Cameras,  Reviews

Voigtländer Perkeo I

Voigtlander Perkeo I

There is something about some cameras which tend to get people hooked.  They may not make sense, or are even considered luxury items but they have an alluring appeal.  One small subsection of the cameras that do this are folding cameras, often referred to as “folders”, and even more specific a group of medium format models.  They do range from the 6×9 through to the 6×4.5 formats.  I actually have somewhat of an obsession with a specific format in this group, the 6×6 shooters. In my collection I have three of them, including the very popular Agfa Isolette.

A little less known and coveted are the Voigtländer range which include the Perkeo.  They are also very well made cameras.  I have owned the Perkeo I for a little while now and every time I take it out, it brings out a very measured approach to photography.  There is no meter, no focusing aids and a very easily fooled wind-on system which allows for overlapping without notice.  I’ll go through all these in a moment, but first some history about this camera.

History

The Perkeo I was produced between 1951 to 1955.  There was only one variation during this time, where in 1952 a double exposure prevention mechanism was added. The camera I have is in the latter category, as it does not allow you to double expose.  It does have a fundamental “gotcha” though, which is that you only need to wind a quarter of the frame for it to allow you to take the next picture.  I got caught on this!

The word “Perkeo” means pigmy is used to describe a pigmy bat (baths Perkeo) but unlikely to have been used to name this camera.  The camera may have been named after Perkeo of Heidelberg, who was a jester in the early 1700s.  Not sure how it relates to a medium format 6×6 camera, even if it is tiny and can fit into a large pocket.

There were a number of lens and shutter combinations available during its production run, with varying quality.  The lens options included Vaskar 75 and 80mm and the Color Skopar 80mm.  The shutters were either Vario, Prontors (multiple versions) or Synchro-Compurs.

The Perkeo name was also used in a range of 127 format cameras before WW2 but are not related to this series.

Camera Specifics

The Perkeo I is really nice small camera coming in 483g.  It measures 125x85x40mm closed, and 95mm deep when the lens is out.  My copy has the Vaskar 75mm 1:4.5 lens with the Pronto shutter.  It can focus as close as 3.5 feet (1.07m).  Shutter speeds included are 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200.  Smallest aperture is f/16.

The focus markings are in feet and all the controls are placed on the lens itself.  Only the shutter release and film winding are located on top of the camera.  The shutter must be cocked manually before being able to fire it, and this is only after the film has been wound on by about a quarter of a frame.

A viewfinder is provided, but it is quite a small one.  Focusing is achieved by zone focus, or with a dedicated rangefinder attachment (e.g. Watameter), but this will of-course be uncoupled.  It does have a couple of focusing aids though, which come in the form of symbols on the distance scale on the lens.  Recommended in the manual is to take snapshots at f/8 and as such the following settings apply.  Setting it at the triangle symbol at 11 feet (3.35m), will have everything between 8.25 feet (2.31m) and 16.5 feet (5.05m) sharp.  Set it the circle symbol at 33 feet (10.06m) and everything will be sharp from 16.5 feet (5.05m) to infinity.

There is also no exposure metering, so you can do what I do and use the Sunny 16 rule or if you wish, carry a separate dedicated exposure meter.

The bellows can be a problem on these older folders, but I was quite lucky in that the previous owner had been using this camera and true to his word, there are no light leaks.

One of the functions on the camera which I found to be cute but useful is that there is that there is a rotating button on the back.  When rotated this brings up a “X” in the red window that usually shows the frame number from the film backing.  This allows the window to be completely blocked off and the camera stored with film in it for longer periods with much less chance of any light getting in and fogging the it.

One of the only indicators on the camera is a little arrow indicator next to the shutter button, which when pointing forwards means you have wound enough to be able to take the next frame otherwise it points backwards.

The button to release the door and let the lens out is located at the bottom of the camera, which I have read lets it spring out quickly.  My copy tends to open a bit and require some help out, so I suspect it is all sprung out.  Not a problem, as it does not impact the operation of the camera in the slightest.

The back is opened by two buttons on the left hand side and gives very easy access to load film and if so desired clean the back element of the lens (which I tend to try and avoid and keep clean in the first place).

In terms of accessories, it came with its original ever-ready case.  The case is in bad shape, so constantly holding the camera is my only issue with using this camera.  This will be easily solved as I will just purchase a wrist strap to make life a little easier.  I also bought an original yellow filter, a Voigtländer, which slides over the lens and looks great as it is also in the same metal finish as the lens.  That brings out a bit more contrast for black and white.

The Experience

When I first picked up the camera, I was thrilled at its size.  It is not much bigger than my micro four thirds camera, and it shoots beautifully sized 6×6 medium format frames!  As I started to use it, I liked it more and more.  It was light, was easy to pull out, open up and use quickly, if pre-set, which you try and do on the street.  Having said that, it lends itself more to be used on street scenery or portraits rather than candid street photography.

I mentioned this a little earlier, but one of the operations that caught me was that it does not wind on fully to the next frame before you hear the little click telling you that you can cock the shutter and take the next picture.  The little arrow even indicates you are ready to go.  I ended up with a few overlapping frames, and was scratching my head at one point, wondering why I felt like I had taken more than 12 frames.  If you remember to look at the little round window where the frame number from the back of the film is displayed, you don’t have an issue.

Looking through the viewfinder, I got a semblance of what the picture will look like.  As it is not a rangefinder, I had to use zone focusing.  I also had to remember the conversion from feet to metres, as I have been brought up on the metric system.  That is not that hard if shooting at f/8 but gets trickier at the wider apertures.  Also through the viewfinder you see the lever for cocking the shutter, so when I could not see it, it reminded me that I did not have cocked.  I did, though, find myself sometimes not being able to fire the shot.

The other aspect is the shutter speeds.  As you might have noticed above, they can be limiting.  Especially on a sunny day, on a faster film.  The list of speeds is also limited to a few choices.  Having used it mainly in the central city, this was not such as issue.  On the other side of the spectrum, it does have bulb, and it does allow for a remote cable.  Not quite sure this would be the camera to use in a long exposure though.

The pictures were actually quite pleasing.  Remembering that with a 6×6 frame you have a lot of detail, so it does capture very well.  The lens renders fairly sharp in the centre, and the contrast, while not earthshattering, is quite reasonable.  There is exposure fallout at the edges but once you step down to f/5.6 or f/8 and smaller it tends to dissipate.  There is also some loss of sharpness at the edges, which you would expect of a lens of this vintage in such a compact package.  This tends to be more pronounced especially at the bottom of the frame but is not a deal breaker, as it is not significant enough to impact the picture.

The camera, as you would expect, is quiet and produces barely an audible sound when taking a picture, due to the leaf shutter in the lens.

Overall, with all its little quirks, I do love this camera.  It is very fun to use.  People do notice it, and engage with you, and it gave me a chance to talk to some interesting people that actually approached me rather than the other way around. As it also produces nice results, the experience is quite enjoyable.  If you get a chance to pick one of these up, with knowledge the shutter works and the bellows are light tight, do.  You won’t regret it, and you will enjoy using it.

21 Comments

  • Mark Holmes

    Would you happen to know a reason why the shutter will not cock on a Perkeo I? This is making me nuts. It is in the “top” position and will not budge for love or money. The film advance works and resets the arrow indicator. The self timer runs smoothly. Is it required to have film loaded to cock the shutter? I am trying to fire the shutter without film. The shutter release can be pushed but the shutter will not cock. Maka me crazy.

    • Theo

      If it is in the top position it should be cocked already, so I suspect it is not firing the shutter. It will not fire unless you have advanced the film, but you have tried turning the film advance first. I did read somewhere though, you have to be careful as the sequence is important, that you turn the film advance first and then cock the shutter, but if already stuck, not much to lose. Maybe on yours it has been done the wrong way around and got stuck? The other thing I can think of is that maybe it has been cocked for a long time and got stuck there. On mine, I also noticed the timer delay gets sticky, so another thing to check up on, as this may have been pulled up (the one with the red dot). And finally is the mechanism from the shutter button on top moving all the way down to the shutter lever? Hope something in this helps, any more questions, happy to try and answer more.

  • mrabiller

    Neat article! I came across right after I came across – and bought – a Perkeo I with a Skpar 80mm f/3.5 and Synchro Compur at the flea market last Thursday. Superbly built camera, I am really looking forwards to try it out. One little note though: Perkeo does not mean “Pygmy” (name that itself has nothing to do with pigs, people might take offense with that typo 😉 ) in German. Instead, it is most probably a reference to Perkeo, a figure of Heidelberg’s history who’s slowly sliding into folklore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perkeo_of_Heidelberg

    • Theo

      Thank you! I am sure you will really enjoy it, I’ve used it a few times since then and it is a great little folder. Also, thank you for the information on the name, I didn’t realise I got that wrong. I will correct it in the next few days when I get a chance. The typo too!

    • Theo

      I have now updated the reference to Perkeo of Heidelberg. I might have been confused to the reference to the pigmy bats, early mistake! Thanks for the correction!

  • Mark

    Noticed you mentioned that the button to release the door might be “all sprung out”. In fact, the one that I owned, which was passed to me by my Dad, worked exactly like yours. Dad bought it new and said it was always like that, and that was what kept the bellows in good condition. Maybe it was a design change for that reason, ours was the later model like yours.

  • Frank

    Hi, very interesting article! I’ve just put a test roll of Fomapan 100 through it and waiting for the results. Mine has the Vaskar 1:4,5 80mm. I don’t know the brand of the shutter. Apart from bulb it has only three settings: 25th, 75th and 200th. Not very convenient! Can you choose an intermediate setting to replicate for instance a 60th or 125th? The aperture setting is a mistery too: what is the correct placement of the knob for the given aperture? The slit between the flat and the ribbed stub?

    Thanks again for your excellent work!

    • Theo

      Hi Frank, thank you for you nice comments. Yes, it is a bit of a limited shutter speed, but most films these days should give you the latitude of the difference, so should not be much of a problem. In terms of the aperture, it is the number next to the lever. For instance, the lever would go to the left of the “8” marking for it to be f/8. If you look at the example in the manual (link below), you will see an example of this where it talks about the aperture, but does not specifically spell it out.
      https://www.cameramanuals.org/voigtlander_pdf/voigtlander_perkeo_i.pdf

  • Frank Kam

    Thanks very much, Theo! My results came through just the other day and the photos are quite well exposed, even (or especially) those that I experimented on with intermediate settings on shutter speed and aperture.

    Happy shooting! Frank

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