The arrival of Hasselblad's now-defunct Forum magazine was a quarterly highlight. Opening its pages in quiet anticipation of a visual feast of five-colour offset reproduction glorifying the quality of medium format and Zeiss lens capability was exhilarating, and the razor sharp and super toned images leapt off its pages. Medium format images are to smaller formats what dark Swiss chocolate is to a Cadbury's biscuit - high quality, sharp and smooth versus a mouthful of crunchy stuff.
Digital technology is littered with similar problems; push the boundaries of small format sensors and image noise and edge artifacts become a problem for large-scale quality reproduction. Few small and pocketable digital cameras with large sensors capable of approaching medium format film quality are available, leaving some trying to figure out how to avoid being overloaded with a monstrous array of larger kit.
Medium format folding bellows cameras of the first half of the 20th century offered a simple and relatively lightweight route to higher image quality, and they came in a huge range of designs and format sizes, from 8x12cm through 6x9cm to the compact and popular 16 frame 6x4.5cm. Some of the best of the last designs of the period - the Zeiss Super Ikonta IV, the compact Super Baldax and the original Voigtlander Bessa and Bessa II - can still be found in reasonable shape and used with modern film emulsions.
Fiddling with often sluggish Compur shutters, temperamental semi-automatic film loading mechanisms and faded distance rangefinder patches is no-one's idea of fun. Only a handful of masochists like myself continue down this nerdy road, always on the lookout for mint and boxed half-century-old examples that will work better than the last one.
We need look no more. The innovative Hirofumi Kobayashi, CEO of Cosina, has launched a new, improved version of one of the finest examples of the old era. The 2009 Voigtlander Bessa III looks like an oversized 35mm Bessa rangefinder and replicates the optical view and short based rangefinder layout of those latter models, but it also uses some optical com-ponents familiar to smaller Bessas, the Epson RD1 and older Nikons. The same model is also being marketed in Japan as the Fujifilm 667.
The big difference between the 1950s Bessa II and the new III is that the format is no longer 6x9cm but 6x6, or, at the flick of a switch, 6x7cm. Cosina's interpretation of a modern bellows folder retains the mechanically refined agricultural appearance of its miniature product line, using a tough machined metal chassis housed in a lightweight alloy body shell, and finished in elegant satin black enamel paint. The front features a large metal clam cover which flips open on pressing a wide catch to reveal the Nabell bellows mounted six-element, four-group multicoated Heliar 80mm f/3.5 lens with its integral electronic shutter unit. As the clam is lowered, a set of lever arms click the lens standard into its upright position. The U-shaped lens board support is similar to the older Voigtlander design, but the entire mechanism of supports, arms, levers, rangefinder focus links and set screws is in a different class of miniature CNC engineering accuracy.
This new incarnation of old technology is sophisticated yet simple. The Heliar lens is fixed and its maximum aperture is modest at f/3.5. Rangefinder focus stretches from just under 99cm to infinity. The bellows are a lightweight design of rubber- ised and leatherette covered fabric. Large viewfinder, bright-line frame light gathering and rangefinder window sit discreetly across the top-plate while at each end on top is the shutter time and mode setting dial and film advance and shutter arming wheel with its concentrically placed shutter release button.
A small frame counter window and accessory flash hotshoe are the only other items on the top plate. On the left-hand end under the shutter speed mode dial is a standard PC flash synch cable socket, while the back of the camera features the Nikon FM2/FE style interchangeable large viewfinder ocular and a pocket for a film reminder box tab. The bottom plate is fitted with a standard Whitworth tripod fitting, coin-slot operated battery compartment and film spool lock tabs at each end. That's it.
Opening the film back reveals a substantial all-around male/ female light trap gutter with three foam light seals. A pressure plate is easily switched between 120 or 220 positions. Three film width rollers ensure a high degree of film flatness, aided at both ends in the spool chambers by two smaller spring mounted rollers. A set of smoothly machined guide rails cross the frame aperture at top and bottom while to its right, a slotted machine head indicates the possibility of changing format from 6x6 to 6x7cm with a finger nail. The idea is not new, having appeared in other film cameras, but the thin blinds that click into place in the Besssa III are beautifully machined and sharp edged.
At the base of each film chamber, a red-painted, spring-loaded catch releases the bottom end of the film spool spigot. They operate with a positive click, enabling quite rapid film loading. To ensure the greatest possible film flatness, set proper film tension at the take-up end before the back is locked. Drop in a fresh roll of film with its paper tab removed; hold the film in place with the left thumb while pulling the leader gently but firmly across the image frame. Insert the tapered end into the take-up spool slot, gently winding the top plate wheel to ease and tension the film around the new spool. Keep winding the film across and align the starter mark on the backing paper with the chosen format indicator above the top machine rail. Close the back and wind on the film until it automatically stops at 1.
Open the front and click the lens into place; set a working aperture on the serrated ring. Pressing a small button in the centre of the shutter time mode dial allows the user to set times in manual mode or set the operating mode to A - Aperture Priority. Lift and rotate the outer collar of the dial to set film ISO speed.
Bessa III handling will be familiar to anyone with experience of small format rangefinders. The camera is fitted with a large ergonomically shaped semi-soft hand grip at the right, providing secure thumb and finger placement. The palm, forefingers and thumb of the left hand cup the left base of the camera chassis while balancing the clam cover, the thumb resting on the left side of the lens standard or nestling on the lens focus thumb stop. Raising the viewfinder ocular to eye level now reveals the suspended bright line frame of the chosen format, together with shutter time information in a red LED read-out to the right of the frame, while at the bottom right, the format indicator is displayed. The centre of the viewed image is flawed by a secondary brighter patch that is coincident with the real image when the desired object is correctly focused.
Aim, focus, shoot
The Bessa III is as quick to use as a standard film Leica - provided of course, it's open. According to UK distributor Robert White, users reported difficulties with opening or closing the camera as soon as it hit the market. One new camera was returned with the front lens standard wedged between a partly opened clam cover and the camera chassis. Page 41 and 42 of the maker's instruction book clearly and concisely illustrate and describe the methods to be used and when these are followed to the letter, damage to the delicate lever arm mechanism and bellows will normally be avoided.
Opening and closing the camera turns the battery supply on or off for the electronic shutter and metering. In the closed position it also locks the shutter release button but to get there, users must remember to reset the lens focus ring to infinity before attempting to release the front cover lock. It's not complicated, but users do need to embed the few simple step-by-step procedures.
The shutter release has a light, two-stage touch: first pressure engages the centre-weighted exposure metering facilitated by a small optical cell next to the rangefinder window in the camera top housing. In manual or AE mode, selected and automatic shutter times correlating to the chosen f stop are indicated in the viewfinder. When used manually, exposure values can be assessed using a hand-held meter or by skipping to the A setting, resetting the indicated shutter time manually.
Full and half-stop positions on the aperture scale ring are click stopped, and in AE mode selected shutter times proved accurate enough provided the shutter was half depressed and held for the desired tone section of the subject. The usual large areas of bright sky or dark tree lines can result in metering inaccuracy and should not be relied upon when important smaller areas of the subject are likely to be over or under exposed.
I found the near-silent operation of the electronic shutter a little disconcerting at first, and until half way through the first roll of film was unsure whether I had made any exposures. The interlock between shutter and film advance proved the case; the shutter has to release before the next frame can be wound on and in this context, the Bessa III now takes pole position as possibly the quietest film camera extant. People within a meter or two of the lens never heard the shutter.
Kobayashi and his design team are to be congratulated on producing one of the best thought-out pieces of film kit to come to market in recent years. Yes, it displays all the digital engineering finesse we have come to expect in the modern world but it also has a certain charm that takes it out of the ordinary. It's a future classic in the making. It's also great fun to use, because it's a tool that works.
The Heliar lens is as sharp as a tack and is only slightly compromised by the fact that attaching the accessory lens hood when a thick rimmed filter is fitted may result in slight vignetting. The coincident rangefinder has a relatively short 25.9mm effective measuring base length, but in practice, this proved both positive and accurate, the large viewfinder ocular providing a clear view of the automatically corrected parallax motif frame as well as a useful area outside the bright lines.
The body is just the right size but in my opinion Cosina used inappropriately soft materials for the handgrips at each end of the camera. It's the same type of neoprene or rubber based stuff other manufacturers use for everything from compacts to DSLRs, which marks easily and, eventually, peels apart from the body shell. The back of this camera appears to be moulded metal, finished in durable matt paint; it would have benefitted from a moulded metal or hard plastic thumb stop, as would the front side.
But these are minor issues and do not detract from the usefulness of the tool in obtaining quality large format images. For the traveller determined to uphold the aesthetic benefits film can endow, this easily pocketable camera will test the creative expression of many.
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