Equipment: Voigtlander Bessa 1 (1950s)

Here’s my latest camera acquisition, a Voigtlander Bessa 1. Variants of the Bessa name have been reused over the decades and there was also a 1930s model with the same name; this version was manufactured between the late 1940s and the late 1950s. There’s even a modern Voigtlander Bessa III being made new, though that has the smaller negative size of 6*7 cm.

This Bessa exposes 120 format film into images which are 6cm * 9cm – the same height * width ratio as 35mm, but with more than 6 times the negative area. Alternatively, my camera came with a mask which allows 6*4.5 negatives to be used – though this decision has to be applied to the whole roll.

The rather small viewfinder can be adjusted to give the correct frame for either film size, and also has options for distant views or close-ups (well, down to 1m, not very close) and applies parallax adjustment – thus four settings in all.

The lens is a Vaskar 105mm, with apertures from f4.5 to f22, and shutter speeds from 1s to 1/250s, plus B. This was the cheapest of three lens options available at the time.  When used with 6*9 images, the focal length is similar to a 50mm “standard” lens on a 35mm camera; when the 6*4.5 mask is fitted then the effective angle of view is more like a short portrait lens.

The shutter speeds down to 1-25s seem OK, whilst those from 1-10s to 1s are way off the mark, running much too slow. “B” works OK but the shutter release demands a fair bit of pressure and the cable release doesn’t seem to be able to provide enough “oomph” to fire the shutter and therefore make practical use of the “B” setting. So, when I use the camera I’ll probably be sticking to 1-25s and faster.

When folded, the camera is remarkably compact considering the size of the negative it can deliver.

A 6cm * 9cm negative has about 6.25 times the area of a 35mm negative, therefore requiring much less magnification of the negative for any given image size, whether printed or viewed on screen. Below I have shown the Bessa alongside a 35mm SLR, namely a Canon FTb. The Bessa looks about 25% bigger than the Canon all round – it’s hard to believe a camera this size gives such a big negative. I haven’t weighed the two cameras but the Bessa definitely feels significantly lighter than the Canon.

Purists may point out  that a 35mm SLR has other advantages to counteract the smaller negative size – for example interchangeable lenses. A fairer size comparison might be between the Bessa and, say, an Olmpus XA. Fair enough, but I didn’t think to do that when taking the pictures.

So how does the camera fare at actually taking pictures ? For the first test I took a trip to North Shields fish quay and loaded Kodak TMax 100 mono film. Here are the results:

The film was developed in Rodinal diluted 1+25 for 6 minutes. On first scanning, the images were a little flat and needed added contrast in Lightroom. I chose to add some toning using Lightroom presets to fit in with a “vintage” mood. The flatness could be a feature of the lens, but then again a different film / developer combo, or different lighting on another day would produce a different “look”.

I paid about £60 including delivery for the camera, from an online dealer (not an auction site). It’s in good cosmetic condition and even considering the problems with the slower shutter speeds I think that’s a reasonable purchase price. After I’ve tried a couple more films I’ll think about whether to get the shutter serviced.

The Voigtlander Bessa 1 is definitely a welcome addition to my small collection.

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17 comments

  1. Especially like the second Nth Shields Quay shot of the “Diamond”. Hopefully repeatable? Nice shot quite apart from the lens/post effects.

  2. Just to qualify; i also particularly like foreground to background effect, very tasty. Very nice atmos/lens-settings/emulsion-process, and some good post work adds up to an evocative mood image.

  3. Eric, it’s scale focus, so there’s a bit of guesswork, which results in some failures. However I have a clip-on Watameter rangefinder which I intend to use next time with the camera

  4. Nice pics and good classic compositions. Yes, I find that many of my classic cameras from the 1950s and before lack a bit of contrast, and frequently need printing on grade 3 paper (and sometimes even higher). Must just be a feature of older glass, especially if it’s uncoated.

  5. Nice short review Kevin, would you recommend this camera been thinking of getting one for a while now, I shoot with a Agfa Isolette l, now and then, I shoot mainly digital but there’s something about an old folder that I like shooting with.

    Brilliant site by the way

    Cheers Mick

    • Thanks for your comments, Mick, it is always good to get some feedback. With regards to recommending a particular model of folding camera, I think that the age of most of these cameras means that the differences between models are less important than the condition of each particular camera. Folding cameras that are 50-60 years old do run a risk of problems such as holes in bellows, misaligned lenses, shutter speeds being inaccurate, etc. If you want a folder that’s going to be as reliable as possible, it would be safest, but much more expensive, to buy one that has been refurbished and recently serviced – otherwise enjoy what you have if it works OK and don’t worry too much about the model.

  6. Thanks Kevin, you could be right and I do think the Bessa is one of the more reliable models to go for, I have seen a few on ebay which look pretty good, my Agfa isn’t to bad a few holes in the bellows which I taped up and I get pretty good results from it.I will give it some thought over Xmas, and talking of which all the best and if your at Winlaton on the 19th Jan I will see you there as we are given an lecture there.

    Cheers Mick

  7. I have a Bessa 1 in pristine condition, exactly like the one shown, same lens. It was my first camera acquired late 50’s but haven’t used it for at least 40 years, lacking darkroom facilities. Learned a lot with it re exposure, depth of field, etc. The pics above are truly awesome along with the write-up.

  8. hi I to have a bessa 1 I bought it from a charty shop for 10 pounds with the 6.45 mask have used both with slide film and great pictures would recommend buying one.

  9. Does anyone have a picture of the mask,can it be fabricated? I have the camera and no mask so would like to try a bit of DIY if possible.

    • Hello from Canada, I have the exact same Bessa 1 as shown. The mask is a tricky part to fabricate DIY. The bent down lip at each end snaps under a step in the large film window in the camera and a small hole keeps it in the proper location as well as right side up. It’s also reversible but must be put in right side up.
      Planting a picture here didn’t work. If you can pick up my e-mail address entered below my reply I can send you a picture of the mask.

  10. The flatness might be a symptom of a tiny light leak in the bellows, or just a fact of the early/less effective lens coatings; a shade might help there.

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