Voigtländer Bessa-L Film Camera Review

A Pro-Grade Rangefinder-Type 35mm Film Body for Under $200

8 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Voigtländer Bessa-L is, perhaps, the most bare-bones and lightweight modern rangefinder-style 35mm film camera with a fast focal-plane shutter for the LTM/M39 lens mounts. It features a pro-grade design and excellent build quality at the lowest price in class.

The lack of a viewfinder — let alone a rangefinder — helps make this camera the most affordable model from the lineup of quality-built Bessa camera bodies. As of this writing, Voigtländer Bessa-L can still be found for just over $100, whereas the Bessa-R variant (with a rangefinder) is priced north of $400, and subsequent models (with roughly the same features) go for well over $1,000.

But Bessa-L is more than just a cheap entry into your favourite lens mount. It’s remarkably light and ergonomic, making it an ideal trip companion — provided you have a matching viewfinder and are familiar with zone focusing. I will go over my experience doing all those things in this review and share my tips on making better images should you end up having a film camera without a “peephole” at the back.

Voigtländer Bessa L with Jupiter-8 50mm 𝒇2 and Portra 400.

A brief history of the Voigtländer brand.

Photography advanced from non-existence to having the incredible capacity to record our natural world in just under two hundred years. I like to think of it in periods:

There were the 1830s-1890s, when we were learning how to capture light on metal and glass plates after discovering that it’s possible; our cameras were large wooden boxes. Early in the 20th century, before WWII, we learned how to make better film cameras out of intricate metal, leather, and glass components on a mass scale. After the war, our ability to make supreme-quality optics and complex, reliable shutter mechanisms has significantly improved; meanwhile, photography gained popularity as many new and legacy scientific instrument brands jumped on the bandwagon to make tools for artists, reporters, and a massive number of hobbyists. But despite the demand, competition for camera makers has always been intense; it drowned a great number of excellent brands, many of which had changed the history of photography and were in business for hundreds of years. The digital revolution of the 2010s brought even greater changes.

Voigtländer has been around since 1756, first as an Austrian manufacturer of scientific instruments. But once photography became a thing, Voigtländer established itself as a leading manufacturer, creating gems like the Vitessa series (my all-time favourite cameras). But the crushing competition of this business had finally squashed the great, who’d stop making cameras in 1971 (while still building lenses). It changed a number of hands in the late 20th, finally ending up under the German Ringfoto’s ownership. Consequently, in 1999, the Japanese camera manufacturer, Cosina, started licensing the legendary Voigtländer name from Ringfoto and branding its cameras with the name.

The Voigtländer Bessa-L cameras (first introduced in 1999 as Cosina SW-107 and discontinued in 2003) bear the all-caps “VOIGTLÄNDER GERMANY” print in white on black next to a much smaller “Made in Japan.” The likeness of an old giant plaid a huge role in this camera’s marketing and to some degree — design.

Note: Cosina didn’t just rent the manufacturing brand name — they bought the rights to the camera name: Bessa was the name of Voigtländer’s popular foldable medium format film cameras made in the 1950s.

Voigtländer Bessa L’s light meter indicating slight under-exposure.

Voigtländer Bessa L’s technical specifications.

On first look, Bessa L may seem little more than a dark box with a lens mount. But despite lacking a viewfinder and focus-assist most cameras in this price range carry, this little block still packs impressive specs:

A fully-mechanical focal-plane shutter with speeds B-1/2000th and flash sync at 1/125s. It’s relatively quiet, vibration-free, and needs no batteries to operate.

The one feature that needs power (two LR44 batteries) is the camera’s center-weighted through-the-lens light meter that works with film speeds from ISO 25 to 1600 — set manually using the ring around the mechanical film rewinder crank/door lock. This minimalist design frees you up to make manual measurements while giving you a quick and easy way to estimate your exposures accurately. It turns on when you half-press the shutter button and illuminates a small display made of three lights: two red lamps on either side that light up when you either under- or over-expose and a green one in the middle that lights up when the middle of your frame aligns with the meter’s middle grey mark.

All this in a die-cast body construction with plastic top and bottom covers and a popular Leica Thread Mount/M39 lens mount. I tested mine with my Jupiter-8 50mm 𝒇2 Soviet-made lens.

The total weight of this camera (sans film, batteries, and lens) is just 332g or 11.7oz. With batteries, lens, film, and my Kontur finder, the package is 502g which is 1.11lb.

Other features in the box are the self-timer, a cold accessory shoe, strap lugs, a film counter, a tripod hole, a PC flash sync port, and a cable release hole inside the shutter button.

Voigtländer Bessa L in use: design and ergonomics.

Voigtländer Bessa L is light, and it rests very comfortably in hand, thanks to a well-placed bump on the camera’s back. The controls are dead simple, practically guaranteeing a quick start for anyone who’s used film cameras and understands exposure.

Voigtländer Bessa L with Kontur finder and Jupiter-8 lens.

The only thing that confused me about using this camera is the lock that blocks the shutter button from firing or activating the light meter. Turns out that this mechanism is built specifically to avoid accidental exposures and battery waste; the camera works as expected when the advance lever is pulled slightly — while staying locked when the lever is flush with the body.

Loading film into Bessa L is relatively simple, although there’s no quick-loading system or motorized assist with this camera.

There’s also a small window at the back of the camera door to help you identify the film inside. However, a better way to track your emulsions is probably the Film Log app.

As you would expect, taking close-up images wide-open isn’t very practical with this camera. You must use the zone focus technique to guess the distance and dial that onto the lens. I managed to get it right with almost all of my exposures. While not everyone likes to focus like that, “normal” lenses with apertures stopped down to 𝒇4 are easy and fast to set using this method — and likely faster and more accurate than with film autofocus bodies.

Aside from the lens, you may want to also get an external matching viewfinder so that you can compose your images accurately. I used the original Voigtländer’s Kontur finder, which gives incredible eye relief and peripheral vision but requires using both eyes and training the brain.

Voigtländer Bessa L with Kontur finder, Jupiter-8 lens (wide-open to 𝒇2) and Kodak Portra 400 .

Despite the severe lack of automation, I found Bessa L quick and handy in most situations. It takes getting used to, but once you are, it can work as well as a rangefinder.

Bessa L’s build quality.

Though Voigtländer Bessa L may look like a Leica, it isn’t made like one. Instead, it utilizes a modern tool design that’s highly practical yet isn’t as outlandishly expensive. The new-ish Bessa feels more like a sturdy, modern field camera than an expensive watch or a collector’s item. It’s well-designed, bare-bones, and well-put together, but it doesn’t feature exceptionally expensive materials.

However, if you like the design of this camera, there are plenty of options made with fancier materials and features you’d expect from a typical rangefinder.

Other Voigtländer Bessa variants.

Though unique, affordable, and successful, Bessa L wasn’t the only camera in the Cosina’s rangefinder-type lineup:

Bessa T featured a Leica M-mount with a coupled rangefinder but no viewfinder for framing the shot.

Bessa R had the same LTM mount as the L with a coupled rangefinder/viewfinder combo most photographers would expect from this type of camera.

Bessa R2- variants had the same features as R with some improvements, such as the magnesium alloy shell and a Leica M-mount. The R2S variant came with a Nikon S mount, and the R2C had a Contax RF mount. R2A had a Leica M-mount and aperture priority mode.

Bessa R3 and R4 made further improvements over R2. Notably, Bessa R3A is the first Leica M-mount film camera with a 1:1 magnification in the finder, making focusing with both eyes open feel natural and comfortable. Whereas R4M and R4A were the first Leica M-mount cameras to include frame lines in the viewfinder wider than 28mm.

How much does Voigtländer Bessa L cost, and where to find one.

Bessa L is the cheapest camera in Cosina’s Bessa lineup that can still be found today in good condition for around $100-200. There’s a great number of them still sold on eBay and other marketplaces — these cameras are not yet rare.

By the way: Please consider making your Voigtländer Bessa L camera purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!