The Voigtländer Vitessa is a somewhat obscure camera from the 1950's - a time when pride was taken to manufacture solid cameras. Often compared in build to the Leica M3, the Vitessa was introduced several years before the iconic Leica M2 first emerged and went through a series of upgrades and model changes until it was ultimately discontinued after 10 years of production. It may not be perfect, but that's why I love it.
What stands out most in this series is the plunger. Rather than a standard lever for film advancement, Voigtländer incorporated a unique plunger called the combi-plunger - dubbed the "Lighthouse" for the way it juts from the top of the body. When engaged, the plunger rises just under an inch and a half (35mm) above the body. Depressing it cocks the shutter, advances the counter, and advances the film one frame. The mechanics are designed to not advance the film again until the shutter is released to avoid accidental film advancing. It may seem like an overly complicated design, but I feel it works wonderful especially in my copy 61 years later.
The combi-plunger was created for rapid-fire shooting. The idea was to keep your right index finger on the shutter, your left on the rod, allowing you to shoot a quick succession of exposures. Since the concept died with the camera, it's probably wise to note that this may not have been the best design idea as the quick-release dominated those years. But the novelty isn't lost on me and I really admire the innovation.
The line began in 1951 with the Vitessa A (variant 1) equipped with the now classic Ultron 2/50 lens and Compur-Rapid 1/500 shutter. This shutter stayed with the camera through the A (variant 4) model, being replaced by the Synchro-Compur 1/500 with the A (variant 5) in 1954. The fixed lens was focused through a thumb-wheel just behind the light meter. Another stand out feature of this camera was the retractable bellow lens which receded behind the Vitessa's "barn doors." This feature was prominent through the entire "A," "N," and "L" models. (With the "L" being the most collected version.) The barn door models and variants ran until 1957, when the "T" model was introduced with a rigid lens and is the model this review is based on. The rigid lens moved the focus from the thumb-wheel to the lens, as they were now interchangeable.
The Voigtländer Vitessa T was the final model of the series, introduced in 1956, and was available for roughly 4 years until it was discontinued, though the name resurfaced with an unrelated Zeiss Ikon Voigtländer Vitessa 500 compact camera in the 1960's. There were three variants of the Vitessa T, each providing slight improvements over the previous. My particular variant was the second, with an interchangeable lens. Build quality was never sacrificed, which is why the quality is so often compared to the Leica M3. I do not think it surpasses the Leica in quality, but I honestly think it's on par. The glass, however is not on the same playing field. The advantage I would easily give to Leica in terms of the quality of lenses. But I will get more into the lens below. First, let's talk some camera specs.
Voigtländer Vitessa T Tech Specs
The Vitessa is fully mechanical, meaning no batteries. This particular model came standard with the Color-Skopar 2.8/50 lens and the Synchro-Compur leaf shutter. The shutter has a range of B, 1-2-4-8-15-30-60-125-250-500 with EV coupling as well as a self-timer. The settings would be familiar to Hasselblad users. The built-in light meter is a uncoupled selenium meter, with a sensitivity from ASA 6-200 (as well as DIN and WES scales), standard for the time. The 3rd variant of the T supported up to ASA 400. The viewfinder is a rangefinder with automatic parallax compensation for the Color-Skopar. It is also very close in size (3 mm shy of the M2) and weight (60 g heavier body; though 15 g lighter when the M2 has a similar Elmar 2.8/50 mounted) to the M2/3 bodies from Leica. And like the M2/3, built like a brick $#!^house.
- Type: Rangefinder (parallax corrected)
- Shutter: Leaf; Synchro-Compur MX 1/500
- Mount: DKL
- Meter: Uncoupled selenium meter / EV based
- Flash: M or X
- Weight: 640 g / 785 g with Color-Skpoar 2.8/50
- Dimensions: 85 x 135 x 75 mm
- Film: 35mm
- Loading: Removable back
Voigtländer Color-Skopar 2.8/50
The T model (model T?) came with the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 2.8/50, which is sub-par to their wonderful Voigtländer Ultron 2/50 that the barn door models had available (A1-A5, N2, and L1-L3). Surprisingly, there seems to be very little out on the internet about either of these lenses, other than some high level conversations. There's a bit more talk on the Ultron, though. I'd say a somewhat fair compare would be the Voigtländer Ultron 2/50 to the Leica Summicron 2/50 (though not as sharp wide-open as the Summicron), and the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 2.8/50 to a 1950's Leica Elmar 2.8/50 collapsible.
At one time, tack-sharpness was what I was seeking in every lens I chased, but looking in my archives over the years, my eyes have been drawn to those with character and uniqueness. It was one of the factors that had me seeking out this camera combo.
- Focal Length: 50 mm
- Mount: DKL
- Exposure: EV based / lockable on barrel
- Aperture: f/2.8 - 22
- Elements: 4 in 3 groups
- Min Focus: 0.6 m
- Filter: 40.5 mm
- Weight: 145 g
- Length: 32 mm
VOIGTLÄNDER VITESSA T In the Hand
In the hand, it feels like a typical rangefinder of the time, equivalent in build to a Leica M2 or M3 if you ever held one. Solid metal construction (though sadly not brass) with an eye for aesthetics and details. The combi-plunger is more awkward than a proper thumb-cranked quick-release lever and takes a little getting used to. But you can get pretty quick advancing the film with the left while rapid-firing with the right hand - without ever moving your eye from the finder. Though the combi-plunger can be "pushed" at all times, you don't have to worry about advancing the film until the shutter is released. It is designed to disengage the film transport when the lens is cocked.
Putting the combi-plunger in the locking position takes a little getting used to as well. The trick, I found, is to look where the color of the metal changes on the rod and depress it to that point. That seems to be the magic spot where it catches.
A cool feature with this camera is you can change rolls of film mid spool. Sure, you can with other bodies as well, but the process is quite simple with this camera. Just note the frame you are on and rewind the spool until it just releases from the catch (go slow). When you return the spool, there is a film release button at the bottom of the lens you can pull back. (see button with red dot on the image to the left) Then you can advance the film to the frame you were on without engaging the shutter (just depress the combi-plunger X amount of times to get to the right count).
Given that you loaded your film the same way, you should now be where you last left your spool. Just be sure the button is released so you can re-engage the shutter.
Being a rangefinder, you should pretty much understand what you'll see in the window. The rangefinder patch is a little smaller that what you'd see in a Leica M2 or Zeiss Ikon, but it's plenty bright. (Much less bright than the M's, though and no frame lines). The eye relief is good, even with glasses on. This finder has parallax correction optimized for the Color-Skopar 2.8/50 lens. I haven't quite figured out where the frame lines would rest when looking into it - I know from my results I botched a couple frames.
The process of loading film isn't as smooth as in a Leica with the bottom plate and quick-spool. The Vitessa line has a removable back (basically the bottom shell of the camera) that slides off. The spool is loaded on the right side, rather than left, and is fed to the retaining spring, being careful to engage the teeth on the sprocket.
NOTE: While in here, you can also set the film indicator. This simply denotes what you have loaded. The abbreviations are as follow:
- N: Black and white negative
- UR: Black and white reversal
- TD: Daylight color reversal
- KA: Artificial light color reversal
- TND: Daylight color negative
- KNA: Artificial light color negative
Before closing the back, you must set the film counter as it's underneath the cover in front. Rotate the dial counter-clockwise until the diamond is in the first position - lining up with with the indicator at about "3 o'clock" on the body. The counter will go up to 36 exposures.
If you're wondering about that second diamond inside the counter wheel, that's if you're shooting a roll with less than 36 exposures so you can set a reminder where the spool is complete (12, 24 or some other custom amount).
Once the counter is set, be sure your film is taught and slide the back on, being careful not to catch the film on the pressure plate. If it is at all loose, it can catch and cause issues. Also, be sure the combi-plunger is not in the lock position but is fully extended. I found that I couldn't get the back to seal tight otherwise.
With the combi-plunger fully extended, pull back the film release button (pictured above) and give the combi-plunger a couple of advances and the counter should read 0, meaning you're good to go. Release the film release button.
The T model had a series of lenses in the DKL mount that could be attached. They were the Color-Skopar 2.8/50, Skoparet 3.5/35, Dynaret 4.8/100, and the Super-Dynaret 4/135. To remove the lens, press the locking lever at the bottom of the lens (see above image again) and slightly raise the EV ring while turning the lens to the left. Just the opposite to attach a lens; being sure to line up the red dot on the EV ring with the triangular shutter speed index marker.
I won't go into detail how I meter here, but the Vitessa T has a built-in, though uncoupled, selenium meter which utilizes the EV scale. My copy has 3 scales available: DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung from 1934), ASA (American Standards Association from 1943), and WES (Weston film speed ratings from 1932). All three standards were in popular use at the time this camera was released in 1957.
Based on films available during this era, the ASA scale ranged from 6-200. Based on the speed you are exposing for, rotate the knob in the back until the EV scale in the window matches the film speed you are exposing. For example, as I expose my film as ASA 200, I rotate the scale until the EV chart with the "F" at the top is displayed (see image to the right).
Now, a reading is taken, however you do, and the number is transferred onto the lens. You want to watch where the red tip of the needle points (notice the white and black sections). The black sections indicate the black numbers to the left (odd numbers). If pointing to the white, then it indicates an "in-between" value, which on this scale, would be the even numbers. The EV ring is lifted and rotated until the number indicated on the meter is lined up with the red arrow on the shutter speed dial, just above the 60. For the image pictured here, it would be "8" on the ring as the tip of the needle is in the white, between the 7 and 9. If the needle is directly between the white and black, you can also adjust the EV ring to be between two numbers (for example 11 1/2).
Now, no matter what shutter speed you choose, the proper f-stop combination is locked in place. As the top of the lens does not indicate your f-stop, you can look on the bottom of the lens, where the chosen stop is displayed below the black line on the EV ring.
One more caveat if you never used Synchro-Compur shutter. When you switch over to bulb mode, the shutter speed is no longer timed by the shutter. Now, exposure times are calculated off the green speed scale (left side as facing the front) and are displayed in seconds.
In the example given in the user manual, say you have a light reading of 4. The shutter dial is rotated to B (see left top) and the 4 on the EV dial is lined up with the arrow above 60. Now, on the flip side of the lens (see left, bottom), you read off that proper exposure is f/5.6 for 2 seconds - or f/11 for 8 seconds, f/22 for 30 seconds and so on. This system allow you to get accurate readings from 1/500 second all the way up to 125 seconds. What's handy is whether you use the meter on the camera, have a vintage meter that does EV (the Weston Master V is my favorite) or a modern meter, this EV system works!
While I am going on about the Synchro-Compur, also note that this version has a self-timer. Moving the synchro lever on the side to the "V" position puts the camera in self-timer mode. The delay here is roughly 8 seconds. When shooting normal, the lever should be at the X or M position. (X and M are used for syncing flash as well, though which is beyond the scope of this review).
Focusing / Depth of Field
As I said above, focusing on the Vitessa T is on the barrel rather than a thumb-wheel. The Color-Skopar has a nice throw that doesn't slip and rotates quite smooth.
An added bonus on these lenses is the depth of field scales. There are 2 red index marks on the lens to indicate the distance range (in feet) where your image will be sharp, based on f-stop. This allows zone focusing, which is great for street.
As you change the EV or aperture-speed combinations, these indicators will move in or out to show your sharp range of focus. In the top example on the Color-Skopar, at f/2.8 and an EV of 9, everything from 4 to 5 feet will be in focus. By the focus dot, you can see focus is set to 4.5 feet.
In the bottom image, focus is set to 9 feet on a Skoparet at f/22 with an EV of 15, and everything from 5 to 50 feet would be in focus.
Though not obvious, double-exposures are possible with this camera without much effort. Take your first shot, then depress the reversing button on the bottom of the camera. Re-cock the shutter by working the combi-plunger as usual - though since the reversing button was depressed, the film does not advance. Repeat for as many multi-exposures as you like.
I got to stretch its legs last weekend with a trip up to Acadia National Park with some film friends. I shot in a mix of sunny and cloudy weather. The majority of the shots are wide open at either 1/500 or 1/250 depending on the shadows I wanted to capture. No other settings were used. (Once again, this was Portra 400, so you can see my metering post on how I shoot - thanks to a workshop with Johnny Patience once again). One thing I notice on this roll is it seems to be fairly sharp in the center, but not so much on the edges.
Notice the photo to the right here, the rocks in the dead center are not bad at all, but the edges quickly go soft, almost like the film was not quite tight enough in the camera. Another example is just below, second from the left. Notice that the folks in the center are somewhat in focus, and those just to the left gradually get more out of focus, though they are on the same focal plane. Also, you can see focus change across the water. I am thinking a characteristic of 60 year old glass. Not a good photo, but I think the bottom right shot shows the out-of-focus spots best - it's all over the place.
I really like how it rendered, though. I think this lens has a very unique look and that is something I totally enjoy. I like going out with a fairly cheap camera like this and getting really unique results. Would they have been more crisp with a Sonnar on an M2? Hell yes. But perhaps not as interesting. For me, interesting wins.
Below, to allow the camera to speak for itself, are some examples taken from this camera on Portra 400, exposed at roughly half box (I didn't meter).
Walking around Acadia National Park with this camera felt so similar to walking around with a Leica M2, though not nearly as smooth. The build and feel are its strengths and as I said many times, is right on par with the M2 - granted the lens build and selection are not at all on par with it. The viewfinder is small with no lines, and the rangefinder patch is minuscule but bright enough to get a solid focus. But even with that issue, the Vitessa T is a total blast to use.
As more than an eye-catcher, the plunger is so fun and unique that everyone seems to want to talk about it (and make off color jokes about the camera's excitement level). It's not as smooth as a thumb lever but it really works well and quick. No, it's not a top camera for me, but all in all, it's a solid camera and for $75, you can't complain.
All film images shot with the Voigtländer Vitessa T - scanned and developed by Richard Photo Lab.