The Voigtländer VSL-1 is a 35mm film single-lens reflex (SLR) camera produced by the German manufacturer Rollei. Yes, Voigtländer was already in possession of Zeiss and sold again in the demise of the great camera company. The new VSL-1 was actually the Zeiss (Ikon) SL706 and rebranded as a Voigtländer. Only a few hundred bodies were built in Germany, and most of them in Singapore. Despite this complicated intro the Voigtländer VSL-1 was very popular amongst amateur photographers and students.
On the plus side, the VSL-1 is an attractive, stylish camera with a nice shiny black metal design. Made between 1974 and 1976 as heavy (845g with lens) and solid SLR’s. Rollei kept the camera simple so that it would appeal to a wide range of consumers. With that simplicity and because of low-cost production in Singapore, costs could be kept low. But that does not take away from the fact that quality has certainly not been compromised, because the camera does not fall short of its professional brothers.
The stylish black design is further accentuated by the tasteful and colourfully large rotary knobs on the top. On the left for the ASA/DIN/ISO setting (25-3200) and on the right for shutter speeds. The ISO settings wheel, which can be set by first pushing the arrow forwards, are linked to the light meter for setting exposure correctly, which also applies to shutter speeds and aperture. Nice thing is that a CdS Through The Lens light meter is avaliable on the top of the camera as well as in the viewfinder! (But be cautious to not drain the battery unnecessary, there is a tiny lever at the rapid advance lever that triggers the lightmeter. With the lever closed to the body, it is turned off). On the DIN wheel is also the rewind button.
In the middle the fixed prism housing with a hot shoe for automatic flashes. On the right we see the big TM marking, meaning the lensmount is for the popular M42 screwmount for which most lenses were available at the time. Later Rollei also introduced their own BM (Bayonet-)mount.
On the bottom plate you find the battery compartment. It takes a Mallory PX 625 (today you can replace this with the Weincell 1,35V, voltage is important for the right exposure meting, 1,5V is too much, it works, but reads wrong). The lid twists open (too) easily and is prone to loss. In the middle a very sturdy tripod mount and the rewind safety knob, which first has be pushed to rewind the film.
Located at the right side of the top plate is the shutter release button with possibility for a cable release and the large shutter button with orange markings for (too) slow shutter speeds (without a tripod). The fastest time of the focal plane shutter is 1/1000s and these continue through 1/500 to 1/2s and Bulb. Furthermore, the shutter speed can also be set for synchronisation with flash blocks and automatic flash (1/40s). The pc sync cable can be attached next to the lens mount, but the hot shoe provides also a trigger for the flash.
On the front we have the M42 mount, the self-timer and the pc sync cable connection for flash. Under the lensmount we have a pin that can be push inside to release the aperture. Normally the aperture stays open to focus with a bright view and have a full light readout. If you want to check depth-of-field for focussing with the ‘real’ aperture, just push the pin in to do so. If you are searching for the framecounter, it is located at the top of the back in the right.
The viewfinder is bright with a nice large light meter needle on the right, and the selected aperture can be read at the top. The prism/focussing glass contains a rangefinder circle that allows to focus precisely on lines. If these lines perfectly align, the picture is sharp. An unnoticed feature is that the ring of the viewfinder glass on the back of the body can be rotated (with a Spanner Wrench), closing the viewer with a circular aluminum window. I suspect this is intended for very long shutter speeds (astrophotography) to avoid incident light from behind.
The tiny 50 mm F1.8 lens is the high quality (real) Voigtländer color ultron, famous for its (wide open) sharpness and pleasing colour rendering. It is optically similar to the Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.8 and Rollei Planar 50mm f1.8. The other lenses associated with this camera are the Color-Skoparex (25 and 35 mm, f2.8) and Color-Dynarex (85mm f2.8, 135mm and 200mm, both f4). Voigtlander lenses are still produced today for Leica M mount, among others, but in a new digitally optimised design by German Ringfoto who own the brand name. The ‘retro’ series belong to the best optically performing lenses. But try to find the vintage ones, they are easily to find on eBay and affordable too. They perform great with an M42 adapter to all digital mounts.
The VSL-1 feels like a camera you want to get started with right away. It fits comfortably in your hand doesn’t feel so classic with its more contemporary, fashionable look. All control heads are ergonomically well designed and located in logical places. As with Leicas, only the essentials are present, there are no unnecessary features. It is one of the last “big” cameras from the dying German camera industry and for that reason alone a must-have.
Some practical links:
manual for the VSL-1
new retro lenses from Voigtländer for digital cameras