Today, let’s talk about a really simple camera. A camera that will never run out of batteries, will never suffer from software glitches, will carry on producing exquisite images till the end of time (well, ok, let’s say till a time when film stops being manufactured!) and will make you the centre of attention whenever you use it.
That camera is the Voigtlander Bessa, produced in West Germany, a place that is now non-existent.
Around 100,000 Voigtlander Bessa cameras were produced between 1926 and 1932, and were designed to use 116, 120 and 129 size roll film. Unfortunately, 116 and 129 film was discontinued long ago which leaves us with 120, available anywhere.
There were also many variants of the Bessa, with different lenses etc. The one I have and use regularly is the one with the Heliar lens and Compur shutter. Also made were models that allowed you to take 6×4.5cm shots as well as the usual 6x9cm version.
The Bessas also came with Voigtar, Vaskar, Skopar and Color Skopar lenses, with the Color Skopar being of highest quality.
Being a simple camera, there is no viewfinder as such that you have to look through in order to compose or focus. All you get is a visual finder, either 2 wire frames into which you have to fit your composition before shooting, or with later versions, a smaller set of 2 flip-up frames. So yes, it requires you to slow right down and think about composition before you take the shot. The later models had rangefinders fitted making, focussing that much easier, but as long as you can understand depth of field and set your camera up accordingly, your shots will be fine. There is usually a table of distance versus camera settings on most models anyway, taking the guesswork out of the task.
To wind on to the next frame, just turn the key-like knob at the bottom of the camera, watching the little red window in the back of the camera for the next number to appear; when it does, that’s your next frame! In my model and many of the others, there’s no double exposure prevention mechanism (I did tell it was a SIMPLE camera!), so if you forget which frame you’ve already taken, you may end up with 2 shots on one frame, which could either be interesting, or you may end up kicking yourself because you lost a previous, hard-to-get shot!
Taking the actual shot is as easy as pie, just press the lever and the job is done. There is also a screw attachment where you can use a cable release, a worthwhile thing to do as it will enable you to take shots without any blurring caused by camera shake.
Things to look out for when choosing a Bessa to buy? First and foremost, always open the camera bellows, release the rear cover, hold the camera towards a bright window or light and look through the back to see if there are any pin-pricks of light showing; if there are, and depending on how many, you can fix them with black adhesive tape on the outside and inside of the leak. If there are more than one or two light leaks, I would leave the camera and look elsewhere!
Next up is the shutter; although very simple, it can become jammed up, either because the camera hasn’t been used for many years or due to the grease clogging up. I have found that generally a few presses of the shutter lever cures the problem, but in cases where the shutter remains stuck, you will need to take apart the shutter unit, a relatively simple job undoing a few small screws. Again, if you don’t want to get involved with that, walk away…there are many more to buy.
Other than that, the usual points to watch are:
Lens–check to see it has no marks, scratches or fungus
Bodywork–check to make sure the body is clean and rust free (because of how old these are, I have seen some with bad amounts of rust, especially around the hinged rear cover. Also check to see if the black paintwork is relatively unmarked, apart from a few bits of paint loss due to wear and tear
Mechs–check to see if the bellows fold into the camera smoothly and if the cover locks into place afterwards (some of these cameras tend to have a very weak locking cover due to the lever inside; again, this can be fixed quickly by slowly bending it back to ensure the cover snaps into lock)
6×4.5/6x6cm mask–some of the Bessa models come with the ability to take 2 sizes of photo; the 6x9cm is the standard size, and the 6×4.5cm size is obtained by using a metal mask which fits into place inside the camera before you load your film. Sometimes, this mask is missing, but if it is, don’t despair, you can make one up very easily using stout cardboard!
And that about wraps it all up! What kind of shots can you expect from this beast? As the lenses on most of these are uncoated, they will give you sharp but quirky results, results that have a unique, aged kind of quality, especially when you use the larger 6×9 mode; at that size, your shots will be very good indeed, sharp and with detail that cannot be matched by 35mm film.
As with all these vintage lenses, if you shoot wide open, that is, f2, f4 etc, you will lose a little resolution, but take your shot at f8 or better, and you won’t believe the results!
Here are some shots taken with a Bessa camera to whet your appetites:
And a little bit of nostalgia for all of us folks:
all photos courtesy http://www.flickr.com