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.


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.


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