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A different focus

[Bessa L & R2] “You want an ultra-wide angle lens,” whispered my Gear Acquisition Syndrome to me. “You need an ultra-wide angle lens!!” Well, that settled it: clearly I needed an ultra-wide angle lens. Because I had an idea for a shot of my Junior Research Assistant (just the one, mind) that required it.

The obvious and most useful option would have been to buy the Sigma 10-20mm zoom for the DSLR on which I take most of my family shots. However, I have a congenital apathy towards zoom lenses, and the Sigma, while cheap, seemed quite expensive just to add a mere wide angle capability. So I went looking for a rangefinder camera instead. And ended up buying two. So not an expensive alternative at all, oh no.

It wasn’t entirely the wide angle thing that set me off down this road; a giveaway copy of Rangefinder by Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, while not the world’s most illuminating text on the subject, had left me hankering to try such a camera. That and looking at too much classic street photography, a genre I love but that I’m only slightly more likely to ever pursue than birds. And, according to Hicks/Schultz and every online pundit ever, Voigtländer Bessas are the best entry point into the world of (interchangeable lens) RF cameras.

I soon discovered though that when it comes to rangefinders, everything is relative:

Rangefinders are small
Compared to a modern, fully automated SLR, yes, rangefinder cameras are smaller. Compared to almost any digicam they’re generally much larger, and compared to a basic manual SLR, they’re about equal. The Bessas are based around Cosina’s standard low end manual SLR chassis (e.g. the Nikon FM10), so there really isn’t much in it. Put one next to my cheap and cheerful Nikon EM and it’s about the exact same size. Weight is about the same, although psychologically the Bessa feels heavier because I expected it to be lighter, if that makes any sense. (Comparison shot on Flickr.)
Voigtländers are cheap
Compared to a Leica (new or used), the Bessa is cheap. Heck, a drug habit is cheap compared to a Leica, and in some ways healthier too. Add a lens in though, and the Voigtländer costs about twice as much as a starter SLR system. Even a humble 50/2.5 RF lens, with its allegedly simpler construction, comes in at twice the price of the equivalent (but slightly faster) SLR lens. I’m not saying the products don’t justify these prices, or that there aren’t good reasons for setting them at this level, but it’s a barrier to entry for the casual first time dabbler. (If you swallow your pride and accept a degree of compromise though, you can pick up Russian clone lenses in compatible mounts for only a few pounds.)
RF viewfinders are large
Yes; bigger, better, brighter and you usually get to see what’s happening just outside the frame. But bear in mind that, unless you use accessory viewfinders, it’s the same view whatever focal length you have, only with the frame lines progressively closing in as length increases. Meanwhile with the SLR, the entire viewfinder always shows the full angle of view of the lens. (To be fair, this isn’t a big concern until you go beyond about 50mm.)
Rangefinders are quicker to operate
Compared to pulling out a digicam, turning it on, waiting for the lens to extend and the LCD to initialise, then the autofocus and metering to occur? Yep… providing you’ve preset your exposure and used correct hyperfocal technique (because precise focusing is er… tricky, as I’ll cover later). You gain on the swings, you lose on the roundabouts. You have to balance this against the number of situations you’re likely to encounter in which you’ll need a camera ready right then and the likelihood that you’ll have the camera in your hand at the time. (For reference, I normally keep mine packed away until required.)

X Here’s what happened: Mainly, I wanted the Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Heliar lens. Technically, this doesn’t require a rangefinder camera for focusing at all (DOF is so large that zone focusing is sufficient, and the lens isn’t RF-coupled anyway), so you can use it with the bottom-of-the-range Bessa L (no RF or VF, only a meter, lens mount and lightproof box). However, then I decided it might be handy to use other lenses, like my regular choice of a 50mm, with the same camera. That definitely requires a rangefinder. The next model up is the Bessa T, which has a rangefinder but no viewfinder (you need an accessory finder in the hot-shoe, requiring focusing and composing through different finders - not a big problem unless you need precision quickly though). The T also has a Leica M bayonet mount as opposed to the classic L39 screw mount of the L, which opens up more lens choices to you (you can adapt a screw mount lens to fit a bayonet easily, but not vice-versa). Again though, this isn’t a major consideration as it’s quite likely that all the lenses I’ll ever want are available in screw mount. Moving up from there, you have the Bessa R (combined VF/RF, marking the first “fully-featured” model, screw mount), the R2 (heavier construction, bayonet mount, otherwise same as R), then the current R2a/R3a (R2 with aperture priority and choice of frame line sets). (All the models older than the R2a/R3a are discontinued, though widely available as secondhand or remainder stock).

This model range demonstrates a clever progression, because each one offers “just one more useful feature that I might want”, leading the buyer towards something better and more expensive than they originally planned or required. To be blunt: for the 15mm Heliar, I only needed the L, but for my future grand intentions I wanted the T or preferably R.

So when a Bessa L with 15mm Heliar and an R2 with 35mm Color-Skopar came up in two separate “Buy it now” lots on eBay at the same time, I accidentally bought both. My plan was to compare them in use, then resell the bits I didn’t want or need; speculatively, I guessed that meant keeping the Heliar with the R2, which was slightly more camera than I’d planned to purchase but would do everything I was likely to want for the future. For various reasons though, I haven’t yet come to a firm decision on this and still possess, and use, all the kit.

For those who still wonder what an RF camera is like to use - there being a distinct lack of clear descriptions abounding (the Hicks/Schultz book is a prime offender here, lacking this basic information) - here’s a summary. You look through the viewfinder, which is large and bright with a set of frame lines that indicate the area covered by the lens. (On the Bessa R2, different sets of frame lines matching different focal lengths can be selected with a dial. For example, for a 90mm lens, the viewfinder area remains the same but the frame lines indicate a much smaller region in the centre. With nonstandard focal lengths, such as the Heliar, an accessory hotshoe viewfinder is usually required.) Note that the viewfinder is separate to the lens, and shows everything in focus, similar to a point-and-shoot viewfinder; you can’t judge DOF with this. In the centre of the viewfinder is a small, tinted, oval region, the rangefinder patch. This shows a split or double image; as you adjust the focus dial on the lens, the images come together and merge when the area in the patch is in focus. (Note that this is only true for rangefinder-coupled lenses; the 15mm Heliar lacks this feature as DOF is so large that it can be focused by means of the distance scale and hyperfocus marks.) Everything else will be familiar to a user of a manual SLR: setting film ISO, adjusting shutter speed with the top dial, changing aperture and focus with the rings on the lens, winding on, etc.

[179227-11] Here’s the rub: focusing a rangefinder takes some adjustment, and the RF patch in the R2 is tiny compared to the overall viewfinder. To focus, ideally you need to place the patch over a clearly-defined edge on your chosen subject, which may entail recomposing afterwards, and then carefully turn the focus ring until the split images align. It’s quite possible to turn the ring the wrong way if you don’t know where you’re starting from, and thus drive the split images so far apart that you can’t see one - which you could mistake for alignment in a rush. The second image isn’t particularly clear to start with. The other easy mistake is to put your finger over the rangefinder window (near to the viewfinder window) while focusing, thus blocking out the patch; the obvious symptom of this is a flesh tint to the patch.

Compare this to focusing an SLR: you may decide to use the split image circle, which could also entail recomposing, but equally if your eyesight is good, you can observe the subject snapping into focus as you close in, because the minimal DOF shown helps to isolate it. The area covered by the lens also fills the entire viewfinder, rather than forming a section of it - you lose the ability to see outside the frame, but you’ll have a better view with longer lenses.

With the classic applications of an RF camera, these drawbacks aren’t supposed to matter: you use a wider angle lens and set a moderate aperture to give plenty of DOF, hyperfocus or guesstimate subject distance and fire away. And if your focusing still isn’t quite accurate, well, that just emphasises the candid, informal style of your work.

Otherwise, you’d better not be in a rush if you want a sharp image at wide apertures.

Enough grousing, what are the Bessas like to use? Fundamentally, they’re good cameras: they feel solid enough (even the L’s plastic body), the controls are clear, they’re dead simple and the lenses are marvellous. The Bessa L seems extremely limited on first appraisal, but it’s actually a natural or even perhaps ideal partner for an ultra-wide lens like the 15mm Heliar. You don’t need the rangefinder because zone focusing is trivial and there is plenty of margin for error. You can usually manage without the viewfinder too because pretty much everything in front of the lens is in the picture (better get very close if you wish to emphasise a particular subject though). If you do use an accessory viewfinder, the external meter lights are just within your peripheral vision, sufficient for you to differentiate the red (under/overexposure) and green LEDs. In fact, this last makes the camera a better fit for this lens than the R2, which requires you to look through the camera’s own viewfinder as well to check the meter.

I’m less enamoured with the R2. It’s larger, heavier and altogether more substantial. It’s more versatile but also less pleasant to use, because of the rangefinder. I’m not saying it’s unpleasant, but it’s not a camera I’d ‘take anywhere’; it’s certainly not a compact camera.

Aside from that, I found myself unused to an entirely manual camera and thus occasionally forgetting to adjust either shutter speed (I normally favour aperture priority) or focus (because it’s easy to ignore the patch). As an additional irritant, the focus and aperture rings are swapped round from the normal SLR lens arrangement, with the aperture at the front. Obviously, these are minor issues that could easily be overcome by experience - but I can avoid them entirely simply by sticking with my SLR. Unless, that is, the R2 gives me something that an SLR doesn’t.

Thirty Frankly, I’m struggling to think what that might be. If I were a keen street shooter, it’d be ideal but I currently have no plans to tackle my unease about photographing with strangers around (which is bad enough even when they’re not actually in the frame - simply carrying a camera in Manchester is sufficient to generate looks of suspicion, fear and outright hostility). Like most tyro street photogs, I have some great shots of peoples’ backs or individuals caught on the very edge of a 15mm view; I doubt it’s going to go much beyond that. In view of this, I’m currently revisiting my “need” for a carry-around camera with a 50mm lens.

Other than that, for the selective focus, observational still life and documentary subjects I normally shoot, the best equivalent of an SLR with a fast 50mm lens is… an SLR with a fast 50mm lens. My EM is probably small, light and quick enough already. The R2 would be a great choice for someone who travels a lot though.

[Runaway] The Voigtländer lenses are excellent. The 15mm is fantastic for environmental shots and candid family portraits, without the unwieldy bulk of a wide angle zoom. Attached to the Bessa L, you can simply press the button without even needing to raise it to your eye, for some lively and involving images. The 35mm Color Skopar is less interesting; this isn’t a focal length I find particularly exciting, the f/2.5 aperture isn’t especially fast and the pancake form factor is almost too narrow for ease of use. My 35mm f/1.4 Nikkor is a great lens precisely because its various flaws and quirks lend a certain character to the results, particularly when used wide open. The Skopar, by comparison, is merely competent and dull, and therefore a strong contender for early resale. The contrast rendition of both lenses is superb, noticeably superior to SLR glass; colour shots with the Skopar have some of the look of modern, highly saturated reportage shots, while monochrome images with the Heliar can almost appear to be three dimensional cutouts in the right light.

My inclination at the moment is therefore to sell the Skopar and probably the R2 if it turns out that I don’t make much use of it; I certainly have no intention of building another camera system. The 15mm Heliar is a keeper: it only does one thing, but that thing is awesome and it does it exceedingly well. The L is so cheap and such a good match for the lens that there’s little point in letting it go.

(My thanks to Colin Jago of Auspicious Dragon for additional advice when buying; however, I would like to emphasise that he is a Very Bad Man to ask if you are looking to be dissuaded.)

Other bubbles

Update, 2007-04-17

…Yes, I’ve still got all this kit, even though I’ve barely put two rolls of film through either camera - a factor of available time as much as anything. I bought a Jupiter-8 50mm from eBay as well, for a negligible price (but probably about what it’s worth). So far, I think I’ve committed just about every basic mistake on the few occasions I’ve used them: forgetting to focus; forgetting to set exposure; changing shutter speed instead of thinking about the aperture and DOF; etc. In fairness, some of the results when I got it right have been very encouraging. I still can’t quite bring myself to sell either the Skopar, which has such amazing contrast, or the R2 - that may change when GAS kicks in again and I need to finance a new purchase.