Voigtländer Bessa R 35mm Film Camera Review – a Value Proposition

Voigtländer Bessa R 35mm Film Camera Review – a Value Proposition

2400 1350 Chris Cushing

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. 

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
10 comments
  • Chris, I have owned two bessa sm & m mountds and many leica’s. The bessa is better than the older leicas because it has a brighter rangefimder, a hot shoe, ttl metering and a better shutter. I use mine with a sumicron 35 and 50mm lens.

    Old leicas are over priced collector cameras. My two m3s both had very dim finders.

    In reading what you wrote you seemed like a leica snob not a photographer first.

    I like Rolleiflex f models, my bessa w summicron lens, slr graflexs and 985 Horseman.

    And sometimes my 5×7 speed graphic. And yes I have several contax s, canons and more.

    Jay Allen

    • Jay,

      I spent most of this review praising the Voigtlander for being functionally top notch. The viewfinder is excellent, and the only Leica I’ve ever held edges it out is the M-A. I don’t think it’s at all unfair to say that the plastics used on the Bessa R are not as nice as the metal used on a Leica costing many times more, indeed I don’t think the camera is as nice to hold as my Canon P. Of course that doesn’t make the P the superior camera, but it is worth noting. Heck, in the review I said that as a tool the Bessa “leaves the M-A and Canon P for dead.” I think, and have said in print, that it’s a very good camera.

      Leicas are a handy comparison. Their product is well known, and they provide a good baseline. It’s like the inevitable Mercedes comparisons made by lower-priced brands when they move upmarket.

      If you’d like to label me as a Leica snob, I suppose I can’t do anything about that. I will accept donations of Leica cameras (preferably M5s) so I can at least look the part.

      Chris

    • I rather be a Leica snob than pay 500 bucks on a Bessa R body. Wait.. it´s 850 dollars actually, used on ebay. Yeah right.

  • Nice overview, Chris!
    A Bessa R has been my primary 35mm camera from about 2004 or so and I have been very happy with it. During those same years, I have owned and used several other “better” cameras but ultimately passed those along and kept the R.

    Because of its simplicity and low cost. Had an R2a and that was arguably a much better built camera but–solely due to operator error (I have long used the 1/3 N battery instead of two SR44s and that is fine but I didn’t remember to pack a spare. 🙁 )–its battery pooped out while I was on a camping trip and became a paper weight. I found a very nice M4 locally for a good price, it needed a little service, which I had DAG Camera do, and it was beautiful. And, frankly, too expensive for me to be comfortable with carrying very much. If my Bessa breaks or I lose it, it is fairly easy on my wallet to replace. Photography is a hobby for me so my investment in it has to be my time much more than my money.

    Relative to that cost is its value which, for me, is very high. A large part of that value to me lies in the fact that I much prefer older LTM mount lenses so by spending proportionally less on a body that is rather better than “good enough”, I can afford to spend more on (and on more) lenses.

    And then there is the viewfinder. As some one who started learning photography on my grandfather’s Argus C3 and who has used most of the other older rangefinder cameras, the R’s viewfinder beats them all hands down.

    The R is not a “perfect” camera–I won’t use the word I generally use when I consider that mythical beast :)–but it is, I think, the best bang for the buck available for 35mm rangefinders.

    Long term, who knows how the R will fare. But there are Bakelite cameras from many decades prior to the R that are still functioning so I’m hopeful that my R will last me quite a while. And, while the plastic body will get ugly as its finish wears off, a deft hand for disassembly and some Kyrlon ought to deal with that pretty easily. 🙂

  • Having been able to hold and shoot the Bessa R, I honestly think it’s a nearly perfect Rangefinder. The viewfinder is fantastic and lens selection is massive. It’s a far superior camera to many. The comparison to the M-A is a good one, as I really liked both, but the Bessa is more usable (as mentioned) with it’s meter. The only thing that I disliked about the meter is that it looked very similar to focus confirmation on some AF cameras!

  • My preference is to shoot voigtlander glass with Canon rangefinders. The cameras are solidly built and affordable such as the Canon P and the skopar lenses are excellent and much less expensive than leica glass. The only problem with old Canon rangefinders is that their meters are usually shot after 50 years. Get and hand held meter or go sunny 16.

  • These cameras are 700 to 1000 bucks on ebay… body only. That´s pretty stupid imo. ymmv.

    • Those are aspirational prices by bonkers sellers. The people actually selling Bessa Rs are getting around $300-400, from what I can see.

  • I have both an R and a R2, they are both excellent, the R2 has a metal body for those who worry about build quality and longevity. That said I have used the R all round the world and apart from some paint wear it has held up very well and never let me down. I also have a Lieca M9-P, Canon L, P and VLT plus two Minolta CLEs

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing