I've had a 1940s Voigtlander Bessa RF, a classic, rangefinder-coupled 6x9 folder, sitting on my desk for weeks awaiting some final fettling to sort out a rangefinder problem. Finally, I found some time to fix it, checked the focus with a ground glass across the film gate and was fairly confident that it was "on point", as my teenage daughter likes to say about her eyebrows. So time to try it out.
This was another local auction find that nobody seemed to want so I got it for a good price. A year or so ago I won a 35mm "Barndoors" Voigtlander Vitessa at the same auction house. Like the 105mm f3.5 Skopar of the Bessa the Vitessa came with a wonderful 50mm f2 Ultron lens. Unfortunately, both cameras share a common fault - bloody awful viewfinders.
|A reasonable impression of the Bessa's tunnel viewfinder courtesy of the iPhone|
camera. It's worse with glasses on. Note intrusion of sausage tip...
They're so bad - small, dim and squinty tunnels - that they render the cameras practically unusable for someone who wears glasses. Even without glasses, they're still pretty hopeless. (Isn't it amazing how much I complain about rangefinder viewfinders? It happens so often you'd almost think the problem was with me rather than the viewfinders…) Voigtlander had a reputation for finding clever ways of solving camera problems so why it couldn't design a viewfinder that at least gives the photographer a sporting chance of getting a well-composed shot is beyond me.
I loved the Ultron lens of the Vitessa - it took one of my favourite pics of last year - but disliked the viewfinder so much that I sold it on. The same fate awaits the Bessa now that I know it's working fine. A coupled rangefinder folder with a good lens is a very useful camera, being capable of producing high quality images but with a very slimline form factor.
|Quite a handsome camera really. Note the swing out yellow filter - a great idea.|
|A nice, embossed model name just in case you forget what camera you're carrying|
around with you.
|The wheel on the left is for focusing.|
Although the Bessa will be departing the Robbins household at some point in the not too distant future, I have a back-up waiting in the wings - a folding understudy, so to speak. That's a 1950s Ensign Autorange 16-20, a coupled rangefinder 645 folder with an excellent 75mm Ross Xpres lens. But on this camera and despite having far fewer resources at their disposal than Voigtlander, Ross Ensign produced a cracking viewfinder with clear and bright suspended frame lines. It's a joy to use - apart from the fact that it's not usable yet.
BrainfartThe Ensign's problem was a broken shutter for which I had to find a replacement part before dismantling part of it and then putting it all together again. It was quite a job, one of those fiddly affairs where tiny, fairy fingers would have come in handy. Having fat sausages sprouting from my palms, I found it a right carfuffle.
Eventually, however, I completed the noisome task, gave the Xpres a clean and put it back together again. There was only a focusing ring to be replaced - when I realised I couldn't find the three tiny wee grub screws that held the ring in place. That was weeks ago and I still haven't found them. Haven't a bloody clue where they went, to be honest. I don't think I was stupid enough to actually knock them off my desk onto the carpet and suspect I stuck them to a piece of tape that has managed to find its way into a seldom encountered nook or cranny. Or perhaps I was stupid enough to knock them onto the floor - it's certainly not beyond me.
Anyway, the resurrection of the Ensign is for another day. I'd just finished having a moan about the Voigtlander's viewfinder which leads me neatly on to the photo at the top of this post. It's a shot of the stairs in my house which I thought looked quite appealing in the morning sunshine the other day. It was handheld at something like 1/25th of a second, slower than I would have liked but setting the tripod up on the stairs would have been a right pain.
What you see isn't what you getI like it but you've maybe noticed the composition isn't up to my usual peerless standards (ahem!). That's because the bloody awful viewfinder suffers from bloody awful parallax. Hence the rather large expanse of not-a-lot on the left hand side of the frame. I could have cropped it, of course, but then I'd have nothing to write about. Actually, the framing isn't too bad and I reckon I can just about get away with it.
The film was Tmax 400 which I developed in the ever-reliable Firstcall Superfine, a vice-free brew that does what it says on the tin - or plastic bottle in this case. It was just a test film to see that the camera was functioning properly, bellows were light-tight, etc. I took a few comparison shots alongside the 50mm Summicron on the Leica M2 for no other reason than to use up the last few frames on the 35mm roll. I'll try to write it up this week.
So that's the Voigtlander Bessa RF - a classy camera with a very nice lens and a viewfinder that makes as much sense as steering a car with your feet. Another case of so near, yet so far. I'm counting on the Ensign to make amends for the failures of it's German cousins and deliver unto me a folding tool fit for the task of taking a good photograph.
In 1948, after the company grew to become Barnet Ensign Ross Ltd., there were high hopes for the new Ross lenses prompting them to boast, "It seems, in fact, beyond doubt that as a result of the Barnet Ensign Ross alliance the focus of photographic progress has shifted from the continent to Britain." We shall see...