Bessa RF: the forgotten classic Rangefinder

It is not the most famous Voigtlander although it is part of the most popular medium 6×9 Voigtlander Bessa series. We refer to the les known original Bessa RF, far more sophisticated than its siblings because of the coupled Rangefinder. Made in 1936 and as black and dark as the rising evil in Germany.

His name? Johann Christoph Voigtländer, the founder of the oldest camera manufacturer in the world. So now you know. But for that we have to go back to 1756. Did they already make camera’s then? No, they made optical instruments, like Opera glasses. The first Voigtlander camera dates back to 1840 thanks to the collaboration with the German-Hungarian mathematics professor Petzval, who came up with the first usable lens. Together they built the first all metal camera, which in order to make the image, a so called daguerreotypist polished a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish; treated it with fumes that made its surface light sensitive; exposed it in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or much longer with less intense lighting; made the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with mercury vapor; removed its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment; rinsed and dried it; and then sealed the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure (source: Wikipedia). So never complain again about the transfer speed of digital cameras to a SD card.

Voigtlander was of course also one of the first to produce plate and film cameras by the turn of the century. But the real breakthrough came with the highly advanced, one of the first rangefinder cameras. We mean the outstanding, but underrated Voigtlander Prominent 6×9 from 1932. But it was over engineered and very costly (it still is!). So the company needed a more affordable, but professional camera which was created with the Bessa RF. It was the successor to the earlier Bessa series produced between 1929 and 1937. These could already work with 120 film, but had only a simple viewfinder.

Voigtlander Bessa RF
Voigtlander Bessa RF with Helomar F3.5

The Bessa Rangefinder (aka Bessa E Messer) was introduced in 1936 as high end model of the long-running Bessa series. It is a 6×9 folder using 120 roll film, with a mask for 6×4.5 pictures. It was available with three categories of lenses, the most popular and expensive is the Heliar lens, all with a hinged yellow filter for better contrast in BW photography. The small but magnified split image rangefinder on the back comes next to the viewfinder. It is cleverly coupled to the lens. Focussing is by turning the knob on the top plate which also provides a depth of field scale. To use the 6×4.5 format, you can adjust the viewfinder by turning the small knob on the top plate above the viewfinder. It is hard to find a mask for the Bessa, most come without it. But then again the 6×9 is the format the camera is really made for.

The camera looks gallant, perhaps also because of all the black that emphasises the chrome. The focus knob seems to be the centre of the whole device with that avant-garde touch. Also, when folded, the camera is compact and not as bulky as a comparable Super Ikonta. The beautiful curves contribute to this. The viewfinder is bright and the rangefinder may only offer a small window, but the patch is strong enough to focus quick and easily. For right-handers, this may be a little awkward to use the wheel on your left side and also because you cannot focus with the lens. The fastest shutter speed is 1/400s, quite fast for a medium format. In addition, the times range from 1/200 to 1s and bulb (B) and time (T). Very common values for that time. Especially the extended options for long-time exposures for which a tripod is indispensable. The largest aperture is F3.5, also very respectable for the medium format lens. The same applies to the F22 as smallest aperture. I used the Bessa on a sunny day and with a colour film so that the peephole for the negative numbers appeared sensitive to stray light that crept through the red viewing window from behind. Yet these deliberate light leaks have also added surprising elements to the photos. But due to the lack of an automatic frame counter, it is wiser to use BW films in the Bessa RF. That is what it is really made for.

All in all, the Bessa RF deserves a place in every collection. It is Voigtlander’s answer to the strong competition from Zeiss Ikon’s many Super Ikona rangefinders. It is a camera that is quickly forgotten by the popularity of the later famous Bessa’s I, II and rare III (the last one made by Cosina, long after Voigtlander sold the company).

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