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, 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.
Voigtländer made over a million cameras using the Bessa name through 1957, but this original Bessa was made 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.
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. 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 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.
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.
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.
Not surprisingly given the lens’s haziness, there was some flare/ghosting in direct light.
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.
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.
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