I picked up a bucket list camera on the bay a few summers ago – a Voigtländer Vitessa N2. It’s a folding post-war 35mm rangefinder camera produced during the 1950s – the golden age of rangefinders. While it’s not the exact one on the bucket list, it’s close enough to get the full experience. The minor differences are its lens, which is a little slower than the cream of the crop, and that it has no meter. But the sheer cleverness and unique operation of the Vitessa make for a fun experience.
For those of you that know my camera collecting experiences, you know I love Voigtländers. These German-made gems were not necessarily the most coveted cameras to come out of Germany in the 1950s or 60s, but they might be considered the most accessible in terms of quality vs price. Leica, Exakta, Franke & Heidecke (Rolleiflex), and others were churning out high-priced cameras, many of them used professionally. They are highly collectible and still command high dollars today.
After the big war, photographic technology and technique started to rapidly evolve. Printers produced higher resolution books and magazines, cinema provided bigger screens and better projection, and photographers had finally been accepted into the world of art. The public’s expectations of seeing better photographs fed their desire to make better ones themselves. They expected better cameras, lenses, films, and papers. The Germans and Japanese answered (let’s not forget the French and Italians, too).
Professional photographers’ demands were always changing, and several manufacturers catered almost exclusively to them. But some camera makers were more interested in selling to the mass markets, like Zeiss-Ikon and Voigtländer. Though they both offered pro and semi-pro cameras, most were tailored to casual or serious amateurs. Fujifilm, Pentax, or Olympus would be modern day equivalents. Then, as now, they wanted their users to have a quality experience while producing superb pictures. They also wanted their cameras to last (a concept almost unheard of today).
Zeiss-Ikon and Voigtländer cameras from the 50s and 60s have stood the test of time. Many German cameras from the mid-century still work flawlessly. The build quality is above what anybody else was doing at the time. I don’t think it was necessarily a marketing ploy to build at this high level, after all they could sell more cameras with planned obsolescence. I think it was just the way they did things. They weren’t about to compromise the century-old sterling reputation for building precision mechanical cameras and timepieces.
If you look through catalogs and magazines from this era, the German cameras were some of the most expensive for sure, but they also had a host of ingenious designs and accessories. But they would sometimes paint themselves into a corner with their clever designs. For instance, many rangefinders from the 1950’s suffered from parallax. Because you are viewing the scene above and to the left of the lens, closeups are impossible to frame. Camera makers limited focus to about 3 feet to prevent this error. To correct for parallax, some rangefinder viewers’ frame lines moved during focusing to indicate the approximate final frame.
Making the Complicated More Complicated
Other attempts were much more involved. Enter the “proximeter,” a fancy-sounding name for an over-engineered device. Because amateurs were mostly using these cameras, many wanted closeups of children, pets, and perhaps their prize rose. They had already spent a month or two’s wages on this camera, and they didn’t want to buy another one. The solution was a multiple-piece device that included a closeup filter for the lens, and a closeup filter for the viewfinder. This was attached in a variety of ways, usually involving movable rods, screws, wing nuts, and chains. I couldn’t attach the first one I owned without repeatedly referring to the instructions. With it on the camera, it looks more like a military device for spotting enemy planes than a solution to capturing Johnny’s smile. But it performed beautifully.
You have to remember that single lens reflexes (SLRs) were not yet common in the 1950’s, so camera engineers were just adding to the existing camera structure. With some of the attachments, these cameras started to resemble a Rube Goldberg machine. They were wonderfully overly complicated and exhibited clever problem-solving engineering.
Making the Very Complicated Even More Complicated
Rangefinder focusing, parallax error, proximeter attachments – can they complicate things further? Of course! Enter: the Light Value System, or LVS. In the words of Roger Hicks, this “poisonous” system was neither useable nor understandable by amateurs. Just imagine if all of our textbooks and newspapers were all of a sudden written in Esperanto. A clean and logical language for those who speak it, but useless to the masses.
LVS was created to solve a few problems, namely the uncoupled light meter. The mad scientists that cooked up LVS reasoned that amateurs didn’t understand the relationships between f-stops and speeds. Users would rather deal with only one number. Read the number from the meter, then set the camera dial to that same number. Speed and aperture moved together. That in itself was brilliant. But in practice, one had to unlock one or the other to be creative. The Vitessa has this “feature” and is difficult to release, though not as difficult as others, such as Kodak Retina folders.
Making the Really Complicated Very Simple – and Quirky
When I first saw a Vitessa in a picture, I noticed that weird rod sticking up on top of the camera body. You can’t help but stare – kind of like when you see Aaron Neville’s mole on his eyebrow for the first time. I wanted to know what it was, what it did, and why other cameras don’t have it. It’s called a “plunger.” I think the name itself told the story of why no other camera had it – it was flushed away with this camera. In reality, it was a clever solution for the amateur photographer that needed a little speed. The plunger is a multi-tasker. When pushed down, it 1) advances the film, and 2) cocks the shutter. The photographer can leave the left index finger on the plunger and the right index finger on the trigger. After taking the shot, one rapidly pushes the plunger down and voila! You’re ready for another shot. I can fire off about two shots per second with this clever contraption. When you’re done shooting, simply close the front barn doors and press the plunger down until it stays. When you open it back up, the plunger shoots back up like an antenna.
For many folders before the 1960’s, the process of taking a picture was laborious. 1) Turn the knob on the camera body to advance the film. 2) Cock the shutter with a tiny lever on the front lens assembly. 3) Move your hand back to the camera body (or further forward to the front of the camera) to fire the shutter. This process alone might take 3-4 seconds for a practiced shooter. The Vitessa film advance/shutter cock plunger action took a fraction of a second. Of course, SLRs that would come out several years later accomplished the same task with a rapid advance lever. But I think we owe a bit of praise to the Vitessa engineers who solved a real problem with a quirky solution.
Shooting with the Vitessa
Loading and unloading film. Loading requires a simple lift and turn of a lever on the bottom. The back/bottom comes off like many rangefinders from this era. The film loads opposite of most cameras with the canister on the right and the take up spool on the left. Turn the camera over and set the film counter wheel to the start arrow. When shooting, the counter is in a little window on the front of the camera. Thankfully, it advances up to count the frames shot. Many older cameras counted down, with some even refusing to shoot once they hit zero. You can also choose to set film type with a wheel inside the little frame counter window. Put the bottom back on, being sure to push while locking it back with the lever.
When you’re done with your roll, push the rewind release button on the bottom. The rewind crank is cleverly tucked away on the bottom. Pull it out, fold over the crank, and wind away.
Opening and closing the barn doors. Simply push the shutter button and the doors fly open, the lens board shoots forward, and the plunger ejects with a THWACK. This will make you jump the first time you do it. I suggest holding your finger over it so that it slowly ejects. This can also help keep parts from breaking with a camera this old.
Closing the camera is fairly easy. Pull the barn doors wide with two hands, push the lens board into the body with two fingers on either side (mind the lens!), and snap it shut. Finally, push the plunger down until it locks. It’s hard to describe in print, but doing it a few times will make you appreciate German engineering.
Setting the shutter and aperture. Now comes the frustrating part. Because they forced the LVS onto us (kind of like Apple forcing us into or out of hardware), the speed and aperture are interlocked. I find it easier (and backwards of how I think) to set the speed dial first, then grab the LVS tab on the bottom of the lens barrel to set the aperture. Yes, it sucks, but the alternative is to gorilla hold the LVS tab while turning the speed dial. You could always read your meter’s LVS and set that first, then slide the speed dial until you get the aperture you want. There’s something to be said about shooting “in the period” of a camera.
Focusing. The rangefinder is typical of folders, small and dim with the two viewfinders fairly close together. The focusing wheel on the back is fairly smooth, although my example wants to spring toward close focusing rather than free wheeling through the entire range. I don’t know if they are all like this or not. There is a nice depth-of-field scale along with a rotating feet gauge on the top cover. My rangefinder was out of adjustment, so I started researching how to do it. To my horror, most of what I found involved a complicated task of removing the top cover. But mine, thank God, only required removing the cold shoe to access the adjusting screws.
The lens. My example has the slower f3.5 lens than the top of the line f2 Ultron (which sounds like an alien saying, “We are from the planet Ultron that circles the star Crouton in the system Futon!”). It’s no slouch, though. It suffers from lens flare like many of the lenses from this era that had little to no coating. It helps to hold a hand up to the side of the lens or put a shade on while shooting.
Speeds. My example has speeds from 1 second to 1/500, plus Bulb. Unfortunately, the slower speeds are sluggish. Dripping naphtha into the shutter temporarily helps. One of these days I’ll pull the lens off and properly clean the shutter.
Curiosity. Every time I bring this camera along on a video shoot, it draws a crowd. A simple rangefinder or SLR gets a few raised eyebrows, but the Vitessa’s plunger is like a beacon. I haven’t met one person yet that has ever seen one of these cameras. My only other type of camera that gets this much attention is a TLR, but most people have seen one of those.
Quality. What can I say? It’s a Voigtländer. I haven’t met one I didn’t like. With a small format like 35mm, it’s important to have a sharp lens if you need enlargements. Cost vs. performance, I would compare this lens to the same era Zeiss-Ikons. A decade later, the Japanese cameras like Olympus and Canon would be giving the public the same quality of lens in their rangefinders. I occasionally shoot with a cheap consumer camera from this era, but they always leave me wanting more. They’re not bad enough to be interesting, and they’re good enough to pass. The Vitessa is both interesting and great.