5 frames in London’s Docklands with a Voigtlander Bessa 1 – By Michael Scott

Having used a couple of 1950s 6×6 folders (see my earlier posts) and been impressed with the results, I thought I would give a 6×9 folder a try. A bit of research on eBay landed me a Voigtlander Bessa 1 from around 1957. The camera came from a dealer, cost me £60, and is in good cosmetic shape.

The lens is the Vaskar 105mm f4.5 and was the Bessa 1’s budget option. User reports on the internet suggested it would not be a great performer. It looked clean and cleaning scratch free, but, as to be expected, there is light haze in the lens. No fungus though.

The shutter is a Prontor S with speeds from 1 sec to 1/250th and uses the old fashioned increments (i.e. 1/25, 1/50 etc). To my surprise, all the shutter speeds worked, as did the self-timer. But that said, they did appear to be a bit on the slow side.

Loading the film revealed the first issue – the spool mechanism which holds the unexposed film is damaged. I am not sure what is exactly wrong but it turns very stiffly. However, it is manageable.

My first exposed film revealed the second and far more significant issue. The results were frankly poor, apparently out of focus and unsharp. I had used my Watameter rangefinder so I searched for an explanation other than focusing error. Researching the web, led me to conclude that the issue was film flatness. Basically, so much film is exposed that it becomes hard to keep the film flat, especially when opening the bellows sucks air through the camera body. The trick it seems is always to wind the film on immediately before taking the shot. So, the process is this: open the camera, set focus, aperture and speed, cock the shutter and then wind the film into place. Double exposure is not possible thanks to a locking mechanism.

The results are not too bad. Reasonable sharpness in the centre with quite significant fall off at the edges. The frames are a little over-exposed which suggests to me the shutter speeds are indeed running slow. I think a monopod would help to stabilise the camera which feels overbalanced in use.

I took the Bessa to West India Docks, London in search of evidence of the docks’ pernicious slave trading history. Opened in 1802, which was I understand towards the end of London’s involvement in slave shipping, it was sugar, produced by slaves in the West Indies, that was mainly brought into the docks, though little recognition of the docks’ slave labour connection is in plain sight. Instead, I found a statute of Robert Milligan, slave owner and co-promoter of the docks’ construction which I decided not to photograph.

The film is FP4 Plus developed in Kodak HC-110.

The Bessa 1 may be a classic but the results are not quite there for serious documentary work.

Thanks for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed this please head over to my website www.michaelscottfoto.com

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16 thoughts on “5 frames in London’s Docklands with a Voigtlander Bessa 1 – By Michael Scott”

  1. There’s another good reason to favour the open-advance-shoot sequence over open-shoot-advance, that hold for all folders. Opening the bellows can dislodge crud that falls on the film, if it falls on exposed film it will wash off in the processing and not have any bad effects. If however it is on unexposed film it will create a shadow which is much more of a problem.

  2. Michael. These images are pretty good for a period 3-element lens designed to cover 6×9. There is a remarkable lack of vignetting and central sharpness is very good as evidenced by the text in the plaque.

    With such a large negative a little extra care should be given when opening the bellows as if done too quickly it can produce a little suction that may just be enough to pull the film out from is plane and which can give rise to focusing errors. This may explain the advice to only wind on when you’re ready to take a photo.
    Another focusing problem that I’ve come across in cameras with front cell focusing is that they may have been “messed” with by previous owners and who have then not been particularly careful in ensuring that the lens is focusing accurately when re-attaching the focusing scale ring. You will need a piece of ground glass, and some patience, to check this at the film plane.

    1. Thanks Terry – I agree that it’s a decent performance for a simple lens that was really intended for contact sheet size prints most likely. I guess I may just have expected a bit more, that’s all.

  3. Film flatness can be an issue with these larger folders. Zeiss Ikon 6×9 cameras have particularly well designed film transport mechanisms and do a great job. You may want to try stopping well down too; this lens is likely at its best at f/16. The front element focusing may be out of adjustment too; these lenses can usually be calibrated by means of tiny set screws in the focusing ring. Folders are prone to losing some degree of structural perfection over time, which can easily throw off sharpness. You may need to try several 6×9 folders before you find a really good one. It is also possible to fix one that is sub par. Leaf shutters of that vintage often run at 1/2 speed.

    1. Thanks Nick, I’m not sure if I can adjust the lens but that said it did perform decently, though the fall off at the edges (chromatic aberration?) is the reason I feel this is not viable for serious project work.

    2. I have had this exact same problem with my Zeiss Ikon Ikonta 523/2. I have only shot a few rolls through it so far, but I’ve definitely had to try re-calibrating the focus using the set screws on the lens focusing ring. I have a separate Measure-rite rangefinder I bought as a companion to this camera. I haven’t been able to do a full focus calibration yet, but in my kitchen I placed focusing targets at 5 feet, 10 feet, and 20 feet to test with. I cut a length of parchment paper to size and rolled it up on a 120 film roll so I could load it in my Ikonta like film. I left the film back of the camera open, put the lens aperture wide-open, and held shutter open in Bulb mode with cable release. Using my 7x loupe, held to the back of the film plane, I adjusted focus on the targets based on the sharpness of the image projected onto the parchment paper (film). I focused at 20 feet, loosened the set screws around the lens focus ring, and adjusted the focus ring until the distance scale read 20 feet, and tightened the set screws. I checked also on the 10 foot and 5 foot targets. It was more or less accurate, but likely isn’t spot on.

  4. Ah, triplet folders, my current obsession! I will try your workflow, I have been getting a lot of dust and many photos have been out of focus with no real reason. It’s fun though and I’m aiming for a look rather than precision or sharpness.

  5. I had a similar issue with film flatness on my Zeiss Ikonta although only a 6×6. Someone suggested to open the bellows slowly instead of the usual somewhat rapid fashion. To my surprise the negatives came out sharper.

  6. I like your images. You may want to try a Zeiss Ikon Nettar. Cheap and I’ve been happy with the images I’ve made from it.

  7. I’ve serviced a few of these now, though the price of doing so would usually be more than the cost of the camera, unless you have a particularly desirable lens. The problem is invariably lubricants that have turned into glue, yours sounds as though it’s on the luckier side there. Some of them have been so bad you couldn’t even move internal parts and disassembly felt more like mining than delicate work.

    If you feel adventurous you could open it up, they’re not particularly complex mechanically and it’s not too hard of a fix.

  8. I have a Bessa 1 with the Color Skopar 105mm f3.5, a 4 element lens. All the images are very sharp out to the corners, shooting at f11 to 16. I am very pleased with it and prefer it to my Ensign Selfix 820.

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