visual spectrum: Voigtländer Bessa-T

16Mar10

The Voigtländer Bessa-T is one of the earlier models in Cosina’s revivalist lineup of handsomely designed rangefinder cameras.  Produced soon after the Bessa-L and the Bessa-R, the T sported a slightly stronger retro-classic aesthetic than the other two models in addition to being the first of the modern Voigtländers to use the Leica M mount system.  I use my Bessa-T exclusively with a Cosina Voigtländer 50mm Nokton lens, which is a crisp lens with brilliant color and lovely depth-of-field effects.  The Bessa-T is a bit slower to use than other rangefinder cameras because image composition is divided into two stages — focusing is managed via the porthole-shaped diopter window, while framing requires you to move your eye upward to the viewfinder mounted at the top of the camera.  What this means in practice, at least for me, is that there’s an extra layer of anticipation that I need to keep in place when I use this camera.  I’m always pulling focus long before I actually plan on opening the shutter so that when the right moment does come it won’t be lost to a panic of clumsy fingers and an eye transfixed to the diopter window.  This makes the camera feel a let less spontaneous to use than, say, a LOMO LC-A (a camera that was originally based on a Cosina product), but on the other hand the extra care taken in thinking through the image seems to make itself felt in terms of the amount of successful frames that I’m able to get out of a single roll of film.

Below is a gallery of some of my favorite photographs taken with this camera.  And if you like those, you can watch a slideshow and see a lot more like them.



2 Responses to “visual spectrum: Voigtländer Bessa-T”

  1. Great photos! I think the 1st and 6th are my favorites.

    I’ve been interested in rangefinder cameras the last year but never knew what they were actually like. I had to translate some material where a character used one, and he made it sound really interesting.

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Daniel — There’s kind of a mystique about rangefinder cameras, even though in actual usage they’re not that different from contemporary SLRs (rangefinder-heads are going to leave a long thread on this one if anyone ever gets around to reading the comments to this post). Back in the day before SLRs became portable enough to carry around without too much trouble the rangefinder was the camera that you would drag on the street with you to capture scenes of everyday life. Light, portable, unobtrusive, and able to capture the moment in ways that the SLR of the day just couldn’t. With contemporary SLR technology, portability, and ease of use there really isn’t a vast difference between the two types of cameras anymore, though the rangefinder still contains a bit of romance that the SLR (seemingly) lacks.

      Since I’m lazy, I’ll just conclude by dropping down what Wikipedia has to say about the advantages of rangefinders:

      Nonetheless rangefinder cameras have advantages over SLRs for certain applications. Since there is no moving mirror, as used in SLRs, there is no momentary blackout of the subject being photographed. The camera is therefore often quieter, particularly with leaf shutters, and usually smaller and less obtrusive. These qualities make rangefinders more attractive for theater photography, some portrait photography, action-grabbing candid shots and street photography, and any demanding application where portability matters. The lack of a mirror allows the rear element of lenses to project deep into the camera body, making high-quality wide-angle lenses easier to design. The Voigtländer 12mm lens was the widest-angle rectilinear lens in general production for a long time, with a 121 degree angle of view; only recently have comparable SLR lenses entered the market.

      Rangefinder users also sometimes talk of a “stream of consciousness” approach to shooting. The key to this is that rangefinder viewfinders usually have a greater field of view than the lens in use, with the photographer being able to see what is going on outside of the framelines and therefore better anticipate action. In addition, with viewfinders with magnifications larger than 0.8x (e.g. some Leica cameras, the Epson RD-1/s, Canon 7, Nikon S, and in particular the Voigtländer Bessa R3A and R3M with their 1:1 magnification), photographers can keep both eyes open and effectively see a floating viewfinder frame superimposed on their real world view. This kind of two-eyed viewing is also possible with an SLR, using a lens focal length that results in a net viewfinder magnification close to 1.0 (usually a focal length slightly longer than a normal lens); use of a much different focal length would result in a viewfinder with a different magnification than the open eye, making fusion of the images impossible.

      If filters that absorb much light or change the colour of the image are used, it is difficult to compose, view, and focus on an SLR, but the image through a rangefinder viewfinder is unaffected. On the other hand some filters, such as graduated filters and polarizers, are best used with SLRs as the effects they create need to be viewed directly.


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