It's 2004 and your name is Hirofumi Kobayashi. You're at the Cologne Germany Photokina and you're unveiling something special. Not one, but two 35mm aperture priroty rangefinder cameras with Lieca M mounts. More than that, two cameras with viewfinders so bright that Leica can almost feel the plinth on which they rest begin to crumble beneath their feet. What you're unveiling are the Voigtlander Bessa R2A and R3A.
I've known of the name Voigtlander (or Voigtländer, if you can find the "ä" button on your keyboard) for a few years, but they've always just seemed like any other manufacturer of film cameras and lenses. When you're quite young and don't have decades of photographic history stored in the mushy grey thing in your head, there are a huge number of brand names and manufacturers that you only recognise from passing comments on websites. To me, Voigtlander was just another camera word that I might one day learn a bit more about.
"One day" was a sunny day in mid May. I was at a film meet in Cornwall with some friends, where we'd met up for a weeks photography holiday. One of the more interesting parts of these film meets is that everyone who goes brings along a camera or two (or ten, in most cases), and then we spend more time than is necessary looking at and trying out each others cameras. Back in my home town I do not know anyone within a reasonable driving distance that has even a remote interest in film cameras, so short of driving to a used camera shop, these film meets are the best opportunity for me to touch and examine cameras which, so far, had only existed to me in the form of a photo on a screen.
One of the cameras on the table this time, was a Voigtlander Bessa R4A 35mm rangefinder. I remember picking the camera up and noting how solid and well built the camera felt in my hands, although this is not unusual for older film cameras which weren't made with today's make-it-cheap-and-throw-it-away-when-it-breaks attitude. I had always been an SLR user, and up until this point in time the only rangefinder that I had used was my Yashica Electro 35 GSN. I was given this as a birthday present and utterly loved it. It was so light weight, simple to use, and incredibly easy to focus. The only thing that lets the GSN down in my opinion is a rather dim viewfinder. Of course, I didn't know at the time just how dim it was, as I'd had nothing to compare it to. As soon as I looked through the viewfinder of the R4A I was blown away. I'm not sure I can say it was quite as bright as what your eye sees naturally with no camera in front of it, but it was pretty damned close! I was amazed at how clear the rangefinder patch was as well. Focusing with the GSN had been relatively straight forward, but the R4A was on another level. I had to have one.
My beloved Yashica Electro 35 GSN
Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) is a bitch. It doesn't matter what cameras you have, there is always "just one more" that you need to buy to fill a gap in your line up. I'm pretty certain that until the point where I own one of every camera ever made, there will always be a new camera that I'm lusting after and trying to think of strange reasons to justify buying one to myself. Fortunately, since the Cornwall meet, I've been tied up with buying a house, and afterwards, busy decorating and doing new home owner things (read "chores"). It's been a little over 7 months since we moved in now, and we've settled down enough that the GAS is back. I'm turning 30 in a couple of months, and we're off to Hong Kong soon, so I decided that a new camera was definitely justified.
There are a number of Voigtlander Bessa models to pick from. I wasn't interested in the L or R (screw mount) or the T (no viewfinder), and the 21/25/28/35/50 frame lines of the R4A/R4M were too wide for my style, I decided I wanted an aperture priority camera to make shooting in Hong Kong quicker and easier, which cut the R2M and R3M from the line up. In the end, it was the x1.0 viewfinder of the R3A which pushed it to the top spot above the remaining R2A. Now to find one.
It took around two weeks of searching. I have a pretty exhaustive list of camera shops in the UK, with about 35 bookmarks saved on my laptop. I would look through this entire list every day, just to be sure that I bought one as soon as it came up, hopefully before anyone else could snap it up. The only Bessa's that I could find were on eBay in Japan, but by the time the UK Government got their piece of the cake and added all sorts of fees and taxes when it arrived, I'd be looking at over £1k in total with a lens... Ouch! Eventually I was tipped off that the Real Camera Company in Manchester have so many cameras in stock that they're not able to list them all on their website, which I had been visiting daily. I rang them just on the off chance they might have one, and incredibly my luck was in as they had a mint condition R3A in stock, at "mint condition" price, of course. After sending me across some photos to show the condition, I rang back and ordered it straight away over the phone. As for a lens, I'd already had my eye on a Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.4 from MW Classic Cameras, so I next went to their site and placed my order. Next I ordered a nice wrist strap to stop me from dropping it, with a leather tab that sits behind the split ring to stop the camera body from getting scratched.
People always say that time goes very slowly when you're bored. I can confirm that time goes even slower when you're waiting for a new camera to arrive. Four days later the lens and camera arrived, which I collected from the DHL and DPD collection points after work on a Tuesday. When I got home I removed the packaging and put the lens on the camera. Wow, it really was mint! I spent some time trying out all the functions and testing the meter etc, then took some photographs of it. It's by far the best condition used camera I've ever owned, so I'm a little apprehensive about taking it outside into the big scary world and using it, but use it I shall! I've got four rolls of Kodak Tmax 400 in the fridge, and I'm planning on going out this weekend and shooting a roll if the forecasted rain doesn't appear.
Check back soon to see the photos, and in the mean time feel free to leave a comment!