Wednesday, September 12, 2007

1930's Voigtländer Bessa

Voigtländer have a long history producing both cameras and lenses. The company were founded in 1756 manufacturing optics and in the 1840's started making Daguerrotype cameras, so they were making cameras at the very start of the photographic industry.
The Bessa 'folding' camera was produced between 1931-49 and took 120 film, giving a negative size of either 6"x9" or with an insert 6"x4.5" there are later Bessa Models, Bessa 1 & 2 I have a review of the Bessa 1 here: Photo Utopia Bessa 1
These cameras also came with different lenses, this one has the cheapest 'Voigtar' 105mm F6.3 the better lenses were the Skopar and colour Skopar.

The framing is done by either a simple folding metal frame (seen on the right in the above photo) or by a small window from waist hight just like the Kodak Brownie.
Focusing is done with a scale, portrait, groups and landscape each marked with a red dot and also distances marked in feet.
The shutter has a very basic range of speeds 1/25 1/50 and 1/125 plus B & T. This was OK in 1930 but in these days of blisteringly fast film of up-to 400 ISO slightly restrictive.
I believe that the models fitted with the Skopar had a better shutter range.
The aperture values are F6.3- F22 which obviously helps with the slow shutter in bright light.

Above is the frame counter window, which is a simple clear red plastic the second window is for the smaller 6x4.5 size.
The film is advanced by turning a metal 'key' and there is no frame locking or winding stop, so you'll have to be careful not to double expose.

In this view we see the back open showing the spool retainer, which is quite neat making the camera pretty easy to load.

The above view is of the camera folded showing on the left the wind on 'key' and at the top right the fold down shutter release.

This type of camera can be found for very little money in thrift shops and jumble sales, and considering how well made they are (it will outlive me I'm sure) they represent a nice project.
They certainly make you slow down and think; wind on- shutter-aperture-focus and are actually great fun to use especially if you have the facility to develop your own negatives.

Above is an image taken from a roll of Fortepan 100 (formal test of that film soon) and as you can see the result is pretty acceptable considering the age of the camera and un-coated lens, certainly the 6x9 neg size helps as does the fact it was shot at F11.
In fact i like the feeling of 'antiquity' that the lens gives as its quite low contrast but detailed.
One other caveat I've found is it takes practise to fire the shutter without blur as the top speed is only 1/125 and the fold down shutter release is quite 'clunky' if I was to use this camera regularly I'd use a cable release.

Images and text © Mark Antony Smith


victor said...

mark...... this is such a great thing....... im looking for some nice sample of bessa 2 6x99 with heliar lens (105 4.5) .......
the 6x6 bessa is my first memeory of photography ...... as far as i remember .....
i was holding it in my hand all the time :)).... not always with film inside cause in USSR it was difficult to get it sometimes .......

other amazing vintage camera is linhof 220 ..... simply great......
and just a few days ago i was about to buy a vintage techinka 70 from NYC, complete set with threee lenses film back etc..... but gave up since i was about the linhof 220 initially......... and all in all, i may find some nice sample of vintage lenses and put it on master technika..... so not a big differance for photographs itself as far as the lens in use is vintage indeed.........
anyway...... hope one day to find a really cool and fully functional bessa 2 too ...... want to make photos with it....
yours seems really good for its age.......

your travels into the past of photography is really exiting :))

Photo–Smith said...

Hello Victor
I enjoyed my time with the Bessa, and considering the cost was only £10 I think for the workmanship and the retro experience it was worth it.
Using something like a Bessa is a culture shock even compared to my M4-P as it's just so hard to get everything perfect, but when you do it gives a superb quality and tone that really is worth the trouble.
I'm also aware that the 1930's photographer would have had 12-25 ASA film coupled with a F6.3 lens how did they do it?

Charlie Wood said...

Hello Mark

Nice Bessa
My Bessa with the Skopar lens has a rim set compur running from 1sec to 1/300 you might get the later compur with a 1/500 top speed.

I shot some Adox ortho last weekend. Very nice film.
I was using a 1936 contax II and a 5cm Sonnar.


Photo–Smith said...

Hi Charlie
I like the Bessa, even though its quite 'hard core' photographically speaking.
I think your skopar model is probably better both in lens quality and shutter.
From memory the skopar is a Tessar copy (4 element) I think the Voigtar is probably 3 element cooke type.
Nice low contrast 1930's look though especially with the Fortepan.
I haven't tried the Adox Ortho, next month I'm getting some Adox CMS 20 just to see how far I can stretch things res wise, might have to print them on an enlarger, scanning just won't show its advantage.
The Sonnar is a wonderful lens, I borrowed one on a Rollei 35, it has a very nice look and was a wonder when introduced.
I thought about getting a modern one for my leica M , but 35mm is more my bag at the moment.
Take care

David Anderson said...

I sold my grandfather's copy of this a few years ago, to a collector. I wouldn't have used it again and I was happy that a collector could enjoy it, better than it being hidden in a wardrobe for the rest of my days.

Voigtar f/6.3 10.5cm as far as I can see from the photo I took.

I lost the mask for converting it for more frames on the 120 and also the clip on yellow cloud filter. They are probably in my brother's loft someplace.

Charlie Wood said...

I like my old Voigtlander's you can produce wonderful old looking photographs.

I really like the Ortho look, the Adox Ortho is rather slow at 25asa and very contrasty, I am going to try this film in more dilute rodinal.
I have some Macophoto 100 asa ortho I have yet to use this film.
There have been a number of new B&W film appearing on the market which is interesting.

I have using my Nikon F all weekend and run almost 15 rolls of film through it, I have had a good weekend!
It is easy to see why this camera really launched Nikon.

Photo–Smith said...

Thanks for posting, your Grandfathers Bessa is exactly the same as mine, I'm going to use mine for the occasional retro shots.

Ortho is blind to red light? If so that would explain the 'retro' 1930's look.
Yes they did look a little high in contrast, very low contrast developers will help 1:100 Rodinal with possibly semi stand might look nice.
You're right about the large amount of new B&W emulsions, some like the Gigabit are just re-branded Agfa Copex, others like Foma are new, I read with interest that FotoImpex are going to re-introduce APX once current stocks dwindle.
At the moment I'v far too many films to test/try I've got Adox Pan 25 and CMS20, I'm using Fortepan in 120 and plan to tery Rollei retro 120 soon.
The Nikon F is a great camera I had one for a while but swapped it for a plain prism F2.
Also WOW 15 rolls in one week-end! The only way I could do that is if I packed off the wife and kids and had Claudia Schiffer round for a session ;-)

kiki said...


Photo–Smith said...

Hi Kiki
This camera was cheap, in the UK normally you'd pay around £10 ($18 USD). But if you look around you can track them down in thrift shops for $2-5.

immunity norvasc said...

Wonderful blog.

Marcin said...

Hello Guys!

I just bought a Voigtlander from 1937 (as I suppose) with a Skopar 4.5, 10.5cm.

Can anyone of you tell me what sort of quality can I expect from the camera? What ist the Skopar lens like? Will I really be able to notice that it is a 6x9 format regarding the quality and sharpness of the enlargments?

Many questions... Well, I will appreciate ANY information about this camera and the skopar lens.

Thanks in advance! Greets. Marcin.

Marcin said...

Hello Guys!

I just bought a Voigtlander from 1937 (as I suppose) with a Skopar 4.5, 10.5cm.

Can anyone of you tell me what sort of quality can I expect from the camera? What ist the Skopar lens like? Will I really be able to notice that it is a 6x9 format regarding the quality and sharpness of the enlargments?

Many questions... Well, I will appreciate ANY information about this camera and the skopar lens.

Thanks in advance! Greets. Marcin.

Photo–Smith said...

The Skopar was a nice lens back in the day, quite capable of good results.
The lens you have is probably uncoated, that is it would be better for B&W and conditions were flare might be induced should be avoided
i.e keep the sun behind you, don't do too many back lit subjects etc.

My advice put a roll of Ilford XP2 though it, rate a 400 (use a digicam for light-meter) and try to stop down to F11.
Scan the negs on a flat bed se what you get.
One thing though this is not a cheap Fuji 6x9!!

Marcin said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your informative mail about the Skopar lens. I didn't dare even to think it would be a cheap 6x9 Fuji. Do you think I will be able to achieve a better picture quality than with an "average" 35mm camera? I don't have the camera yet, so I'm quite keen on what it could be like and what should I expect it to be...

Thanks anyway, Marcin.

Photo–Smith said...

The Bessa is a very well made camera, if you find one with good bellows then it will be capable of good results.
Pictures made with pre-war uncoated lenses tend to have a very 'retro' signature quite unlike a 35mm SLR from the 1960s-date.
If you need a high quality by modern standards, reasonably quick to use, then a Nikon F, Canon F1, Pentax K1000 or Olympus OM1 would all be better choices.

But if you would like to create retro images and don't mind the Bessas slower, more deliberate way of doing things then they are a lot of fun.

obakesan said...


have you ever tried using this camera as your enlarger?

Doyle said...

Hello, Mark -

Being fairly new to retro-photography I have a couple of questions about this camera. I recently bought mine on eBay and was curious about the film advance.

I have loaded a roll of Ilford Delta 100 B&W and (being a newbie) am a bit ignorant about which window the exposure number should line up in and, since this camera makes a 6x9cm negative, are these numbers properly calibrated on the film paper for 6x9? Most 120 film cameras (at least in my limited experience) are 6x6cm, so if these numbers are for 6x6, I suspect I could be double exposing at least part of the image.

Second question is the calibration on the focusing dial. You mentioned feet... but considering the date and country of origin (and language "Portrat, Gruppe, Landschaft") I had assumed the calibration was in meters. Am I correct or is the calibration really marked in feet?

Thanks you for sharing your knowledge and experience!


Photo–Smith said...

Hello Doyle
To answer your questions.
I think the cameras were calibrated in feet or meters depending on the intended market mine is a British model so is in feet.
Normally a 120 film has different numbers on the back depending on which format. The Bessa windows line up so I think from memory the window on the RHS is the 6x9 window the left one is for the 645 adapter (most missing)
I have a link to a PDF manual here:
Enjoy you camera it is hard to learn at first but can give great results.
Thanks for your comments

bolas said...

Me and my friend found same model of Bessa few weeks ago and were trying to shoot a film. Using this camera is like a true travel in time. It was amazing, but unfortunately there was a dust or sth inside of the lenses and all images apeared to be blurred.

Photo–Smith said...

May not be dust, the way to check is to put on B and look though the back some lenses I have are full of fungus and have chipped elements-they still are OK . You must remember these cameras are 80 years old parts loosen off especially the pressure plate which holds the film flat-check that and adjust. My Voigtländer is capable of quite sharp results.
I also feel the lower speeds will give shake as the shutter release is a bit clunky, cable release is a good idea

Bessa said...

Is it possible to buy a cable release for the 1930's Bessa