The Voigtländer Bessa-L wasn’t on my wishlist. In fact, it was well below the radar until I spotted this pristine, mint little busybody sitting like a lost puppy on the Camera World stand at Photographica earlier today. We bonded immediately, perhaps, even, love at first sight. I just wanted it, even without googling its vital statistics and review conclusions. The credit card was out of my pocket before I’d had time to learn how to spell Voigtländer.
Here is a very simple film camera but one with a special purpose. It has no rangefinder, relying entirely on manually setting the range on the distance scale of the lens. But when you bear in mind it is essentially a wide-angle camera, precise focus is not quite so important. And at 15mm, which is the focal length of the delicious little Super-Wide Heliar screw-mount lens, focus is even less critical. Set this camera to f/16 and almost everything will be in focus.
The Bessa-L is well constructed from quality materials and feels solid in the hands; this is surprising considering its unpretentious ambitions. The ISO and shutter-speed dials look rather plasticy but function well. My first task after buying the camera was to load the film. Since I never read instructions, I did this by intuition and it was a doddle. Simpler, I have to say, than loading a Leica M or, shudder, a Leica screw-mount geriatric. Controls are minimal: An ISO dial concentric with the rewind lever, a shutter-speed dial and a cocking lever. Unlike modern Leica film cameras, there is no on/off switch. Instead, the film advance lever must be pulled out slightly to switch on the electronics. This I didn’t instinctively appreciate but, since I was inside Photographica 2015, there was a ready band of experts willing to advise.
All that remains is to set the aperture, put your finger in the wind and estimate distance to subject (setting the result on the lens ring) and choose a speed. A simple display of centre circle with two opposing triangles tells you when you when the exposure is correct—a similar system to what I am used to seeing inside the rangefinder of the Leica MP.
According to my researches in the past couple of hours, the 15mm Super-Wide Heliar has a very solid reputation among wide-angle lenses. Mine is screw mount, just like all Leicas before 1954 (Voigtländer also made an M-mount version), but a simple adapter allows it to be fitted to a modern Leica M mount. It will team with the Leica M240, preferably using the VF-2 electronic viewfinder, and I intend to put this to the test. At the moment I do not possess a 15mm wide-angle lens so the Heliar is an inexpensive opportunity.
The camera is light, just 500g including viewfinder, film and lens, and easy to carry. I immediately attached Evris Papanikolas’s leather wristband which arrived from Greece earlier in the week. The sample is in tan leather but black would be preferable to complement this gorgeous black beauty from Cosina-Voigtländer. I can see this little shooter finding a corner of my camera bag for occasions when I really need a wide-angle solution. I aim to try it out on street photography. You can sit on top of your subject and still get a shot. They’d never notice. I will report back when I’ve processed the first roll of Tri-X.
A little trial of the 15mm Super-Wide Heliar
To early to see how the tiny 15mm lens performs on the Bessa-L but I lost no time in bolting it to a modern Leica M-P, via the screw-mount adaptor, to see how it works. I’ve read that it was a poor performer on the M9, so what about the M240?
Mixed results, I’m afraid. There is a degree of vignetting present in all the shots and dreadful colour cast at either side of the frame. On the other hand, when converted to black and white, the results are commendably sharp and detailed.