So for myself, I had been shooting on a Leica IIIF for a few years now and despite my very strong love for that camera, I had been hankering for a body with a coupled rangefinder as opposed to the smaller uncouple one of the Leica screw mount series. For a while I had toyed with the idea of purchasing a Leica M2 due to its wider viewfinder (0.72x) as I wear glasses and struggle to see into most viewfinders. I’ve only worn glasses for the last six months so shooting with the IIIF started to become a struggle. After narrowly missing out on a used M2 in good nic for 238 GBP on ebay, I became aware of the Voigtländer series of rangefinders. This was a discovery that changed many things for me photographically.
It was only through popping into Camera City that I discovered this line of the Bessa series from Voigtländer. They had in stock the Bessa L a camera lacking a viewfinder or rangefinder, designed for superwide lenses such as the new 12mm and 15mm that Voigtländer manufactured. From here on in, I found the Bessa R line they had produced. And by “they”, I mean Cosina who have taken the name of Voigtländer Bessa and translated it over to this product line. These cameras are nothing like the original Bessa cameras at all. Enough chit chat, lets move onto the camera itself.
The Voigtländer Bessa R is the first of a series of couple rangefinder cameras made by Cosina (This model from 2000) this model being the last available in Leica screw mount (Or m39 as it’s otherwise called). This is an interesting move which only leads me to think it’s just a matter of time before someone creates a new camera in m42 SLR mount. The choice of lenses is very large range of Russian lenses, Leica glass, Canon lenses (The 50mm f/1.4 being a true great) and of course Voigtländer themselves.
Well, the Bessa R features an exceptionally wider viewfinder (.68 magnification) and it’s by far one of THE brightest viewfinders out there in any rangefinder camera. It even surpasses the legendary brightness of the Leica M series. The frame lines are very bright too (Not LED illuminated) and are chosen by rotating a switch on top. You have the choice of either 75, 90 + 35 or 50 mm frame lines. The switch is not easy to knock so there’s no worry in getting screwed up frame options. Overall the viewfinder does have a fair share of barrel distortion, but that’s inevitable for a finder this wide.
The rangefinder patch is also notable for being very clear and bright also. You have to allign your eye properly though otherwise it disappears into the left. This rangefinder is good for 50mm lens and below but may struggle with longer lenses due to the short base length. 135mm lenses are out of the window unless stopped down to about f/8 or lower.
Dials and Controls
The Bessa R has very solid control dials overall. The shutter speed dial firmly clicks into each speed, but it’s not stiff in the slightest. The ISO is set by lifting up the shutter speed dial and rotating accordingly from 25-3200 ISO. The shutter release is just next to this dial and has a very positive response when using it. It’s not an immediate release, but it’s light enough not to strain you at all. The film advance crank does its job very well, moving forwards fluidly. It’s nothing compared to the feel of advancing a Leica M. That’s a near religious experience.
The rewind lever is also a pleasant device to use which doesn’t numb your fingers at all. It is a shame that the handle is so short as it feels like shaking hands with a cat when cranking it.
Mechanics and Electronics
The brucey bonus with this camera is that all the shutter speeds are mechanically operated. From 1 second all the way up to 1/2000s you are spoilt for choice. Electronic flash sync speed is at 1/125s which is not too bad at all. The camera has a hot shoe provided which works well with most flash units. There is also a PC sync port on the side of the camera if you need to use it.
The only aspect the batteries are required for is the light meter. And it’s only two lr44 button cells batteries and they seem to last forever. The meter is TTL and reads the incident light which is great for creating solid negatives.
The camera is equipped with a self timer which works without any issues. Some people may worry when they hear an immediate click when pressing the shutter button, but that is just the meter shutter blade popping up. The photo will not be take until the timer is finished. Neat huh?
The Light Meter
As stated before, the meter runs off two LR44 batteries placed in the base of the camera. It’s a simple meter similar to a match needle. Just flick the aperture and shutter speeds until you see a red dot in the center. On either side is a over exposed or underexposed icon. Sometimes one of these will light with the red dot, but this just means you will either lose some of the shadows or highlights if exposed here.
On Negative film this is not such an issue, but if using slide film do get this right. It’s also another reason to heave a lens with a click-less aperture ring. Or one which has half stops for precision exposures.
The meter is center weighted average, but tends to give priority to the bottom of the image, as if to compensate for a bright sky messing up the readings, so it’s worth bearing in mind the best readings are from the lower center of the frame.
To sum up this camera simply, if you want to shoot a rangefinder system and don’t own one, get your hands on a Voigtländer Bessa R(or R2 for M Mount). Very usable cameras with little user issues at all to mention. Cosina really struck it off well with this lovely little camera. And with prices still low, the time to act is now. I picked up this example for £199.99 from Vintage Classic Camera and it came just as described.