Updated: Aug 28
If you are looking for a budget-friendly rangefinder camera that can use Leica thread mount lenses, you might want to consider the Voigtlander Bessa R. This camera was introduced in 2000 by Cosina, a Japanese company that revived the Voigtlander brand name. The Bessa R is a modern and compact camera that offers a built-in light meter, a bright viewfinder with multiple framelines, and a fast maximum shutter speed of 1/2000s. It is compatible with a wide range of lenses in the LTM/M39 mount, from vintage Soviet lenses to modern Voigtlander lenses. In this review, we will take a look at the camera body and two lenses that can be paired with it: the Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 ASPH and the Jupiter 8 50mm f/2.
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The Bessa R is a well-designed camera that feels comfortable to hold and operate. The body is made of metal and plastic, with a leatherette covering that provides a good grip. The camera is relatively lightweight, weighing only 395g without a lens. The top plate features a hot shoe, a combined film and shutter speed dial, a combined film rewind knob and film door release, a lever to select frame lines to display in the viewfinder, a shutter counter window and a film advance lever, while the front of the camera has the perennial self-timer lever. On the bottom of the camera there is a tripod socket, a battery compartment, and a film rewind button.
The Bessa R has a combined rangefinder and viewfinder that shows 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, and 90mm framelines. The viewfinder has a magnification of 0.68x and shows three LED indicators for the light metering, with arrows to indicate which direction to move the aperture in to achieve correct exposure. The rangefinder patch is clear and contrasty, making it easy to focus accurately. The Bessa R uses two LR44 batteries to power the light meter, which is a center-weighted TTL meter that measures the light reflected from the shutter curtains. The metering range is from EV 1 to EV 19 at ISO 100.
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The Bessa R is not without its flaws, however. It has been criticised for having a slightly cheaper feeling body compared to other rangefinders, such as Leica or Canon. The plastic parts, such as the film door and the battery compartment cover, might not inspire confidence in terms of durability. The shutter speed dial is also not very smooth to turn, although I still find that you can turn it quite easily with your thumb without moving the camera down from your eye.
Another common criticism of the Bessa R is that its effective rangefinder baselength is too narrow and inaccurate for precise focusing with fast lenses or long focal lengths. The baselength is the distance between the rangefinder window and the viewfinder window, which determines how much parallax error there is between what you see and what you get. The Bessa R has a baselength of only 37mm, which is shorter than most other rangefinders. For comparison, the Leica M6 has a baselength of 69.25mm and the Canon P has a baselength of 68mm.
However, this criticism might be exaggerated or unfounded for most users. The Bessa R has parallax-corrected framelines that adjust automatically as you focus closer or farther away, which helps to compensate for the short baselength. Moreover, the Bessa R is designed to work with LTM lenses, the majority of those which you will likely use having a maximum aperture of f/2 or slower, which means that the depth of field is usually just about sufficient to cover any minor focusing errors. Unless you are using very fast or very long lenses on the Bessa R, you should not have any major issues with focusing accuracy.
The Bessa R can use any LTM lens. It is suggested to use lenses that have a focal length between 28mm and 135mm; on the short end, the field of view of a 28mm is practically the entire viewfinder field, so no external viewfinder is needed, and on the long end, you can likely extrapolate to 135mm from the 90mm lines. Any longer, and you will have a significantly increased chance of focusin errors, and any shorter, and you would need an external viewfinder to see what exactly the field of view is you're covering.
I will focus on two lenses that match the framelines of the Bessa R: the Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 ASPH and the Jupiter 8 50mm f/2.
Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 ASPH
The Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 ASPH is a modernish lens that was introduced on the cusp of the new millenium by Cosina. It is a fast and sharp lens that features an aspherical rear element, an admittedly odd-to-see-at-first concave front element, and a multi-coated glass. The lens has a metal body and a metal hood that can be retracted when not in use. The lens has a minimum focus distance of 0.9m and a maximum aperture of f/1.7, which makes it ideal for low-light and shallow-depth-of-field photography.
The Ultron 35mm f/1.7 is a very impressive lens that delivers excellent image quality across the frame and at all apertures. The lens is sharp even wide open, with good contrast and color rendition. The lens also produces smooth and pleasing bokeh, thanks to its 10-blade aperture diaphragm. The lens has low distortion and vignetting, and handles flare well, thanks to its aspherical element and multi-coating. The lens also has a nice rendering of out-of-focus areas, with a smooth transition from sharp to soft.
The Ultron 35mm f/1.7 is not perfect, however. People looking for a specific "vintage film look" might find the lens to be too sharp or clinical for their taste. The lens also has some focus shift, which means that the plane of focus changes slightly as you stop down the aperture. The lens has a very short focus throw, which can make it slow to focus in some situations as you play in and out to get the rangefinder patch to align.
Jupiter 8 50mm f/2
The Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 is a vintage lens that was produced from the 1950s to the 1990s by various Soviet factories. It is a copy of the pre-war Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/2, which was a popular lens for Contax rangefinders. The Jupiter 8 has a metal body and a six-element, three-group optical design. The lens has a minimum focus distance of 1m and a maximum aperture of f/2, which makes it a versatile and standard lens for everyday photography.
The Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 is a cult classic lens that offers good image quality with some character and charm. The lens is sharp in the center and decent in the corners, with moderate contrast and warm color rendition. The lens also produces smooth and creamy bokeh, thanks to its 13-blade aperture diaphragm. The lens has low distortion and vignetting, and can create some nice sunstars when stopped down. The lens also has a nice rendering of out-of-focus areas, with a gentle transition from sharp to soft.
But the venerable Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 is not without problems. People looking for sharp images will find it to be too soft or low-contrast for their taste. The lens also suffers from flare and ghosting, especially when shooting against the light or with bright sources in the frame. The lens also has some sample variation, which means that the quality and performance of the lens can vary depending on when and where it was made.
The Voigtlander Bessa R is a great camera for anyone who wants to experience rangefinder photography without breaking the bank. It is a modern and compact camera that offers a built-in light meter, a bright viewfinder with multiple framelines, and a fast maximum shutter speed of 1/2000s. It is compatible with a wide range of lenses in the LTM or M39 mount, from vintage Soviet lenses to modern Voigtlander lenses.
The Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f/1.7 ASPH and the Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 are two lenses that can be paired with the Bessa R to create different images and moods. The Ultron is a fast and sharp lens that features an aspherical rear element, a concave front element, and a multi-coated glass. It delivers excellent image quality across the frame and at all apertures, with good contrast, color rendition, bokeh, flare resistance, and out-of-focus rendering. The Jupiter 8 is a vintage lens that was produced from the 1950s to the 1990s by various Soviet factories. It is a copy of the pre-war Zeiss Sonnar 50mm f/2, which was a popular lens for Contax rangefinders. It offers good image quality with some character and charm, with moderate contrast, warm color rendition, bokeh, sunstars, and out-of-focus rendering.
Both lenses have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are both fun and enjoyable. Paired with the Bessa R, you have a very capable film rangefinder outfit for a reasonable amount of money.
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