Voigtlander Bessa R Rangefinder Cameras
These are the more modern ones manufactured through the 1990s to around 2005 by The Cosina Company of Japan. The famous German Voigtlander name and trademark ended up with Cosina in a roundabout way. Peter Voigtlander established the company in 1840. A majority of the company was acquired by Schering AG in 1923 which sold to Carl Zeiss in 1956. Carl Zeiss partnered with The Rollei Company which then collapsed in the early 1980s. The brand ended up with German company Ringfoto in the late 1990s which then licensed the brand to Cosina of Japan forming Cosina - Voigtlander. The Bessa R3’s appeared in 2004. The Japanese make great cameras and lenses with Cosina keeping up the more than 1 century old Voigtlander reputation. They also manufacture the Voigtlander lenses which are some of the best investment glass around today. The Bessa, Voigtlander brand has had a strong prescence in photography since the 1940s with the arrival of the Bessa I, then II which are folding bellows rangefinders shooting 120 film. The Bessa III is a later 120 6x7 folder. Various Voigtlander fixed lens 35mm rangefinders appeared during the 1960s and 70s, some becoming quite collectible today.
This short review is about our user experience with the Voigtlander Bessa R3A and it’s cousin the R3M. These are Leica M mount rangefinders which enables a huge variety of 1st grade lenses to be enjoyed. Voigtlanders own, Carl Zeiss, Leica, Minolta, Konica and various other lesser known brands.
The basic difference is the R3A has aperture priority, exposure lock and an electronic shutter with the ‘M’ being fully manual with a mechanical shutter. Both versions have a very accurate TTL meter requiring 2 x SR44 button cells to operate. Without power the ‘A’ cannot shoot yet the 'M' with it’s mechanical shutter can still fire, albeit without metering, giving the photographer a go anywhere camera. This can be quite reassuring especially as most experienced photographers are capable of selecting reasonably accurate apertures and shutter speeds to suit conditions even without the help of an electronic meter. You probably have a hand held meter in your kit anyway to help with those more problematic scenes. One aspect worth a positive remark is the R3’s size which compares very favourably with a Sony Nex7. Easy to carry all day and easy to use. I have read the manual but never had to refer back to it. Controls are well placed and self explanatory if you are ‘au fait’ in general with manual camera operation. The only slight yet obvious mystery is the frame line selection. Best to use the lenses which are compatible with the camera, being 40, 50, 75 and 90 mm. Although, if a slightly wider angle of view is desired, the excellent Voigtlander 35mm f1.4 is very useable with 35mm frame lines being imagined just beyond the 40mm visible at the viewfinder periphery.
Of course the ‘A’ is quicker off the mark set to auto and the aperture selected to suit the shot. Both cameras have a maximum shutter of 1/2000 setting them apart from earlier rangefinders which usually maxxed out at 1/500. The Contax G2 is unique in modern 35mm film rangefinders with a maximum shutter of 1/4000.
The viewfinder on both the ‘M’ and ‘A’ is 1:1 with frame lines for 40,50,75 and 90 mm lenses selectable via a small lever on the top plate. The viewfinder is remarkable amongst rangefinder cameras for being so large. You can frame and shoot with both eyes open. The rangefinder patch is contrasty and visible, so quite easy to line up. Bright, red LEDs appear near the bottom of the viewfinder window signalling the selected shutter speed in the case of the ‘A’ and the + or - ev in the case of the ‘M’. If the correct values have been selected then the display signals a zero. On the ‘A’ if your depth of field requirement demands f8 or higher and this causes the shutter to fall below 1/60 then a tripod is necessary to avoid blur. With the 40mm lens on, which can be opened right up to f1.4, enabling a faster shutter however the resulting depth of field will be short.
The rangefinder on the Bessas can be problematic and seems prone to misalignment. Adjustment is not a hard job but is precise and requires small good quality technical tools. If you are not so confident working with precision instruments don’t attempt this adjustment yourself. It is easy to mark the paint finish if care is not taken and any self caused damage will be depressingly annoying. I like my cameras to be in as pristine condition as possible, shoot ready at any time.
There is no auto ISO film speed setting on either camera so film speed is set on the shutter speed dial by lifting and turning. All the dials and controls on both cameras have a solid precise feel to them, clicking into place without play. The shutter lock rotating switch surrounds the shutter button on the R3A whereas the R3M does not have a shutter lock at all being fully mechanical. The shutter is locked anyway unless the film is wound on. Loading film on both the ‘A’ and ‘M’ is very simple with back door opening in the traditional way. The film leader is pulled across towards the take up spool which winds anti clockwise taking the film under the spool. Take care not to touch the shutter curtain. Once the film is secure on the take up spool close the film door and wind the rewind handle carefully clockwise to remove any film slack. 1/2 to 3/4 turn is probably enough. Ratchet the film on until the counter sits at #1. I usually get my full 36 frames and sometimes 37.
Both these versions of the Bessa Rangefinders are great user cameras offering a genuine 'old school' film photography experience with the ‘A’ version being, perhaps the more user friendly depending on your perspective. Of course if you are away on the long back country hike then the ‘M’ is the obvious choice.