Our resident rangefinder expert analyzes three leading models and explains
why clicking these shutters is good for the soul.
Leica afficianado and president of Cosina Co. Ltd., Hirofume Kobiyashi, watched his 35mm SLR business atrophy as digital photography boomed. He decided against making digital SLRs, reasoning the field was already too crowded and competitive with prices constantly being cut. He sought a smaller, nearly exclusive field and found one. Taking the shutter mechanism, exposure system, film advance and body styling from the 35mm Cosina SLR, Kobayashi's engineers in 1999 fashioned a 35mm basic rangefinderless, Leica-type screw thread camera.
Acquiring the rights to a fine old camera manufacturer's name and trademarks, Kobayashi named his new camera the Voigtlander Bessa L. Cosina made a series of excellent wide angle lenses for it which could easily be guess focused. In the next seven years, Cosina, under the Voigtlander name, produced more advanced and better constructed Bessa rangefinder cameras and a large field of excellent lenses.
The 50mm f/2 Heliar lens is available primarily as part of a mechanical shutter camera and lens set for the 250th anniversary of Voigtlander. I requested the importer break up the set and to sell the lens for the electronic shutter Bessa R2A. He assured me he could do likewise for any readers wishing the same combination.
The Bessa 2A is a business looking camera with a vertical travel, metal blade shutter having manual speeds 1 to 1/2000 second and aperture priority auto exposure beyond 1 sec. to about 4 sec. But these slow speeds are not indicated in the camera. Flash sync is a faster-than-Leica 1/125 sec, but but there's no camera flash control. The hot shoe has only a single contact for manual or automatic exposure flash units. Score one for Leica. An exposure sensor is located in a similar position to that of the Leica but reads a somewhat indistinct centerweighted area from the gray painted front metal shutter curtain. Film speed must be set manually, but a window on the back allows you to check what film is loaded and whether it is 24 or 36 exposure, a useful touch particularly if you put the camera away loaded and then forget what film you were using.
Viewfinder brightness, the superimposed, secondary image rectangle and frame brightness are almost identical to those in the Leica. Unlike the Leica, viewfinder frames are not set automatically by the lens in use. Instead, a well marked lever atop the camera provides three positions manually for 75, 35+90 and 50mm focal lengths, making it easy to identify which frames you're seeing. But the 28mm and 135mm frames are missing.
In my opinion, the 28mm frames could have been squeezed in with the 75mm or 50mm focal lengths. A 135mm focal length has been deliberately left out. In designing the Bessa rangefinder cameras, the Cosina engineers took as their model the diminutive Leica CL of 1972. They wound up with a effective rangefinder base of 25.16mm, too short to provide accurate focus with a 135mm focal length lens.
Why didn't the engineers use a longer base rangefinder? It may be due to Leica patents. Zeiss managed it it as we'll see but had to give up a top rewind crank.
Red informational diodes in the Bessa 2A viewfinder indicate the shutter speed set in aperture priority auto exposure. In manual, a shutter speed to the right or left of the set speed will blink when the proper exposure isn't set. By turning either the shutter speed dial or aperture ring until only one constantly lit numeral is seen, you reach proper exposure. The red diodes are smaller than those in the Leica, not as easy to see and perform fewer tasks. The Bessa is powered by two LR44 alkaline or silver batteries available at most camera stores and many hardware or drug stores.
Unlike the Leica, film loading is easy and quick. Slide a small lever adjacent to the rewind knob forward, pull up on the knob and the back swings open. Attaching the film leader to the takeup spool is simple. However the Bessa 2A's ISO film speed must be set manually, although the exposure compensation scale around the well-marked shutter speed dial is easier to operate than the Leica's rear one.
But the Bessa 2A does not offer through the lens flash control via the hot shoe as does the Leica. However, the tripod socket is placed directly below the lensmount, making tripod adjustments easy, and an accessory folding rapid winder can be fitted snugly below the camera's baseplate.
The Bessa 2A is well made and rugged if not with the same precision fitting of parts as the Leica M7. The black satin metal surfaces are more practical than elegant. However, the exterior leatherlike vinyl covering has a slightly superior, non-slip surface and the molded right hand grip is very welcome. Release noise is surprisingly quiet for a metal blade shutter, although the Leica cloth shutter is whisper quiet. Overall, the 2A is a no nonsense-handling camera that doesn't put on airs.
Voigtlander Bessa R2A Heliar 50mm f/2 lens rating: Excellent