Classic Cameras
Voigtlander Bessa

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Anyone who reads Shutterbug regularly will know of my enthusiasm for modern Voigtländer cameras. I'm also extremely fond of the postwar Prominent 35mm leaf-shutter rangefinder camera, and I have a great (though guarded) admiration for its prewar 120 namesake, one of the most advanced rollfilm cameras of its day. But like other German makers, Voigtländer also offered some pretty pedestrian machines. The Bessa illustrated is one of them. It was introduced in about 1931 and re-appeared after the war: I suspect that the model illustrated is an early postwar version, when they were still using up some prewar parts.

To modern eyes it's an odd compromise. Why make something so basic, so well? The Anastigmat Voigtar 1:6,3 F=10.5cm lens is no more than an air-spaced triplet, uncoated, with front-cell focusing. The focusing scale is helpfully marked with distances (in meters--it appears to have been built for the French market) plus three red dots, one each for paysages (landscapes, about 20 meters), group (about 5 meters), and portrait (about 2 meters). The shutter offers a mere 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and (substantially for cosmetic purposes) 1/125, plus both B and T--though amazingly, it also has a self-timer.

Lens And Shutter Options
Of course, there were better lens and shutter options. Top of the line was the much-prized Heliar in a Compur-Rapid shutter. After World War II the camera was reintroduced for a few years, and the ultimate in the Bessa line-up was the rangefinder-equipped Bessa II with the (very rare) Apo-Lanthar lens. This sort of approach used to be very common with folding cameras: the same basic chassis with an extraordinary range of lens and shutter options, often with and without a rangefinder. This one, unfortunately, is somewhere near the minimum possible specification. But let's get back to it.

It's self-erecting. Press a button next to the film wind key and the front pops out with the bellows: a slight pressure with the thumbs clicks the supports into place. It's all beautifully made and finished, but there's a bare minimum of (expensive) chrome: it's black paint wherever possible. The only concession to decoration, unless you include the "Bessa" stamped in the covering, is a nod in the direction of art deco with the two curved, tapered arrows on the shutter. The little red arrow on the hinge of the strut is to show you how to fold it up.
In addition to the usual features such as a folding foot so the camera can act, in effect, as its own tripod, there are such refinements as a left-hand shutter release that automatically retracts when the camera is folded up; the linkage between the release and the shutter seems unnecessarily complex, in a camera where shutter setting and film wind aren't interlinked, and there is no mechanism for preventing double exposures.

120 Film Format
It takes standard 120 film, and an interesting feature is that when you load the film, you just drop it into a cradle rather than locating in on spindles. At the take-up end there's a brilliant quick-load system for the empty 120 spool. Like the feed cradle, this doubles as a light trap to protect the film. Film counting is red window, of course, with a slightly hard to use shutter worked by a little knob outside the camera next to the window: the aim is to reduce light strike through the backing paper.

Some Handling Foibles
Try to use it, and you realize a number of simple truths. Most are not encouraging. Lens shades were a lot more important in the days of uncoated lenses, and are pretty inconvenient when you have to take them off to collapse the camera. This is especially true when they are 32mm push-on fitting and obscure the focusing scale. Separate film wind and shutter cocking take some getting used to. Red window film advance is horribly inconvenient. Peepsight viewfinders give you only a rough idea of where the camera is pointing, and there's no parallax compensation. Even the best folding cameras--and Voigtländers were always among the best--can never be as rigid as a rigid-bodied camera.

On the bright side, you soon find that with a huge negative, over five times the area of 35mm, you can live with an indifferent lens and less than perfect film registration a lot easier than you can with 35mm. An 11x14" print is rather under a 5x enlargement, while 8x10" is well under 4x. Even the Voigtar doesn't show up too badly under these undemanding conditions, and the better lenses (predictably) do better.

Compact Medium Format
For a camera delivering a negative this size, too, the Bessa is wonderfully small: less than 17cm (about 63/4") high, including the leather handle on top, about 90mm (31/2") wide, and maybe 38mm (13/8") deep when folded. The weight, almost exactly 500 gm (just under 18 oz) reflects the quality of its construction but could not be called heavy.

If you want a knockabout camera that you can keep in the glove compartment of the car; that is worth only a few dollars; and that does, after all, bear one of the greatest names in the history of photography, then even a basic Bessa like this one has its merits, especially when loaded with something like Ilford HP5 Plus. You're not worried about grain, after all, and you'll get that gorgeous Ilford tonality with a minimum of grief and expense. Actually, I don't think I'd go for one quite this basic. I'd look for a coated and slightly better lens, in a fully speeded shutter, but even then, I'd not be looking at spending a fortune.

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