In the 1960s, with the introduction of cameras like the Nikon F for professionals and the Pentax Spotmatic for amateurs, SLR camera design started to finally over come the major problems that made SLRs slow, noisy, heavy and cumbersome. Suddenly all the advantages that rangefinder cameras had over SLRs (compactness, speed, quietness, ability to use wide-angle lenses, and effectiveness in low-light situations) suddenly seemed take a back seat to the disadvantages (problems with close-up and telephoto photography, and the need for special accessory viewfinders for many lenses). Before long there was only one company left able to cater to die-hard rangefinder fanatics: Leica.
But those die-hard rangefinder enthusiast are loyal and they have deep pockets… which means that even though this is a niche market, it is one in which there is money to be made. In 1999 a little known Japanese company called Cosina launched their first ‘rangefinder’ camera: the Cosina SW-107. Hither to Cosina was mainly known for their cheap low end SLRs and compacts and a range of cheap lenses which were often sold under a wide range of other brands. But they realised that there is a large band of dedicated rangefinder loyalists who have pockets deep enough to spend £400 plus on a fixed focal length lens, but who weren’t in a position to spend the £1000s necessary for even the most basic Leica outfit. And Cosina wanted to cater to those users. Cosina soon bought the venerable Voigtländer name and re-released the SW-107 as the Voigtländer Bessa-L.
So what kind of camera is this? Well, the first thing to say is that Cosina’s first rangefinder camera isn’t really a rangefinder camera at all, as it doesn’t have an actual rangefinder. In fact it doesn’t have a viewfinder either! The Bessa-L is designed specifically to work with ultra-wide-angle lenses that have such wide depth-of-field that they really don’t need to be focused at all. Basically Cosina took one of their cheap manual SLRs and removed the mirror box and pentaprism viewfinder and then changed the mount to a Leica 39mm screw mount. The Bessa-L has a TTL light meter with a read out on the back of the camera and you use it with accessory viewfinders. They launched 2 lenses to go with the Bessa-L: a 15mm f/4.5 (which is the lens you can see on this page) and a 25mm f/4. These Voigtländer lenses soon garnered rave reviews and got Cosina a new (and, perhaps, somewhat unexpected!) reputation of a maker of fine rangefinder lenses.
Cosina didn’t stop there though. The Bessa-L was soon joined by the Bessa R which added a conventional viewfinder combined with a coupled rangefinder, and the 15 and 25mm lenses were also joined by a range of L39 lenses from 12mm to 90mm. In 2002 Cosina launched their R2 model which used the Leica M bayonet mount, which signaled a wholesale shift for the Voigtländer brand from L39 screw fit lenses, to Leica M bayonet lenses. Fortunately adaptors allow the use of L39 lenses on M mount bodies with absolutely no loss of functionality. There are now a range of Voigtländer rangefinder cameras, all with M mounts, to suit a variety of different rangefinder needs.
I bought this Bessa-L with a 15mm lens and viewfinder from ffordes of Inverness on my way up to the Orkney Islands. I can’t honestly recommend a visit to ffordes as they won’t let you just browse through there stock. Instead, if you see something on the ffordes website you like you should just buy it from the website by mail order rather than make a special journey all the way to Inverness. They don’t even stock film for you to use with your new camera! Anyway, back to Bessa-L… this one is a bit rough, but that doesn’t matter since I bought this camera as a user rather than a collector’s item. And using this camera is massive fun!
If you set an aperture of f/8 and set the focusing scale to 1 meter, everything from 0.5m to infinity will be in focus, so as you can see focusing without a rangefinder is something you really don’t have to worry about. And the lens is tiny! Such ultra-wide-angle lenses for SLRs tend to be massive things that really get you noticed, but the Bessa-L/15mm is a very discrete combination. It slips easily into a corner of by camera bag, making it easy to carry along with another camera for use with normal lenses.
Composing pictures with such a wide lens does require something of an adjustment. If you’re not careful you can just end up with a mess of tiny things, so you have to learn to get in close to create really dramatic angles. So what are the result like? Well, see for yourself…