Christopher J Osborne

Voigtländer Bessa-R

I bought this very nice Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens in Leica 39mm screw mount a few months ago to use with adaptors on digital cameras (in particular my Olympus Pen-F and Fujifilm XE-1 cameras) and this lens is fast becoming a favourite! But right from the beginning I wanted to use this beautiful lens with film too. So almost immediately the search for a suitable Leica 39mm screw body was on!

I narrowed the choice down to a contemporary Canon 7 rangefinder from 1961, or the Cosina made Voigtländer Bessa-R launched 40 years later in 2001. These are both comparatively inexpensive cameras, especially compared to Leicas. Having done some research it seemed that either camera should come into the £150-250 pound range, which I could just about stretch too.

The Canon 7 has some big advantages: it’s contemporary with the lens, so I know they would work well together, and look good too. Apart from the much more recent Voigtländer, the Canon 7 (and it’s slightly updated brother the 7s) is by far the most sophisticated and usable Leica screw camera you can get, and it’s also, rather strangely one of the cheapest. It has a modern single shutter speed dial and a great viewfinder with (unusually) labelled frames for 35, 50, 85, 100 and 135mm lenses, and a built in light meter (I think the only one until the modern Voigtländer).

But it has a few disadvantages too: it weights about a ton (well, 865 grams in fact, but that’s still heavy!), and, perhaps most annoyingly, it lacks an accessory shoe, which makes attaching viewfinders for lenses not covered buy the built-in viewfinder a pain in the ass.

So when I saw a Voigtländer Bessa-R in great condition with a very reasonable price tag (£175) I took the plunge without hesitating!

Anyone who grew up looking longingly in camera shop windows in the 1970s and 80s is familiar with the Cosina name… they made an endless array of inexpensive (and mostly rather boring) SLRs with the Pentax K mount. They were aimed at people who couldn’t stretch to the latest, greatest camera from Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax or Olympus, but who still had their sights set higher than something agricultural from Eastern Europe. As one of those kids in the 1980s I looked straight past the Cosinas to fantasise about (but certainly not buy at that stage!!) the shiny Pentaxes and Olympi (how the hell do you pluralise Pentax and Olympus!!!) on the shelf above.

Which is why it came as such a shock to find Cosina making really cool, quirky and desirable rangefinders and rangefinder lenses in the 2000s. They started with the Bessa-L. This model, strictly speaking, wasn’t a rangefinder… it was a super basic model designed to be used with scale focused ultra-wide angle 15 and 25mm lenses and separate viewfinders. The Bessa-L featured a simple plastic body straight from Cosina’s 1980s SLR parts bin but with the pentaprism and mirror box hacked off. But that means it had through the lens light-metering… the first Leica screw mount camera ever to have this feature!

But this was just the opening salvo from Cosina! They quickly followed up with the Bessa-R which added a superb builtin viewfinder with frame lines for 35, 50, 75 and 90mm lenses and a fantastically sharp and clear rangefinder spot. This was combined with the same TTL light metering system from the Bessa-L, but this time with the indicator LEDs in the viewfinder. And unlike the Canon 7 the Voigtländer Bessa-R has the all important accessory shoe (It’s actually a hot shoe just in-case you’re vulgar enough to want to put an electronic flash on top of your camera LOL). Plus it has all the features you’d expect from a modern camera, such as easy film loading, and convenient short-throw wind-on leaver.

And it maybe made from plastic, but it still feels like a very high quality device, with smooth and easy operation. And all that plastic has another advantage… this baby weighs a mere 400 grams! And the Canon lens, with it’s silver and black colour scheme, looks fantastic on the chrome Bessa-R. It’s just a tiny bit of a shame that when mounted the focus and aperture index isn’t quite on top… presumably it would’ve been on a Canon 7, but I can live with that.

One disadvantage of the Bessa-R is the short effective rangefinder base of about 25mm (which compares to about 60mm on a Leica M6!). With rangefinders the longer or faster your lens, the longer the rangefinder base needs to be to focus effectively. Many rangefinder aficionados would say you really shouldn’t try focusing a 50mm lens faster than f/2 on a camera with a rangefinder base as short as 25mm. Maybe this is because sharpness isn't a high requirement for the sort of photography I want to do with my Bessa-R (I’m more interested in soul and atmosphere!), but I have always been very happy focusing my Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens on this camera. If sharpness is critical for a particular shot I can always just stop down to f/2 or smaller.

I already have a Bessa-L with a 15mm ultra-wide lens which will work very nicely on my Bessa-R, but of course I’m now starting to think about getting one or two (or three… there is no cure for GAS it seems ;-)) of the very nice, and comparatively affordable Leica screw lenses Cosina made for this camera. (Fortunately I haven’t yet been struck with the urge to get one of Cosina’s later, and much more expensive Leica M bayonet bodies!)

Photographs taken with the Voigtländer Bessa-R and Canon 50mm f/1.2 lens on Kodak Portra 160 film