Lens, camera mount or rangefinder – which is the focus culprit (Voigtlander Bessa T and L)?

Although the famous Austrian/German Voigtlander name has been ‘a good name badge’ for the Japanese Cosina company since 1999, the latter has continued the tradition of innovative, affordable photographic equipment for which the the Voigtlander company became famous over 200 years – originally from Vienna but then in Germany from 1849. Among those innovations was the first zoom lens for a 35mm camera. Now Cosina Voigtlander are known for a superb range of lenses – some would say rivalling those carrying the Leica and Zeiss names but at a far more accessible price.

Voigtlander Bessa L with 35mm colour skopar and viewfinder, Bessa T with 90mm Apo Lanthar and viewfinder, and the 50mm Jupiter-8

Voigtlander Bessa L with 35mm Color Skopar and viewfinder, Bessa T with 90mm Apo Lanthar and viewfinder, and the 50mm Jupiter-8

I have two Cosina Voigtlanders, with two of their lenses, and one original Voigtlander which is an engineering masterpiece of a quality rivalling that of Leica, the Vitessa L (with the Ultron lens). This is the camera in the middle of the bottom row of my header above. I will, eventually, get around to doing a post about the Vitessa, when it’s had some necessary TLC (or CLA), but this post is about the Bessas.

The Bessa T has no built-in viewfinder, but it has an excellent long-base rangefinder which has a longer effective base length than the Leica M6, and has the Leica M mount. (The earlier Bessa L, with 39mm mount, is basically the same camera without a rangefinder, intended for use with the ultra-wide Voigtlander lenses, eg the 12mm, with their dedicated viewfinders). The problem with my T is that my three lenses for it do not show exactly infinity when the rangefinder indicates infinity, or 1 metre when the rangefinder indicates 1m. So, is the discrepancy due to the rangefinder needing adjustment, the lens, or the camera mount (in the case of two of the lenses the necessary M:39mm screw adapter could be the culprit)? That all three lenses show about the same discrepancy suggests the rangefinder, but I’d rather be a bit more sure before messing with the adjustment.

The light outside is dull and completely flat, so maybe it’s a day for sorting out the Bessas. (By the way, if it seems I’m having a problem with my tenses it’s because I often write, as now, in ‘real time’, so I may be referring to past, present and future all in the same para, if not the same sentence. This type of post is written as some of what is being written about is happening. I do it frequently when writing about cooking on my other blog).

'Infinity' target, 90mm lens with rangefinder showing in focus (crop from much larger neg)

‘Infinity’ target, 90mm lens with rangefinder showing in focus (crop from much larger neg). Lens is indicating slightly closer than infinity.


Same target as on the left, similar crop but lens set to ‘infinity’ mark. Clearly the lens mark is correct, not the rangefinder

So, I have a half-exposed roll of Tmax400 in the T. Last night I took some shots of an old development tank box, using the various sized black on white lettering as a target, at exactly 1m, with each lens, first setting focus with the rangefinder then to exactly the 1m mark on the lens. This morning (Sunday) I used ‘our clock’ (see my post of 14 January) as the best available ‘infinity’ target (it is about 800 metres distant so the right hand picture shows the quality of the Apo Lanthar) to repeat the exercise (two of the test shots are shown here).

I have 4 or 5 shots left on the film so despite the light I’m popping out now to use them up.

PS. The film was developed in TMax developer, 1+4, 24degC, 5.5 min, according to the ‘Massive Development Chart’

 (http://www.digitaltruth.com/devchart.php Film=TMax+400&Developer=TMax+Dev&mdc=Search)

left to dry and cut late evening for scanning Monday morning. As might be expected, the slight off-focus was far more obvious with the 90mm lens but all showed better focus when setting the lens to distance rather than as indicated in the rangefinder, which suggested it was the rangefinder which was the culprit. I’ve adjusted it for infinity as best I can as it’s snowing now and difficult to see a very distant object, but it should be good enough until there’s a moon in a clear sky to make a final adjustment.

Here are some shots using up the roll before adjustment; the close shot of the flower illustrates the problem as the rangefinder showed the flower absolutely in focus but it clearly is not. The shot of the steps, setting hyperfocal for the range on the lens, doesn’t have a problem.

As an ‘aside’, the Bessa T brings to mind how important it is if you ‘collect’ classic cameras (as I do, but to use not just to display, so cosmetics are usually not very important), to know the cameras in which you might be interested very well. I bought the Bessa T on Ebay as ‘not working, spares or repair’ and fitted with the Jupiter-12 35mm lens, the Russian copy of the pre-war Carl Zeiss Biogon. I knew you cannot fit this lens to the Bessa as the back element will touch the vertical FP shutter blades, just. I decided to take the chance that this was the problem and that the shutter had not been ruined. I put on a low bid and got the camera and lens – both undamaged, in fact the camera was virtually mint – for about £20, half the value of the Jupiter alone!

I referred to another piece of luck in a past post: passing a local camera shop I saw the Apo Lanthar in the window with a label which seemed to indicate £90. I didn’t believe it so went in to ask the price. “£90”. “Does that include the boxed viewfinder alongside it?”. “Yes”. I took a quick look – both in very good condition, perfect optically and few small cosmetics. I whipped out my debit card and bought them. There are the same Apo Lanthars on Ebay now for around £350 and the 90mm viewfinder with a starting price of £70.

The Bessa L wasn’t quite as great a bargain but mint, never used I think, in it’s original box, I paid £100 for it. I think that’s a bargain too.

I had a similar experience with my little Contax SL 300 R T*. Again on Ebay it was listed as ‘not working, for spares or repair’ as “the battery cannot be removed”. I knew that 3rd party replacement batteries usually had this problem but could be removed with a bit of effort with needle nosed pliers and a battery could be made to ‘fit’ by stripping off the paper labels. I got it for less than £20. It’s in perfect condition. There’s one on Ebay as I write with a starting price of £90.