

  22. […] Review, PhotosVito II: ReviewVitoret LR: […]

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: