Medium & Large Format

Voigtlander Bessa & Brilliant V6 Two Classic 1938 Medium Format Cameras – By Phil Harrison

August 31, 2019

The Voigtlander’s in question are a 1938 Brilliant V6 TLR and a 1938 Bessa folder. My Grandfather had this model of Bessa, I found his camera in our attic and learnt how to use it when aged around 10, this gave me my interest in photography. I’ve seen transparencies using Dufaycolour (see note 1) film taken on his Bessa. I bought my current Bessa a few years ago together with the Brilliant. They seemed to be in good order, enough shutter speeds worked to take photos but a drop of light oil and the 80 year old shutters were smooth at all speeds. The lenses needed cleaning between the elements but the Bessa’s bellows proved light tight. They obviously needed testing with film.

The Film

Stamped into the rear door of the Brilliant is a suggestion to use either Voigtlander Bessapan (orthopanchro – DIN19/ASA64) or Illustra (ortho – DIN18/ASA50) films. Illustra had a special coating which eliminates ‘telegraph wires’..?? The Voigtlander films were made by Schering AG. In the absence of those films, I had some Shanghai GP3 in my fridge. I later tried some rolls of Lomography 400 colour negative in the Brilliant, I’ve added the colour images at the end of the article.

The Brilliant V6

The Brilliant is made of Bakerlite (see note 2) and takes 120 film in the 6×6 format. The uncoated lens is a Voigtar 75mm f4.5, marked in metres. An 8 speed Compur shutter has to be cocked and released with a lever on the shutter, it has nothing to stop double exposure, fortunately I only managed to double expose once. Settings are T, B, 1sec to 1/175sec, with self timer. There is a clever exposure counter and wind on device on the right hand side of the camera, which winds on just to the next exposure and stops, no need to look at the rear exposure window. A little cupboard, called the ‘Hold-All’, on the left side of the camera can store two filters or portrait lenses and an optical light meter. My Hold-All has a yellow filter called a ‘Moment’. The Brilliant finder has a lens which gives a very bright clear view, this lens is not connected to the taking lens and cannot be used for focusing. Focusing is achieved with the metre scale on the taking lens. The finder hood also has a magnifier. In the hood is a table for the optical light meter (no details available) and a depth of field table. All your needs catered for in a compact way. A copy of the camera instruction leaflet is useful to help understand how to correctly load the film and set the exposure counter.

The Bessa

The Bessa is a folder. It can shoot in two formats, 6×9 and 4.5×6 (with a mask), it accepts 120 and 620 rolls. The uncoated lens is a Voigtar 105mm f6.3, marked in metres. Focusing is achieved with the metre scale on the lens. The two speed Singlo shutter, 1/75 and 1/25 plus T and B, limits the camera to slower speed films, although other shutters were available with more speeds. A lever on the folding door fires the self cocking shutter, there is nothing to stop double exposure. You wind on by checking the exposure number in the rear window. Two viewfinders are available, a small brilliant type next to the lens and a frame finder under a cover on the camera top. It came with a neat leather case. Voigtlander used the Bessa name on a considerable number of their cameras over the years, it gets quite confusing.

Conclusions

How did the cameras perform? Considering they are now 80 years old, you can see from my photos they did very well. The lenses were quite sharp enough, the Brilliant worked best around f/8-11 and the Bessa at f/11. The Brilliant had the better handling, familiar to those with a TLR. The finder is bright, very clear and works well. The auto exposure counter makes it quick to use and I still managed to double expose one image. You need to take your time with the Bessa, remembering to wind on using the exposure window and not to double expose. The small brilliant finder next to the lens is difficult to use, the frame finder being my preferred option. I was pretty sure both lenses would flare easily so I was mostly careful to shield the lenses, but I did try a few shots to induce flare and both lenses flared with cross lighting. You can pick up either camera cheaply these days, look for the Compur shutter versions.

Shanghai GP3, a few years ago, had a reputation of being likely to have many defects, there seemingly being an absence of any manufacturing quality control. And yes, one of mine was terrible yet the other ok, despite both being lab processed together in Ilfotec DD. The problems were with the Brilliant’s film, streaks and blobs over most of the emulsion. The Bessa’s film had a few uneven patches. Despite the faults, as you can see from my photos, Shanghai GP3 was capable of excellent images, sharp with nice contrast and grain. I believe that the manufacturers of Shanghai GP3 are currently resolving the 120 roll film QA problems. As mentioned earlier I later tried some Lomography 400 colour neg in the Brilliant and was very impressed with the resulting images. The colours in this film have a retro look of films in the 80’s, the grain is not too pronounced and definition good. See below.

Notes:

  1. Dufaycolour was an additive colour transparency film. The black and white transparency had a mosaic layer of tiny red, green and blue filters on the rear of the film. Exposure and viewing was made through this filter layer creating a colour image, the film was available until the late 50’s. Polachrome instant 35mm and movie film used the same principle.

  2. Bakerlite was the first ever plastic, made with phenol and formaldehyde. Discovered by Leo Baekeland who also invented Velox photographic paper.

Thanks, Phil
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18 Comments

  • Reply
    Nick Lyle
    August 31, 2019 at 6:30 pm

    I love the old Voigtlanders. A couple of favorites are the little Perkeo, with an 80mm Color Skopar lens, and my Great-uncle’s Bessa 66, with a 75mm Voigtar and built-in optical viewfinder. I enjoy how small and handy these cameras are, but above all I love the images they make.

  • Reply
    Philip Gray
    August 31, 2019 at 6:52 pm

    Many thanks for reminding me how well an 80 year old camera can still perform. Who needs 46mb digital images?

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      August 31, 2019 at 7:42 pm

      Hi Philip, my thoughts exactly!

  • Reply
    Huss
    August 31, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    “Illustra had a special coating which eliminates ‘telegraph wires’..?? ” could it be those lines in the B&W pics?

    Really like the ones with the Lomo colour film.

  • Reply
    Richard Byrne
    August 31, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    I think that there was a coating which eliminated ‘telegraph lines’ by being static-resistant. When film was wound on, it could generate static electricity, which produced long thin white lines on the resulting prints. That’s my guess.

    Thanks for sharing your fun.

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      September 1, 2019 at 12:16 pm

      Hi Richard, I definitely think you’ve nailed it, possibly a anti halation type of backing.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    September 1, 2019 at 2:23 pm

    Phil. Brilliant by name, and brilliant by performance. I really like the last image and would never have guessed the camera in a month of Sundays.

  • Reply
    Nigel
    September 1, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    I have both of these cameras (I have a whole collection of Voigtländers) ; my Brillant failed to impress me an the images were poor, the Suberb being a proper TLF is great though 🙂 I have two Bessas, one like yours and the other is the rangefinder version. The RF is one of my favourite cameras, the images are excellent. I’ve only just got around to shooting the other one and don’t have the results back yet – hopefully it’s as good as the other and yours.

  • Reply
    Andrew in Austin, Texas
    September 1, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    Voigtlander optics have never failed to impress me. Ergonomics on the other hand, can get a bit interesting.

    The above color images are stunning; nicely executed compositions as well.

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      September 1, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      Many thanks Andrew.

  • Reply
    Stefan Arend
    September 1, 2019 at 10:25 pm

    The Bessa was my first camera. My father gave it to me when I was 14. It sparked my interest in photography but it sparked my desire for a camera which is easier to operate too. Later I discovered that my camera has had a rather grim past: My grandfather bought it in 1938, he took many photographs of his then 16 year old boy who was very proud of wearing a Hitler´s youth uniform. I discovered those negatives when I was 18. My father tried to explain but failed. So the Bessa camera played a role in my families history. I think that I will not pass it on, but throw it away.

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      September 2, 2019 at 6:40 pm

      Stefan, yours is rather a sad story but perhaps one way to look at it was that the camera was an innocent tool used by a misguided person back in 1938.

  • Reply
    NATO
    September 2, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    One bit of criticism, the TLR camera is the Brillant, no extra ‘I’. I’m only mentioning the spelling error because it was referred to as the Brilliant many times throughout the read, I’m honestly never much of a grammar nazi. I sincerely enjoyed this article; it is written well and the images are interesting. You have me seriously considering picking up the TLR since they aren’t all that expensive and very classic; plus the double exposure option is pretty intriguing.

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      September 2, 2019 at 6:32 pm

      Your quite right and thank you for your comments. I took the name from the English instructions and a 1938 English catalogue of Voigtlander products. Brilliant is of course the English translation of the the German word Brillant.

      • Reply
        Terry B
        September 11, 2019 at 2:36 pm

        Phil, there was an export model and this was badged Brilliant for the English speaking market.

        • Reply
          Phil Harrison
          September 11, 2019 at 3:57 pm

          Thank you Terry. You have prompted me to do a bit of searching and I found the camera was so popular there were also French, Czech, Spanish, Italian, and Polish named versions. The Russians had a copy too called a Komsomolets.

  • Reply
    Ian Do Carmo
    September 17, 2019 at 11:55 am

    Amazing photos, the colour ones I was blown away for those pink hues. The black and white one (The print works) deserves a big print. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Phil Harrison
      September 17, 2019 at 1:22 pm

      Thank You, Ian.

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