A brief history of the Voigtländer Vitessa series.
Voigtländer Vitessa is a German 35mm film rangefinder camera, manufactured in the mid-1950s. At the top of its line, it boasts a highly-regarded fixed 50mm foldable Ultron lens with an aperture range of 𝑓2-22. Its quiet, vibration-free leaf shutter fires between 1 and 1/500th of a second. Drawn above, and in the Polaroid photo below, model L3 has a selenium meter with sensitivity ranging from 12 to 400ASA/ISO. The only one of the series (except for T-models) that doesn’t stop at 200.
The camera is uniquely-built, with a lot of thought and care put into the manufacturing process. The very noticeable polished rod, sticking out at the very top of the camera, dubbed combi-plunger combines film transport, shutter-cocking, and film counter advance into a single action. The lens with its bellows unfolds through two polished metal doors known at the time as barn doors.
There were thirteen camera models manufactured under this name in the original Voigtländer lineup. They came with various body construction tweaks, options for rangefinder parallax compensation (manual vs automatic, which came with version A3-onwards), lens types (top-of-the-line Ultron or the slower Scopar), and light meter options (none, up to 200ISO, or up to 400ISO). The models were: A1, A2, A3, A4, A5 — these came with no light meter, same as the N-series: N1, N2; all L models, L1, L2, L3, L4, L5, came with a light meter. And then the non-foldable model T. Not to be confused with the latter downgraded series, co-branded with Zeiss, and the odd and awful digital point-and-shoot by Vivitar.
Voigtländer Vitessa L3, in terms of its features and shortcomings, comes with polarizing advantages and issues. Its permanently attached Ultron lens is rumoured to be exceptionally sharp, beyond what the film was capable of resolving (attributed to Amateur Photographer, 13 February 1952). Although I’ve ran no tests to check this claim, I can confirm that under ideal conditions this lens is indeed exceptional.
Unfortunately, the camera comes with a poor rangefinder design; very small eyepiece, faint focusing patch — a nightmare to adjust. Likewise, its ergonomic design’s usability is diminished by the amount of care required in handling.
Form and operation.
I like rangefinder cameras with prime, non-detachable lenses. This type of package typically means fewer decisions before leaving the house, less weight on the shoulders and an easier to maintain device.
Folding cameras add to the overall compactness, which I also find appealing.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Vitessa series, the weight makes it almost impossible to slide into a pocket and walk like a normal person. Nowhere near to the experience of carrying an iPhone or a truly compact 35mm camera.
Vitessa is a precious camera.
In clean condition, it feels like a piece of expensive jewellery. Real, paper-thin leather grip. A ballet of shiny and matt metal surfaces. Exposed mechanics and clear glass. Precisely machined surfaces promptly retain visible fingerprints and instil the fear of imminent damage or malfunction.
It took me eight months and twenty-three rolls of film across Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, and Canada to realize that the camera is actually very solidly-built and I shouldn’t be afraid to breathe around it.
That being said, this camera is a lot more compact than Electro 35, Canon QL, or FED 5. Stephen Gandy compared it to Leica M4 and found it to be about the same size; he also named it to have fit and finish “approaching Leica M3 standards.” It has a faster, better lens than most compact 35mm film cameras.
With time, I’ve learned to operate my Vitessa quickly enough to catch the fast street action and keep it on my person during my all-day trips without much trouble. The original leather case fits the camera beautifully, showing the frame counter and even the film advance indicator. My only issue is with the leather top that hangs uselessly when the case is open and the camera is in-use.
I particularly like how controlled the trigger action feels as compared to my dad’s Russian FED. Vitessa has a consistent, medium-light resistance for about a quarter-of-an-inch until you hear a light click of a transport mechanism catch, followed by an almost-immediate slick movement of the shutter blades. FED, being a much more “brute” beast requires a lot more effort with a very bouncy trigger button and no easy way to predict a slap of the shutter curtain, usually followed with a tremor through the entire camera’s body.
My average-sized hands have no issue gripping the leather securely. The combi-plunger feels just as easy to use as the traditional crank lever mechanism. The lens focus wheel is located on the back of a camera just under the right thumb, which tends to be more natural and precise than the usual ring around the lens barrel.
On my model, the rangefinder patch is fairly faint though I can still use it in low light situations. The window itself is annoyingly small, very difficult to use with glasses on. There are no bright-lines to indicate parallax shift boundaries; instead, a mask floats synchronously with focus adjustments. On older models, you have to manually adjust parallax mask. This design provides a lot less light into the photographer’s eye; it’s fairly inaccurate and uncomfortable.
The shutter speed and aperture are set on the lens barrel. These controls require fiddling with tiny metal bits and are designed with the exposure value system. Meaning that your light meter, once you set it to your film’s ISO, will provide you just one number, which can then be matched via lens controls. For example, an EV of 11 with an ISO 400 film would mean that an aperture should be set to 𝑓4 and shutter speed to 1/125. However, it will remain the same 11EV with 𝑓2.8 and shutter at 1/500. This method is, although often criticized, quite useful in a consistent lighting situation where you may want to keep the exposure the same as you adjust your depth of field.
Loading the camera is a pleasure. Although Vitessa doesn’t have Canon’s Quick Loading system and requires removal of the back, which becomes cumbersome on the go, the process has the feel of winding a precise mechanical watch. The well-fitted locking flap lets go of an equally well-fitted metal, glass, and leather cover. The take-on spool features one of the best hooks I’ve used in a 35mm camera; it clicks lightly as it catches securely the first available perforation at the tip of the film. Out of the twenty-plus rolls that I’ve put through it, none had trouble with the transport system.
The camera comes with a few unusual features. Aside from the only 35mm camera, with not one but two doors that open to reveal the lens, and the only one, aside from Welta Penti, to have a rod-type film advance it has a watch-face-like depth of field calculation tool and a cryptic film memento dial. The depth of field tool is easy to understand and use. Provided that you can estimate distance in feet; only a quarter of all Vitessas has meters for markings.
The cryptic memento dial sits immediately to the left of the film counter dial (see image above with page number “— 11 —”). While loading film you have an opportunity to set it by-hand to one of the following markings: N, UR, TD, KA, TND, and KNA.
Where N is for “black-and-white negative film”, UR is for “black-and-white reversal film”, TD is for “daylight type reversal colour film”, KA is for “artificial light type reversal colour film”, TND is for “daylight type negative colour film”, and KNA is for “artificial light type negative colour film”.
As compared to most modern consumer technology, this camera has remarkably few plastic parts; almost none.
✪ Note: See “Warning!” (below) on how to open/unfold a Vitessa.
Ultron lens image quality.
Given care, skill, and patience the camera can produce remarkably sharp images with slightly swirly, brilliant, yet smooth bokeh.
Vitessa’s incredible optics, tricky to operate and repair mechanics, combined with the disregard for the finite availability of these masterpieces often leads to the sad practice of ripping the lens out and slapping onto digital bodies.
The lens package, of course, does not come with an autofocus and image stabilization system. But with the right film, technique, light, and scanning this camera can give many modern prosumer sensors a run for their money.
Despite the lack of all support electronics, the lens does a fantastic job of correcting chromatic aberration, better than any lens I’ve owned so far, although not perfect. The lens remarkably retains its performance as the chassis and the glass are guaranteed to have aged through the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet Union, and the birth of the internet.
The lens does not compensate well for barrel distortion (see below). To be fair, this type of correction would require a lot more material and would not fit well in the small folding package. The anti-reflective coating isn’t nearly as effective or durable as compared to the more modern compounds; the camera is prone to flare when shooting against a strong light, nothing unusual.
The glass comes with a character. Photographs taken with this camera feel soft and “fluid” in the out-of-focus areas, converging into sharp but not overly contrasty focus points. By comparison, my Yashica Electro 35 images feel very “dry” and FED 5 seems to create soft photographs with a slight blue cast and relatively high contrast.
This camera’s film pressure plate is, although black, fairly reflective. You may notice that it produces slightly larger halos around light sources at night than other cameras. Some may find it pleasing, as they do with CineStill colour emulsions; the problem is that this is not something that can be easily turned off.
The lens isn’t sealed in any way; many copies of this camera have perished due to mould, separation and negligence. I have once bought a Vitessa that looked as if someone tried to clean the element with sandpaper. No joke. Thankfully, I was able to return it.
If you are thinking of buying this camera, keep in mind that I have had to repair even the best-looking copies sold as 100% functional on eBay.
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. There’s a fancy external viewfinder that uses the power of double-vision that I’m still hunting for, a lens hood, and a strange leather case with built-in flash.
There are also incredible hunks of glass you can mount on top of your camera to aid focusing with close-up filters; Voigtländer Proximeter I and Voigtländer Proximeter II.
Note that you can not safely use a soft release button with this camera. I’ve learned it the hard way when I realized that a soft release button will depress the shutter when the camera is in the case, releasing the barn doors and the lens. Below I outline why an uncontrolled opening of this camera can cause problems.
Who is this camera for?
Voigtländer Vitessa is for people interested in getting quality, sharp images on 35mm film, willing to sacrifice personal comfort for good looks and portability. Vitessa will be good to those who know how to take care of it and understand that this camera has a set of strict limitations and drawbacks. If operational, this camera can produce great results in hands of a skilled photographer. Even broken Vitessas can fathom a solid earning on eBay just because of the way they are built and look.
Even though I cannot recommend this camera to everyone, I use mine almost daily.
Repairs and maintenance.
If you are lucky to get your Vitessa in a fully-functional condition, there isn’t much to do other than to shoot it at a few times a month and blow the dust off the lens. Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case.
A common red flag is a plunger that can not retract into the body and depressed. In this condition, the camera can not be repaired without creating custom-machined parts and fitting them in the maze of incredible mechanical complexity. Read the above and stay away from cameras you can not fix.
If you have no experience fixing film cameras, Vitessa is not the one to start with. Even calibrating the rangefinder may cost you more than one day of tweaking with all the right tools and diagrams.
The camera needs a degree of care when unfolded into an open, ready position. You must hold a finger on top of the combi-plunger as it snaps very swiftly upwards, which is known to cause malfunction and eventual death of the device. The correct method of opening this camera is to hold it in both hands so that the barn doors are facing away, as you lightly press your left thumb on top of the combi-plunger. Once ready, you can depress the shutter button. At this point, your lens might not extend all the way out on its own; you can help it by pulling the barn doors lightly apart with your fingers. Keep your left thumb on top of combi-plunger until you feel it spring up and you successfully cushion its release.
How to calibrate the rangefinder.
The rangefinder calibration is no small task with Vitessa. To do it successfully you’ll need a set of micro screwdrivers, acetone, laptop, measuring tape and nail polish.
You will need to remove the top cover of the camera to make your rangefinder adjustments.
Do this by first taking off the camera back as if you are to load it with film. Find the screw at the top of the chamber where the film canister rests. The second screw is at the top of the take-up spool chamber, it may be hidden by the black metal washer, which you may rotate to reveal the black screw. To make taking off the cover a little easier, gently pull it as you rotate the focus wheel counter-clockwise; your lens may suddenly shift half-inch forwards after you remove the top panel.
You should be able to unscrew the tip of the combi-plunger, 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.
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. Each time will cost you about five minutes. The goal is to have the rangefinder patch align perfectly at the one-meter mark and at the infinity.
My setup is a tape measure 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. I then place my camera at the one meter marking, aligned with a film plane and look through the rangefinder window as I set the distance on the camera to one meter to see if everything lines up. If it does, I take the camera to the balcony and point it to the furthest object I can see (ideally over 100 meters away) 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.
Distance span adjustments for the rangefinder are for correcting the entire system. For example, if you get your infinity adjusted perfectly, but your one-meter focus is off, you’ll need to either increase or decrease the “distance” between the two. 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. This is a difficult concept to explain and understand, but it does make sense if you play with the camera enough.
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.
Fuse your adjustments. Place a drop of nail polish on top of your screws to make sure you won’t have to go through this hell for at least a few months. 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.
How to fix a loose rangefinder mirror.
It’s common to receive those cameras with the rangefinder mirror helplessly dangling inside the camera. Glueing it back 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 make the glue layer as thin as possible and understand that you are guaranteed to require rangefinder adjustments after doing that.
How to fix a bent trigger bracket.
It is also possible to, upon assembly, bend the bracket with small metal teeth that slides on top of the trigger rod. To fix that you’ll need to ensure that it’s back in its correct angle and spend quality time getting it back in place. You may have to go by memory or have another Vitessa next to the one in-repair to understand what shape should it be exactly and how it should fit within the construction.
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 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 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 really easy either. There is a high possibility you may get to the point where the springs will fly out. The shutter mechanism is well-built and will not fall apart in your hands, but the 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 extremely likely to eat through the glass and destroy your camera forever. Warm soap, paper towel, and a light wipe with a freshly-washed and dry microfibre cloth should do it.