The Voigtlander VSL 1 is a camera with an interesting and somewhat complicated history. It was originally launched in 1971 as Zeiss Ikon SL706, the last camera of that famous company before its demise just a year later. Zeiss Ikon assets were sold to various buyers, among them Rollei which acquired the SL706 design and the rights to another famed German name – Voigtlander.
Rollei continued the camera’s production after giving it a new name even though it already had an SLR of their own design (the Rolleiflex SL35) with a different lens mount (Rollei bayonet, also known as QBM) than the M42 used in SL706. After a few years the two lines effectively merged – the VSL 1 was given a Rollei bayonet mount and the company’s following SLRs were a development of its design instead of the SL35. Because of that, two versions of the Voigtlander VSL 1 exist – distinguished by an additional TM (Thread Mount) or BM (Bayonet Mount) designation. Mine is a TM one, but they’re mostly the same camera and most of what I’m writing should apply to both versions.
A short bit about the specs
Thew Voigtlander VSL 1 is a pretty standard camera for its time – a manual, mechanical SLR with shutter speeds up to 1/1000s, a M42 lens mount, and simple TTL light meter. As is pretty typical for the tail-end of M42 era, it’s capable of open aperture metering but only with dedicated lenses. I guess the most non-standard feature to mention would be an additional small light meter indicator on the top plate although personally I can’t recall ever actually using it. Speaking of the light meter, even if you find one that’s working it was designed for the 1.35v mercury battery so in modern day some workaround is required. There really isn’t much more to write about when it comes to specs so let’s move on to…
A longer bit about what it’s like in use
The first thing you notice about the Voigtlander VSL 1 is how heavy it is. But it’s more than just weight – it feels a bit like a solid chunk of metal. Everything is well put together and the mirror / shutter work is decently refined and smooth. Some cost cutting is evident in a few places and you can see plastic bits here and there but it’s still carrying over some of that legendary quality from times before. The general feel is quite reassuring and in a way fits what I expected from such a mix of this prestigious pedigree and signs of German camera industry falling on harder times.
The Voigtlander VSL 1 ergonomics can be annoying at first – not bad, but flawed a bit. It’s that frustrating “just a small change would make it so much better” kind of feeling. It goes right to the basic aspect of holding the camera. It’s a pretty subjective thing of course, but I just can’t ever get comfortable with it. There’s just nothing for the fingers to find purchase on and getting a solid grip on it is a challenge. As you try to change the shutter speed, another minor frustrating bit surfaces. The shutter speed dial is extending past the camera body just a bit, pretty much inviting you to turn it with one finger without taking an eye off the viewfinder. However, it requires just a bit too much force to do so and the dial itself is made out of thin and soft plastic so forcing it doesn’t seem like the best idea. I just always fear that it’ll break or bend and in the end grab it on both sides to turn, which isn’t the most efficient way to operate. But the worst part is the film advance lever. Not only is it short and stubby, but also has an extremely long throw and doesn’t spring back without completing the full advance so you can’t use multiple strokes. At least it’s pretty smooth (although not very light) but overall it’s just not nice.
But enough complaining, let’s make a positive note for a change and talk about the Voigtlander VSL 1 viewfinder. It’s very bright and clear as well as rich with focusing aides with its mix of diagonal split-screen and traditional microprism. With all that, focusing is extremely easy and fast even in tricky situations – along with the build quality this is probably where the camera shines the most. It’s simply a joy to focus with the VSL 1 and it quickly makes you forget about previously mentioned shortcomings. The light meter indicator is of a standard needle type. I’ve noticed it can be a bit sluggish when reacting to changes in lighting compared to other cameras with similar light meters, but ultimately it does its job. The only other thing to see in the viewfinder is an optical window through which you can see your set aperture. It’s always nice to have of course, but the actual numbers can be hard to see clearly even using lenses specifically made for this camera.
A short bit about the lens
Speaking of lenses, I guess I should mention the one my Voigtlander VSL 1 came with especially since all the pictures you see here were taken with it – the standard Voigtlander Color-Ultron 50mm f/1.8. I’m no expert when it comes to discussing lens quality in detail so I’ll keep this short and basic but even with my uneducated eye I was rather impressed with the results. Sharp even wide open and I’d say they have a relatively modern feel to them. Still very pleasant though, none of that “too clinical” kind of thing. The lens is quite good shooting into the sun, too – that striking purple-red coating does its job very well, you have to really push it to the limit to get any bad flaring. When shot wide open at the right angle into the sun it produces a very characteristic “ring of fire” kind of flare – it’s not an effect you’d want to use at all times but sometimes it can be used to make something interesting. The bokeh is mostly fine but not spectacular and it does have a weak point, somewhere in the middle of the out of focus range, where it gets a bit too “busy” and not that pleasant.
A short summary
I didn’t fully appreciate the Voigtlander VSL 1 at first, even if it felt really solid the initial awkwardness frustrated me a bit too much. But after some getting used to, as I was holding onto that confidence inspiring metal body, it became very easy to get drawn into its brilliant viewfinder and just keep shooting away. Ultimately that’s what matters – the strengths make for a really good shooting experience and make the minor flaws all but disappear.