The Voigtländer Bessa-L

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The Voigtländer Bessa-L was one of 1999's most spectacular camera releases. Much anticipated, it appeared on the market somewhere in the summer of '99. I bought mine a few months later in September, and even though I sold it a year and a half later, I used it – though sparsely – with great content.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Bessa-L is probably the first ultrawideangle compact after the Zeiss Ikon Hologon in 1968, and that one doesn't even count because only 1400 prohibitively expensive units were made. What's also special about the new cameras from Voigtländer, is that they've single-handedly given both rangefinder and ultrawideangle photography a new impulse. Ultrawideangle photography was long seen as the freak of photography; hardly something to take seriously. Also, rangefinder photography has been pretty dead since the beginning of the '80's. Only Leica persevered, and only because they could afford to. The Bessa-R and T are the first affordable rangefinders since... since... the consumer ones from the '70's?

Some credit is due here to Contax, who, with their G1 and G2, proved there was life in the rangefinder market. If you had the cash, that is. Why do rangefinders always have to be so damn expensive?

Another feat the Bessas accomplished was the resurrection of Voigtländer. No small feat for who remembered the slow and painful death of the original company in the '70's.

To begin with the last: Voigtländer is no unfamiliar name in the photography world. In fact, it's a name that played a great part in the history of photography. The firm was founded in Vienna in 1756 by Christoph Voigtländer. The early years are quite obscure, but that changed in 1840, when Peter Wilhelm Friedrich Voigtländer introduced an entirely metal Daguerrotype camera with a 149mm f/3.7 lens designed by Josef Petzval. In 1868 the firm moved to the German town of Braunschweig. Throughout the years, from the nineteenth century till the 1970's, they went on to produce well-known cameras, such as the Brilliant, the Bessa, the Vitessa, the Superb, et cetera. Unfortunately German "gründlichkeit" lost appeal in the 1950's with the arrival of Japanese products, and the firm fell in slow demise. In 1956 it was taken over partly, and in 1970 whole, by Zeiss Ikon. That company, in turn was eaten by Rollei in 1972, which then went broke itself in the early 1980's. (The story about Rollei is a whole different one.) The rights to the Voigtländer name were sold along with Rollei, and after a lot of mutations were bought by the German RingFoto/Combi concern. They made a cheap buck out of the once honorable name: in Holland and Germany it was at one time possible to buy inferior Cosina lenses relabeled Voigtländer Ultron, Variogon, Telemar, and so on. But just when it seemed Voigtländer's heritage couldn't sink any lower, the RingFoto boys did the right thing and thought up the Bessa series.

Probably after instignation from Germany, Cosina designed the Bessa camera series. But why name it Voigtländer? Why opt for a type of camera – rangefinder – that seemed out-dated by some thirty years? And why Leica screw for heaven's sake? I think that the answer to these questions is in that last point. Why Leica screw? Because Leica M users can easily use Leica screw lenses on their M's just by using a small intermediate ring. This easy upward compatibility was one of Leica's main marketing tools when it released its M3 in 1954, and Cosina isn't stupid either. Cosina knew ofcourse that what the Leica market was dying for after years and years of Leica monopoly, was a series of high-quality, but relatively affordable, third party lenses. That's where there was money to be made. Leica photographers are mostly passionate photographers with a penchant for the creme de la creme, but even in La La Leica land there are only few who can really afford a decent set of lenses. Sure the bulk would like to, but if each single Leica lens equates to a small family car, then there are more viable options. But here's Cosina, large-scale consumertronics manufacturer from the East, who can provide the mass with what it wants: cheap quality optics. And to really secure the kill, cheap niche quality optics, like, for instance, a 15mm parallelled only by the legendary Leica Hologon. Now all Cosina needs is a nice fancy name to stick on its products. The "Cosina" name has a very negative ring to it in photography land because of certain trashy SLRs and cheap optics, so why not opt for the name of a company that was once one of Leica's direct competitors – Voigtländer. A name that certainly rings a bell with Leica owners.

Problem with targeting Leica owners is, that there's only so many of them. There are even less that are willing to buy cheap lenses for expensive bodies. So- in a moment of marketing acumen, Cosina decides to launch its very own line of rangefinders, to allow non-Leica users to also catch a ride, and incidentally to also own an affordable rangefinder camera – which had been a contradiction in terms ever since the 1960's. Three bodies are devised: the Bessa-L as a vehicle for the 15mm Heliar, the Bessa-T as a vehicle for arbitrary Leica-M (or Hexar-M) lenses, and last but not least the Bessa-R as allround native L39 rangefinder.

The Bessa-L is the one I'm focusing on here, because it's the only one I had the opportunity to deal with personally. Besides, its two relatives are different chapters entirely.

I used to own a Bessa-L; the one on these pictures was mine. I'll get to why I sold it later on. When I ordered it, I rather wanted a black one, but because the blacks were not yet available at the time, I had to settle for a chrome one. It looks alright, but not very professional, and the chrome is a bit scratch prone. I had luck with the serial number: #00010987. Not only does it look like 10-9-8-7, but when written 10-9-'87, it's also my fifth birthday (October 9th 1987).

I had worked a day job all summer just to save up for this camera. Until September I hadn't really decided whether to buy a Bessa-L or a Nikon FM2n Black. They were both very tempting. The Bessa-L had an awesome lens but also limited capabilities, whereas the FM2n was a throwback from the Nikon F50 I was used to, but also the ultimate photographer's tool. In the end I chose the Bessa, because I thought I was a real wideangle guy. In hindsight I think I should have gone with the FM2n, or bought a Horizon-202 instead. One thing I learned after using the Bessa for a year, is that a 15mm isn't an ordinary wideangle any more; it's a monster lens. The '202 would have been a more logical choice for me at the time, because it's much easier to manage.

After a test roll, I bought the Bessa in September 1999. The set cost me fl. 1500,- on the mark; that's about $650. Split up, the lens cost fl. 1150,- and the body fl. 350,-. It's clear that the Bessa-L body is just an accessory to the lens; a means for somebody happening to lack a Leica-M body, to use the lens anyway. It's just a light-tight box with a simple light meter and an industry-standard shutter. Despite that, it doesn't look $150 and isn't constructed $150. Except for the camera's back and the controls, everything is made of steel or aluminium. Crucial things like the tripod mount, the film beams and the lens screw are all reinforced. All that metal gives the camera a solid, Leica-like feeling. The body is not as heavy as a Leica, nor as thick. It's actually quite small, because it does away with those extras that usually add bulk. It's therefore easy to carry around. I spent days on end walking through Rome with my Bessa around my neck, and apart from the occasional swinging, it didn't bug me as much as my Nikon F50 did.

One of the rare extras that the Bessa-L offers, is a simple evaulating TTL light meter. Problem with them is, that they're very quickly distracted by backlighting and skies and such, and that you have to be very alert about what you're actually measuring. Especially with lenses as wide as a 15mm that characteristic can sometimes be a problem, because usually you tend to capture a lot of sky. One way to correct is to point the camera to the ground and then subtract a stop or two.

The body handles pleasantly. Even when not in its case, it's easy to carry along and has a good grip. What help are the thumb grip on the back plate and the rubber hand grip on the front. Taking pictures goes smoothly and comfortably. The triggering pressure needed to release the shutter is modest, and the pressure point clear. The shutter release button has a large area, and dips easily and smoothly, like that of an old Leica. The shutter makes a metal-like clicking sound, like older SLR's, but thankfully without the slapping mirror. The sound level is decent, though not Leica level.

The Bessa-L has a vertical-moving metal blade shutter, which is in some ways an advantage over older rangefinders with rubber shutters. A known problem with the latter is apparently that the sun sometimes burnt holes in them when the lens was close-focused and the camera was left in the open. (I've never encountered this problem, but it's common lore so there must be some truth to it.) The Bessa-L eradicates that problem, though its metal shutter is a lot noisier than the old rubber ones...

Winding and rewinding the film with the Voigtländer Bessa-L is as easy as one-two-three, and just as you're used to with older cameras: it's done with a smooth thumb wind handle that has an extra plastic piece for good grip. Rewinding is done manually, by means of the good old rewind crank...

To load a film and make the camera ready for use, do the following: first, insert the film. Just lay it into the cavity at the left side of the camera, and secure it by lowering the rewind button. Then pull out the film lip, and feed it into the takeup spool on the right side of the camera. Make sure that the teeth grip into the perforations. Then wind the film tight with the wind lever. Shut the back, take few pictures and advance the film until the film counter reads '1'. Don't forget to set film sensitivity! Then you're done, and you can start taking pictures.

The Bessa-L doesn't have a film memo holder like some older cameras do, but instead it has a film window in the back (see photo). Very easy and convenient, though sometimes the information isn't readable because the cartridge has slightly rotated inside the body.

Taking pictures with the Bessa-L is about as easy as inserting the film. To take a picture, just follow these simple steps. First, remove the lens cap. If you're not taking pictures, I recommend that you leave it on the lens, so as not to risk the Heliar's front element too much, and to protect it from things like dust and water. Then, press the shutter release button gently, to get the light meter activated. Then play around with aperture values and shutter speeds a bit, until the light meter shows only green. To the left means underexposure, to the right means overexposure. I would advise you to not take this too seriously, because first of all, this light meter is very quickly distracted by highlights, secondly the Heliar 15mm has a vignetting problem which obstructs correct metering, and thirdly the display is quite inaccurate. If the left red triangle lights up, the light meter has spotted underexposure by about one stop. If the green dot in the center lights up, the light meter reckons the exposure is right. If the red arrow to the right is lit up, it means that according to the light meter, you're heading for a one-stop or more overexposure. If both an arrow and the green dot are lit up, the offset from the correct exposure is half a stop. To find the correct exposure, just adjust the shutter speed dial and/or the aperture dial. Play with them until only the green dot is lit up.

Then after the light is measured and the exposure time is set, look through the viewfinder. The Bessa-L has neither a viewfinder of itself, or a rangefinder. Both were considered not necessary. The rangefinder because the depth-of-field of a 15mm lens is so huge, that focusing would be rudimentary, and the viewfinder because it would probably only make the camera more difficlult to produce, and larger too. So instead they chose to supply a separate finder for each lens. The Super Wide-Heliar 15mm f/4.5 comes with its own auxiliary finder, available only in black. The finder is, as the lens, a brilliant piece of work. It's small and its housing is made of plastic. Still the optical part is a lens in itself, with optical groups, multicoating, et cetera. So the viewfinder has a *very* clear image indeed. Above all, the viewfinder is a Galileo type, meaning that the image you see, is large and clear. Combine this and you get the spectacular finder for the lens. I am not exaggurating here. It is truly astonishing. The crispness of the image, and above all the largeness of the image! It's certainly not as if you're looking at a small stamp-size image in the viewfinder of some SLR, no, you are sucked into the image, because it appears so large and lifelike! At first, I thought that making images with a superwideangle would be difficult, not to say impossible. I had drawn out all kinds of situations as seen through a 15mm lens. I thought that it would be near impossible to take images with a lens that wide. But when I looked through the viewfinder, it looked as though it wasn't at all 110° diagonally, but just like it was a 35mm focal, with a bit of space along the edges. The viewfinder made the difference for me: its clarity and its large, sucking image made the 15mm focal very well workable.

Once the image is framed, you press the shutter release, advance the film, and put the lens cap back on. That's it. Photo taken. And once you get the hang of it, the whole sequence of cap off, focusing if needed, metering the light, framing, and taking the photograph can be as quickly completed as that of any SLR.

Now I've discussed the body, which in my opinion is just a simple thing to keep non-Leica owners interested in the new Cosina Leica lenses. Now let's talk about the true marvel: the Super Wide-Heliar 15mm f/4.5. For that is what the Bessa-L is all about. The camera is an interchangeable piece of equipment. In fact, I can fit the Heliar onto my Zorki-4. It looks strange, the Zorki-4 with the Bessa viewfinder and the Heliar 15mm f/4.5, but it works. Somehow. And the other way around, I can put the Zorki's Jupiter-8 onto the Bessa-L. I lose a viewfinder, but who needs one.

The Heliar's image quality is very nice. You can really see the influence of that aspherical element, and the multicoating. Even in strong backlight you don't get flare. That's important, because the sun is often in frame with a lens like this. The Heliar 15mm f/4.5 hardly has distortion because of its symmetrical construction, and it's colour balance is neutral. The vignetting is reasonable, but not as acute as with SLR 15mm's. The vignetting stays under control and does not manifest itself too much. However, it is present, and it doesn't go away. That's a logical consequence of the large image angle. The edge light rays have to travel a larger distance and are 'smeared out' more than the center rays, because those outer rays strike the film under a greater angle. The vignetting will stay visible, but in most cases it's bearable.

The sharpness of this lens is another wonder. It's not as sharp as a Leica Summicron-M 50mm or as the Nikon 180mm f/2.8 ED, but for a superwideangle it comes a long, long way. The center is sharp like hell. To the edges, the image becomes more smeared out (the heads get elongated, you get the tell-tale perspective deformation), and the sharpness is lost a bit. That's understandable, because the rays make a large angle with the film. The image gets stretched, and so do the details. With a 50mm for example, the rays make a small angle, so the image is sharp all over.

All lenses have a certain character. I believe my Nikon AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 D has a sharp and contrasty, agressive character. The Jupiter-8 on the Zorki-4 has a gritty, charcoal-like character. By the way, this assigning of characters is mostly a personal thing, and has to do with other things, like developer and darkroom conditions. However, to me, the Heliar has a sharp, brilliant character. The images are of normal contrast. When underexposed however, the image becomes slightly gritty and shady. The brilliance is still visible, but in a 'dull' kind of way... But this probably has more to do with the Neopan 1600 film...All in all, the Heliar is extraordinary for its price. Take the distortion-free image, the relatively low vignetting, the neutral color balance, or the perfect brillance, courtesy of the aspherical elements, for example. Most of these design feats have been achieved through the symmetrical design.

A few final notes. How does the Heliar stand up to competition? I've had the new SLR Sigma 14mm f/2.8 USM H-EX II (or whatever) in my hands, and got a look for five minutes from a friendly shopkeeper. What struck me, was the reddish-teinted image, the large vignetting, and the queer sharpness. I wouldn't dare call it a bad performer, because I've never made a photograph with it and only got to view the image, at f/2.8, through the viewfinder of the Canon EOS 100, but I'd say that the Heliar could beat it.

In a photography forum on the Internet, I've read that the Heliar even outperforms such illustre lenses as the Nikon 15mm f/3.5, and the Carl Zeiss 15mm f/2.8. The Heliar has the advantage, because it doesn't have to (and isn't) built in a retrofocus style, as are the SLR lenses. The Heliar is a 'true' 15mm, the Nikon and the Zeiss are reversed superteles...

Click here for a comparison of the Contax Hologon and the Heliar

Another question: how useful is a 15mm lens? Before I got the camera, the widest thing I'd ever looked through was the 17mm Tokina AT-X lens. I got a peek once for five minutes by a befriended shopkeeper. I was amazed by the depth-of-field and the vastness of the world I saw through the viewfinder. I thought that that would almost certainly be too wide for me.

While I was working behind my desk, making the money to buy my Bessa from, I often would make a sketch of the workspace, "as seen through a lens with 110° view". I was amazed. Wow, I could get that fan on and then still see out of the window! I was in serious doubt if a 15mm had any practical use whatsoever...

On my old Spotmatic-F I have a 135mm tele lens. Looking through that combination gives me the feeling of looking through a supertele. Everything looks so closeby, and the lens combination is cumbersome and sensitive to vibration. I think I'm a big shot with such a tele. But since a year or three, I have a Sigma 70–300mm telezoom for my Nikon F50. Looking through that thing at 300mm is like looking through a 24mm. I don't get the impression that I'm looking through a large tele, it all comes quite naturally. And when I pass 135mm when zooming, it almost looks like a tiny, useless tele lens. The Sigma handles better and just gives me the impression I'm handling a much shorter focal. It are those things that make the difference.

That's how things go with a 15mm. Sure it's a large focal when you see the image in stamp-size through the small finder of a budget SLR. But the 15mm's viewfinder really makes the difference! That thing makes it look like a natural focal length. Because of the large image field, you get the idea that you're sucked into the image. The angle just looks graspable, and the 15mm loses much of its wideness.

If you want to get the idea of the 15mm's field of view, sit in front of your computer, about 40cm away from the screen (at normal distance). With a 15mm, you would get an image as high as two and a half screen heights (don't count in the monitor frame, just the glass). It's impressive. But really, looking through the viewfinder, that large field of view seems natural, and even an eye-opener compared to the restricted 35mm or even 24mm lenses. A 50mm looks like a tele!

But is a 15mm useful for everyday life? Well, it depends. It's not useful as a standard lens. It's not useful for portraiture. But it certainly is for architecture, and landscape, and large things in general, like a stadium or an ice rink. But despite the viewfinder, it still is an extreme focal. One of the things to look out for, is that using it doesn't become a trick to use the 15mm, like with fish-eyes. Take great care not to lower yourself to the level of cheap photographic clichés... A 15mm has certain use, like for masses, stadiums, architecture. But perhaps it's too wide. Things more than three meters away are small and are reduced to background. Houses seem small, people in the edge of the frame get severely stretched, and subjects must always be closeby. It has a lot of disadvantages, and a lot of restrictions. I feel fine using it, but I also feel somewhat restricted, and I find myself reverting to old clichés, like the massively stretched hand, or the perspective deformation in buildings you get if you tip the camera. It's not an easy lens and it sure isn't an universal lens. It's truely specialist equipment, and should be applied with caution and knowledge.

Finally I would like to mention that there's a new Bessa underway: the Voigtländer Bessa-R. That R apparently stands for Rangefinder. The camera is said to be released somewhere in 2000, but its lenses are already available. Already, right now, you can buy the Ultron 35mm f/1.7, th Nokton 50mm f/1.5, and the Color-Skopar 75mm f/2.4. See Stephen Gandy's Bessa R page.

To get more information, inside information even, about the Bessa-L, navigate to Stephen Gandy's well-informed Bessa-L Page.

Specifications

Camera:Bessa-L
Manufacturer:Cosina; Japan (camera: "Made in Japan – Voigtländer Germany")
Produced:1999 – present
Type:35mm camera with focal plane shutter and TTL metering system
Film format:35mm film; 24×36mm
Lens mount:L-mount
Shutter:Vertically moving metal focal plane shutter; 1s – 1/2000s; B
Self-timer:Mechanical self-timer with 10 sec operating time
Metering system:Center-weighted average metering; activated by pressing button
Exposure coupling range:EV4 – EV19 (ISO 100; f/4 @ 1s – f/16 @ 1/2000s)
Flash terminal:X synchro contact. Synchronized at 1/125s or lower speed
Film advance:By single lever action with 135° throw and 30° stand-off
Film rewind:By film rewind button and film rewind crank
Frame counter:Additive type with autoreset by opening the back cover
Film speed range:ISO 25 – ISO 1600 by 1/3 steps
Power source:Two 1.5V alkaline batteries (LR44) or silver batteries (SR44)
Dimensions (w×h×d):135.5×78.5×33.5 mm
Weight:320g
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