Here’s my latest camera acquisition, a Voigtlander Bessa 1. Variants of the Bessa name have been reused over the decades and there was also a 1930s model with the same name; this version was manufactured between the late 1940s and the late 1950s. There’s even a modern Voigtlander Bessa III being made new, though that has the smaller negative size of 6*7 cm.
This Bessa exposes 120 format film into images which are 6cm * 9cm – the same height * width ratio as 35mm, but with more than 6 times the negative area. Alternatively, my camera came with a mask which allows 6*4.5 negatives to be used – though this decision has to be applied to the whole roll.
The rather small viewfinder can be adjusted to give the correct frame for either film size, and also has options for distant views or close-ups (well, down to 1m, not very close) and applies parallax adjustment – thus four settings in all.
The lens is a Vaskar 105mm, with apertures from f4.5 to f22, and shutter speeds from 1s to 1/250s, plus B. This was the cheapest of three lens options available at the time. When used with 6*9 images, the focal length is similar to a 50mm “standard” lens on a 35mm camera; when the 6*4.5 mask is fitted then the effective angle of view is more like a short portrait lens.
The shutter speeds down to 1-25s seem OK, whilst those from 1-10s to 1s are way off the mark, running much too slow. “B” works OK but the shutter release demands a fair bit of pressure and the cable release doesn’t seem to be able to provide enough “oomph” to fire the shutter and therefore make practical use of the “B” setting. So, when I use the camera I’ll probably be sticking to 1-25s and faster.
When folded, the camera is remarkably compact considering the size of the negative it can deliver.
A 6cm * 9cm negative has about 6.25 times the area of a 35mm negative, therefore requiring much less magnification of the negative for any given image size, whether printed or viewed on screen. Below I have shown the Bessa alongside a 35mm SLR, namely a Canon FTb. The Bessa looks about 25% bigger than the Canon all round – it’s hard to believe a camera this size gives such a big negative. I haven’t weighed the two cameras but the Bessa definitely feels significantly lighter than the Canon.
Purists may point out that a 35mm SLR has other advantages to counteract the smaller negative size – for example interchangeable lenses. A fairer size comparison might be between the Bessa and, say, an Olmpus XA. Fair enough, but I didn’t think to do that when taking the pictures.
So how does the camera fare at actually taking pictures ? For the first test I took a trip to North Shields fish quay and loaded Kodak TMax 100 mono film. Here are the results:
The film was developed in Rodinal diluted 1+25 for 6 minutes. On first scanning, the images were a little flat and needed added contrast in Lightroom. I chose to add some toning using Lightroom presets to fit in with a “vintage” mood. The flatness could be a feature of the lens, but then again a different film / developer combo, or different lighting on another day would produce a different “look”.
I paid about £60 including delivery for the camera, from an online dealer (not an auction site). It’s in good cosmetic condition and even considering the problems with the slower shutter speeds I think that’s a reasonable purchase price. After I’ve tried a couple more films I’ll think about whether to get the shutter serviced.
The Voigtlander Bessa 1 is definitely a welcome addition to my small collection.