Voigtländer Vitomatic I Camera Review

Forgotten Gem

10 min read by
5

This German Voigtländer Vitomatic I with Color-Skopar 𝒇2.8 50mm lens is a beautiful mechanical instrument. And today, it can be found for as little as $20 — which is way less than it’s worth.

Of course, the camera has its downsides: it’s a little heavy, the lens isn’t as fast as those of the pricier cameras of its age, and you will need to learn how to zone focus to use Voigtländer Vitomatic I. But given how it looks, how well it’s made, and the results I’ve got with it, Vitomatic I is an incredible entry-level camera for anyone wishing quality German engineering for 35mm with full mechanical controls at a surprisingly affordable price.

Vitomatic I build quality and features.

Vitomatic I is a heavy camera. It weighs 732g or 1.6lb without film. It has almost no plastic parts with a fine-finish metal shell, mechanical internals and glass taking up most of the weight.

Voigtländer Vitomatic I. Pulling a small metal tab just below the film reminder dial pops it to reveal the film-rewind knob.

The material and assembly quality is identical to that of Vitessa cameras — which are marvels of mid-century German engineering. Everything fits together perfectly, nothing’s loose, all the markings align precisely, and the finish feels expensive.

The camera was built between 1957 and 1960; my copy seems to have weathered its 65 years well. Besides the barely-noticeable scratches on the moon-shaped light meter window, it’s in perfect working condition. And from what I’ve seen online, there’s no shortage of these cameras in pristine-looking shape.

Vitomatic I’s design is a classic shape carried throughout the entire analogue photography era. It’s a flat box with a permanently-attached lens barrel. The absence of a mount and a lens selection allows for a compact (for the time) shape and a simplified manufacturing process.

Though well-built, this camera did not include the premium features shipped on much-pricier Prominent II cameras. Vitomatic has no rangefinder, no parallax correction, and no self-timer. Its Prontor SLK-V shutter’s fastest speed is 1/300s. However, it retains the remarkably-comfortable viewfinder design; it also comes with a built-in light meter which is a neat convenience, particularly for those who are just getting started with photography.

Vitomatic I top plate controls.

Vitomatic I’s pill-shaped top plate features a flat, clean design. The only thing that sticks out is the cold accessory shoe — useful for those looking to mount an external rangefinder to help with the focus — although I feel it takes away from the 1950s industrial minimalism.

To the left of the cold shoe is a film reminder dial that sports a few cryptic abbreviations, which probably made more sense in the 1950s when they represented the film that was available for the camera. As you advance the film, the dial rotates in the opposite direction of the arrow, which is a helpful hint signalling that the film is loaded correctly. A small metal tab on the camera’s body just below the film reminder dial pops it satisfyingly to reveal the film-rewind knob. Once done rewinding, the dial can be pushed back into the body, which makes a satisfying “click” sound.

The coupled light meter is a simple match-needle mechanism. It moves the white target for the light-sensitive needle on an arm as you adjust the aperture and shutter speeds. The light meter on Vitomatic I needs no batteries; amazingly, mine still works, although its readings appear to be off by about one stop towards overexposure.

The shutter button on Vitomatic I is excellent. It gives a consistent, comfortable resistance with an easy-to-find trigger point. A button of such design should help you take shake-free images at lower shutter speeds after some practice.

However, the double-exposure prevention mechanism will not let you trigger the shutter until you advance the film. And the advance lever will not unlock the shutter button without film in the camera. So if you’ve just got this camera, do not discard it as broken until you’ve tried to load some film in it.

The viewfinder.

My gripe with cameras built in the 1950s is their minuscule viewfinder windows that force squinting and are too small for spectacled users. Even the premium Vitessa cameras had that problem.

Thankfully, Vitomatic I comes with an incredibly-large viewfinder — a design it shares with the Prominent II cameras. It has a comfortable eye relief distance and 1:1 magnification factor which helps framing with both eyes open — a more relaxed and aware method to use analogue cameras.

The viewfinder is very bright, although the bright lines that outline the frame borders and parallax markings become difficult to see in subdued light. I also wish the eyepiece had a frame around it to keep the smudges from forming — although that would probably take away from the minimalist all-metal design.

Loading and unloading film.

Loading film into Vitomatic I is a unique experience. The latch that opens the film door opens the smaller door on the bottom plate, which frees the camera’s back to swing completely. The dual-door design lets you pop the spent canister out of the camera faster, although there are no apparent improvements to film loading.

Having loaded a fresh roll into your Vitomatic I, you’ll need to advance the film a couple of frames for the shutter button to unlock.

You will also need to set your frame counter to the 36 or 24 mark (depending on the number of frames in your roll) after loading the film and woinding the extra frames. Then, as you take pictures, it will advance backward until it reaches 0.

Lens controls.

The lens controls on Vitomatic I are fairly intuitive. But I recommend setting the shutter speed first and the aperture next. Changing the shutter speed will shift the aperture in the opposite direction (compensate) so that your exposure value remains constant.

There are no aperture clicks. But shutter speeds come with clicks, and you can set your shutter in between the numbers.

For the light meter to work properly, you’ll need to set the film speed/ISO number on the lens barrel by holding down the metal tab at the bottom of the lens while rotating the metal ring closest to it. Vitomatic I can take film speeds 12-800 ASA/ISO — which is impressive for the cameras of the time.

The focus on Vitomatic I is set by guessing the distance — which isn’t as hard as it may seem. My copy has markings in feet, although there are also versions with meters.

I did not test the camera with the flash, although it accepts Prontor/Compur connections and should sync at all speeds as it hosts a leaf shutter.

I’ve also noticed a fun little feature at the bottom of the lens: a metal bump that exists there solely so that Vitomatic I can be placed upright on a shelf without rocking.

Leather case.

For most camera manufacturers, a kit case is an afterthought — but not for the mid-century Voigtländer. Whereas the strap lugs on Vitomatic I aren’t compatible with most modern accessories, the leather case does a great job of hosting the camera on your shoulder. It even has a well-placed cutout for the frame counter.

Mine came with the strap undone and no holes or a needle in the buckle. So I made an S-shaped knot. The knot survived a day of hiking with no issues. The photo below shows the knot; it’s not difficult to replicate:

Color-Skopar lens image quality.

Vitomatic I is a well-made classic camera that can be found for less than a plastic disposable. But there’s more: it also boasts a highly-regarded, sharp, high-contrast lens. The results that I got with 𝒇2.8 Color-Skopar reminded me of another German Manufacturer — but on the other side of the wall: Carl Zeiss Jena and its 𝒇2.8 Tessar on Werramat.

Like Tessar, Color-Skopar is good at resisting flaring. Both lenses render higher contrast in the shadows.

As with most lenses of the time, Color-Skopar gets soft in the corners at its widest apertures; the bokeh is swirly. For some, these distortions are desired, but if you’d like a more modern look out of your Vitomatic, I suggest shooting at apertures 𝒇5.6 and 𝒇8. ISO 50 films such as CineStill 50D would make ideal companions in daylight sun at optimal apertures and shutter speeds.

I haven’t noticed any significant barrel distortions or chromatic aberrations while using Color-Skopar; my tests thus far have been all done on Kodak Colour Plus and scanned on PrimeFilm XAs at around 30MP per frame.

Vitomatic I with 𝒇2.8 Color-Skopar on Kodak Gold.
Vitomatic I with 𝒇2.8 Color-Skopar on Kodak Gold.
Vitomatic I with 𝒇2.8 Color-Skopar on Kodak Gold.
Vitomatic I with 𝒇2.8 Color-Skopar on Kodak Gold.

Why is it so cheap?

Vitomatic I cameras are heavy and don’t come with revolutionary (even for the time) features. They are zone-focus cameras, which may be putting some people off. However, the main reason they are a bargain is most likely because their owners have no idea that film needs to be loaded for the shutter to work. And so they rid themselves of the cameras as if they are broken.

Of course, some of the cameras sold as broken may indeed — be broken — but many aren’t.

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