Voigtländer’s “Vitessa” foldable rangefinders are some of the prettiest 35mm film cameras ever made.
If you’re looking for a German-made mechanical (relatively) compact 35mm camera for under $500 and don’t mind using one special 50mm lens, Vitessa A, N, or L may serve your needs well. Vitessas are beautiful, heavy, and well-constructed, but they require some care to serve you flawlessly for many years.
In this review, I’ll share everything I’ve learned in the 7 years with 97 rolls across 7 cities with 7 Vitessas.
Vitessa specs and varieties.
At the top of their line, Vitessas boast highly-regarded fixed 50mm Ultron lenses with apertures 𝑓2-22. Their quiet, vibration-free leaf shutters fire between 1 and 1/500th of a second plus bulb. All variants reviewed here are foldable-type rangefinders made in the mid- to late-1950s.
Lower-end models feature Color Scopar lenses that come in either 𝑓3.5 or 𝑓2.8 varieties for their widest apertures. They are cheaper by about a third, boasting all the same mechanics/materials minus the glass.
These cameras measure about 14cm × 7.5cm × 4.5cm (5.5” × 3” × 1.8”) — with some differences across models. Vitessas weigh between 660g and 700g (or about 1.5lb).
There were 13 foldable Vitessa variants (A1, A2, A3, A4, A5, N1, N2, L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5) manufactured in the original Voigtländer lineup between 1950-1960. The T-variants that followed used similar chassis but sacrificed the foldable “barn door” design to offer an interchangeable lens design (though it never offered the revered Ultron 𝒇2.0, available on the top-level folders).
Other Vitessas sold under the Voigtländer brand were Zeiss Ikon Voigtländer Vitessa fixed-lens non-foldable viewfinder and rangefinder cameras, and the Voigtlander Vitessa 105/70 point-and-shoots. Neither come close in starkness of appearance, optical performance or build quality.
Vitessa A-variants are the first in the series. You’ll recognize them in the line-up by their distinctly minimalist design. When folded, Vitessa As look like pieces of alien technology in the sea of gadgety barrelled boxes (i.e., SLRs). The top plate is completely flat with just the shutter and the combi-plunger rod protruding slightly. A detachable cold-shoe accessory is available, although I never use it. The Compur-Rapid shutter on this camera will not let you set 1/500s after cocking on a lower speed (more on that below). Earlier models had manual parallax correction, where you’d have to slide the eyepiece up and down depending on the focusing distance. Finally, you’ll recognize A1 — the first variant to be ever produced — by its permanently-attached, seemingly over-engineered film door contraption.
Later A-versions had a permanent cold shoe, and the last model featured an updated Synchro-Compur LVS shutter that did not have any limitations on setting its top 1/500s speed. These versions also had Voigtländer spelled out on the front of the camera instead of the top plate. I often confused the later As with the N-variants, which look very similar, except:
Vitessa N-variants introduced a self-timer and a square rangefinder patch shape (the A-variants had a rhombus).
Vitessa L-variants are the last foldable Vitessa cameras to be made. These are the Vitessas with the integrated uncoupled selenium light meters and EV-based exposure controls. Many of these cameras’ meters still work today and require no batteries; a diffusor cap can also be found to turn your Vitessa into an incident light meter! Earlier Ls had their light meter cells appear flat with a square pattern underneath the glass, while the later Ls had a more common bubble glass texture. Ls also had larger leather cases without visible stitching with a small hole at the bottom for checking whether the film was loaded properly.
Model L3 had the only light meter compatible with the ISO 400 film speed — whereas other foldable Vitessas’ meters went up to ISO 200.
Vitessas’ distance scales came in feet for UK/US models and meters for the rest of the world.
Vitessas’ controls and ergonomics.
I like rangefinders with prime, non-interchangeable lenses. This typically means fewer decisions before leaving the house, less weight on the shoulders and an easier-to-maintain device. Folding cameras also add to the overall compactness, which I find appealing.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Vitessa series, the weight makes it almost impossible to slide into a pocket. Nowhere near to the experience of carrying an iPhone or a truly compact 35mm film camera. Still, with no lens barrel sticking out, this camera is more compact than many comparable rangefinders. Many copies still include excellent leather cases that sit nicely on your body without the weight of a lens messing with the balance of your camera.
Vitessa is a precious camera. In clean condition, it feels like a piece of expensive jewellery. Natural, paper-thin leather grip. A ballet of shiny and matt metal surfaces. Exposed mechanics and clear glass. Precisely machined surfaces. Oh no, fingerprints!
It took me eight months and twenty-three rolls of film across Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, and Canada to realize that the camera is solidly built and I shouldn’t be afraid to breathe around it.
Gripping foldable Vitessas takes some getting used to. For casual photography, there are no issues. But holding it in one hand while releasing the shutter is a little awkward as there’s little grip space and plenty of weight; same problem while using the ever-ready leather case.
It’s best to use both hands while taking pictures with these cameras.
The shutter on Vitessa cameras makes barely-audible yet satisfying thuds with a cling. When used with a metal hood accessory, the sound changes slightly to resemble a tiny bell. The button feels great; careful photographers will notice a light click just before the shutter releases — super helpful for precise timings.
Vitessas’ focus ring is located at the back and operated with a thumb. It’s easy to get used to.
The thumb focus is neither faster nor slower than the typical lens barrel control; however, it changes your stance slightly. Vitessa L versions had thumb controls with a bearing for smoother rotations, while As are held down by friction and are a little tighter.
The DOF calculator is conveniently located above the thumb ring, elegantly demonstrating how much of your scene will be in focus at a given distance and lens aperture.
The rangefinder/viewfinder combo eyepiece has a larger trim on the A models, appearing more welcome than the later models’ tiny metal holes. All Vitessa viewfinders have the same eye relief and magnification factor. They aren’t the worst when it comes to comfort and are usable with glasses but don’t expect much: a little dim, no bright lines, with an average rangefinder patch contrast. To approximate parallax error, Vitessas use a mask that blocks parts of the view.
Exposure settings are most straightforward on Vitessa N-variants. The A-variants used slightly different shutter speeds than the modern roundings (i.e., 1/100 instead of the more common 1/125).
Vitessa L-variants have the modern shutter speed numberings but also coupled apertures (to change the shutter speed independently, you’d have to lift a small metal tab on the face of the lens and move the ring). The coupling was implemented for the EV numbering system, which uses a single number that you can transfer from the light meter. Once the number on the lens matches the light meter, you can rotate the ring to change your shutter speed and aperture together without affecting the exposure.
The light meter on L-variants is easy to use. Set the film ISO (same as ASA) and transfer the EV value number onto the lens. Most are still in working order. I found mine fairly accurate in the shade, although I would suggest Sunny 16 or an external light meter instead.
Loading film into Vitessas isn’t difficult, though it isn’t as simple as it could be. To do so, you’ll need to pull and rotate a film cover lock tab at the bottom (see below), freeing up your film cover. Then, turn the film counter wheel by hand to reset it. You also have an option to set a film reminder wheel inside the film cover — although the markings and colourings are confusing and outdated.
The most economical way to load film is to clip the first or the second perforation to the takeup spool and pull the canister as you move it across and into its chamber while the leader remains clipped. This way, I’m able to get 39 frames out of 36exp. packages regularly.
☝︎ Further reading: “A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Manual Film Cameras.”
Rewinding the film is done with the crank at the bottom plate, unlocked with a small push button nearby.
L-variants have a small red line at the bottom of that crank that rotates as you advance the film — this confirms that your film is loaded correctly; the leather case for those cameras has a tiny hole at the bottom to make the line visible.
The “barn doors.”
Voigtländer Vitessa’s unique lens cover is a set of two doors that swing open along with the lens that slides out on a set of quality leather bellows. The only other camera that has this type of design is Chinon Bellami.
Whenever I unfold my Vitessas, I push slightly on the doors to prevent the lens from snapping open too quickly. That shouldn’t break anything, but these cameras are really old, and the mechanics of the door operation are very difficult to fix.
I also lightly press down on the combi-plunger (the film advance rod) to prevent it from smacking the components inside the camera. This part is essential as this is the weak point of these cameras. Vitessas can break if you let the plunger damage metal parts as it springs out violently.
To open/unfold your Vitessa safely, hold your thumbs over the shutter button and combi-plunger with your fingertips resting near the barn doors as you cradle the camera in your palms. Next, press the shutter button and let your fingertips dampen the door swing while your left thumb dampens the combi-plunger release. I then use my right hand to extend the lens barrel with control by holding the right door and moving it forward without letting it do so too fast.
This may sound like a lot of extra motions, but in practice, I find doing all of the above takes no longer than taking off a lens cap.
Vitessas were made to be the fast-action cameras of the time. Indeed, it’s easier to advance the film with a combi-plunger (the film advance rod) without taking your eye off the finder than with a standard winder rank. But, of course, that doesn’t compare well against motorized film transport.
The A-variants make a ticking sound whenever you press the combi-plunger to advance the film, whereas later models are quieter.
The combi-plunger rod will continue sticking out whenever your camera is unfolded. It can be retracted into the body when the camera is folded back up. If the rod does not stay in, a severe mechanical problem may be preventing it from doing so.
The only other camera that uses a rod like that for film transport is Welta Penti.
Vitessa’s Compur shutters.
Shutters this old can often stick at slower speeds. Some Vitessas are sold with completely broken shutters — you’ll notice their blades half-open in the pictures with the lens. Those kinds of issues are hard to fix.
However, in good working condition, Vitessa’s Compur shutters are excellent. Quiet and vibration-free.
A-variants won’t let you change your shutter speed from 200 to 500 after you’ve cocked it. You will need to release the shutter and set it to 500 before cocking it to get that speed to work.
Additionally, the 500 speed on these cameras is a little stiffer to cock, and your camera may not be able to shoot at that speed in frigid weather. Cold lubricants may be too viscous to let you wind the springs.
Voigtländer Ultron 2.0 image quality.
All top Vitessa models featured Voigtländer Ultron 2.0 lenses. They were said to resolve more detail than all film at the time (Amateur Photographer, 13 February 1952 — source).
Indeed, the lens is very sharp at its optimal apertures with minimal focus falloff in the corners and no noticeable vignetting.
You will probably never find chromatic aberration in photographs taken with this lens, as it corrects that remarkably well.
These Ultron lenses can produce dramatic flares whenever you point them at the sun. The images that you’ll get from them aren’t particularly contrasty. Don’t expect the same level of acutance as newer expensive glass either (such as Minolta’s legendary G-Rokkor). But:
Voigtländer Ultron 2.0 produces incredible bokeh. Its max aperture of 𝒇2 and the minimum focus distance of about a meter are more than enough.
It’s not the size of the bokeh balls or the amount of background separation that makes this lens’ out-of-focus renditions unique. Instead, it’s how Ultron draws them.
Ultron 2.0’s bokeh is smooth and liquid-like in appearance with just the right amount of swirl. I’ve never seen any other lens create images like this.
Naturally, there will be some barrel distortion whenever you come close to objects with parallel lines.
In optimal conditions, with the right kind of film, Vitessas will resolve your scenes just as well or better than any modern camera.
Vitessa maintenance and repair.
If you’re lucky to get your Vitessa in a fully functional condition, there often isn’t much to do other than to shoot it a few times a year and blow the dust off the lens. But sometimes, these cameras break or require an adjustment for optimal performance.
Unfortunately, the rangefinders on these cameras aren’t well-engineered for calibration. As a result, it’s a long, tedious process. But along with other light repairs, it can be done with minimal tools at home. Read this Vitessa repair and maintenance guide to learn more.
These cameras are incredibly well-made. The finish quality is as good as on a top-tier Leica body. The tolerances are tight, nothing is loose, and the leather sits very well.
Copies that aren’t taken care of well may produce aluminum oxidation and other blemishes, and the metal won’t brass. Nevertheless, when found in good condition, Vitessas are luxury items.
Interestingly, these cameras are not prone to light leaks due to their lasting bellows and a rope as a light seal material instead of plastic foam.
Vitessa camera Accessories.
You can still find a variety of filters for your Vitessa, ranging from the boring UV, which does very little, to infra-red and close-up filters.
Kontur finder was made for this camera. This gadget is unique in that it uses stereoscopic vision to combine the image of a frame with your free eye’s unobstructed view. It maybe challenging to use for some, but it gives the best eye relief and dim light performance.
And some copies will come with a large leather case that can open up to reveal a flash unit. Fantastically impractical in 2022.
✪ Note: You can not safely use a soft release button with this camera. I learned it the hard way when I realized that a soft release button would depress the shutter when the camera is in the case or a pocket, releasing the barn doors and the lens.
Where and how to find a good, working Voigtländer Vitessa camera.
Before you make a purchase:
1) Make sure that the combi-plunger rod can fully retract into the camera body and stay there without issues. The barn doors should also be able to close and remain closed.
2) Make sure that the shutter is working. If the slower speeds are a bit sticky, don’t worry: they may improve as you use the camera.
3) If you don’t want to adjust the rangefinder, ask if the patch lines up perfectly on infinity.
A modern-style shutter mechanism and numbering are on the N and L variants — look for those cameras if that’s important to you.
L-variants will have a light meter, slightly improved focusing wheel, EV-based exposure settings, and some models will also have an easier way to adjust the rangefinder.
But for the cleanest design, pick the variants A1, A2, or A3.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Voigtländer Vitessa camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!