The Voigtlander Bessa L is a camera I’ve owned twice. I’ve bought it twice thinking it’d be perfect for a type of shooting I thought I might give a go. Unfortunately, on both occasions after buying it I’ve remembered that I never shoot nor have any real intention of shooting in the way it as a camera best prescribes. In short, both purchases were basically bad decisions.
But just because it’s clearly not the right camera for me, doesn’t mean its not right for someone else. And since I’ve owned two of them now, and had both of them for a while, I thought I’d write a bit about what I think this camera is suited for.
Unusually for me and because of the above, this post is not really a review, at least not by my usual standards. For a start, it’s not 5000 words like most of my reviews seem to end up being these days. But additionally to this, it doesn’t contain any photos I’ve taken with the camera – mainly because I’ve not taken any…! That said, it is a post written from the perspective of someone who feels like they completely understand the camera and its particular purposes – not to mention the fact that despite not using it, I find it quite an interesting bit of kit. So why am I writing this post now? Well, mainly because I’ve decided it is about time I got over the idea that I might eventually use it, and that I should get the thing sold to someone who will. I want to sell it soon whilst I’m in the frame of mind to have a clear out, but before I do, since I feel like I know the camera so well, I feel like I at least owe it the decency of chucking a few words together about it.
The Voigtlander Bessa L
For the uninitiated, the Voigtlander bessa L is a manual only, through-the-lens metered, Leica thread mount camera. It was in fact Cosina Voigtlander’s first LTM camera and was designed to be used with a series of ultra wide angle lenses Voigtlander had on the market contemporary to the cameras release.
The Bessa L is a very basic design that feels perhaps a little cheap in its construction, certainly compared to the later R2a, R3a, etc. That said, whilst cheap feeling, it doesn’t necessarily feel poorly constructed. Low cost but functional is probably the best description. With this low cost feel also comes one big advantage, it’s a very light weight camera. I think it is the lightest weight Leica mount camera I’ve held in fact.
Possibly the most obvious feature lacking from the Bessa L is a viewfinder. Since the camera was primarily designed to work with wider angle lenses – lenses that came with their own accessory viewfinders – a built in finder isn’t required. Compared to the later Bessa rangefinders this makes the camera feel quite small… That is at least until you put one of Voigtlander’s big viewfinders in the top of it.
The light meter
What is included in the design is a light meter. The meter takes its reading by means of reflection off the cameras grey coloured vertical plane metal shutter blades.
With the meter being positioned at the top of the inside of the camera, the meter effectively takes a reading that is weighted centre/bottom of the frame. For snapping this is pretty handy since largely speaking it will take less of a brighter sky into consideration and meter more from the ground. There is a diagram of the metering pattern on cameraquest that illustrates this quite nicely.
What’s most interesting about the meter is not just its inclusion in the design, but more its method of readout. Since there is no viewfinder to display a reading within, the reading is displayed on the top back corner edge of the camera. What this allows is the ability to take a reading with the camera away from the eye, as well as allowing you to see the readout in your periphery vision without moving the camera that far away from your eye. In short, the position of the meter is apparently very well thought out.
The readout is also very logical to read, it works in the same way as Voigtlander VC meters do with three LEDs. Left for under exposure, centre for correct, and right for over exposure. Centre and left or right will light up together when near correct exposure is found.
There really is very little else to say about the Bessa L. It has a hinged film door with a little window to see the film contained within – a novelty if your a Leica shooter. Shutter speeds also go up to 1/2000 – another novelty if you’re a Leica shooter. It also has a neat little shutter lock on the shutter cock lever that prevents you accidentally taking photos. But that really is pretty much is your money.
Wide angle photography
The Voigtlander Bessa L is, as mentioned, a wide angle camera. I’ve read of some people using with a 50mm, one report in fact from a guy who shot with a 50mm and no viewfinder, surprisingly effectively. But really, there is no escaping the concept, it’s designed for taking wide angle photos. Combined with Voigtlander’s early thread mount wides, it makes for a very small, very light wide angle camera that is very capable of taking exceptional photos. I could imagine this camera in the hands of a hiker or rambler who wants something light weight to carry on long walks where every extra gram is a consideration. I’m not entirely sure how it would hold up in bad weather mind. Beyond this though, there is one type of photography where I think this cameras really shines…
Street/candid wide angle photography – the thing I don’t use it for.
As mentioned a the beginning of the post, I bought this camera thinking it would be perfect for a type of photography I might give a go. I was wrong about me giving it a go, but I’m pretty certain I was right about what it would be perfect for.
I am not a street photographer. Not now, and short of a drastic change in my geographical location, my lifestyle and my general outlook on life, I’m not likely to become one any time soon either. Despite this, both times I have bought this camera, candid photography is what I’ve bought it for. To be fair to me, I’d never envisaged me walking down Worcester high street shoving this camera in people’s faces getting Bruce Gilden style pissed off looking street candids. What I thought I might use it for was the equivalent sort of thing of people I know. Friends, family, maybe at parties, weddings that sort of thing. Of course in reality I don’t go to enough parties or weddings, and even when I do, it’s not really the sort of photo I like to take. Hence it not being used. But, if you’re into a that sort of photography, either on the streets or just surrounded by people you know, there are good reasons why this camera seems such an obvious choice.
Fit for purpose
The combination of manual only shutter speed and aperture, the top mounted light meter and the comfortable match with wide angle lenses makes a camera that in the right hands should make a very quick to use tool. Not only is it quick through the complete lack of shutter lag, but the position of the light meter also helps a great deal in being prepared for each shot. With the meter being on the top of the camera, without having to put it to the eye like you might with a metered Leica – the M6 for example – a reading can be very easily taken and camera setting adjusted to match at waist level. Since the meter takes a reading that is largely from the ground, it can also be trusted to expose well, or worst case, over expose, which isn’t really a problem with film anyway.
This all means that when the precise moment to take the photo comes, it can be raised to the eye and be ready to shoot. When combined with one of Voigtlander’s wide angle lenses – like the 25mm snapshot skopar in the pictures – and one of their large bright viewfinders, very quick snapshots can be taken with ease.
Of course you might argue that all this can be done with any camera and an external or shoe mounted meter, and you’d be right. But there is an elegant simplicity in the way the Voigtlander Bessa L is set up. Simplicity in design and function is a big draw to a camera for me. I love the idea of a camera that is designed for a specific job. It’s just a shame that in the case of the Voigtlander Bessa L the job it’s designed for is just something that I’m not that interested in.
In some ways I wish I was interested in wide angle candid photography, I’d love to use this camera and get an even better feel for it. As it stands though, there is just no draw to use it for me. If I want to use a small thread mount Leica, I have my Leica iiia and if I want to use something with a meter, I get much more out of my Leica M7 – both cameras I find more versatile with a wider range of focal lengths that I actually shoot with.
But as I said at the beginning of the post, just because the Voigtlander Bessa L isn’t for me, doesn’t mean it’s not perfect for someone who does shoot in the ways I’ve described. And considering it can quite often be bought for £50, and sometimes less than £250 with one of Voigtlander’s early ultra wides, it might be especially perfect for someone wishing to shoot that way on a tighter budget!
Thanks for reading
Some useful links
A flickr group full of photos
Alfred Klomp review
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14 thoughts on “Voigtlander Bessa L – (not really a) review”
I own an L and spent most of the summer shooting one exclusively, with a 50mm! The hit rate of sharp, well composed shots was as high as any camera I’ve owned, even though the viewfinder was a Voigtlander Kontur and not designed for this camera. To compound my sins, many of the shots were wide open at f2.8 or f4.
Zone focus, aka distance or “guess focus” is no big deal once you get the hang of it and is familiar to owners of older generation cameras, especially folders. I’m not sure why people become alarmed at the idea of feet and metres but warm to scale focus icons (heads, hills, etc), but the principle is exactly the same, find a hyperfocal sweet spot that covers most of the action. I wouldn’t recommend a Bessa L with a Noctilux, but a 2.8 or 3.5 max aperture 35mm or 50mm is easy peasy, and a superwide easier still.
Once you become confident, zone focus (no focus) with a simple finder is the fastest camera set up there is, alongside fixed aperture point and shoots and state of the art DSLRs. The L is no Leica, but doesn’t carry a Leica price tag these days, not even a beat up, lens-less Barnack with a lace curtain shutter sells for less than a Bessa L. The only known vice is a shutter than can seize if the film advance lever isn’t fully wound on, and I don’t believe that is common. There are times when nailing focus to a centimetre is the point (portraits for example), but for street photography the Bessa L is an overlooked gem.
I do like a Kontur! I have a Vitessa on my review list…
Anyway, I agree about zone focusing. I suppose my point is more just about how/what the Bessa L feels like it should be used.
Have you read my Rollei 35 review?
Yes, I read your Rollei review and I agree with it. The Bessa L is a very useful camera, but it didn’t turn out to be the camera Voigtlander intended. It was conceived as a platform for a concept, ultra-wide high quality lenses that don’t require focusing combined with dedicated finders. That is a very targeted constituency and it emerged just as digital photography was catching everyone’s attention. IMO either the camera needed to compete upmarket, or the lenses needed to come down. In 2015 the L needs “re-imagining” as marketeers like to say.
My comments weren’t directed at you, Hamish, as I’m sure you know, they were a general observation about reliance on focusing aids even when those aids aren’t necessary for the type of photography the camera succeeds at.
You’re right about it not matching market position of the lenses. It definitely feels more “budget” than they do.
So when you say reimagining, is what you previously suggested what you mean? Stick a ltm 50 on it, possibly even something like a Jupiter-8 and you have yourself a very inexpensive perfectly capable metered zone focus camera…?
(And yeah, I didn’t think they were, just thought you might find the 35se review of interest)
Absolutely. At a pinch you can use one of those old hotshoe rangefinders as a viewfinder, or a sportsfinder or a Kontur. It’s a freewheeling kind of approach, Lomography with class. What did Cartier-Bresson say about sharpness being a bourgeois concept?
Well you know where I stand on sharpness I’m sure…?
I suppose there are just cameras I’d use before the Bessa L. Or indeed did use before the L. Though I get where your coming from 100%
Did your new camera turn up by the way?
Just another idea: If you find a “pinhole” with LTM mount you could use the Bessa L for Pinhole Photography (dunno if you’re into it though)
Not my bag really, but a fair suggestion!
Interesting discussion. Leaves me wondering where all this leaves the T?
I own one of these a Bessa L, but i think my lens for it is better, a 15mm Voigtlander lens with viewfinder.
I happened upon the lens, already had the camera and at once was remided of a special, very expensive and hence nearly unsold camera from Zeiss Ikon, with a 15mm Hologon lens.
The fine thing is that it is not a fisheye, like my M42 16mm russian lens, it is a wideangle, and it gives exiting pictures.
I personally think you should try that lens, the 25mm lens you’re currently using makes less of a fifference from a SLR with a 28mm “standard” lens.
This 15mm? It is a great lens!
I bought a 25mm f4 Snapshot Skopar some years ago to use on a Leica
MD-2 black body. It came with the finder. Later I acquired a 21mm F3.4 Super Angulon by Schneider and a Leitz 21mm finder so the 25 was passed to one of my M4-P bodies. I’ve discovered that the complete viewfinder on the M4-P is very close to the field of view of the 25mm lens. With this setup, I don’t bother with the external viewfinder. This, together with the small lens makes the outfit quite pocketable and ideal for street photography. With this equipment I can keep the camera in my pocket, bring it out for a shot and back in the pocket in one simple, fluid movement. No problems with police, security or ‘concerned members of the public ‘.
Years ago I acquired a 21mm lens for use with my Leica M2. Of course I then had to get a 21mm binder to use it effectively. The lens had an LTM mount so I also got hold of a cheap chinese m adapter. Small problem: the adapter had a habit of jamming in the M2! So I considered buy-ing a proper Leitz screw to M adapter. It turned out that a Bessa L body could be purchased for less than the adapter! Bought the Bessa body mounted the 21mm lens and finder on it the whole thing found a space inside my bag alongside the M2 with its 50mm lens. I am a very happy bunny! I no longer have to swap lens add viewfinder or risk jammed adapter: both cameras all`ys ready to shoot. Sometimes things work out perfectly!
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