If you’re lucky to get your Voigtländer Vitessa camera 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.
If it’s a plunger that can not retract into the body, the camera can not be repaired without creating custom-machined parts and fitting them in the maze of mechanical complexity. Numerous other issues, however, such as rangefinder adjustments, some other transport issues, and lens maintenance can be done in a home setting with the right tools.
⚠️ If you have no experience fixing film cameras, Vitessas aren’t the ones to start with. Even calibrating the rangefinder may cost you a full day of tweaking with all the right tools and diagrams. But it could definitely be done.
How to calibrate the rangefinder on Vitessa cameras.
The rangefinder calibration is much more difficult than it should be on a Vitessa.
To do it successfully you’ll need: 1) a set of micro screwdrivers, 2) acetone, 3) a laptop/screen or a mountable piece of paper, 4) measuring tape, and 5) nail polish.
You will need to remove the top plate to make your rangefinder adjustments.
Do this by first taking off the camera back as if you are to load it with film.
Then, find the screw at the top of the chamber where the film canister rests. Undo it.
The second screw is at the top of the take-up spool chamber, it may be hidden by the black metal washer with a small cutout. Rotate the washer to reveal the black screw.
Once you’ve undone the screws, gently pull the top plate as you rotate the focus wheel counter-clockwise; your lens may suddenly shift half-inch forwards after your top plate is lifted.
You may be able to unscrew the tip of the combi-plunger (the large rod that advances the film and cocks the shutter), which in turn would allow you to slide the top panel off the camera body. In some cases it won’t give; you can try with a thick, soft cloth or a piece of durable rubber and pliers (gently) — if that doesn’t work, don’t worry, let it be.
Once you remove your top cover, the focus ring is likely to fall out of its position. It isn’t hard to re-assemble; I typically place it under the top cover and press it with my thumb in position when I place the cover back.
✪ Note: The next set of instructions applies to Vitessa L cameras. Vitessa A has a similar though a somewhat different set of screws and mechanisms for rangefinder adjustments.
The tricky part of adjusting the rangefinder is that you have to make your adjustments to three tiny screws blindly, reinstall the top cover, check the results and repeat over a dozen times until you’re satisfied with the results.
The goal is to have the rangefinder patch align perfectly at the one-meter mark and at the infinity. For infinity alignment, you’ll need an object that’s further than 20m/65’ away, and for close metering, you’ll need to do this:
A measuring tape stretched on a long table, with one end marked with a masking tape at one meter and the zero being flush with a laptop monitor with a large, thick, black plus sign drawn on a white background. Instead of a laptop, you can use any screen or a piece of paper with the cross printed — but it needs to be on the level with your camera.
I then place my camera at the one-meter marking, aligned with a film plane. Meaning that the back of the camera where the film would typically sit stretched, waiting to be exposed is aligned with your tape mark.
I would then look through the rangefinder window as I set the distance on the camera to one meter to see if the cross lines are in focus (not doubled). After that, I point the camera to the furthest object I can see and check my rangefinder patch at an infinity mark.
Chances are that the rangefinder screws are welded in fairly tight with time and resin. Use acetone to gently loosen them.
⚠️ Keep in mind that the screws are made out of soft metal and they will get stripped if you aren’t careful. You may not find replacements for the screws.
Horizontal adjustments for the rangefinder can be done by rotating the screw marked “horizontal” in the image above. Rotating it counter-clockwise will shift the rangefinder patch to the left.
Vertical adjustments for the rangefinder can be done by rotating the screw marked “vertical” in the image above. Rotating it counter-clockwise will shift the rangefinder patch downwards.
Scale adjustment for the rangefinder syncs up the travel distance of the overlapping image with the rotation angle of the first reflective mirror. For example, if you get your infinity adjusted perfectly, but your one-meter focus is off, you’ll need to adjust the angle of freedom for your first reflective mirror. You can make this adjustment by loosening the screw marked “span” in the image above and moving the silver arm towards or away from the combi-plunger. Moving the arm towards the combi-plunger will decrease the distance between your infinity and one-meter values for the viewfinder output. This is a difficult concept to explain and understand, but it does make sense after some visual examination.
Balance adjustments via the final screw can help you alleviate unwanted rangefinder patch tilt and help with overall adjustments. This screw is there to help you drive the adjustments, rather than be the leading tool.
Once you’re satisfied with your adjustments, you’ll need to fuse your screws in place. Place a drop of nail polish on top of your screws to make sure they stay put. At a later time, nail polish remover will let you tweak the screws again.
A few of the later Vitessa models come with large gears, as seen in the image above, meant to help you adjust the rangefinder without taking off the top cover. They don’t always work.
Rangefinder adjustments and lens calibration on Vitessa A cameras.
Just like the L, A is a massive pain in the ass when it comes to rangefinder calibration.
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 “balance” adjustments above.
The focus wheel (4) may also need two additional types of adjustments. First is the relative position of the distance to 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.
Calibrating the lens focus to match the rangefinder.
Even if you calibrate your rangefinder perfectly, the lens’ focus may still not match what you’re focusing on. Another method exists to do this, which I outline in this article: How to Calibrate Infinity Focus on a Rangefinder.
How to fix a loose rangefinder mirror.
Your camera may have its rangefinder mirror helplessly dangle inside the camera. Fastening it back on isn’t too difficult if you have a steady hand, good tools, patience and the right glue. Following the instructions above on removing the top panel, make sure to spread the glue layer as thin as possible and understand that you have to do the rangefinder adjustments thereafter.
How to fix the film transport.
If your camera can set the trigger and fire it but does not advance the film when you press the plunger there may be an easy fix. What may have happened is that your trigger does not have enough reach to engage the gears.
An easy way to check this symptom is to press the trigger and then move the small latch under the lens, to the right (it should spring back) and see if that fixes the issue for the next frame.
Should the above check out, the way to fix the issue is, first of all, to take out two screws that hold the plate with the frame counter ring. Then you’ll need to take off the top cover and the trigger, revealing a thin metal rod. At the top of that rod, there’s a groove for your screwdriver. Screw it inward and test your transport advance a few times in different positions as you look inside the frame counter’s side innards.
Eventually, you should find a point where your camera can both trigger the shutter and snap the film transport gear in place. I like to fine-tune mine to snap the gear first just before the shutter — the little click just before helps me anticipate the exact moment when the photo will be taken.
This should make more sense once you carefully open your camera.
How to clean the lens elements.
If you have mould or significant dust on your lens you can clean it. Keep in mind that this procedure is not easy if you need to clean individual elements.
The shutter mechanism, to which you must get to disassemble the lens fully, is well-built and will not fall apart in your hands, but the shutter blades can and will fall off the dial and they will be very hard to put back in place properly. Do not attempt this without a quality lens spanner and a proper technique to safely wash the glass. NEVER USE VINEGAR on any of your camera lenses. It’s going to eat through the glass and destroy your camera forever. Warm soap, a soft paper towel, and a light wipe with a freshly washed and dry microfibre cloth should do it.
Compur shutter repair manual.
Finally, if you need to fix the shutter, you can refer to this manual. However, this task is beyond the scope of this article. I must also add it’s also beyond the skill set of all but repair masters.