MAKE:TNT Tools 'n' Tips

35mm Voigtländer Bessa R

by Ross Orr

As seen in MAKE 04 Toolbox

Tool photo.

Lately everyone from Pulitzer Prize winners to Grandma is switching to digital. But my favorite new camera is this 35mm Voigtländer Bessa R, an all-manual throwback to the workhorse Leicas of 50s and 60s photojournalists.

Japan’s Cosina Company has created a complete new rangefinder-focusing camera system. They offer crisp lenses, brilliant viewfinders, and retro-chic good looks — in short, 90% of the oomph of the legendary Leica M series, but at about one-fifth the price. Cosina even revived the venerable Voigtländer brand name, many years after its last German incarnation went kaput.

But aren’t serious photographers all buying digital SLRs? Well, interchangeable lenses for rangefinders can be much simpler and smaller, for unobtrusive stealth. And the crop factor of most DSLR sensors means they have trouble matching Voigtländer’s outstanding selection of wide-angle optics. To equal the 91° coverage of the tiny Color-Skopar 21mm shown here, a typical DSLR would need a 14mm lens — quite an exotic and bulky monster, if you can even find one. And other Voigtländer lenses go even wider!

The Bessa R was Cosina’s original rangefinder model. The new Bessa R2A and R3A add auto-exposure, and replace the R’s plastic top and bottom plate (which made some purists sniff) with stout metal castings. But the R is a cult classic, and a couple hundred dollars cheaper; and its mechanical shutter keeps shooting even if your batteries die. Officially discontinued, it’s still in stock at Cameraquest, Photo Village, and B&H Photo Video.