Sunday, 12 April 2015

Voigtländer Bessa 66

This is a medium format folder from the German firm of Voigtländer. It dates from between 1938 and 1940. This model was also made after WWII from 1946 to 1950, but my camera is a very early model - more later. There was also a cheaper version available with a folding viewfinder and no automatic framing.  It is extremely similar to the later Perkeo that replaced it in 1950.

Voigtländer Bessa 66 (C) John Margetts

This camera has a lot of 'modern' features that make it stand out from earlier folding cameras. These include a body shutter release and automatic frame advance - no need to look in the red window when advancing the film, the camera spaces the film automatically (more or less, it does not work too well on my camera. I used the red window).

First, a basic description.  The camera measures 125 mm wide by 40 mm thick and 80 mm high when folded and 95 mm thick when open. This is very much a pocket camera even if the pocket needs to be robust enough to take the weight - 524 g without a film. As standard, the top plate is uncluttered. It is made from chrome plated brass  and has a reverse-Galilean viewfinder right at the right-hand end. On the opposite end is the film advance knob. Close to the advance knob is a frame counter - one of the 'modern' features I mentioned. That should be all that is on the top plate but a previous owner has glued an accessory shoe on using a large amount of epoxy glue.  Close to the rewind knob, on both the front and back faces of the top plate are two sliders. Without an instruction manual, it is not clear what these do. The one on the front clearly advances the frame counter and seems to free the advance system to allow the film to be advanced. When the film moves through the camera, a feeler shaft rotates and this serves to measure the amount of film that has moved and the film advance locks when one frame (62 mm) has moved. There is no clear use for the rear slider but I think it might have to do with setting the start of the film once the red window has been used to line up the first frame. I would welcome advice here from anyone who has a better knowledge of this camera. This system only works sporadically with my camera and when using the test film I relied on the red window for all frames.

As this is a folding camera, the lens is hidden behind a door that must be opened before using the camera. This is achieved with a button the the base. Pressing this causes the door to spring most of the way open - it might well have opened completely when new. When open, it locks the lens/shutter firmly in place. To close the lens door again, there is a chrome bar beneath the lens which must be firmly pressed to unlock the struts holding the door in place. 

As supplied new, this camera came with a hinged yellow filter ('Moment' filter) but this has long since broken off as is usual for cameras of this age. Also as a consequence of age, the bezel around the lens has come loose and fallen off (it was glued in place). This means I have no lens name or focal length information but I can gather this from information from the interweb. The lens has a serial number (located inside the camera on the rear of the lens). The pre-war versions of this camera were supplied with either a  three element Voigtar or four element Skopar lens. Of these, only the Skopar had a serial number so mine must be a Skopar lens. It is a 75 cm focal length lens (as was the Voigtar option) with a maximum aperture of f/3.5. The shortest marked focussing distance is 1 m, but the lens will move significantly further than this so the closest focus is going to be nearer to 0.7 m at a guess. The lens is not colour corrected (that would be a Color-Skopar) and is not coated but performed well regardless.

The shutter is a Compur shutter with a serial number of 3 751 602 - my records tell me that this dates from between 1935 and 1939. The lens serial number is 2 245 637 and this dates from between 1937 and 1942. (The range of dates is so vague because both Compur and Voigtlander lost most of their records in the destruction of WWII.) I have a piece of further dating information in that the slider on the front of the top plate was removed in 1939 so my camera must be from 1938 or early 1939.

The Compur shutter has a fastest speed of 1/300 seconds (later models had a Compur-Rapid shutter with a nominal 1/500 second speed) and apertures from f/3.5 to f/16. Both of these are very usable in 2015 with modern film. What is missing from this shutter is a delay timer and any flash connectors. For my test film, I used Kodak Portra 160 ISO film in sunny weather in April and shot most of the film at either 1/100 or 1/300 and f/11 or f/16. As is usual for this date, the shutter needs cocking before use. While the primary shutter release is on the shutter housing, the actual release is a lever that protrudes through the lens door. This is strictly left-handed in use, leaving your right hand to have a firm grasp of the camera.  Exacta did things the same way.

The base plate has three items. On the left is a lever with two functions. In the closed position, it prevents the back being opened and when swung out, it acts as a foot to allow the camera to be securely placed on a flat surface for longer exposures (together with a cable release, which the shutter is threaded for). There is no delay timer, so no selfies with this camera. In the centre of this lever is a tripod boss. This is a 3/8 inch Whitworth socket with a 1/4 inch Whitworth insert.  At the other end of the top plate is a depth of field calculator. You rotate the disc to set the distance you are focussing at to the pointer and then read off the depth of field against the aperture you are using.  The third item on the base plate is the release for the lens door.

In use, this is a simple, easy camera to use. The hardest part is the viewfinder which, as was normal in its day, is rather small and not usable while wearing glasses. With the left-hand shutter release, you can get a really good grip on the camera while actuating the shutter release with your left index finger. It is easy to cock the shutter with your right hand while still gripping the camera. 

The hardest part is reading the numbers on the shutter speed, aperture and focus scales. They are rather small for my ageing eyes.

As is common of Voigtländer cameras, there are Happy Snapper settings on the lens. These are marked by a small triangle and a small circle. If you set the focus to the triangle and the aperture to f/8 then all between 2.5 m and 5 m will be in focus (ideal for portraits) and if you set the focus to the small circle, and the aperture to f/8 then all between 5 m and infinity will be in focus (ideal for landscapes).

Even though the lens is neither colour corrected nor coated, it has performed well. There is no visible colour fringing (the panchromatic films in use in the 1930s would have needed well corrected lenses) nor is there any significant flare visible in my test pictures. Where I have shot Contra Jour, there is some slight evidence of flare but it is very minor. I have much worse lenses in my collection.

The film I used for my test was Kodak Portra 160, developed and scanned by Snappy Snaps in Lincoln.  Loading the film is easy - both spool holders are hinged. The camera takes either 120 or 620 film (only 120 is currently available). The dark bar along the right-hand edge of some frames is a scanning artefact, not the camera.

Shot into the light - some flare on the right-hand edge