I love cameras, big and small. I build a bunch of pretty large ones at cameradactyl.com. But when I go out lugging a 4×5 or 8×10 I also like to take along a tiny camera in my bag. One of my favorites is the Balda Baldsssa 1b. I think it is one of the most underrated cameras ever. I bought it years ago as part of a lot, not knowing what it was, not really interested in it, I probably paid around $5 for it. It surprised me, and I love it, although it is not without its quirks.
Before I bought this camera I had never heard of Balda, or their cameras. The Baldessa 1b, I consider to be their best, although some might argue with me. It’s a pocket sized rangefinder (I put it in my jeans pocket with no case) with a 45mm 2.8. The lens is a little long for me – I prefer a 35mm, and a little dark compared to some of the classic fixed lens rangefinders of the 1970’s. Its controls and operation are strange, I think it was produced before everything became pretty standardized across camera makers, although I think that there are some Agfa cameras from the same era that operate pretty similarly.
The film wind is via a fold out key on the bottom left of the camera, the focusing is done with a wheel on the top right of the camera face, right next to the shutter button, which is clever, but far from the muscle memory I’ve built up with just about every other camera of this sort I’ve ever used.
The Balda Baldessa 1b has an uncoupled EV light meter on the top, where the wind and shutter would be on a ‘normal’ camera. The entire film back comes off to reload it, and it takes me about 5 minutes every time to get the last roll out and a new one in. Somehow the film chamber was designed with extremely little tolerance to wiggle a canister in or out.
The viewfinder is dead center in the camera, I miss it almost every time I raise the thing to my eye, and wind up looking at the back of the case, pulling it away from my face, checking where the hole actually is, and re-aligning.
OK, these things are strange, and make it not the fastest to shoot with, particularly if you have a collection of other cameras that all function in pretty much the same way – wind and shutter on top right, focus around the lens… But there is some charm to this thing. My light meter works. You set the aperture and shutter speeds around the lens barrel, and can rotate them together, much like the exposure system on a Hasselblad. It has a leaf shutter which is quiet and accurate. The viewfinder is just slightly dim, but nice and contrasty. It’s well made, all metal, very compact.
My favorite thing about the Balda Baldessa 1b is the lens. As I have said, I would prefer a slightly wider lens usually but I love how sharp it is. Now I’m not one for going on and on about how sharp my lens is or how many megapickles my camera has, I just try to take pictures of interesting things, but I really like how this lens renders things.
I generally shoot the Balda Baldessa 1b outdoors, around f8-16, and there its sharp and contrasty. It’s not the camera for you if you’re looking for buttery bokeh or soft portraits. I love how it makes landscapes and environmental portraits look. It’s a favorite camera of mine to throw in the top of a backpack, or wedge in the pocket of my jeans.
I hope you like the pictures that I took with th Balda Baldessa 1b on a recent family vacation in Rocky Mountain National Park, and the few that I snapped of the camera itself, just with my iPhone, so you can get an idea of how funny its laid out.
The Balda Baldessa 1b can still be had for under $50 in working condition and under $100 in about as nice a condition as you can find a 50+ year old camera. I am hesitant to tell the world about it and drive the price up, but then again, I have too many cameras already…