In 1955, having attained the grand old age of 16 and somehow managed to pass 8 of the 9 GCE O-levels I had sat, I received a neat little blue and silver box as a reward for one or the other achievement, can’t remember which now. That beautiful little box contained my first camera of real quality. Fast forward 67 years and move to the other side of the world, the same little box arrived in my mail box.
It contained the same thing, a Voigtländer Vito IIa and ERC that I had found in the original one except for the “1756-1956” text which was added from 1956, to commemorate the firm’s 200 year history. Amazingly, the “new” one appeared to be, in fact, almost as new! The case in particular shows hardly any wear. The exceptions are a mysterious, small, pin sized dent on the top plate, the film reminder disk on the rewinder, which is slightly worn, and some chipped enamel on the back all out of character with the rest of the camera. I put this down to the parts having been swapped with their display model by the museum I bought it from, who were selling off their duplicates. It turned out, however, that, despite its near perfect cosmetic condition, its many years of inactivity had left the shutter speed ring very stiff and speeds that hung up. I didn’t even dare try the delayed action.
Above all, the aura of quality shines through. The Voigtländer Vito IIa is a little gem of a camera, with finely made components and watch like engraved distance markings, clad in what feels more like the vulcanite found on a Leica than the more usual leatherette. It is a pleasure to simply hold in the hand, feeling solid and very well made, quite petite compared to the Retina IIc for example. Mechanically too, the quality shows. It opens smoothly and as it does so, the shutter release rises out of the edge of the door in a more forward position than the more usual top plate location. This falls under the fingers much more naturally and is one of the smoothest I have experienced, up there with my Retina IIc, my personal benchmark. The attention to these simple details, like the tiny studs on the base and the peg on the door to ensure it stands level on flat surface, is testament to the skill and experience that has gone into the design.
Even opening the back to load film is super neat. No bulky sliding or sprung catches, just a plain strip of enamelled metal that looks to be covering a hinge is levered up to release the back. This is definitely something that needs the instruction book if you are unfamiliar with the model, but so finely engineered and subtle.
One quirk of the Voigtländer B/BL/BR/Vitomatic range was that the shutter is cocked and the double exposure prevention unlocked by a toothed wheel turned by the film perforations. Unless a film is loaded, the camera can appear to have a fault preventing the shutter from operating. This feature is found on the Voigtländer Vito IIa but here only controls the double exposure prevention device which is linked to an axle with toothed wheels at each end to engage the sprocket holes as the film enters the take-up spool, more usually used to transport the film. Without film, these wheels can be rotated manually if a dummy film isn’t available to allow the shutter to be cocked and fired. The IIa needs much less effort than the ‘B’ cameras, however, which have to overcome the stiff shutter main spring.
There is no denying, however, operation is fiddly, not because of the fineness of everything, but because of its era. Having to cock the shutter manually for example, and common up to this time, takes some getting used to but a few missed masterpieces concentrates the mind and it becomes second nature! My example of the bridge is a good example where I had a jogger and a cyclist perfectly placed in the near foreground. By the time I had cocked the shutter, however, they were long gone just leaving the solitary walker in the distance!
The Voigtländer Vito IIa finder, especially for a spectacle wearer like me is pretty tight, again typical for its day. I can just see the edges of the frame with care though so it is still workable and without glasses it will be no problem. Fortunately I have a Voigtländer Kontur finder which gets over the problem, a novel solution to providing a life size finder which is used with both eyes open. It relies on the brain’s ability to combine two images, in the way a 3-D image is viewed. One eye sees only the frame lines which appear superimposed over the subject, which is seen by the other eye.
The superb life size reflecting finders which were fitted to many of the following Voigtländer models up to and after the Zeiss takeover were in the future when this camera was made.
The lens is the Color Skopar, the later version of the long standing Skopar design, a four element Tessar type. Unlike the B series, which are helical focus with the shutter mounted behind the lens, the IIa is front cell focussing with the shutter within the lens. The folding design would make a helical focus mount too bulky presumably.
With the Voigtländer Vito IIa back from repair I ran my dummy film through to make sure everything was back in operation, which it was.
First off, film is loaded in the same way as any other camera taking standard 35mm cassettes. When basically in place, the back is closed and the frame counter set. This is done before pushing the rewind knob fully down, by pressing a button between the finder and wind lever to bring the letter ‘F’ against the counter arrow. Two blank exposures are made to bring up frame ‘1’ as usual which involves popping and pushing back the rewind knob, which releases the double exposure prevention device, and winding on. This is done twice and skips a couple of frames presumably in order to avoid exposing two out of focus shots of your feet before frame one comes up. The big advantage of the frame counter is that it counts back as you rewind so you can stop when it reaches ‘F’ again, leaving the leader accessible for processing.
From there on it is all as normal. Lack of a rangefinder means distances are estimated but two zone focus symbols, a triangle and a circle, are engraved on the distance ring so that setting f5.6 or smaller will give acceptable sharpness for subjects at 8 to 17 feet and 17 feet to ∞ respectively for more spontaneous photography. Exposure requires a seperate meter or Sunny 16.
The Voigtländer Vito IIa shutter is cocked with the lever on the shutter itself and the shutter release is smooth and positive, like the wind-on, which takes either one sweep or several shorter ones.
Voigtländer Vito IIa Results
I mostly use FP4+ which I process myself in Rodinal but I have used Rollei 400 ISO Infrared exposed as a normal panchromatic film with the IIa. The results show slightly coarser grain but more defined, while FP4+ grain is smoother and less obvious. I rate it at ISO100 and process in Rodinal 1:100 for 15 minutes at 20ºC with intermittent agitation. Other developers will give different results but I stick with Rodinal because it is almost immortal and I could well imaging an original bottle from the 1890’s still being useable, even if it would be black as ink.
I am enjoying using this delightful little Voigtländer Vito IIa again and I can see why I wanted one back in 1955. If it had a coupled rangefinder I would put it ahead of my Retina IIc having much better ergonomics. The smooth, well placed wind lever and the shutter release in particular fall so much more comfortably under finger and thumb, just like a modern lever-wind camera. And the feeling of solid precision is hard to put into words. I had a Vitomatic IIa for a while which did have a coupled rangefinder incorporated in the later, 1:1 reflecting finder but, excellent as it was, that model lacked the feeling of refined precision the Vito IIa possesses.
It demonstrates the level of refinement the German camera industry, and Voigtländer in particular, had attained before the arrival of the affordable SLR, plastics and electronics. It also shows how far photographic technology advanced through the second half of the 20th century when compared with the F801 for example. I understand that the price in 1955 of £25-£30 equates to around £275-£330 today so at the equivalent of £165 or so all in after repair costs this one is quite a bargain.
The results are all shot in and around Dunedin, down here in New Zealand.
(Photos of the camera and digitised copies of negatives are produced with a Sony A3000 with 55mm Micro Nikkor and adapters processed in Affinity Photo.)