Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review of the Voigtlander Bessa R3a After 6 Years

Since 2005 I've been using the Cosina-Voigtlander series of cameras and lenses. When I first learned about rangefinder photography I started with the flimsy Bessa L. Several months later I moved to the underwhelming Bessa R and then onto the Bessa R3a. During that time I have owned or shot with R2a, R3m, and R4m but only the R3a, after 6 years, is still with me. Sometimes I wonder why.

Over our long relationship together I could use it for weeks and think that the R3a would be the only camera I would ever need. Then inspecting those negatives the next month I regret not leaving the camera on the shelf in favor of a Leica body.

For your information and entertainment I've compiled a simple list of my personal Voigtlander Bessa R3a likes and dislikes.

- The accurate meter. Exposure on TriX, Reala, Velvia and even Kodachrome (RIP) is impossibly perfect.

- Aperture priority mode. It's permanently set on my camera because it's accurate and quickens my shooting. With A mode on, one of my three technical details is removed. I set the aperture and then the only part I need to dial-in is the focus.
- 40mm framelines. One of my favorite lenses is the Nokton 40mm f1.4 and it's nice to have accurate framing.
- Normal swinging back door film loading. Doesn't require use of my mouth to load a new roll of film, unlike the Leica M2 or M3.
- Manual frame-selector. I like the having control over what frame-lines show up. It's a small innovation that makes the camera cheaper and gives me more control.

- Rewind knob. It always slips out of my fingers when I am rewinding the film. I mean it in the most literal sense possible -- 'always'.
- Rangefinder came unaligned. When I received my R3a from cameraquest, it the rangefinder was misaligned. I had it repaired locally because it would have cost too much for shipping to and from the dealer even if repairs were free. Plus there was no guarantee that it the alignment wouldn't come unraveled again in the journey back to me.
- Short EBL (effective base length) I have trouble getting a focused shot with the Nokton 40mm f1.4 at f1.4. It's easier on an M body.
- Requires a battery to operate. I realize that if it wasn't for batteries I wouldn't have it's fabulous A mode and meter but this is means the R3a can't join me solo on adventures. I require a backup body because I can't depend on batteries to take my pictures.
- 40mm framelines hard to see. While wearing glasses I can't see the framelines. If I jam the camera against my face and look around the window I can almost see some of the lines.
Lug placement: The lugs are mounted in the front of the camera. That means the top of the camera will obnoxiously poke into you and the lens faces straight up! It becomes even more obnoxious when using an external viewfinder -- it will jab your ribs while you walk. Stupid!

- The finicky shutter system. There are two enormous issues with the shutter system. The first is that it jams periodically. Sometimes I can fix it by poking around with my finger and sometimes it has to go the shop. The second is that when the battery begins to run out the curtains don't open properly. It's difficult to notice when it's happening because the battery isn't low enough to trigger the warning (1 and 2000 blinking at the same time) and partially moving curtain sounds like a frame is being exposed. The only indicator that there's a problem is when the negatives are developed. "Oh. I see there are dozens of blank frames. Time to change my batteries in five weeks ago."

I wouldn't ever buy or recommend a Bessa R2a, R3a, or R4a. I don't want to use a camera that out of 20 rolls has half of a roll completely unexposed. That's not good enough. A camera that works pretty well for 97.5% of the time is not useful to me. Sadly, the R3a is demoted to a last resort backup. For 25-30% more money I could get a used Leica M2, M3, M4-2, or M4-p and, though they are not without their own issues, that's what I would recommend to most anyone.

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