Voigtländer is the oldest camera maker in the world. The company was founded, astoundingly, in 1756. To help put this in perspective, that makes Voigtländer 20 years older than the United States of America. Amazing. Historically an important figure in the photographic world, Voigtländer’s contributed numerous innovations that later became industry standards. These include zoom lenses for 35mm cameras, and built-in flash units. The company has a strong reputation for quality and capable optics, but surely there are a few duds in their long and storied history?
When I got my hands on my first Voigtländer, the Vitomatic Ia, I found it to be a homely machine. It had a certain visual clumsiness to it, but looks aside, it felt sturdy and well-built. It’s a camera that befuddled me, impressed me, and infuriated me. After a weekend of shooting and a week of ponderous contemplation, I’ve finally put my finger on what I love and loathe about this ugly duckling from West Germany.
Originally released in 1957, the Vitomatic was developed from the popular Vito B viewfinder camera. It’s an exceptionally compact, well-built camera. Everything is made of metal and glass, creating a dense package. Levers, knobs, and the numerous lens-mounted control rings all click precisely into their detents. Mechanism operation is satisfying, and the feel of cold metal is nice. The Vitomatic is a heavy, quality camera.
Unfortunately, this camera is ugly. I’m aware that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that jazz, but to my eye it’s simply an ugly camera. Taken individually, portions of the design are fairly attractive, but when the individual elements are combined into a whole it becomes another story entirely. It’s almost as if the design was sketched by two people; one who loved angles and one who loved curves. While most of the numerous edges are round, others are incongruously sharp and angular. Grab this camera from any angle and you’re likely to have some part or another stabbing into your hand. I cut my finger on the accessory shoe. The thing made me bleed. I’m not resentful. It’s just the truth.
Ergonomically the camera is a bit clumsy. As mentioned, it’s a heavy machine, but it’s also small. This creates a situation where holding it becomes a test of finger strength. Frontal real-estate is especially sparse, necessitating one transform their hand into a twisted claw to grip the thing. If the camera were lighter it wouldn’t be a problem, or if they’d simply made it larger or included a molded grip in the design. As it is, the size and weight seem to run in contrast to one another, and make moment-to-moment operation something of a nightmare.
The nightmare isn’t helped by placement of the light meter window. Positioned exactly where one would place their right hand, it’s constantly being covered by the shooter’s index finger. Many times I was perplexed by the light meter’s reading, wondering how things could be so off, only to realize that I’d covered the meter window with my finger. Even resting ones finger just below the window tends to impact readings. It leads to under- and over-exposed shots, which the camera is prone to delivering anyway due to the generally inaccurate nature of its light meter, even when unencumbered by a clumsy photographer’s wiggling digits.
The camera features a selenium light meter with match-needle indicators. The needles are visible through a window on the top of the camera. Models designated with a letter suffix (a,b,cs), such as the one reviewed here (a), also feature a mirrored needle display in the viewfinder window. In practice, one matches the two needles by altering aperture and shutter speed until the needles align. Needle alignment is supposed to yield properly exposed photos, but the in-viewfinder display is very difficult to see, and I found myself setting the aperture and shutter speed while looking down on the camera to view the needles through the top window. Once aligned, I would frame and shoot. This method tended to give bad exposures around 30% of the time, since the lighting in the frame would change with positioning. The times when it yielded proper exposures are nothing to get excited over. Cameras with light meters are supposed to yield proper exposures. It’s also nice when the process isn’t ridiculously cumbersome, as it is with the Vitomatic. Too bad.
So you’ve managed to not drop the camera, and you’ve wrapped your bleeding finger with a torn scrap of your sock. You’ve taken a reading with your inaccurate light meter, set your aperture and shutter speed to suit, and framed your shot. The only thing left is to focus and squeeze the shutter release. And now we discover the Vitomatic Ia’s biggest shortfall.
Seeing the need to satisfy multiple price points, Voigtländer created two models at the same time, the Vitomatic I and the Vitomatic II. The difference between these models is that the former is a viewfinder camera while the latter incorporated a rangefinder mechanism for focusing. In this way, Voigtländer was able to create a lower spec camera for the masses and a more capable machine for enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the version being reviewed is the Vitomatic Ia, a viewfinder camera with no ability to gauge whether or not your shot is in focus. In fact, there’s virtually nothing of use inside the Vitomatic Ia’s viewfinder; only the previously mentioned horrible light meter, and oddly reflective frame lines that seem to randomly disappear.
The focus issue is a big deal, especially for those who like sharp, clear images. It’s not impossible to get an in-focus shot, it’s just a speculative process. Using a focus scale on the lens, the photographer can estimate the distance between the camera and the subject, set the scale to the estimated distance, and hope for the best. It works well enough, but not well enough for some. I suppose if one were to carry with them a tape measure one could get in-focus shots.
Voigtländer decided to help with the focusing issue by including some symbols on the focus scale. Naturally, the measurements are indicated by engravings that register from 3.5 to 60 feet (plus infinity), and additional markings of a circle and a triangle indicate subjects at 33 feet and 11 feet respectively will be in focus. I’m not sure why these distances were selected, but I’m sure there’s a very rational (and German) reason. What with all these numbers and symbols there’s really no excuse for shooting out-of-focus photos…
All controls are handled via concentric rings around the lens barrel. These include aperture, shutter speed, focus ring (with focus scale), flash control, and ASA/DIN selector. The idea of all the controls being on the lens barrel is, I’m sure, a well-intentioned move toward simplicity and clarity of design. I’m not convinced it’s a good choice. With four separate rings that all feel the same, things get pretty confused. Many a glance is necessary to determine which adjustment you’re making when moving the various knurled rings. I’d prefer some controls be on the top plate, but space up there is reserved for the light meter, and a film rewind knob that doubles as a film type reminder (indoor, outdoor, black and white).
So it’s an ugly camera that weighs too much, trips over itself, and occasionally slices fingers (I’m not mad). Is there any reason to want one? Well, I said beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that’s true. In my time shooting with this camera I’ve had a few people fall madly in love with it (based entirely on looks). I don’t get it, personally, but that’s love for you. Aside from that, it’s undeniably well-constructed, and I guess it would be an effective club for bludgeoning a mugger.
Jokes aside, there is something somewhat charming about it. The Vitomatic feels very “old world”. It’s a vintage camera that feels even more vintage than it actually is. A perfect example of this is the complexity of its film loading procedure. To load film, one has to flip forward a tiny lever on the bottom plate, twist it a quarter-turn, and pull open a small flap on the bottom. Once this is done, the entire back hinges open and one can insert the film as with most 35mm cameras. After that the shooter has to manually spin a wheel to indicate exposure count (though the count window is on the bottom of the camera – not a great place for information). It feels like operating an ancient puzzle box, and it might be my favorite aspect of the Vitomatic Ia.
Voigtländer is the oldest camera company in the world, and the Vitomatic Ia harkens back to an era where classy men wore hats, and carried around cumbersome photographic devices. They took their time when taking a photo, and smoked pipes full of tobacco. That’s a nice image, and this machine is charming, in it’s own old-world way, but I can’t help wonder what I’m missing in the Vitomatic IIa. I hate this camera for the things it lacks and for the things it does poorly, but love is a funny thing. If you’re one of those people who’s fallen for this camera, by all means, find one and go shooting. Just bring some Band-Aids. Or wear gloves. It will cut you.