After a lot of moving around being owned by large photographic names such as Carl Zeiss and Rollei, the oldest name in the photographic world has, for the past eight years, been a part of Japanese camera manufacturer, Cosina.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Specification
- Type: 35mm rangefinder
- Film Format: 35mm film, 24x36 mm
- Lens Mount: VM
- Shutter: Mechanical controlled vertically moving metal focal plane shutter - by model "A": Vertically moving electronic metal focal plane shutter 1-1/2000sec B
- Focusing: Coincidence type. Infinity - 0.7m
- Bright frames: 21/35, 28, 25/50 mm
- Field of view: 85%, object distance 3m
- Exposure display: By LED indicator in view finder
- Metering: Centre-weighted average metering.
- Exposure Coupling Range: EV1 - 19 (ISO100, F1.4: 1sec.- F16, 1/2000sec.)
- Exposure Control: manual setting, ½ steps from -2 to +2 auto: aperture priority,(1/2000 sec)
- Flash Terminal: X synchronic contact, synchronized at 1/125 sec or lower speed
- Film Advance: By single and/or multiple ratcheting lever action. Double exposure lock system.
- Film Rewind: By film rewind button and film rewind crank
- Film Counter: Additive type with autoreset by opening the back cover
- Film Speed Range: ISO 25 - 3200 by 1/3 steps
- Power Source: Two 1,5V Alkaline batteries (LR44) or Silver batteries (SR 44)
- Weight: Approx. 440g
Although I have seen people wince when they hear the word Cosina, filing them under the label of cheap, badly made SLRs, I used to own a C1 and it never let me down. Now, the acquisition of the Voigtlander name in 1999 has brought them into a more prominent light as the subsequent Rangefinder cameras are well made and appealing to look at.
That said, it seems that Cosina are not entirely ignorant of the reputation they have as the Bessa R4a appears to be missing the Cosina label from the front of the camera and is instead consigned to the underplate next to the tripod bush.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Modes and features
The Bessa R4a is attractive to look at but ergonomics are a low priority to keep in line with the vintage styling of the body. To help grip the camera is a rubbery material wrapped around the mid-section and the smallest hint of a thumb grip on the film door.
The sample I have to test is fitted with a bright Nokton classic 40mm f/1.4 lens, which is the brightest lens of this focal length. The Voigtlander Bessa models all take the Leica M mount like Zeiss Ikon and, obviously, Leica.
The top of the camera has the rewind crank which features a double joint for extra compacting and a locking switch below to prevent accidental opening. The manual viewfinder distance adjustment switch is sat next to the non-dedicated hotshoe and has parallax projected framelines for 21,25,28,35 and 50mm. The R4 series are the only 35mm rangefinders to offer the wide angle 21 and 25mm framelines. Notably, the 21mm does start to edge off the viewfinder which could be problematic for precise framing.
The beautiful, swirly lettering of Voigtlander adorns the top plate with the more sobering font for the model name.
The shutter speed dial is located between the hotshoe and the shutter release which features a nostalgic cable release hole. The letter A in R4a is there to signify the Aperture priority autoexposure that the R4m doesn't have.
A nice feature I like about some of these cameras is the exposure compensation feature which is a simple turn of the aperture priority dial to which setting you want.
The cameras power button is a simple switch wrapped around the shutter release which stops it being pressed.
The R4a also has an AE lock button which is located on the back of the top plate. This button along with the Aperture priority and the Matt black paint finish are the only physical differences with the R4m.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Build and handling
At 440g, it's a heavy camera, but it's not uncomfortable. The metal body is solid and it's obvious a lot of time went into the crafting.
The paintwork reminds me of a Cosina C1 SLR I used to own and I'm unsure whether I like it. I would have preferred to see it in the shiny black that the R4m comes in which is reminiscent of Leica. The main problem with it is that fingerprints are left easily making it look less attractive.
Looking through the life size viewfinder is pleasurable with the large window, adjustable framelines and, holding the shutter release half way down, small red numbers to identify the correct shutter speed. If the incorrect speed is selected, the incorrect number will flash until it's aligned with the correct steadily lit speed. A downside to the speeds being illustrated this way is the reflection of the numbers just out of frame.
As the numbers are lit, a reflection of numbers can be seen in the far left of the viewfinder. It doesn't affect the image, but is in line-of-sight and a minor annoyance.
The viewfinder also has to be manually adjusted for the focal length of the lens attached. Leica lenses have a trigger switch on the lens that automatically changes the focal length in the viewfinder. The Voigtlander is a manual switch on the top plate. Forgetting to change it with lenses could mean missing vital areas of a photograph.
The shutter speed dial clunks round steadily and, as usual, the dial needs to be lifted to adjust the ISO rating. The aperture is super smooth and easy to move. This could cause problems as it can be a bit too easy to move.
Firing off a few exposures and the lack of the mirror is evident as the shutter sound is snappier and quieter than a manual film SLR.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Performance
Since the birth of the digital boom a few years back, it seems strange and slightly exciting to be back behind a camera that actually has film in it. As I shoot, I remember back to my college days when I would curse at only getting half a dozen shots I thought were passable.
Digital cameras have made things easy and now here I am, taking photographs with a camera that actually makes me think. Why do I do this to myself?
The Abbey shoot was overcast and dull. No detail in the sky was recorded, so I'm kind of glad that the scanner has left a cast as it adds some interest. I could've removed the cast in Photoshop as it isn't on the slide, but the sky was left boring.
A lovely golden glow was caught by the Voigtlander on the church pillars as the sun went down.
I like the way film is scanned as it gives the result a softer effect, which is great for portraits and this one has a creaminess to the skin.
The shot is sharp with good detail. The scan has given a cast to the image, though.
The setting sun on these church stones has been captured nicely by the Bessa R4a.
Shooting on film and scanning to the computer gives a certain effect which looks nice on portraits.
The Voigtlander has recorded the red of the drape and detail of the vintage cameras nicely.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Verdict
I really enjoyed my time with the Voigtlander. I didn't want this review to simply be a trip down memory lane and start going on about cameras of the past.
I think it's important to know that film isn't quite dead and a few companies are holding on by the skin of their teeth.
I took the Voigtlander to Chesterfield Photographic society and they loved playing around with the manual modes. One member has even told me he has since bought the R4a after seeing it at the meeting. It's worth noting that he has bought the Bessa R4a over the Zeiss Ikon that I also took because of the compatibility with Leica lenses. The Bessa has focal length settings for the lenses that Leica have released.
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Plus points
Large company backing
Leica lens compatibility
Voigtlander Bessa R4a: Minus points
Manual focal length switch
Unsure about the paint
Shutter speed reflections in viewfinder
The Voigtlander Bessa R4a is currently available from Robert White at £405 body only. Take a look here.