Folding medium format cameras like the Voigtländer Bessa I are an interesting breed of camera. They are also quite polarising in opinions on whether they are worth using. I for one, really like using folding cameras, for exactly what they were intended for. Small and portable, easy to take when you want minimal gear, but still want the medium format quality.
Obviously there are different grades of folding cameras, some aimed at basic snapshot use for a traveller or family events. Others have high quality lenses, good build, and various controls of the exposure triangle. The Bessa I is somewhere in the middle, but has the wonderfully large 6×9 frames which knock it up a notch or two.
That is the selling point for me on this camera. It is a decent 6×9 medium format camera, which folds up flat. While it will not fit into a regular pocket, unless you are a giant, it will fit into a bag’s pocket quite well. This made it a very easy decision to take with me. Especially when I went for a walk at the beach or park.
Working from home for most of the last year I have taken to some outings at local coastal spots. This is to try and stretch the body out. The Voigtländer Bessa I has been a companion on quite a few of these. The fact that it only takes 8 frames on a roll of 120 film is perfect. Photos tend to be a bit more measured on these outings. I would hate to come back with the film sitting the camera for a long period afterwards.
I have it paired up with a accessory shoe rangefinder, the Watameter. It allows me to enjoy being outside and being able to capture a moment easily. Even when I don’t take the rangefinder, for this type of photography it is still relaxing to use.
But like many a commercial on the television, “Wait! There is more!”. This camera gives you the choice of being able to shoot more with a mask inserted. Making it a 6×4.5 camera! Or in other words for 6×9, half frame.
The Voigtländer Bessa I is an easy to take folding medium format camera made by an old camera manufacturer, known for excellent quality. As per usual, I have used the camera for a few months, and captured a few thoughts about it. A bit about the camera first though.
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Voigtländer, with all the history and well known quality photographic products, is also a very frustrating company in relation to product names. Why on earth the Bessa name has been used for so many cameras, and very different cameras, is beyond me.
The folding Bessa range of cameras started in 1929. Initially they came in many sizes and had quite a number of options. Even then 6×9 was the dominant format in this range, and what is considered the initial line continued until 1949.
The Bessa I was released in 1951 and after about 80,000 copies were sold, finished up in 1956. A number of combinations of lenses and shutters were offered to cater for all budgets and preferences. These were the Vaskar 105mm f/4.5 lens with options of Pronto, Prontor-S or Prontor-SV shutters. Alternatively the Color-Skopar 105mm f/3.5 lens with either Prontor-S, Prontor-SV or Prontor-SVS shutters. Both lenses are coated, and all the shutters are leaf shutters.
The Bessa I was sold alongside the Bessa II, which has the coupled rangefinder. It followed the Bessa RF which was sold up until both the Bessa I and II were introduced.
The Voigtländer Bessa I is a folding medium format camera which shoots both 6×9 and 6×4.5 frames on 120 roll film. 6×4.5 requires an insert, which this copy of the camera has long since been separated from.
The lens on this camera is the Voigtländer Vaskar 105mm f/4.5 with the Prontor-S leaf shutter. The Vaskar is a triplet design generally sold after World War 2 and is coated to reduce flare. Minimum focus is 1m with an aperture range of f/4.5 to f/22. Shutter ranges from 1 second through to 1/250th, plus Bulb.
All the controls for the exposure settings are on the lens at the front. The shutter speed is selected is by rotating the wheel outside the lens, and aperture selected by the lever. Focus is by rotating the lens front.
The viewfinder is simple with no indicators. The lower right corner is partly blocked off by the lens when extended. To support multi format, there is a thumb wheel at the back right. It lets you select the viewfinder masking to match. A handy little feature is that the framing also accounts for parallax error for close focus. This is done with a further option of 1m (3ft) for each format.
On top of the camera is an indicator of which mask is overlaying the viewfinder. Also there is the shutter release and the shutter lock indicator. As the camera has double exposure prevention, it indicates this through an arrow. If it points left, you need to wind on. If it points forward, you are good to go. Although the shutter still has to be cocked manually through the lever on the lens.
Opening the camera from the folded position is by pushing a button. The button is located on top next to the film advance wheel. It is recommended you open it up slowly and don’t let it jump out. Folding it back up is easily done via the red buttons on the struts which disengages them.
The back of the camera has two red round windows which can be used for the frame number of the appropriate format. Handy little feature is the thumb wheel which allows the user to cover the windows. Thus minimising risk of a light leaking.
A hand strap is attached to the left side, which also has the lock to open the back within it. Loading is from the right to the left.
A common accessory is the ever-ready leather case. It also gives it the ability hang off the neck with a leather strap. The tripod can still be attached through the case. The camera has two tripod threads, one of each of the common sizes.
I was quite excited to receive my copy of the Voigtländer Bessa I. Over the years I have wanted to lighten the load. Especially in situations where I would like to do some photography, but without lots of equipment. I do try and go out with only one camera. Occasionally two when I really would like a different format or film.
I have a couple of other really nice 6×9 cameras, including the Fuji GSW690iii and the Mamiya Super 23. These are quite large cameras, which produce excellent results, but can be a little awkward when just using for on the fly photography, especially the Super 23. It is a very large camera, with quite complicated controls. The Fuji is straight forward, and I love using that as well, but sometimes less is more.
So when I opened up the box, it was in the ever-ready leather case, and even then I felt this was what I was after. Especially as you can pick up one of these for quite a lower price if you are patient. I opened it up and carefully pressed what I call the eject button, having learnt quite a while ago not to let it “pop out” quickly.
Looking at the lens, I could see it has been coated with a blueish tinge. Based on the age, it would be quite an early formula of coating. Needless to say, it made it on top of my list for my next walk along the coast. It was loaded up with some expired Kodak Portra VC 160. I am keen to use this film, even though I generally don’t go seeking expired film. A close friend gave me a brick of 20 rolls of it, as well as two bricks of 40 rolls of Tri-X he had spare (which I also used later with this camera).
Just a note, I label the photos where I used expired colour film as they may have colour shifts, but tend to not mention it for black and white, as it holds a lot better for a longer time (and there is no colour).
I headed out to Maroubra, where there is a local rock pool, and a location I know quite well. Capturing photos of the pool, the waves and people enjoying the pool, I was struck on how easy it was. Pulling out the camera, no one really cared when they saw what type it was. Apart from forgetting to cock the shutter on more than one occasion, the camera was mostly pre-set for shooting.
The reason for this is that on the lens for focusing there is a couple of marks, to allow what they refer to “snapshot” shooting. One is for closer distance, of say a portrait of a couple of people. The other is for maximum focus, especially when set to f/8 or smaller. As this was the maiden outing, I wanted to keep it simple and test out the camera.
What I did learn out of the first use of the camera is that the viewfinder is quite small. To compound the size, it also loses a significant portion of the right hand corner which is blocked by the lens itself. Don’t get me wrong, it is not so much that it makes it difficult to frame, but slightly larger would have been nice. It did make it harder to get the horizon straight, which took a little more effort.
The negatives when they came back were a touch on the thin side, meaning they were a little underexposed, but only by a small amount. This may be that I miscalculated the older expired film, which I normally expose at ISO 100. That did not matter, as there is so much detail on the negative, it has little to no impact after scanning.
A nice little surprise was the way the camera cuts the corner of the negative slightly. I haven’t seen that before. A little more and it would be as per Battlestar Galactica where they never have paper in rectangles, the edges are always cut off.
The lens performs well, the sharpness is good and even. Admittedly I shot mainly at f/8 and above, as the sunlight was quite bright. This is a limitation the camera does have, the maximum shutter speed is limited to 1/250th second, which in a bright place light Sydney can been difficult with faster films.
There is discussion that the Vaskar lens is not as sharp towards the edges and there is definitely is some loss of sharpness in the wider apertures. Personally I do not find it to be too much of a problem, but I do not pixel peep either.
Contrast is quite low on the results from this camera. This is common on older lenses, but also has the benefit of maximum detail capture. I have added contrast to all of the photos in this article, similar if to if you were printing in a darkroom.
What has impressed me is the lack of distortions on this lens. You expect a “normal” focal length lens to be fairly good in that respect, but the horizon in the results were very straight. Hardly any curvature at all.
With the knowledge the camera works well, I take it on many of my walks and have come to really enjoy using it. I have so far put Kosmo Foto 100, Cinestill 50D and Kodak Tri-X though it, as well as Portra VC 160. It has performed each time, with nice results from each walk. I did take the Watameter on most of these outings, which does help with the lack of integrated rangefinder.
A slight light leak seems to be present in a few of the colour photos though, near the top left corner which will mean I need to check the bellows. It is so slight, I initially did not even notice it, but I want to fix it before it gets any worse.
I have given this camera a hard time, due to the nature of getting out there for walks during high sunlight times, it does not do much for a camera that was designed for much slower films. As you can see from the photo above, not a cloud in the sky on that day.
I got the Voigtländer Bessa I as a companion on outings which I take to ensure I do not sit in my home office more than is healthy for me. It has proven to be much more than that. The results, albeit with some drawbacks being overcome, are just stunning when right. The Bessa II sells for considerably more, and the integrated rangefinder would really be handy. But for results that are fantastic on a large 6×9 frame, I’d definitely recommend the Bessa I.
Matthew Mead has written a great guide on how to use the camera in: Voigtlander Bessa I Guide
Alex Luyckx famous from Classic Camera Revival podcast had some time with an older Bessa and has captured his experience in: CCR Review 70 – Voigtländer Bessa