The Voigtländer Bessa R is an oddity in my camera collection, which mostly consists of heavy Canons. As someone who values lightness and simplicity, it makes sense. By the same token it’s difficult to explain my affection for old Canons. None of Canon’s SLRs have combined the virtues of compactness and low weight, instead opting for durability and increasingly impressive feature sets. Useful? Yes. Elemental and pure? Not at all.
My wife and I were traveling earlier this month, and I didn’t want to lug my usual cameras (which at times feel like a hundred pounds worth of Canon A-1, F-1, and lenses) along for the ride. While a Canon did make its way into my carry-on, it was the smallest; my Canonet. But this most-charming of all Canons only served as a backup for my newest acquisition; yet another rangefinder.
I seem to own a lot of rangefinders for someone who told James “I’m not a rangefinder guy,” when I signed on with Casual Photophile. As of press time, I have two Mamiya Universals, two Canonets, a Canon P, a Bolsey, and now this Voigtländer Bessa R.
A New Old Rangefinder
After Leica launched the M-Mount in 1954, the older thread mount became mostly the purview of a handful of Canon rangefinders and some other, shall we say, proletarian cameras. Like the owners of countless Russian rangefinders, the Bessa user needs to take care to avoid cross-threading when mounting a lens. Threads, simple though they may be, are less idiot-proof than a good bayonet mount. That aside, the Bessa is a reasonably modern camera, and a refreshing departure from Leica’s iconoclastic adherence to tradition. As the M5 showed us, all deviations from the norm shall be punished, right?
When Cosina relaunched the Voigtländer name in the 1990s, it was with some of the simplest cameras of the decade. The Bessa L lacked any type of viewfinder or rangefinder optics, and was little more than a light-tight box with a shutter, though curiously it did offer TTL metering. If you wanted to have even the foggiest idea of what the lens was pointed at you needed to bring your own shoe-mount finder. Despite the minimalist design, the Bessa L proved popular and paved the way for progressively more complex Bessa models.
The Voigtländer Bessa R was the first modern Bessa rangefinder, and shared several things with the earlier L, including a vertically traveling shutter, TTL metering, and primarily plastic construction. Making the R was mostly a matter of slapping a rangefinder assembly on the top of the existing L architecture, and while functional, the resulting camera is not overly elegant.
The rangefinder assembly is tall, with a large finder window and a matching illumination window. Though slightly awkward visually, that added height moves the small rangefinder window far enough from the shooter’s fingers to avoid blockage when holding the camera vertically.
This sort of thinking permeates the entire camera. While nothing about the camera feels nice in the manner of a Leica, as a tool the humble Bessa R leaves the Leica M-A and my Canon P for dead. None of the materials are just-so, but all of the controls are. The shutter speed dial is large, with a chunky ribbed edge. While it doesn’t overhang the edge like the Leica M5, it is extremely easy to turn with a single finger without moving the eye from the finder.
The other controls on the top plate, and there are a total of five, are similarly sensible. The film advance lever is large, and can be comfortably extended away from its natural resting position for rapid shooting. The shutter button is slightly oversized, domed, and has a smooth two-step action. The rewind crank recesses neatly in to the top plate when not in use. The frameline selector has just three positions, a combined 35/90mm setting, 50mm, and 75mm, corresponding to the four native Voigtländer lenses that launched with the R.
That last observation is worth hanging onto, because that frame line selector grants all the control you could want and deftly complements one of the best viewfinders I’ve ever used. The Bessa R shares its 0.72x magnification with numerous other rangefinders, from the Canon 7 to the Leica M-A, but where it really shines is in its exceptional brightness. The M-A’s finder and framelines are nearly as bright as the Bessa, but no classic rangefinder I’ve ever used even comes close.
The view through the finder is uncomplicated, and cluttered only by a red LED meter readout. The readout features just three lights. A small center circle indicating a correct exposure, and a pair of up and down arrows indicating whether you need to add or subtract from your present exposure calculation. The LEDs break up the lower line of the 35mm frameline, but do not replace it entirely. It’s deliciously simple, and makes accurate framing a breeze.
Couple that with a crisp rangefinder patch and the unusually short focus throw of Voigtländer lenses, and suddenly we’re shooting a wonderful companion for street photos. I mean this as a compliment, but with the 35mm lens attached the Bessa feels like a fixed lens rangefinder. The Bessa is less a Leica competitor, and more like some sort of super-Canonet or Olympus 35RD on steroids.
Quality and Value
Things start to come unglued a bit when we nitpick Voigtländer’s material choices. While the lenses are all-metal and are generally beautifully built, the camera is not. The Voigtländer Bessa R is virtually all plastic. The hot shoe, advance lever and rewind levers are the only obvious metal parts on the outside of the camera. The plastic upper and lower plates feel reasonably nice, though later M-Mount Bessas feature metal top and bottom plates which are even better.
The middle parts of the camera are another story. The film door has a smooth rubberized finish, which would feel more at place on a Kodak Advantix than on a semi-premium rangefinder. The pebble finish material on the front panels also feels more Stretch Armstrong than Connolly leather. Though I’m not a fan of ever-ready cases, I regularly use the lower half of one on my Bessa just because it’s nicer in the hand than the camera itself.
But, in all honesty, this isn’t that much of a problem. Great products don’t have to be made of perfect, high-end materials. Just ask anyone who’s owned an original Volkswagen Beetle or Honda Super Cub; combining cheap materials with an adherence to high standards of build quality can make for an incredible product.
Unfortunately, if the internet is to be believed, reliability is something of an “if” with the Bessa. Forum users often complain about Bessa reliability, and it can be hard to differentiate those who are simply regurgitating rumors they’ve heard from those with actual experience. But it’s impossible to know how often or under what conditions these purported failures occur. To be sure, long term servicability is unlikely to stack up to a Leica or Nikon.
Therein lies the tradeoff. The Voigtländer Bessa R is not a Leica, and at its price point you should not expect it to be. Nice Bessa Rs with the original boxes and manuals can be found on eBay for under $300, placing them closer to the top of the Canonet market than to the bottom of the M2 and M3 market.
Given the price difference and the cost of servicing a Leica, you could break and replace several Bessas before the math started to swing in the Leica’s favor. If we limit ourselves solely to LTM mount cameras, the Voigtländer Bessa R has no real competitors with a matching feature set. For shooters who like classic LTM lenses, the Bessa is a wonderful camera, and I’ve scarcely put it down in weeks. It’s not perfect, but it is far too good to ignore.