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Friday, March 28

Vitessa - temporary lodger in the Robbins camera cupboard

The Ultron at f2.8 and the minimum focus of just over 3ft. Not bad at all.

Regular readers will know I still have far too much camera stuff despite selling off quite a lot over the last 18 months. It's something I've been determined to get on top of because I don't think it's healthy for my photography. So how come I started this week with one more camera than I ended the previous one?

Vitessa - ready for action. The little sticky-up bit to the left of the barn doors
is the rewind lever that doubles as a camera-balancing "foot".

Personally, I blame the children's charity Barnardos. If they hadn't had a quirky 1950s Voigtlander Vitessa on sale for a fiver I'd still be able to close the camera cupboard door. I mean, who can resist a classic camera with a highly-regarded 50mm f2 Ultron lens and lovely leather case for not much more than the price of a Big Mac meal?

The guy in the shop didn't know how to work the Vitessa and, to be honest, neither did I until I had a look at an online manual when I got home. It's not exactly intuitive. I fumbled for a few minutes in Barnardos not knowing if the Vitessa even worked but decided to buy it anyway because I quite enjoy tinkering with cameras which need some TLC.

Eventually, I figured out how the camera operated and checked over the various functions. All the shutter speeds sounded fine apart from 1s which worked with all the fluidity of a drunk crossing a main road. A few more tries, though, and it, too, was firing OK so the leaf shutter had a fairly clean bill of health.

No Coincidence

Next up, the coupled rangefinder which is operated by a thumb wheel at the rear. A quick bit of research revealed that the Voigtlander's rangefinder is one of the most difficult and frustrating to adjust so I had my fingers crossed at this point. Again, it seemed accurate although the coincident images were slightly displaced in the vertical plane. The important point was that it was still easy enough to focus accurately from the minimum focus distance of about 3ft to infinity.

The Ultron's front and rear surfaces looked completely blemish free. There are a few specks of dust visible when you look through the lens with the shutter on B but overall it's beautiful.

F5.6 this time and a nice look from the 60-year-old Ultron.

Now, the most obvious characteristic of the Vitessa isn't the shutter or rangefinder but the phallic-looking "plunger" that is used to "cock" the shutter and advance the film in one movement. When the plunger is depressed, it slides over a vertical rod to the right of the lens as you're looking at the camera from the front. This movement imparts a twisting motion to the vertical rod which has a small cog at the bottom that meshes with a cog attached to the film advance set up and pulls the film across.

Voigtlander could have achieved the same effect by putting a conventional film advance lever or wheel on the underside of the camera beneath the vertical rod - and it's a shame they didn't because the plunger mechanism is usually the thing that transforms these lovely old cameras into paper weights. Anyway, my plunger was cocking the shutter just fine so I was happy. It was also disappearing the way it should into the camera body when everything is shut down for carrying purposes. Sometimes it can fail to catch and you end up carting the camera around with the plunger in its excited state.

Closed for business.

The second most obvious characteristic of the camera are the "barn doors" that open when another button on the top plate is depressed to reveal the beautiful, single-coated Ultron. My doors were opening promptly. This was all going well and I was praising my good fortune for a great find.

Right, time for a film I think. The back removes completely making loading quite straightforward. Let's see what this Ultron can do. Ahhh. So that's why the Vitessa was in a charity shop - the film wasn't advancing. Bugger, or strong words to that effect. I took the front plate off the camera and worked out a rough idea of how the mechanism worked. It seemed to me that the various linkages were a bit mucky and gummed up so I got out the lighter fuel and a few cotton buds (Q-tips if you're American) and cleaned everything up as much as I could.

The serrated wheel operates the coupled rangefinder.

Realising that I'd just stripped whatever lubrication might be there, I did what you're not supposed to do and dribbled some WD40 onto a few crucial-looking points. I worked the plunger for a while and things improved to the point where it was cocking the shutter and winding the film on about nine times out of ten. The exposure counter on the front of the camera only moves when the film wind on mechanism operates successfully so it's possible to check this operation just by looking at the counter each time you "plunge" - you don't need to have a film in the camera.

Satisfied that there was a chance of recording some images on the film, I put a roll of Firstcall 400S in the Vitessa and set off to take a few pics. The results once I'd developed the film were not encouraging. There were what I think were a few double or triple exposures and some blank frames. However, there were some good frames as well and they showed that the Ultron is a fine performer. In fact, it seems to me that it's at least as sharp in the centre or possibly sharper than the Takumar 55mm f2.2 I used here.

Nice! Voigtlander made some of the best lenses and definitely had the best names.
Ultron, Apo Lanthar, Skopar to name but a few. Beat that Leica.

Have a look a the two test pics above - that's my standard test shot out the bathroom window. This is at f5.6 and it's impressive. The crop is a section of a 2400 dpi scan. The Ultron is supposed to have been as sharp as any other 35mm lens back in the 1950s. In case you're thinking a Takumar from the same period isn't much competition, then a post I'm preparing for next week might make you think again. The film was developed in accutance-enhancing Acurol-N as opposed to HRX for the Takumar shot but I don't want to read too much into that as I cocked up the development process. To cut a long story short, the film should have received 13.5 mins at 1+50. There were only four-and-a-half minutes to go when I realised that the dilution I'd given it was about 1+100!

A quick look at the Acurol-N info sheet showed that films typically needed two to three times as long at  the higher dilution. Some frantic number crunching revealed that I'd need to give the roll an extra five to six minutes. The results are usable but the development was a little over-cooked so I'll wait until I get it right before passing judgement on the Acurol-N/Firstcall 400s combination.

Weird but Nice

So what's the Vitessa like to use? Well, it's a rangefinder so it's never going to be the first thing I pick up when heading out the door. The viewfinder is quite dim and squinty. There are no frame lines so you just use the entire window to compose. The rangefinder is easy to use and quite clear. The plunger is a bit weird but works well enough in practise - or at least it would after a service. The spec is quite high with a fast 50mm lens and shutter speeds from 1 to 1/500th of a second from the Synchro-Compur leaf shutter. The ten-blade iris makes an almost circular aperture and the bokeh seems nice.

When I was 14 and taking pics on my dad's old Braun Paxette I would have killed for a camera like this. The old 1940s and '50s camera books that taught me the craft would often go on at great length about the "precision miniature" with a fast f2 lens. Oh, how I wanted one!

When you shut the barn doors, the camera packs away into quite a small, slim package but it's no lightweight! It fits comfortably into a coat pocket but if you have your coat unbuttoned and swing round too fast, you're likely to write off a passing car. The Vitessa would probably emerge unscathed. Stephen Gandy on his Camera Quest website thought the Vitessa was almost as well built as a Leica but I'd have to disagree. It's a well made camera but not in the same class as a Leica - but what is?

It shares one major thing in common with the Leica, however, and that's the fact it's a rangefinder. I don't know why I bother to keep trying rangefinders. The well-known definition of insanity - repeating something over and over and expecting a different outcome - applies here. I love the idea of them but they do my head in when it comes to composing. Every one I've tried has frustrated me in equal amounts. Give me the well-defined boundaries of an SLR's viewfinder over the woolly vagueness of a rangefinder every time. The Vitessa is slightly better in this respect as there are no frame lines to bother with but the scene looks very small and dim through its viewfinder. I accept it's me and not rangefinders that are to blame as there are plenty of photographers who love these cameras - my pal, Phil, among them who reckons I just haven't found the right one yet. He doubles as an agony aunt in his spare time.

So the upshot of all this is that I'll probably off-load the Vitessa on Ebay as being in lovely condition with a great lens but in need of a service to get it running consistently well. There can't be much wrong with it that a good CLA wouldn't fix. In fact, I contacted a camera repairer in Edinburgh who said he would do it for about £60, a price I would happily have paid but for the fact that I'd still end up with a rangefinder! I think it's time to publicly declare that I'm officially done with them forever. Unless a cheap Leica should appear at the local auction I regularly attend...


Michael Stevens said...

The dim, squinty rangefinders on a Yashica Electro 35 and an Olympus XA initially put me off them too (although with smaller apertures and decent light, scale focusing becomes a possibility, and without the false DOF of an SLR to boot). But once I tried a Leica... well, it's a different league altogether!

Bruce Robbins said...

I've actually had Leicas in the past, Michael. I had an M2, M3 and a few lenses but that must have been 30 years ago. I remember the guy who owned Edinburgh Cameras - and who was a great Leica man - telling me at that time not to give up my SLRs because, whilst rangefinders were great for some things, they weren't as versatile as SLRs. I didn't listen to him and persevered for a year or so with the Leicas before getting rid of them and buying a couple of Nikons.

I can't really remember too much about the Leicas now beyond the fact that they frustrated the hell out of me which was why I ditched them. What I do remember is how great they were to play with. There's nothing beats the feel of a Leica but, from my point of view, there are lots of cameras out there I'd rather use for photography.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Nowt frustrating about the M2 Bruce - it is a well designed and intuitive machine, which to me has become about as synapsy as any camera can get.
The Ultron though has a fab look to it, as does the camera - you can't beat engineering can you.
Aunty Phil

Bruce Robbins said...

I know Phil. This is a photographer problem and not a camera problem. Wish it were otherwise! I've been giving the Vitessa's plunger a workout today and everything seems to be working well. Might treat it to another film.

Eric said...

If the shutter was cocking and firing nine times out of ten why do you think the negatives had so many double exposures and blank frames? Seems a shame to sell such a nice camera. Go on! Get it fixed!!

Bruce Robbins said...

My guess, Eric, is that the mechanism works fine on its own but the extra friction of the film causes it some problems. It would be good to fix it. Maybe I can start a CLA collection that readers can contribute to. :)

Hernan Zenteno said...

What a beauty. Hope you can fix this camera. Is very compact ant the lens looks excellent.

Regular Rod said...

Very nice results that would tempt me to get it repaired and use it.

Bruce Robbins said...

I know what you and Hernan are saying, Rod. Every time I see the pics on the blog they make me stop and think. Need to give this some more thought.

Steve Smith said...

I know all about having too much gear. A year ago I decided that sixty old cameras was too many so I sold some and gave some away. When I counted what was left it came to seventy two!

Bruce Robbins said...

Hilarious, Steve. How'd you manage that? Did the buying outstrip the selling? Common problem...

MartyNL said...

Lovely pics Bruce. Just goes to show it's more important who's behind the camera rather than what's in front or what you shoot with.

shooter said...

What a cracking but very quirky camera, the first images are striking and do show what you could achieve with care, I also wear glasses though so I guess the viewfinder would be painful.