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Wednesday, July 2

Clean bill of health for the Vitessa

You might remember a post back in March when I wrote about a Voigtlander Vitessa I'd picked up in a charity shop for a fiver? It was sort of working but failing to wind the film on sometimes, the slow speeds were sticky and the view through the viewfinder was dim and dirty.

A bit of work with some lighter fluid and isopropyl alcohol got it functioning a lot better and, after a successful test roll, I was all for selling it on Ebay - much to the disdain of some readers who wanted me to keep it.

Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of rangefinders, much preferring SLRs, and the view through the Vitessa was such that I found it difficult to focus or see the composition as I would like. And yet, I liked the fast 50mm f2 Ultron lens and thought I might regret it if I got rid of the Vitessa.

It's an odd kettle of fish, the Vitessa.

After a wee exchange with a knowledgeable Australian guy on the Rangefinder Forum, I decided to have a go at cleaning the viewfinder system. Voigtlander cameras are known for their quirks and I'd imagined there might be all sorts of spring-loaded, hair trigger gubbins waiting to fly all across my desk if I attempted to remove the top of the camera.

My Australian correspondent assured me otherwise so I got in about it with a screwdriver. It turns out it's not such a difficult job after all. It was finicky getting the top cover off but once I had it in my hands cleaning the various glasses was easy. In all, I cleaned eight glass surfaces but decided to leave the interior parts of the rangefinder alone rather than risk ruining them. When you think of how much muck can accumulate on eight surfaces over a 60-year period then you'll have an idea of how dirty the viewfinder was. The whole area beneath the top plate was dusty and grimy so that got a good cleaning as well.

Not the cleanest camera I've ever seen.

I'm pleased to say that the viewfinder now shows a dramatic improvement - I can actually see the edges of the composition which is always a good thing! The Vitessa is now in fully working condition and feeling quite smooth into the bargain. The only thing that could be sorted is the rangefinder alignment which is a little off in the horizontal plane. It works fine and is accurate if I just bring the coincident images together and ignore the fact that the tops of a chimney don't line up precisely.

I've read that adjusting the rangefinder is a pain on the Vitessa because of the need to put the top cover back on to check it - and remove it, put it back on, etc, until it's sorted. I think I'll leave that well alone for the time being although it would be good to have the camera working perfectly in all respects. In fact, now that I think of it, there is one other aspect I'm not entirely happy with and that's the thumb wheel on the back that controls focusing. The wheel spins in a little hollow shaft and I put a drop of light oil in the well of the shaft to lubricate the motion of the thumb wheel. It's not feeling as smooth as I'd like so I might take the top off and apply some light grease instead to get it running more easily.

So with the Vitessa ticking over like a reasonably well-maintained Rolls Royce, I think I owe it to myself and the camera to put another few rolls through it. When I was a boy just learning photography, I used to read my dad's photo books from the 1940s. There was one in particular, can't remember which one now, that held up the 50mm f2 lens as the zenith - at a time when I was toting the humble Braun Paxette. In truth, it was the Sonnar on a Contax 11 the author was speaking about but I've always had a thing about 50mm f2 optics.

In fact, if I'd had some spare cash I might have shelled out for this lovely Contax 11a at Peter Loy's:

This is one of the nicest I've seen and has the classic f1.5 Sonnar - even better than the f2. With six months guarantee, it comes in at just under £450. That's not cheap but try getting a Leica and fast standard lens for that sort of money! The problem with the Contax is that, although superbly engineered, it's a complex camera and there's a lot that can go wrong unlike the Leica which is much easier to keep in good working condition.

So I think you have to have quite deep pockets and a determination to have it regularly serviced if you want to get the best out of an old Contax. For now, I'll just enjoy another couple of outings with the Vitessa and see if we can click now that I can see what I'm photographing.

You might also like:

Selfies With The Vitessa


Hernan Zenteno said...

Take care of put oil or grease, sometimes if they are not the right thing they could do more damage than help. Some technicians says that for sticky things is good light fluid, not grease at all. They could jammed your mechanics with time. Another thing to take in account is that fumes thru time of some oils/grease can fog your lens or viewfinder glass.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for that, Hernan. I was trying to find a camera repair article I read a while back that explained when and why you should use oil and grease in a camera. I've since heard from a Vitessa owner who had his camera serviced that the focus wheel always feels a little rough so I'll leave it alone just now.

Alisa Stevenson said...


Johnny Piettro said...

I'm glad I found your post on Vitessa CLA.
Could you tell me please - I've heard there is some tricky part in disassembling the top housing plate - what is it? There is some part that needs moderate heat applied to unscrew it in some cases. Sometimes people get away skipping that troublous spot and others get stuck to the point they give up disassembly or sometimes screw that part up.

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Johnny,

I no longer have the camera and can't remember much beyond what I've written here. However, if you go to the following thread on the Rangefinder Forum and scroll down to the 19th post (by Sarcofilus Harrissii) you should get enough info to enable you to remove the top cover and more besides. Good luck.


Anonymous said...

The things you stumble across! I'm glad you got the Vitessa sorted, Bruce. They have a certain reputation, but, like a lot of cameras they're not as bad as people suggest to actually work on. I don't use mine as often as I ought to but the Ultron lens always makes it worth it, when I do.
Best Regards,
Brett Rogers (aka "Sarcophilus Harrisii")

Bruce Robbins said...

Hi Brett! The internet’s a smaller place than it first appears, isn’t it. I ended up selling my Vitessa just because of the difficulty in seeing through it with glasses on. The Ultron is a lovely lens, though, and it would have been great if I could have used it on an OM2.