I’ve never been guilty of writing in depth reviews of gear, I mostly stick to the experience of using whatever it is I am writing about. I’m going to put on my grown-up pants and take a stab at doing something a little more serious. In all honesty, I haven’t been shooting much at all. I have been bone-crushingly depressed for a while now. However, picking this camera up has been good for me. I’ve gone out and made images I like and had fun while doing it. I have a sense of satisfaction from the process. A camera that is this much of a good thing deserves a better review.
I’ve wanted one of these cameras for a long time, but never pulled the trigger. Now that I have one, I wish I’d done it sooner.
When the Voightlander Bessaflex TM was introduced in 2003, it caused some head scratching. I think almost everyone looked at the camera and wondered why it was made in the first place and who would want to buy it. Here is my answer, but your mileage may vary.
I have a thing for Eastern Bloc lenses. I love many of these glorious hunks of metal and glass, and I enjoy shooting with them. The primary three I use are all Meyer-Optik M42 primes: an Oreston 50mm f 1.8 I bought first, an Orestegon 29mm f 2.8, and a Primagon 35mm f 4.5. I’ve got my eye out for several others to buy in the future, such as the Orestor 100mm f 2.8. I’m also looking at the Zeiss Jena options, and I’ll probably pick up the Jupiter 9 85mm as well.
When I bought the Oreston, it came with a Vivitar 400/SL attached to it. My opinion of this camera could be summed up in one word: “meh.” It was uninspiring and had a super loud shutter. It eventually gave up the ghost and I did not mourn its passing. The fact that it was built by Cosina is ironic in a way, since they built the Bessaflex as well.
I tried to adapt the lenses to my Contax SLRs, but many of them protrude too far in to the body and wind up hitting the mirror and preventing it from returning. I looked for a long time for a M42 body I liked. I never found one that clicked. Dim, small viewfinders I disliked after being spoiled by some excellent ones I’ve used. Mercury battery problems and other age related ills kept me from finding a favorite. Everyone told me to just buy a Spotmatic, but that’s one of my cursed cameras. I’ve never had luck finding one in good shape. Which led me to the Bessaflex.
There are two models of this camera, a silver one that looks like a Topcon Super from the 1960s, and a black one. The silver is more common and cheaper. Although, neither camera had a long run. The black version was made from 2003 to 2006, and the silver lasted until 2007.
I think the black model is the better looking camera. A different pentaprism shape makes the camera remind me of a Nikon FE somehow. Plus it is black, like my soul. But aesthetics aside, why did I choose this camera?
While it retains the basic 1970s look of an old SLR, it does have some upgrades. The viewfinder covers 95% and is very bright, and has the split microprism I prefer. The Copal shutter tops out at 1/2000th of a second, faster than any older M42 I have seen. Flash sync is 1/125th. It does have some plastic and the resulting body is very light, which I can appreciate while hiking. The simple controls have the minimum I need, and nothing extra, which is nice. And finally, the LED meter is easier to read in lower light than a needle meter is.
The shooting experience is very, very 1970s. A switch activated center weighted meter stops down the lens to take its reading. It’s slow but works. I think they went with this exceedingly retro design to make sure it worked with older lenses. The control layout is basically identical to the one used by the Spotmatic, except for the PC socket for flash moved to the left side of the camera.
The common story for the manufacture of these cameras is that Kobayashi Hirofumi, the president of the company, loved his Topcon Super so much he wanted to make a new one. This could be, but I think he was addressing another problem as well. Cameras age, and some of them do not age well. The electronics used in the metering systems of a 50 year old camera are becoming difficult to find repair for. Since Cosina has always produced more lenses than cameras, having a newer camera with modern electronics would help sustain the user base.
I bought my Bessaflex just to have the newest camera to use with my funky M42 lenses. The electronics should last for a long time yet, and the Copal shutter is reliable enough to last even longer. The fact it didn’t have crusty lube in the shutter making it stick or gummy light seals, or any of the problems older cameras have is nice. If I could change anything, it would be to add interchangeable focusing screens. This camera does not disappoint, and is bringing me joy in using my older lenses I held on to for years even though I did not have a camera to shoot them with. It’s a fine tool to use my Eastern Bloc glass with.
Shooting with this camera in an interstitial space reminded me that a simple camera with black and white film is all about light and texture. It was a very soothing, meditative process. Frame, check the exposure, focus, and take the shot. After a bit the metering process of hitting the switch and stopping down becomes effortless to the point it fades in to the background and the rhythm of the shoot comes to the fore and you glide along, smooth and quiet, nothing but peace in your mind and a smile on your face.
Now that is a sign of a good camera.