The Voigtländer Prominent was one of the most sophisticated cameras of the 1950s—also among the most complicated, and just a bit eccentric. It was launched in 1951, a time when 35mm rangefinder cameras were at their peak. Yet it anticipated the approaching popularity of single lens reflexes by offering devices that converted it from rangefinder to reflex use and surrounding itself with interchangeable lenses, viewfinders, close-up attachments, filters, and other accessories that made it a true system camera.
The Prominent measured 5x3x3” and weighed 2 lbs. The Synchro-Compur shutter, with offered speeds of 1 second to 1/500 sec, was mounted on the front of the body and the standard lens bayoneted directly onto it. Focusing was by a knob on top of the body, with a focusing scale around its edge and a depth of field scale below. As the knob was turned the shutter plus lens moved back and forth. Coupled with a coincident image rangefinder in the viewfinder, this measured and set the distance. In the center of the focusing knob was a key, which popped up to be used for film rewinding. While early models had a knob to wind the film a lever was eventually introduced that took two strokes to advance one frame. The film counter was engraved below this.
Other signs of strangeness: the rewind button, usually on the bottom of a camera, was on the top; a film type reminder, usually on the back, was on the bottom; and the cable release fitting, usually part of the shutter release, was embedded in the top plate.
Six lenses were available for the Prominent. There were three 50mm standards: f/1.5 Nokton, f/2 Ultron, and f/3.5 Color-Skopar. Then came the 35mm f/3.5 Skoparon wide angle and the 100mm f/4.5 Dynaron medium tele. Finally, the 150mm f/4.5 Super-Dynaron telephoto was introduced.
All the standard lenses bayoneted onto the shutter mechanism and were focused in the way described above. The 35mm and 100mm lenses, however, bayoneted onto the body via another bayonet, surrounding and separate from the bayonet on the shutter. When fitting lens to body, the standard lenses were turned counterclockwise and the other lenses clockwise, which must have been confusing for photographers in a hurry to change focal lengths.
To focus the wide angle and medium tele, the body knob was turned, and the rangefinder reacted as expected. But the lenses—mounted on the body, not the shutter as with the standard lenses—remained static. Focusing was now effected by the moving shutter assembly pressing against collars at the rear of the lenses. As these collars were pushed in and out, internal lens elements were shifted in relation to one another to attain focus.
The 150mm lens also used the second outer bayonet fitting, but this time the focusing was not coupled. So the focusing knob was turned until the rangefinder images coincided, the distance reading taken from the scale on the knob and transferred manually to a ring around the lens barrel.
Every lens in the Prominent arsenal had the same diameter, so all filters and lens hoods fit all lenses. The first filters pushed onto the lenses. Later, this changed to screw-on versions. Unconventionally, the female thread was on the filter and this screwed onto a thread on the outside of the lens, disguised as a knurled band that looked ornamental but which was perfectly functional.
Since the Prominent allowed the use of the same hood on any lens, the differences in angle of view were accommodated by fitting the hood with masks, according to the focal length of the lens in use.
Simple close-up lenses called Focars were available for the Prominent, which took focusing down to 1 foot.
But, of course, being a rangefinder rather than a reflex camera, this meant a loss of parallax, as well as a non-functioning rangefinder.
To counteract both problems, Voigtländer introduced two Proximeters, each containing two lenses. A circular close-up lens fitted to the camera lens, and attached above this was a rectangular lens that stood in front of the rangefinder windows. This deflected light, converting the rangefinder for use down to the close-focusing limit of the close-up lens, at the same time correcting parallax.
If you think that’s complicated, wait until you see the macro outfit. This consisted of a copying stand with its own special 105mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar lens fitted. A retaining ring was used to screw this lens to the camera’s standard lens. In this way, 1:1 life-size images were possible.
Different magnifications could also be achieved by using the copying stand in conjunction with the retaining ring to screw the 50mm standard lens back to front into the 100mm Dynaron. And to get closer still, there was a microscope attachment.
Several accessory viewfinders were available, the best being the Turnit 3. Fitted into the camera’s accessory shoe, and with its own parallax adjustment from 3 feet to infinity, this used a series of masks, combined with optics, to cover all available focal lengths.
Used straight it gave the view for a 50mm lens. Dropping down a hinged mask on the front provided a 35mm wide-angle view. Putting that mask up, dropping down one on the rear, rotating the whole viewfinder through 180 degrees, and then flipping up the rear mask again gave a 100mm view. Clipping on yet another mask, supplied with the 150mm telephoto, gave the correct view for that lens as well.
Then there was the Kontur viewfinder which, when looked through in the conventional way with one eye closed, showed only a white rectangle on a completely black background. But used with both eyes open the white rectangle became superimposed on the actual view.
The Prominent was turned from rangefinder camera into a single lens reflex by the addition of a housing that bayoneted onto the body. It was supplied with its own 100mm f/5.5 Telomar medium telephoto lens, which reflected its image via a 45-degree mirror up to a focusing screen on top.
A lever protruding from the back hovered over the camera’s shutter button. As it was pressed down, it flipped the mirror out of the light path, then pushed the shutter release.
The fitting on top could be used at right angles to look down onto the screen, or flipped aside and used at eye level in the same way as the Kontur finder. This top assembly could also be slid off and replaced with an attachment that viewed the focusing screen from eye level similar to a conventional single lens reflex.
The Flash Gun
Finally, the Prominent had its own flash gun and it wasn’t like others. This one was built into an ever-ready case so that, as the camera was opened for shooting, the flash gun was ready for action. The problem was that users complained because this placed the flash gun below the lens, leading to ugly shadows on a subject’s face. That problem was solved when it was pointed out that the answer was to use the camera upside down!
There were several slightly different versions of the Prominent I launched between 1951 and 1957, all worth around $300. The Prominent II, launched in 1958 with an improved viewfinder, fetches around $700.