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!
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