The Voigtlander Bessa I is a folding 6×9 camera from the early 1950s. I’ve been sitting on the fence as whether or not to buy one of these classic folders for over a year. These cameras were made from the 1920s until the 1970s and working models are available for an even wider range of prices, from less than $100 to more than $10,000 for a Voigtlander Bessa II with the APO-Lanthar lens!. My mind was finally decided when I saw some large acrylic prints of very old black and white photos at a shop in Santa Fe over New Year’s. The images were absolutely gorgeous, possessing an incredible range of tones while at the same time exuding a vintage look born out of the lens characteristics and shallow depth of field. If I had the wall space and an extra $950 to spend, I would have bought one of these prints to bring home. I don’t know if these images were captured with a 6×9 folder or not (I suspect these were made with older large format view cameras) but a 6×9 is probably the closest I can get to whatever camera was used. Unfortunately there was no information on the prints identifying the photographers or dates of the photos. Whoever found them and decided to print them on acrylic is a genius.
For my folder, I had decided to look for one of the Zeiss Ikon Ikontas, specifically a post-war model with a coated lens but not the pricier and more modern Super Ikonta with a coupled rangefinder. I had also short-listed the Soviet Moskva-5 because I had seen several for sale out of Russia and Ukraine in pristine condition but decided against it after reading that the examples still in mint condition today probably left the factory with a significant defect so were never used by the original owners. I almost pulled the trigger on an Ikonta 523/2 from Ireland when I came across the Bessa available from a seller in Canada for only $80 Canadian (about $63 USD). From the photos, the camera appeared to be dirty but in good condition but there were no details in the description regarding the operability of the camera. But I had the impression that the seller had acquired this camera as part of an estate and was not familiar with old cameras so I decided to take a chance on it because of the price and the Bessa’s reputation for quality. A profitable gamble, it turns out.
This Bessa I features the lower-spec Vaskar 105mm f/4.5 lens with Prontor-S shutter. The lens does not have the cachet of the higher-end Color-Skopar lens but, all things considered, how much of a noticeable difference is there in 70 year old lenses? Similar to the Ikontas which are available with Novar or pricier Tessar lenses, the Bessas with the Skopar lens are quite a bit more expensive. For my purposes, I think I’ll be fine with the Vaskar.
After downloading the manual and scanning through it, and overcoming some difficulty with the film (FYI, Kodak TMax from 2017 does not include the correct frame markings for a Bessa 6×9, so I had to respool that roll in the dark then loaded up with Ilford Delta 400), I was ready to shoot. A single roll of 120 film can only accommodate 8 frames so it wasn’t too difficult to shoot the entire roll in the span of an hour. I needed the help of the manual to understand how to properly set the aperture and shutter speed but it’s really simple once you know what you’re doing. The real trick with this camera is focusing.
One of the main reasons that the Bessa I is available for so much cheaper than the Bessa II is that it lacks a coupled rangefinder for focusing. In fact, the camera offers no focus aids whatsoever aside from the distance marks on the lens. Focus can be set by either using zone focus with a smaller aperture to provide greater depth of field or by setting the focus based on distance. For the first shot, I simply guessed at the distance and over-estimated by quite a bit. I then decided to stop being lazy and grabbed a tape measure to use for all the subsequent shots on the roll. It turns out that the first shot was out of focus, even though I set the aperture to f/11, but the second shot was near perfect. The tape measure is a bit unwieldy for anything further than arm’s length from the camera, so a cheap laser rangefinder will probably be useful. I metered the scene using a light meter app on my phone and set the exposure for the box speed of the film (ISO 400). I used a shutter release cable and counted off 2 seconds manually.
I was absolutely thrilled with this photo when the inverted image came up in Negative Lab Pro. I think the lens has a beautiful rendering that is exactly what I was hoping for with a classic 6×9 folder. The image is sharp but has a dimension to it that I just do not see in my 35mm or digital photos. The next two images are 100% crops of this photo showing the detail and dimensionality along with the subtle grain of Delta 400 in medium format.
Since the camera had just arrived and I had no real idea of how well it was functioning, I not only wanted to try the lens at various apertures but also try out a range of shutter speeds. For the next photo the aperture was set wide open at f/4.5 and the shutter was set to 1/5 second. The photo was underexposed. There is a half-stop less light based on the difference in exposure settings but it appears to be more than a half-stop underexposed. I’m not sure if this is a shutter problem or if I manually held the shutter open for more than 2 seconds for the first image. The photo is also a lot softer. The titles on the books are still legible and clear when zoomed in, so I think this may just be the characteristic of this lens when wide open. I’ll have to experiment some more with the next roll.
Now halfway through the roll, I decided to take one more shot inside the house then move outside. To keep a record of the exposure settings, I used the Film Shots app by Oleksii Novikov. The app can track multiple rolls of film at a time and also captures GPS and even photos of the scene and also includes a companion Lightroom plugin that writes the information to the EXIF image data for the digitized images. This was my first experience with this app and it is absolutely fantastic!
The photo of the chair highlights one of the main limitations of this camera-the viewfinder. I would have preferred to have the entire chair in the frame but the front leg was too close to the edge. The viewfinder image is OK for making sure the lens is pointed in the right general direction but is not good enough to exactly just where the edge of the frame will be.
I did not get any images at f/22 but I really like the results for all of these images over the range from f/5.6 to f/11. Wide open at f/4.5 may be asking too much of this lens but I think it might make some really nice portraits at f/5.6 with some very careful focusing.
My camera scanning setup for medium format uses a 6×6 negative carrier. For 6×9, I simply captured two images of each negative and combined them using Lightroom’s Panorama Photo Merge tool. Although the digital image is a 2:3 aspect rectangle with a square 6×6 negative in the center, Lightroom ignores the blank part of the frame and even the frame of the negative carrier when merging the images. The image below shows the merged pano image with some of the image border included. When cropped to the image area, the resulting digitized images are roughly 24 megapixels using a 24-megapixel Sony a6500. Although the camera is a 6×9, the images are actually a bit taller/wider with an aspect ratio of about 1.6 rather than 1.5.
The Voigtlander Bessa I is a fantastic folding camera. The build quality is evident in the way that this 70+ year old camera still functions.