Voigtländer Vitessa is a German folding 35mm film rangefinder camera, manufactured in the mid-1950s. Variant A is the first Vitessa in this remarkable 35mm shooter lineup.
☝︎Further reading: For an in-depth review of Voigtländer Vitessa L3, the latest folder in this lineup with a selenium light meter, see “Voigtländer Vitessa L With Ultron 2.0.”
The appeal of an almost-pocketable full-frame 35mm rangefinder camera with full manual control, an almost “magical” lens, and top-notch German engineering is rather strong. I’ve been shooting mine daily for the past five years, never wishing for a Leica or Hasselblad.
Vitessa A vs. Vitessa L.
Having spent plenty of time with both L and A variants, I can confidently say that the latter is my overall favourite.
Despite the practically identical specs, 50mm 𝑓2 Ultron and 1/500th shutter, version A comes with cleaner lines, better lens markings, and a more pleasant rangefinder window.
Voigtländer’s decision to skip the accessory shoe on its inaugural Vitesssas, available as a slip-on, made for a prettier, cleaner top plate. Not having a selenium meter adds to the minimalism, improves overall reliability, and makes exposure controls a little less clumsy.
Aperture on A is controlled with an easy-to-grip metal tab below the lens, while L requires lifting and moving a tiny lever that is to point to an exposure value that you are expected to match from the light meter readout. Less branding, less typography, and no meter panel make A look a whole lot cleaner from the lens side.
Turning Vitessa A around will reveal a friendlier-looking viewfinder with a neat round bezel and a rhombus-shaped (rather than the L’s “boring” square) rangefinder patch. In practice, both cameras have equally-squinty windows, but the A feels larger and softer. Other differences are A’s slightly more appealing “GERMANY” stamp with a rounded-edge embossed frame, plus the lack of a pressure plate bump and a light meter ISO dial.
Vitessa A is also slightly smaller than Vitessa L, has a different rangefinder tuning mechanism, and comes with a cross-stitched (rather than moulded) leather case.
The only practical downside to Vitessa A over L is a shutter mechanism that makes switching to 1/500th of a second from any other speed after winding impossible. Cocking at 1/500th also requires a bit more effort, and in cold weather, it may just not work. This is a common flaw of the time, corrected in the later iterations of the camera. Also worth noting is A’s outdated shutter speed markings, i.e. 1/100 vs more conventional 1/125.
Finally, Vitessa A’s aperture closes as far as 𝒇16, while the L-variants clinch as far as 𝒇22. In reality, I’ve only used 𝒇22 just once. I am confident that the same aperture can be achieved on A by simply sliding the control a little past the ‘16 mark.
Note that A and L aren’t the only variants of this camera.
Vitessa A vs. the world.
Camera portability matters. I don’t enjoy carrying gear in a backpack or even hanging a camera by the neck strap. I also appreciate relatively fast lenses, quiet shutters, and the ability to exert full independent control over aperture and shutter speed. Adding to that wish list is a desire for a quality build and a price that won’t turn me homeless. This leaves Vitessa as the top contender for the job in the vast world of film cameras.
The folder design removes the need for lens caps, which can sometimes ruin photos or get lost, without the danger of leaving the lens exposed. Vitessa’s “barn door” folding mechanism is unique, only replicated once by Chinon. To me, it feels more balanced than the typical single-door design and leaves bellows less exposed in the open position.
I’ve considered and tried Kodak Retina cameras, a German-built popular 35mm folding rangefinder of the time. But despite their slightly more compact frame, they don’t look as good and don’t feel nearly as nice in hand.
Through Vitessa, Voigtländer has created a set of features that is both highly desirable and irreplicable. Top-notch build quality, relative portability, control, a decent rangefinder, and one of the sharpest lenses of the time.
Naturally, this isn’t the only camera I own and love, but it’s the one that suits my lifestyle the best.
Ergonomics and usability.
Other than a more comfortable aperture dial and the above-mentioned shutter speed limitation, Vitessa A operates identically to L. Head over to the form and operation section of the Vitessa L3 review for a complete overview and a user guide.
Voigtländer Ultron 2.0 lens quality.
Though I’ve covered Ultron lens in my earlier Vitessa L3 review, I’ve since gained a few years of experience with this and other glass to warrant another go.
When it was first produced, Ultron was considered one of the sharpest lenses of the time, even compared to the Leica stuff. While it still stands above many, some things the engineers of the mid-century could not yet solve with this package.
Flaring isn’t usually a problem with this lens in most cases. But if you are to point your Vitessa towards the sun, things may get screwy. On a bright day, it is advisable to use a detachable lens hood, though it does defeat some of the camera’s portability.
When it comes to sharpness, this lens is quite remarkable for the amount of detail it stores in each frame. However, having been spoiled by more modern lenses and a dedicated film scanner, I’ve noticed that the image does get softer towards the edges with some exaggerated barrel distortion. To see this, you have to enlarge the photograph considerably and look hard for those blemishes. They will only show up on high-contrast textures, taking about .25-1% of your frame, depending on aperture.
The lens is noticeably softer when shot wide-open, compared to its optimal 𝒇5.6-8. The bokeh it produces, however, is well worth the superficial acutance lost in the process.
The lens shows no chromatic aberration and has an overall minimal barrel distortion. Its sharpness is aided by the vibration-free leaf shutter and a well-engineered trigger that makes taking hand-held photographs at 1/10th an actual thing you can do.
Rangefinder adjustments and lens calibration.
Just like the L, A is a massive pain in the ass when it comes to rangefinder calibration. Only more so.
To get it done, you will need to take off the top plate (1) and adjust the shim of the rangefinder box with the four screws (2) until the patch correctly matches infinity. Of course, you’d have to periodically put the plate back over the innards so that you could look through the rangefinder window (3) as the plate has correcting lenses on both ends, without which there’s no way to see the patch.
Aside from shimming, you may also need to adjust the swing arm; see distance span adjustments section in the Vitessa L article.
The focus wheel (4) may also need two additional types of adjustments. First being the relative position of distance the number plate, which is done by loosening the screw over the black metal piece and moving it slightly — this is so that your markings match precisely. The second adjustment is the stopper for the lens’s infinity focus, which can be done by loosening both screws and rotating the wheel’s inner piece. To make these adjustments, you will need to make a change, reassemble the top plate and repeat as needed.
Know this before purchasing your first Vitessa.
I love my Vitessa A for its compact versatility, build quality, lens, and design. But the camera isn’t perfect; the complexity of a routine rangefinder adjustment, above, should hint to that plenty. You will need some tools and a bit of know-how to be able to keep and maintain this camera in working order.
However, if the combi-plunger is stuck in the up position (the metal rod that advances the frames and cocks the shutter) or easily pops up after you close the barn doors, there may not be a solution. Advanced film transport issues are also a no-go. It is also common to see shutter issues that render the blades permanently open — I have no idea if this can be remedied either.
During the past few years, these cameras went up in price considerably. Scarcity, film photography’s growing popularity, and the cameras’ unique look are likely the reasons.
As it stands in 2021, Vitessa A’s can find copies anywhere between $200-$1,000. Film-tested copies are hard to come by, but an experienced retailer with a good rating and a return policy should be able to tell if the shutter works properly, rangefinder calibrated, and film transport works. Vitessas do not suffer from light leaks as they have no plastic foam seals — instead, they use a piece of a cloth string that lasts much longer. However, whether the lens is adequately calibrated can only be understood with film or with a cheap microscope.