Scale Focus

A Voigtlander Vito II review – A simple folding 35mm compact camera

The Voigtlander Vito II is a simple 35mm folding camera with a 50mm f/3.5 lens. Mine has seen better days, but it still works and in its own way is a pleasure to use. It’s also a close relative of a camera that’s quite important in the history of my photographic journey, and makes up a part of a small but, I would argue, well-formed Voigtlander collection. I actually don’t shoot with any of them that much, in fact it’s been ages since I’ve really thought much about them at all. As such, I thought it about time I at least put a roll through one of them and shared my thoughts on the experience.

Voigtlander and my brand loyalty

In my early 20’s I got a job as a retail assistant in a camera shop – I’d been interested in photography for a long time, but this job was to have a big influence on my photography; both as a hobby, and eventually as a career. With it being a shop that sold lots of new fangled digital gear alongside a lot of used film equipment I had a steep learning curve. I embraced the learning by spending as much time as possible researching cameras and lenses online, as well as talking to the other members of staff and customers who came into the shop. There were a few customers that I become quite pally with too – a couple of which who would pop in most Saturdays to chat about the latest gear they were never likely to buy, or their latest charity shop or boot sale acquisition. Anyone who has worked in camera retail, or similar, will know the type – amusingly, I think I might be one of them myself now…

One particular customer, a chap named Len, popped in one Saturday and was quite excited to tell me about a gem of a camera that a mate of his had shown him. This particular camera was a Voigtlander Vito B. He proceeded to tell me that its German build quality was akin to a Leica, but that these cameras were readily available to buy off eBay for less than £20. After he left, I dived onto the computer, and quickly bought one for £16 – I’m not sure why I remember that exact price, but I do.

Not long later, with my new Voigtlander Vito B in one hand and an old light meter in the other, I went for a walk down by the river in Worcester. I started that walk with a basic understanding of aperture and shutter speed in terms of what effect they had on the photographic outcome, but thanks to the simple nature of the camera, I discovered the reciprocal nature found between the core camera settings. For the first time, the exposure triangle made sense to me. I still have that camera, and still treasure it for the part it had in teaching me some of those fundamentals of photography.

This experience formed the basis for an affinity with the Voigtlander brand which soon led to me buying a Voigtlander R2a and a whole load of lenses. This in turn provided me with my first really positive experiences with rangefinder cameras. Of course I now know that the Voigtlander we know today isn’t the German brand it once was, but it’s fair to say that my early respect for the brand (whoever happened to own it) was definitely based upon my experience of the Voigtlander Vito B.

I’ve had many other Voigtlander cameras since then too. A few of the Cosina-made rangefinders have passed through my hands since my R2a. But as well as those – all of which I have now been sold – I have the small collection of vintage Voigtlander cameras that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. One of which is the Voigtlander Vito II

The Voigtlander Vito II

The Voigtlander Vito II predates the Vito B, and as such is a little less convenient to use. As mentioned, it’s a folding camera with an 50mm f/3.5 lens. On my version, the lens is mounted in a compur-rapid shutter with speeds from 1 second to 1/500th and Bulb – all of which seem to work close enough for fairly normal usage. Both shutter speed and aperture are set on the lens. This is true of the later Vito B, but the layout of the controls – at least on the first versions of the Vito B cameras – is much quicker to understand at a glance.

The shutter on the Voigtlander Vito II needs to be re-cocked manually and separately from advancing the film. This is achieved by pressing down on the small lever on the side of the lens. Additionally, the flash-sync socket juts out just above the shutter cocking lever. Both lever and socket sit in between the shutter dial that’s controlled by a ring around the circumference of the shutter, and the aperture lever which sits at the rear, closest to the bellows. All of this makes for quite a cluttered set of controls and dials around the lens.

This is nothing to worry about if you’re used to cameras with this nature of shutter. Many cameras of this vintage and older have lenses like this – as do even some if not most of modern large format lenses. As such, in the hands of those who are used to using them, it will all feel like second nature, I’m sure. I’m just glad that I picked up a Vito B way-back-when, as I think this sort of layout of control might have confused me a bit.

Even today, as someone who is familiar with this sort of camera, it still takes me a few seconds to find the dials for setting aperture and shutter speed when I first pick the Voigtlander Vito II up after a while – and I rarely remember to cock the shutter. I should add though, this isn’t me being critical as such – “reviewing” a camera of this age, it makes little sense to admonish it for such issues. As I say, they improved the controls on later models; it’s an old camera, it has its foibles, you get used to them if you have a desire to shoot such a thing. And, it does at least have a proper shutter button – all be it on top of the lens door – which is more than can be said of some of these more elderly cameras.

Shooting the Vito II

As a folder, obviously the lens has to be extended for it to be used. The front of the Voigtlander Vito II is released via the little button set into the base plate. On a well-functioning one, the lens would lock into the open position, with the two black-tipped finger-press release levers allowing it to be returned to the closed position. In the case of my Vito II, the mechanism has worn enough for it to be closed without pressing the release buttons. More convenient to use, perhaps, but it also gives the sense that the lens might not be perfectly located in the shooting position. I had to develop a method of holding my Voigtlander Vito II that ensured the lens was fully extended. This is no big deal, it’s merely another foible that I accepted as part of shooting it.

Once I’ve got my brain around the shutter and aperture – both of which are ideally set to appropriate settings for the general shooting conditions, rather than on a shot by shot basis – I find the Voigtlander Vito II quite easy, and indeed quite pleasant to shoot with. The Voigtlander Vito II is very much a zone focus camera. Voigtlander did make accessory rangefinders for cameras like this, but I prefer to shoot without such a thing – not least because my accessory rangefinder scale is in feet, and this lens’s dial has a metric scale. I think it’s part of the joy of a camera like this anyway – as I say, you set the shutter and aperture to what’s appropriate for the general conditions and then just think about focusing. With the latitude of many modern films, simple application of the sunny-16 rule and erring toward overexposure will combat any exposure issues anyway.

Focusing, fortunately, is much easier than setting the shutter and aperture. Turning the focus control could be considered slightly fiddly, I suppose, as it take a thumb and forefinger around the frontmost part of the lens – but it’s not something you do with the Voigtlander Vito II to your eye, so it doesn’t feel too bad. The focus has a nice long throw to it too, which brings the advantage of a nice wide depth of field scale for zone focusing. If you don’t know how to focus a lens like this, check out this post I wrote for Ilford a few years back.

Once the shutter is fired – making the slightest of noises common to leaf shutters like this – the film is advanced using the dial marked ‘A’ for advance on the top of the Voigtlander Vito II. It makes a satisfying click when it’s advanced to the next frame. When the roll is finished, you lift a little lever on the top edge of the back plate, then rotate the dial marked ‘R’ for rewind. Under this lever is also a little dial for setting the shutter counter.

The lens

The little Voigtlander 50mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar is a coated lens based on the Tessar formula. Of course, because of its age, the quality of the results that are achievable are going to be variable from one camera to the next, in theory though it’s a great little lens with a good reputation for quality.

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

A little soft due to using a fallen branch as a tripod

Voigtlander Vito II

I slightly distorted my ability to judge the quality of the lens through changing two other variables in my normal workflow. I shot a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400, which I haven’t shot for ages, and just as an experiment had it developed at Boots the chemist. The results have come back with a slightly pastel, or at least slightly vintage-photo-looking colour pallet which is quite possibly a product of the lens, or something else in the chain, I can’t really be certain. Either way, it doesn’t matter – if I was looking for perfection, I wouldn’t be taking photos with a lens designed in the late 1940’s.

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Voigtlander Vito II

Of course there is some flare where I pointed it at the sun, there’s a little barrel distortion to be found too, but aside from that, I think the results are really quite impressive for a lens of its age – especially given how little the Voigtlander Vito II can be bought for. It’s easy to forget just how good these simple old lens formulas can be.

Final thoughts

Short of some recent experiences with a Leica 1, it’s been a while since I’ve shot a camera of this sort of age. The difference between shooting a Voigtlander Vito II and the Leica lies in the layout of the controls. The Leica – despite being a few years older – gives a user experience that’s not hugely different from a more modern camera. It’s quite easy to take a shutter dial located on the top of the camera for granted until you use a camera like the Voigtlander Vito II.

Even as someone with fairly considerable experience shooting all sorts of different cameras, I’ve stumbled over the need to manually cock the shutter, and gone temporarily cross eyed looking at the controls. For me though, this is part of the joy of shooting an old camera like this once in a while – I think it’s good to test yourself with something that makes you think just a little bit harder, especially when you know deep down you are handling something that’s fundamentally so very simple to use.

Of course, all this is going to sound quite amusing to those of you out there who regularly shoot folders and other more elderly cameras – after all, as I’ve said, there really is nothing complicated about the Voigtlander Vito II once you get used to it. It just involves a simple process of opening the camera, cocking the shutter, setting the speed, the aperture and required focused distance for either the subject or your zone of focus, and shooting. By this merit, the Voigtlander Vito II offers a purity of shooting that’s incredibly attractive to me – I really should shoot cameras of this sort of vintage more often…

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23 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Flavio Colker
    November 23, 2018 at 3:40 pm

    This is just my favourite camera website. Why? Because of it´s unpretentious and assumed opinion based writting. Also, it shows good taste.. something mandatory when it comes to talking about photography and yet so often ignored. I am reading about cameras someone loves… i really don´t need pseudo theories on why this brand is killing that other brand right now at the digital front. Really?
    I am professional photographer and after decades of worrying about selling my work, only.. i am back to camera love where it all started. So i´ve been navigating rangefinder forums but avoiding silly attitudes as much as much as possible. I am glad i found this oasis of humble, well written love letters to cameras; that´s how i see your work and i applaud!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 23, 2018 at 4:05 pm

      Thank you very much, Flavio – I do really appreciate comments like this! Really hope you continue to enjoy the content you find here! Thanks again 🙂

  • Avatar
    Reply
    OldJim
    November 23, 2018 at 4:00 pm

    I just took delivery of a Vito II today, with the same Cumpur Rapid. I was sort of thinking of going back in time to when I had the Kodak Retina 013, but I stumbled on the Vito II, putting in lowball bid and well, 26 euros later, here I am.

    The only issue that I stumbled on was getting the film loaded – turns out I needed to trim it to get into the takeup spool. Not obvious, but easy to fix once I figured it out.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Nick Lyle
    November 23, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    I love the old Voigtlanders. The 120 folders are only a little larger than this 135 format model, and some of the lenses are superb.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 25, 2018 at 10:53 pm

      Shhh! I want a heliar 6×6 one… trying not to think about it too much

  • Avatar
    Reply
    paul snaith
    November 23, 2018 at 6:50 pm

    Yes another excellent, thoughtful review Hamish. I very much echo the sentiments of Flavio. Well done, well composed and well exposed pictures too. I’m an amateur bumbler, fiddler, part-time fixer-upper, seller and buyer of older cameras and lenses.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 25, 2018 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks Paul, appreciated. Tbh, I shot the whole roll as if it was Proimage 100 – the extra light seems to have worked out ok though.
      You sound like an ideal candidate for me to nag to write something for the website….. 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    janourda
    November 23, 2018 at 7:14 pm

    Really nice review! I like the colour rendering of the lens!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kevin Thomas
    November 23, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    +1 to what Flavio said…

    The Vito II is one of my favorite cameras. I got it in a group of 4 cameras from Goodwill, and fell in love with it. It pops right in a pocket, so I’ve usually got it when I go on a Photowalk. As you say, set it from a general exposure or sunny 16, zone focus and have fun (or use the ‘how many times would I need to fall forward’ rule 😁😁). Thanks to this camera I’ve not gotten a real urge to get a more modern compact. My one quibble is the latch for the back 😜 It’ll even do double exposure easily!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 25, 2018 at 10:56 pm

      Actually, the latch for the back was something I meant to mention, but in the end it didn’t cause me issue. Has it you?

      • Avatar
        Reply
        Kevin Thomas
        November 30, 2018 at 2:59 am

        I’ve never had a problem with it, but I always feel like I should approach it with caution 😜😜

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Bent_Brent
    November 24, 2018 at 1:17 am

    That lens. Wow. Those shots look absolutely amazing. Hard to believe it’s 80-odd years old.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Alvaro
      December 3, 2018 at 4:44 pm

      Personally I’m specially surprised by shots #1 and #5 of the last batch of pictures, great rendering of the trees and buildings, including the colours! Very strong flare resistance for such a rudimentarily coated lens (for today’s standards) as well

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Andrew Cotterill
    November 24, 2018 at 8:00 pm

    You didn’t mention that this camera is more-or-less pocketable (unlike the Vito B). I’ve picked up one of these recently – the IIa – really pleased with the results so far, and It’s fun to use, I thought.

    btw, I’ve a small collection of Vito Bs , mainly as a result of your original post about it years ago as I was getting into film. Recently got a friend to take his first steps into film with one of them. He did’t want to give it back.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 25, 2018 at 11:04 pm

      Another thing I meant to mention but for some reason didn’t…
      they are lovely cameras the Vito B – mine is a bit buggered, I keep meaning to buy another for the collection

  • Daniel Castelli
    Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    November 25, 2018 at 4:45 am

    “a couple of which who would pop in most Saturdays to chat about the latest gear they were never likely to buy, or their latest charity shop or boot sale acquisition. Anyone who has worked in camera retail, or similar, will know the type – amusingly, I think I might be one of them myself now…”
    That was/is me on both sides of the retail counter! Worked in both a camera store & an art store. Best education in the world to learn how to work/interact with people. In our digital age (not a bash; just a statement of fact) these places have all but disappeared. We have lost an irreplaceable source of ideas, an exchange of stories, both true and “fisherman tales” and just good places to hang out.
    If you still have a place like this, keep going and buying! They are precious and must continue.
    Sorry Hamish for the totally off tangent stream of thought! I believe you were saying something about a camera?

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      December 2, 2018 at 11:01 pm

      Once in a while I ask the staff in London camera exchange how much money I have put through their tills over the years – It’s eye watering… I deserve to be able to bore them a bit with my presence once in a while 😉

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Joshua Fast
    November 26, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    I think the pastel results could be a lens characteristic of that vintage of voigtlander. I have a Vito BL and a Vito CLR, both give very pastel results with almost any color film i feed them. Great review btw, i love old voigts!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    OldJim
    November 27, 2018 at 8:34 am

    I wrote a comment, but it did not get through. Anyways, I bought one of these, and it arrived just in time for me to read the review with the camera in my hand. 🙂 I was sort of looking for a Retina (had a few before) but the Vito prices seems to be lower, and I happened to lowball a winning bid for one of these little critters.

    The only issue I had was to load it – the leader did not fit. After a bit of looking closely, I took out my ABLON and cut an arrowshaped leader and lo. it worked! I found the “lever up, wind on, lever up” to get the film going a bit fiddly, but I guess it becomes part of muscle memory eventually.

    It feels like it was designed in the true sense of the word – I am looking forward to using it.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    John Murch
    January 8, 2019 at 4:26 am

    Hi Hamish, thanks for the insightful article. With all of your Voigtlander experience, do you have any opinion on the Prominent (1)? The reason I ask is that I’m about to go look at one, belongs to a friend, It has the same lens, 50 3.5. Quirky camera I know but I like that. Also, what exactly is the mount? LTM? Thanks in advance.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    John Murch
    January 8, 2019 at 4:48 am

    Hi Hamish, any experience with the Prominent (1)? The one I’m looking at has the same lens, 50 3.5. Interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      January 11, 2019 at 1:45 pm

      None at all – I have looked at them in the past as I’d like to try the 50mm 1.5 … Let me know if you end up trying one

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Keith Walker
    April 18, 2019 at 8:11 am

    I started in photography in the 1950s with a Voigtlander Bessa II which was too bulky so I traded that for a Vito II, It was an absolute gem of a camera, I wish I still had it and have sspent ages trying to find another one. THey are rather like hens teeth in this neck if the woods and pricey when one does come up

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