Voigtlander Bessa II

Ivor Matanle recalls what was arguably the best coupled-rangetinder rollfilm camera of the 1950s

VOIGTLANDER was one of the great German optical and photographic manufacturers of both the 19th and the 20th centuries, and was actually founded in Vienna, Austria, in 1756, moving to Braunschweig (Brunswick) in Germany in 1862. By the time the Bessa II appeared in 1950, the company was almost 200 years old. It was the oldest photographic manufacturer in the world, and one of the best.

The Bessa II was an 8-on-120 6x9cm (or 16-on-l 20 6×4.5cm) folding camera with an accurate coincident-image coupled rangefinder within the satin-chrome top-plate housing, operated by turning the left-hand knob on the top of the camera. Turning the knob operated the optical assembly in the rangefinder, as well as causing the lens and shutter assembly at the front of the camera to move in and out to achieve focus on the area of the subject selected by the photographer with the rangefinder. As with most other quality folding cameras of the time, several different lens and shutter combinations were available over the next few years.

The early Bessa II cameras made during 1950 and early 1951 had one circular (rangefinder) and one rectangular (viewfinder) eyepiece and no accessory shoe. From mid-1951, both eyepieces were rectangular, and from about 1953 the cameras had an accessory shoe. Early cameras had flash-synchronised Compur Rapid shutters, while later examples, probably from 1951, had Synchro Compur shutters.

Three Voigtlander lenses were offered: a four-element 105mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar; a five-element 105mm f/3.5 Color-Heliar; and a five-element 105mm f/4.5 Apo-Lanthar. Relatively few examples of the Apo-Lanthar were sold, with the result that this version is now the rarest and most expensive (but see the warning in Watch out for).

The image quality obtainable from a Bessa II with the Color-Heliar lens was and is truly outstanding, provided that, 60УЧ years on, the camera has been 4 chocked by an expert for correct collimation and centring, and that the camera’s erection mechanism locks the lens parallel with the film plane The performance of a Bessa II with Color-Skopar lens is not far behind that of the Color-Heliar. Whatever the lens, it is a remarkably fine folding, medium-format camera.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

The story of Voigtlander folding rollfilm cameras effectively began in 1925 with the ‘Rollfilm Camera’, not one, but a whole series of non-self-erecting folding cameras in several different formats, some marketed with trade names identifying the design of lens fitted, such as Petito for models with Voigtar lenses. The first of a long line of self-erecting 6x9cm Bessa non-rangefinder cameras appeared in 1929, and different Bessa models virtually every year had developed by 1937 into a dual-format 8-on-120 or 16-on-120 Bessa with a slip-in mask and a second red window for 6×4.5cm. The first Perkeo, a 16-on-127 camera that is now a much sought-after collectable, appeared in 1932, and the curious 6x9cm folding Prominent with split-image coupled rangefinder in 1933. The early 1930s also saw other ‘chain-gang’ models such, as the Inos and Inos II.

The all-black Rangefinder Bessa, forerunner of the Bessa II, appeared in 1936, with a split-image coupled rangefinder like that of the 1933 Prominent. The ‘Baby Bessas’, the Bessa 46 (16-on-120)and Bessa 66 (12-on-l 20), both became available in 1938. Most of these had hinged yellow filters attached to their lens and shutter housings. An innovative Bessa 466, with both 6x6cm and 6×4.5cm formats, but with the format changeable from the exterior while the camera was loaded, appeared briefly in 1940, but under 500 were made before Germany’s priorities switched to making war rather than cameras. The factory was bombed towards the end of the war, and considerable rebuilding was needed before camera production could start again in 1945 for the 1946 introduction of a version of the 1937 6x9cm Bessa with Prontor II shutter, and the 1947 launch of a post-war version of the Rangefinder Bessa, with a coated 105mm f/3.5 Heliar and a Compur Rapid shutter. Meanwhile, big things were happening behind the scenes at Voigtlander.

THE 1950S GENERATION

My article on the 35mm Vito cameras (AP 29 June) told the story of the company’s 35mm innovations during the 1950s. The innovations for the rollfilm user were just as significant. As well as the star of the range, the Bessa II, 1950 saw the launch of the most significant, and last, non-rangefinder Bessa, the Bessa I.

The Bessa I was clearly marked as such on the satin-chrome top-plate, and, like the Bessa II, had, when new, a removable mask that converted the camera to 6×4.5cm format. It had an important feature that, as far as I know, was unique among 6x9cm folding cameras — a parallax correction system within the viewfinder, controlled by a milled wheel protruding from the back of the top-plate to the right of the viewfinder eyepiece. This controlled sliding masks within the viewfinder, with settings viewed through an aperture in the top-plate for 6×9 format at infinity focus, 6×9 at 3ft/lm, 4×6 at infinity, or 4×6 at 3ft/lm. Parallax correction significantly increased the accuracy of the viewfinder.

The Bessa I was available in various configurations: two lenses — the four-element 105mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar or the three-element f/4.5 Vaskar; six shutters — the four-speed Pronto, the Prontor S;

1 -l/300sec — the Prontor SV, the Prontor SVS, the Compur Rapid and the Synchro Compur. Mine, illustrated here with a Vaskar-equipped Perkeo I and a pre-war Bessa 66, has a Vaskar and Pronto, the most basic version.

For enthusiasts preferring 12-on 120, Voigtlander also announced in 1950 the Perkeo I, at first sight an improved version of the pre-war Bessa 66 of 1938. However, the viewfinder of a post-war Perkeo is at the left-hand end of the top-plate, whereas that of the Bessa 66 is at the right-hand end, presumably because the shutter release of the Bessa 66 was operated with the photographer’s left hand, whereas the Perkeo I has a conventional right-hand shutter button.

The Perkeo I was always fitted with the three-element 80mm f/4.5 Vaskar lens, with a four-speed Pronto, an eight-speed Prontor S or an eight-speed Prontor SV shutter. At the same time as the Perkeo I, which relied upon traditional red-window loading and exposure spacing, Voigtlander launched the Perkeo II. Although similar in appearance, It was a more sophisticated design, with automatic exposure counting, double-exposure prevention and, from 1953, an accessory shoe. The Perkeo II was available with either the 80mm f/4.5 Vaskar, or with a four-element 80mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar, and, during Its production span, with a Compur Rapid shutter or a Prontor S or an SVS.

More advanced again was the Perkeo E of 1954, now very scarce. The Perkeo E added to the specification of the Perkeo II an uncoupled rangefinder and was available either with an 80mm f/4.5 Vaskar and four-speed Pronto shutter, or with an 80mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar and Prontor SVS.

LENS QUALITY

The two principal lens designs of the 1950s Voigtlander rollfilm cameras, the four-element Color-Skopar and (particularly) the three-element Vaskar, are greatly underrated. The Color-Skopar has frequently been dismissed as being ‘like a Tessar’, with an unqualified implication of inferiority to the Zeiss lens, and the Vaskar tends to dismissed as just a cheap three-element alternative. In fact, many tests at the time showed that Color-Skopars were distinctly superior to equivalent Tessars, and this is the experience of most older photographers who have used both.

My own experience of the Vaskar, particularly the 80mm f/4.5 version found in Perkeo cameras, is that it provides greater resolution and better contrast than the three-element Novar lenses fitted to Zeiss Ikon Nettar cameras, and I say this even though I have had excellent results from well set-up Nettars on transparency film. The crispness of negatives shot in bright daylight for my book Collecting and Using Classic Cameras in the 1980s with a Perkeo I is such that they could easily be passed off as Hasselblad shots.

ACCESSORIES

Voigtlander had an international reputation for fine-quality accessories. The extensive range available during the 1950s for the Bessa II and the other rollfilm cameras was fully up to the company’s standards. Filters and close-up lenses were marketed in transparent-top plastic keepers inside strong boxes. There were lens hoods for every lens in the range. Voigtlander also made its own shoe-mounting accessory rangefinders from about 1953, when most of its camera models began to be offered with accessory shoes.

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