Voigtländer Bessamatic Deluxe (1962)

This is a Voigtländer Bessamatic Deluxe made by Voigtländer AG Braunschweig between the years of 1962 and 1967.  It is a slightly improved model to the original Bessamatic from 1959 with the addition of a T-shaped “Judas window” above the exposure meter which allows both aperture and shutter speed settings to be read from within the viewfinder.  It also received an improved, and much easier method for resetting the exposure counter.  The Bessamatic competed against other German leaf shutter SLRs like the Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex and Kodak Retina Reflex and compared to those models is said to be more reliable and easier to use.  The camera used the same F. Deckel “DKL” mount as the Kodak Retina Reflex, but a slight variation in the lens coupling means the lenses are not interchangeable between the two systems.

Film Type: 135 (35mm)
Lens: 50mm f/2.8 Voigtländer Color-Skopar coated 4-elements
Lens Mount: Voigtländer F. Deckel DKL Mount
Focus: 3.3 feet to Infinity
Viewfinder: Fixed SLR Pentaprism
Shutter: Synchro Compur MXV Leaf
Speeds: B, 1 – 1/500 seconds
Exposure Meter: Coupled Selenium Cell w/ viewfinder match needle, f/stop, and shutter speed readouts
Battery: None
Flash Mount: Coldshoe and M and X Flash Sync
Weight: 802 grams (body only), 938 grams (w/ lens)
Manual: http://www.cameramanuals.org/voigtlander_pdf/bessamatic_w-finder.pdf
Guide: http://www.cameramanuals.org/voigtlander_pdf/voigtlander_bessamatic_guide.pdf

How these ratings work
The Voigtländer Bessamatic Deluxe is an outstanding camera in appearance, design, and performance.  This camera is fun and easy to use, and produces some of the best images I’ve ever shot using a 35mm SLR.  It uses a Synchro-Compur leaf shutter and the F. Deckel DKL lens mount allowing for full flash synchronization at all speeds, and a selection of available lenses including the Voigtländer-Zoomar lens.  The viewfinder on the Bessamatic is extraordinarily bright and has a match needle exposure system which makes getting correct exposure a snap.  Leaf shutter SLRs don’t always have the best reputation for reliability these days, but when found in working condition, the Bessamatic Deluxe is an absolute joy to use and has quickly become one of my favorite cameras in my entire collection.  I cannot recommend this camera enough.
Images Handling Features Viewfinder Feel & Beauty History Age
2 2 2 2 2 1 20%
Bonus +1 for overall excellence, the complete package
Final Score 14.2

History

The photography industry saw a huge change in the 1950s with the rise of the Japanese camera industry and professional photographer’s growing shift from rangefinders to single lens reflex cameras.  Although SLRs had existed prior to the 1950s, they were generally regarded as impractical curiosities to most photographers.  The Ihagee Exakta was a well built camera that had it’s niche, but it’s awkward controls, dim viewfinder, lack of an instant return mirror, and limited lens mount kept it from widespread popularity with the pros.

Although the Japanese made their fair share of rangefinder cameras too, this was a market that the Germans dominated before and after the war.  Cameras like the Leica II/III and Zeiss Contax series were well established platforms that offered superior control and dependability, and many Japanese companies like Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) and Canon released their own interpretations of German rangefinders.

The Asahiflex made by Asahi Optical Company was Japan’s first 35mm SLR and set the stage for future dominance by Japanese companies.

Sensing a need to expand into a new market and establish themselves with their own designs, in 1952, the Japanese company Asahi Optical Company released the first Japanese built SLR called the Asahiflex.  Inspired by the KW Praktiflex, the Asahiflex lacked modern conveniences like a pentaprism viewfinder, instant return mirror, and automatic diaphragms, but it was a step in a new direction.

The Japanese were never slow to improve their designs and within a few short years, the Asahiflex evolved into what became the hugely successful Pentax Spotmatic series.  Other Japanese companies like Orion and Tokyo Kogaku would release their Miranda and Topcon SLRs with many improved features which helped make them more appealing to the general photographer.  By the end of the 1950s, nearly every Japanese manufacturer had a 35mm SLR.

An ad from 1953 showing the Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex, Germany’s first leaf shutter SLR camera.

In just a few short years, the Germans found themselves having to play catch up to the excellent designs that the Japanese were churning out on a regular basis.  Not wanting to completely abandon the successful rangefinder designs of the past or lose support from companies like F. Deckel or Gauthier who had long been supplying them with leaf shutters, many German companies like Kodak AG, Zeiss-Ikon, and AGFA decided to incorporate familiar leaf shutters into existing rangefinder bodies and create SLR cameras with leaf shutters.

The formula made a lot of financial sense.  Why start over from scratch with an entirely new camera and shutter design just to keep up with the Japanese?  After all, the Germans were known for making world class leaf shutter rangefinders, so why risk changing that?  Plus, using a leaf shutter in an SLR was better for flash photography as the shutter would always be flash synchronized at all speeds, as opposed to the relatively slow 1/30 – 1/60th of a second speeds from Japanese focal plane shutters.

From a technical standpoint, adding a reflex mirror and pentaprism to an existing leaf shutter rangefinder isn’t quite so simple as a number of technical hurdles need to be overcome.  Since an SLR requires light to pass through the lens, hit the mirror, and then travel through the viewfinder so the photographer can compose an image, you need to find a way to keep that leaf shutter and the lens iris wide open during composition.  But if the shutter is open, how do you prevent the film from being unintentionally exposed?  Therein lies the problem.

This diagram of a Zeiss Contaflex by Frank Mechelhoff illustrates the various parts of a leaf shutter SLR.

All leaf shutter SLRs require a complex dance of mechanical movements where the shutter remains open while the reflex mirror is down.  A metal door, sometimes called a capping plate, exists behind the mirror and blocks light from exposing the film.  The design of the capping plate varied by manufacturer, with some of them being an entirely separate plate and others being part of the reflex mirror assembly.

The drawing to the right comes from Frank Mechelhoff’s page “West German Cameras: How They Lost to the Japanese”.  His drawing is of a Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex which is a leaf shutter camera similar to the Voigtländer Bessamatic.  I drew red arrows to indicate the key parts of the diagram to help illustrate the complexity of the design.

When it is time to make an exposure, the camera must first close the shutter and stop down the iris to whatever f/stop you have selected.  Next, the reflex mirror and capping plate must move out of the way to allow for light to pass through the mirror box and expose the film.  With everything ready to go, the shutter is now ready to open and close at whatever speed it is set to.  All of this happens quickly in the moment after pressing the shutter release, however there is still a delay of about 1/50th of a second for all of these motions to complete, which could cause problems for fast motion shots where a precise exposure must be made.  After the exposure is made, leaf shutter SLRs like the Bessamatic keep the shutter closed and the mirror up, blocking light from entering the viewfinder.  You must advance the film to reopen the shutter, and lower the mirror, allowing you to see through the viewfinder again.

The following table summarizes the events that must unfold each time a photograph is taken with a leaf shutter SLR like the Bessamatic.

If this sounds like an overly complicated way to make an SLR, you’re right.  While overall it did work, the chances for failure were higher for leaf shutter SLRs compared to focal plane SLRs due to the shutter cycling twice for every exposure taken and with the extra moving parts, there were more opportunities for things to go wrong.

Despite this complexity, many German camera makers made their own models.  Zeiss-Ikon with the Contaflex in 1953, the Kodak Retina Reflex in 1957, and the AGFAflex in 1958 all had success before Voigtländer would release the first Bessamatic.  Being the last to debut their model gave Voigtländer the advantage of being able to see what worked well with it’s competitor’s cameras, and make adjustments accordingly.

I mentioned in my review for the Voigtländer Prominent that Voigtländer was an eccentric company that made quality products their own way, eschewing the norms established by others.  And while this applies to many of the company’s models, the Bessamatic is somewhat of an exception.  Unlike many of the company’s other models, the ergonomics of the Bessamatic were quite good.  Most of the camera’s key controls were in logical locations where you’d expect to see them.  Focus was changed on the lens, there was a rapid wind advance lever, the viewfinder had both a microprism and split image focus aide.  The camera had an elegant symmetry to it’s design, and had a very shiny and smooth chrome plating.  Everything about the camera exuded Germany quality without most of the German eccentricities that other German SLRs had.

The Baldamatic III is a 35mm rangefinder that uses a similar F. Deckel DKL mount as found on the Bessamatic. Image courtesy of Cees-Jan de Hoog.

The lens mount on the Bessamatic is called the DKL mount which was a type of interchangeable bayonet lens mount designed for F. Deckel Compur shutters.  Several companies used a variation of the DKL mount including Braun, Balda, Iloca, and Wirgin.  But the two most well known companies to offer models with the DKL mount were Kodak and Voigtländer.

This image shows the difference in the notches of the DKL mount on a Kodak Retina Reflex and the Bessamatic.

The greatest appeal to the DKL mount is that the lenses often could be swapped between rangefinders and SLRs made by the same company, but oddly, many DKL mount lenses couldn’t be swapped between models by different companies.  Lenses produced for the Kodak Retina IIIS or Reflex models could not be used on Voigtländer models, and vice versa.  The only difference is the location of a notch on the lens mount which prevents lenses from one company being used on another model.  In the image to the right, I show the DKL mounts for a Kodak Retina Reflex IV and the Bessamatic.  Notice the notches indicated by the yellow arrows on the Kodak are not present on the Voigtländer.  Likewise, the notches indicated by the red arrows are not present on the Kodak.

If you really wanted to swap lenses between cameras, you’d either need to modify the lens mount on either camera to remove the protrusion, or modify the lens to add the notch.  Rick Oleson has detailed how to do this correctly so that each lens can be swapped between Voigtländer and Kodak models.

The Voigtländer-Zoomar was the first zoom lens produced for still 35mm photography.

Using the Bessamatic’s DKL mount, there were a limited number of options for anyone wanting different focal lengths, and all lenses were made by Voigtländer, making them quite expensive.  Most are found today with either the 50/2.8 Color-Skopar or the 50/2 Septon lens.  At the very least, all of the common lengths from 35mm to 135mm that rangefinder customers would have been used to were covered plus one more.

That ‘one more’ was the Voigtländer-Zoomar lens, featuring a modest 36-82mm focal length and a moderately fast f/2.8 aperture, the 14-element Zoomar was first designed in the late 1940s by an optical engineer named Dr. Frank G. Back for American television cameras.  Although “zoom” lenses existed prior, the Zoomar was the first commercially successful zoom lens and first available in a still 35mm camera.  Manufacture of the Voigtländer-Zoomars was done by famed lens maker Heinz Kilfitt in Munich where it was built using the DKL mount, but it was also available in Exakta and M42 mounts.  When equipped with the Bessamatic mount, the Zoomar cost a hefty $298 by itself, more than doubling the price of the camera!

The Bessamatic received positive praise in the press and sold well, staying in production until 1967.  The article below comes from the April/May 1966 issue of Camera 35 magazine and declares the Bessamatic “a good value for the man who wants a moderate degree of versatility, simple operation plus extremely rugged construction.”

The Bessamatic would receive one update in 1962, which would be unofficially called the Bessamatic Deluxe.  The Deluxe model would feature two changes.  The most obvious was a T-shaped “Judas window” directly above the exposure meter which allows the shutter speed and aperture values selected on the lens to be seen from within the viewfinder.  The other change was the addition of a dedicated knob that was used to reset the exposure counter, simplifying the method to how this was done on the earlier model.

An ad from February 1963 shows the Bessamatic Deluxe with a list price between $229.50 and $299.50.

Selling in February 1963 with the f/2.8 Color-Skopar lens for $229.50 or with the f/2 Septon for $299.50, the camera was not cheap.  Each of those prices compare to $1900 and $2500 today. putting them in the semi-pro price range of cameras today.

The Ultramatic was the top of the line in Voigtländer’s 35mm lineup, featuring automatic exposure and later, TTL metering.

Along with the Bessamatic, there was a meterless variant called the Bessamatic M, which had all of the same features, sans meter.  There was also a step-up model called the Ultramatic and the later Ultramatic CS, which both offered Automatic Exposure.  The later CS model employed a TTL CdS meter, but was otherwise the same.

Although leaf shutter SLRs were preferred by German companies, Japanese companies like Kowa also released a successful line of leaf shutter SLRs, and even the Soviets got into the game with their Bessamatic inspired Zenit 4-6 models.

As neat as they were, leaf shutter SLRs had a significantly higher number of moving parts than focal plane shutters, and a combination of cost to manufacture and difficulty to repair caused them to fall out of popularity by the mid 60s.  By the end of the 1960s, cheaper and more reliable focal plane shutter SLRs were coming out of Japan on an almost daily basis, putting the nail in the coffin for the leaf shutter SLR.

Today, the Bessamatic remains one of the highlights of this design of camera.  The Zeiss-Ikon Contaflex and Kodak Retina series sold well too, but the Bessamatic regularly receives praise from modern day collectors due to the camera’s design and reliability.  A combination of excellent optics, excellent design, and better than average reliability means that these cameras can often sell for quite a bit of money on the used market, especially when equipped with the less common lenses like the Septon or Zoomar lenses.

My Thoughts

This Bessamatic came to me in perhaps the nicest condition of any camera in my collection.

Voigtländer makes some of my favorite cameras.  I’ve had great luck with the Vito II, the Brillant, and even a basic folding camera from the 1920s so when I first saw a Bessamatic, it was upgraded to “must have” status.  Of course, finding one in working condition at a price I could afford was a challenge.

For those GAS-afflicted collectors such as myself, being patient can be difficult, but it is often rewarding as my patience paid off when I scored this perfectly working Bessamatic in it’s original case for a great deal.  When it arrived, it was in better condition that I could ever hope.  This thing was mint.  Seriously, if I ever were to move to Japan and open an eBay store and sell this camera, I would describe it’s condition as TOP MINT EXC LQQK!!!!!!++++++

The Bessamatic was everything I had hoped for.  Where the Retina Reflex has idiotic controls and the Zeiss Contaflex almost never works, this Bessamatic was a gem of German engineering with a crazy bright viewfinder (more on that later), mostly perfect ergonomics (again, more on that later), and one of the shiniest finishes I’ve ever seen on a camera.  In fact, the shiny finish proved to be a challenge when photographing the beauty pics I took for this article as I had huge variances in blown highlights in the reflections and darkness in the shadow area.  I always prefer taking my beauty pics outdoors, but this is a case where a light box would have been ideal.

Another immediate characteristic to note about the Bessamatic Deluxe is how heavy it is!  While German rangefinders and leaf shutter SLRs have never been known to be dainty, lightweight devices, the Bessmatic is one stout camera.  Weighing in at 938 grams (just over 2 lbs), this camera is heavier than quite a many other SLRs of the era even with the smallish f/2.8 Color-Skopar.  I imagine that most of the other lenses like the f/2 Septon, the 135mm f/4 Super-Dynarex, or the monster Zoomar would have made this thing and absolute tank!

The Bessamatic has one of the best designed top plates of any German leaf shutter SLR.

The top plate is quite elegant featuring the rewind knob, ASA speed dial, and aperture selector on the left.  There are printed numbers from 1.5 to 5 which are filter compensation factors allowing you to still get a correct reading from the selenium meter when using colored filters on the lens.  Permanently mounted to the top of the pentaprism is the accessory cold shoe, and to the right is the threaded shutter release button, rewind mode selector, exposure counter reset knob, and rapid film winder.

The rapid wind lever is short and stubby, but requires a 270 degree movement.

One of the two changes to the Bessamatic Deluxe from the original model is that little round knob between the advance lever and rewind selector.  By twisting this little knob, you can advance or rewind the exposure counter in either direction.  This is much more convenient compared to the older way which required you to put the camera into Rewind mode and reset it by repeatedly advancing the lever.  The lever on this camera is short and stubby, but still comfortable to use.  Unlike many other SLRs of the era however, the advance lever is not of the additive type, which means that you cannot advance the film with several short movements of the lever.  You must complete one full 270 degree movement of the lever to properly advance the film.  Only going part way leaves the lever partially extended.  The rewind lever deactivates the film advance of the camera for rewinding, but when you are done, a single movement of the advance lever resets it.

The centered tripod socket and 3 small feet are all you see on the bottom of the camera.

Although only featuring the 1/4″ tripod socket, the bottom of the camera is nicely detailed with a large strip of the pebbled body covering, and three little feet that help stabilize the camera when set on a flat surface.

From the back you see the large opening to the viewfinder, the exposure counter and a little circle that does nothing.

The back of the camera reveals the opening for the large and bright viewfinder and the window for the exposure counter.  The exposure counter is of the reversing type like the Kodak Retina in that it counts backwards, showing how many exposures remain on the roll of film.  Unlike the Retina however, the camera can continue to be used if the counter reaches 0.  To the left of the viewfinder window is a circular disc that serves no purpose.  Had this been a rangefinder, I might have guessed this was a rangefinder adjustment cover, but it’s not.

The Bessamatic’s unusually bright viewfinder is due to it’s construction.  Focus can only been seen using the split image or microprism circles in the center.

The viewfinder on the Bessamatic is gloriously bright.  In fact, it’s brighter than every other SLR of the era.  Edge to edge brightness shows no vignetting with only the slightest hint of a circular Fresnel pattern.  But how is this possible that this leaf shutter camera from the early 1960s managed to do something that wouldn’t be equaled for at least another decade and a half?  By cheating, that’s how!

Okay, maybe saying they cheated is unfair, but the reason the viewfinder is so bright is that most of the viewing screen is just clear glass for light to pass through showing a focused image.  Although this improves brightness dramatically, it has the negative side effect of not allowing you to “see focus” on most of the screen.

To properly focus the camera you must use either the split image rangefinder aide in the center of the viewing screen or the microprism circle around it.  In the image to the left, the light pole is a couple hundred feet ahead of me, yet I have the camera set to minimum focus.  Notice how the center of the pole is offset through the center of the split image, and the microprism circle is distorted, yet the rest of the viewing screen looks properly in focus.

The inability to focus using the entire viewing screen might at first seem like a major omission, but in practice it really doesn’t make much of a difference.  I think the dramatic improvement in brightness more than makes up for having to always check focus in the center of the viewing screen.

Finally, the last thing you’ll notice in the viewfinder is the “hoop and stick” match needle on the right.  When measuring exposure, the needle indicates an arbitrary light level, and you must make a corresponding movement of the hoop so that the needle is visible within the circle.  When this happens, you have correct exposure.

The left handed door latch requires a simple pinch of the top and bottom buttons to release the door.

Loading film into the camera first required a gentle squeeze of two protruding tabs on the left side of the camera.

Film travels from left to right, in a ordinary looking film compartment.

This would open the right hinged film compartment.  Film loads from left to right onto a notched, non-removable take up spool like most 35mm cameras of the day.  This camera predates the use of foam light seals and I found the ones on mine to still be intact, requiring no replacement.  On a side note, it appears that this camera was last serviced around 1980 which partially explains why it’s in such good operating condition.

The F. Deckel DKL mount is easy enough to change with the push of a button and a quick twist.

I mentioned earlier that the Bessamatic uses F. Deckel’s DKL mount which was shared by several over companies, but due to a slight change in the bayonet, only lenses designed for the Bessamatic can be used.  Swapping lenses is quite easy, requiring only the push of a release catch near the 6 o’clock position of the lens and a counterclockwise twist.

The shutter speeds and f/stops are coupled together using a LVS that can only be overridden using the dial around the rewind knob.

A characteristic shared by other DKL mount lenses is a clever depth of field scale featuring two red markers that change position depending on the selected f/stop on the lens.  When a large f/stop is selected, the markers move close together, indicating a narrow depth of field, but when a small f/stop is selected, the markers move farther apart to indicate a larger depth of field.  Like many cameras from this era, the Bessamatic employs a coupled LVS (Light Value Scale) which couples the shutter speed and aperture rings together.  With this system, only the shutter speeds can be changed on the lens itself, but if you wish to override it and select a different f/stop, you may using the dial around the rewind knob.  This aspect of the Bessamatic’s control layout is my least favorite element, and the one thing keeping this camera from being perfect.  I understand that this was common practice back then, but I don’t have to like it.  At the very least, its still easier to use than the Kodak Retina Reflex’s infuriating knob at the bottom of the lens mount.

The Voigtländer Bessamatic Deluxe is a fantastic camera, and whatever it was that the company was working on in the years after Zeiss and Kodak released their respective cameras, the extra time clearly paid off.  Save for the LVS with adjustment dial around the rewind knob, the ergonomics of the camera are outstanding, the viewfinder is outstanding, the look and feel of the camera is outstanding.  But how do it’s images look?

My Results

I often talk on this site about what I call “zoo cameras” which is my generic term of a camera that’s easy, reliable, and fast enough to take with you on a family trip to the zoo.  Zoo cameras must not be obtrusive and allow for quick and effortless shots to capture those special candid moments that don’t always wait for you to fiddle with a more complex camera.  As far as zoo cameras go, the Bessamatic Deluxe is heavy, weighing over 2 pounds with the Color-Skopar lens attached.  I secured the camera with the bottom half of it’s ever ready case and a thick neck strap.  Despite it’s weight, the camera is more compact than a large bodied SLR like the Nikon F or Minolta SRT, and has excellent balance, helping to disguise it’s weight.

For the Bessamatic’s first roll, I literally took it to the zoo on a summer trip with my family.  Instead of reaching for a predictable roll of Fuji 200, I went on a limb and tried a film called 3M Scotch 200 that had expired in the very early 1990s.  I didn’t know it at the time, but this 3M film turned out to be some kind of Ferrania emulsion.

Outstanding!  The images that the Bessamatic Deluxe produced on the expired 3M Scotch film were better than I could have hoped for.  I knew it was a risk using unknown expired color film for the first time in a new camera, but I was rewarded with an entire roll of spectacular snapshots with incredible detail and a color palette that although a bit muted, was very natural.

The f/2.8 Color-Skopar is the most basic lens you can get for this camera, but it produced outstanding images.

From a technical standpoint, I have nothing to complain about with the lens.  Sharpness is excellent corner to corner, there was no visible vignetting, and there was no other type of chroma aberrations noticeable on inferior lenses.  Bokeh shots are not my thing, so I didn’t attempt those, nor did I experiment much with the lens indoors, but the few lower light shots I made all came out great suggesting that the selenium light meter on this camera is working perfectly.  It is not often that I get to review a camera that likely is in as good of condition as it was when it was new.  Most half century or more old cameras have some type of compromise, but not this one.  I hate to brag, but not only did I love the camera, but the fact that it’s in such great physical and operational shape, elevates this camera to one of my favorites in my collection.

The weight of the camera is less of an issue when paired with the bottom half of the case and a good neck strap.

Is the camera perfect?  No.  The Light Value Scale is annoying as it is on most cameras of the era.  It’s also quite heavy, but when secured with a good strap and the camera’s case, I had no issue dangling it from my neck in an all day trip to the zoo.  But what an experience!  The best part about shooting photographs with old cameras is the experience.  There’s the saying, “they don’t make ’em like they used to” and that absolutely applies here.  Leaf shutter SLRs have a different sound when the shutter fires, using the match needle to get accurate exposure is fun, and the look through that old Fresnel screen viewfinder is unlike anything you can shoot today.  And then to know that your images will come out looking as good as any electronic CPU controlled fully automatic film camera from decades later, that’s the cherry on top!

If it’s not obvious by this point in the review, yes, I love the Voigtländer Bessamatic Deluxe.  Last week’s review of the Voigtländer Prominent was of a camera that is probably more desirable by collectors, but that doesn’t concern me.  I want to use these cameras, and the Bessamatic Deluxe is one that will get regular use from me!

Additional Resources

http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Bessamatic

http://www.photoethnography.com/ClassicCameras/index-frameset.html?VoigtlanderBessamatic.html~mainFrame

http://www.collection-appareils.fr/x/html/page_standard.php?id_appareil=11779

http://thecameracollection.blogspot.com/2010/10/voigtlander-bessamatic.html

http://elekm.net/pages/cameras/bessamatic.htm

http://mikeeckman.com/photovintage/vintagecameras/bessamatic/index.html

https://oldcamera.blog/2018/05/26/voigtlander-bessamatic-2/

https://www.flickr.com/groups/bessamatic/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCJ1antfzlM

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