Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Voigtländer Bessa 1 Folding Camera

The Bessa I wasn't the first Voigtlander to have that name there was an older pre-war Bessa too which I have an article on here: Link
This particular Bessa was manufactured between the late 1940's up until the late 1950's and is a well made camera that uses 120 film and can give either 6x4.5(with insert) or 6x9 size negatives.
The Model I has a simple finder that lacks a built-in rangefinder, the camera I purchased has a small finder that mounts in the shoe on the top which in practice is pretty easy to use- you just transfer the distance to the lens.

The Lens is a Vaskar F4,5 which is a triplet design, some cameras came with the Skopar F3,5 which is a Tessar type which probably gives better performance optically.
To open the camera just press the button near the wind knob (pictured below) and pull the drawbridge until the mechanism clicks.

Loading the film is pretty easy just place it in the cradle and pull the backing paper to the spool on the left, turn the wind knob and close the back.
The back has two windows, the right hand being the 6x9 and left one for 6x4.5. A centre knurled disc operates a guard which should be closed to stop stray light and has an 'x' to show it is closed it should be kept closed unless you are advancing the film.
The Bessa appears to have a neat anti double exposure device which makes it impossible to fire the shutter without winding. After winding the shutter needs to be manually cocked with a lever before you can take a picture.
So how does the camera fare in a real shooting situation? Although much slower in operation than the Bessa II (coupled RF version) or indeed most SLR cameras it can be used quite quickly set to either the hyperfocal distance or even infinity and stopped down to F11 in practice its just wind and cock shutter then shoot.
The following is a shot just set at infinity 1/250 at F11

Vaskar lens at F11 Fuji Neopan 400 in Rodinal 1:100

A 100% crop of the frame showing the impressive sharpness of the 3 element Vaskar

I must say I was surprised by how good the Bessa is, the three element Vaskar is a good picture taker, and although the camera is slow in operation compared to modern cameras once you get a shooting routine things are relatively straight forward.
All of which is nice but why bother using one in this century? After all bellows cameras belong to the same era as Bakelite radios, Flash Gordon and the Great Depression why should a modern photographer bother?
The best answer I can give is the biggest advantage of folding cameras is that when folded they are relatively small for their negative size and can be stored in coat pockets or shoulder bags or placed in a car glove-box for that 'unmissable' travel shot.
Below is an illustration of the size of the camera when folded in my smallish hand.
So in all I find the Bessa a far more practical camera than say my Fuji 6x7 RF despite its age and if you can find one with bellows that are in a reasonable condition it should give years of service.
One last shot on Fuji 160:

It could be that the folding camera is due for a comeback? In 2008 Voigtländer introduced the Bessa III retro?- you bet, but also a lot more practical that you'd think.
Words and Pictures © Mark Antony Smith