Voigtlander: Better, Best, Bessa

A little art deco, as seen by the black glossy top with three view windows. Oversized buttons with artful black and white circles. A leather bellows held firmly in place by a cleverly engineered and sturdy cover plate. On the front, an advanced Compur Rapid shutter containing a bright Helomar lens. We are talking about the legendary 1938 Voigtlander Bessa RF Rangefinder. One of the best medium format cameras ever made.

I’m holding a light camera in my hands, much lighter than other rangefinder 120 cameras of the time like Zeiss-Ikon’s super Ikontas. The nice rounded shapes make the camera look slim and the whole look is charismatic. You immediately respect the Voigtlander Bessa from the 1930s, a dark pre-war period. Serious construction.

Voigtlander Bessa RF
Voigtlander Bessa RF with Helomar F3.5 105 mm lens.

First the specs and characteristics, so you already notice how well this piece of hight quality engineering actually is, considering it’s introduction in 1936! The Bessa Rangefinder or Bessa RF (also known as the “Bessa E Messer”, short for “Entfernungsmesser” (rangefinder) is a 6×9 / 6×4,5 (with mask) folder using 120 roll film. It was available with different lenses and this one carries the more common Helomar F3.5 lens. The magnified split image coupled (!) rangefinder is a separate window from the viewfinder. The big knob on the left top plate moves the whole bellows with the lens for exact focussing. It also provides a depth of field scale and distances for zone focussing. The Bessa RF has a mask (which like in my case is probably always missing) inside the viewfinder for the 6×4.5 format. But really innovative is that when the mask is put in place, a turning of the very small knob on the top plate swabs the viewfinder to a 6×4,5 frame!. On the back there are two red windows either for looking the numbers on the backing paper on the film for 6×9 pictures or for aligning the two numbers for the 6×4,5 format.

Voigtlander Bessa RF
The beautiful Voigtlander Bessa RF, sturdy, top quality, even in 2021.

The Compur Rapid shutter fires from 1/400s, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10, 1/5, 1/2, 1s down to B and T exposures. With the F3.5 lens, this limits the use of wide open apertures in strong sunshine. There were filters, but all hinged, no possibilities for screw in filters or hoods. You will have to look hard for these filters. But that won’t spoil the fun, under normal conditions the camera provides enough speed to take excellent photos in the gigantic 6×9 format. The rangefinder is fortunately clear in this camera and does a fine job, though the lighting conditions must be favorable to combine the parallel images.

Voigtlander Bessa RF
Three windows, two for the rangefinder and one viewfinder with a built in option for switching two frame sizes on the Voigtlander Bessa RF.

On the old models, like this ’38 camera, there is no PC sync for flash, only a remote cable shutter connection. If you have one, you can sync with all speeds, thanks to the excellent leaf shutter. Famous is the sturdiness of the mechanism that holds together the bellows, shutter and lens. The durability is the trademark of the whole Bessa series till the last one, the Bessa III, made by Cosina early 2000, long after Voigtlander made it’s final Bessa II. Filmloading and transport is easy, just one knob is needed to wind the 8 (x6x9) or 16 (6×4,5) exposures through the back. In the case you want to use color film, make sure you use some black tape to cover the red viewing windows and only remove it to quickly when winding the roll. Black and white film is less vulnerable to red light, where as color film can induce light streaks on your pictures.

Voigtlander Bessa RF
The back of the Voigtlander Bessa RF. A mask is needed to make 6×4,5 pictures.

The camera can be used horizontally and vertically on a Tripod. The Bessa RF is the second model in the successful series of legendary Bessa’s, praised for the quality of the housing and lenses. The first model only had a viewfinder, just like the later Bessa I by the way. Only in 1956 the best-selling Bessa II with rangefinder appeared, as a rebirth of this, in fact much nicer and original pre-war Topmodell.

(rotate the picture for 360 view)

The cover of the manual of the Bessa Rangefinder

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