The one that got away… returns
Every hobby seems to inspire tales of “ones that got away”.
There’s the car enthusiast who sells off his old Mustang, only to see it rise up as a sought-after classic a decade or two (or three) later.
There’s the gun collector who gets talked out a favourite shotgun by his buddy, only to get a glimpse of it scratched and beaten up a few years later.
Or the watch collector who sold off his old dive watch for a hundred bucks years ago, and winces as they become valuable vintage pieces, with prices soaring into the four figures.
And photographers often part with beloved cameras they wish they’d kept. Usually it’s a Rolleiflex. I’ve had more than a few guys bemoan selling a Rollei, even if it was for a handsome price some years ago. While they could buy one back, it would cost the same, or maybe more today – and they likely won’t spend that kind of dough on a film camera again. But if they’d only kept that one….
For me, it’s not a Rolleiflex, at least not yet. No, some twenty years ago, I purposely bought a batch of cameras needing repair for the express purpose of selling them once fixed up. I think there were six in all, including a couple of well-worn screw mount Leicas, and a Braun Paxette that was beyond saving. I don’t recall the others, except for the one I wished I hadn’t let go.
It was a Voigtlander Vitessa, model N, and after I got its shutter going and the rangefinder fixed, I was captivated by its beauty, enough to run a test roll through it … before selling it to some ungrateful dealer who was going to flip it again for a few dollars more.
That one, I wish I’d kept.
Another couple have come across my repair bench in the years since. I think one had the fancier lens, and another had the built-in light meter. And like most vintage leaf-shutter rangefinders, they needed the same rangefinder repair and shutter cleaning and lubrication. But they already had owners and weren’t for sale.
Finally, a few months ago, I got a pleasant surprise when a nice lady promised to show me a “German camera, a Voigtlander”, if I was interested. I expected another Vito or Vitomatic model, as these seemed to be favourite models on the local market, back in the day. But, upon opening the case, I indeed beheld a Vitessa, model N.
She told me the sad story of how it had been owned by a friend of the family who left it behind when he went overseas to study. But he passed away over there, and it remained abandoned in her cupboard or drawer for some forty years. Sure enough, there was a roll of Kodachrome II still inside, so the story fit.
As expected, the rangefinder patch was dead, which seems to be the standard malady for a Vitessa, but the shutter clicked perfectly. Even the self timer purred steadily, which is amazing for a camera that likely hadn’t had its shutter wound and clicked since I was in grade school.
I bought the camera from her, with the promise I was not going to part with it. This is something I would do my best to treasure and keep for as long as I could.
So after twenty years, a Vitessa came back to me.
Why the fuss and interest? Well, just take a look at it. That’s one sleek camera. Voigtlander always prided themselves on lovely materials and finish, and this Vitessa just does it for me. The combination of satin chrome on the top plate, and thick, shiny chrome on the barn doors scream quality. Soft rounded corners, and no exposed screws (except the three on the flash shoe) make for one supremely elegant design.
I’ve shown this camera to several camera buffs, and while a few pegged it as a 1960s model, one thought it early ’70s.
Incredibly, the Vitessa N showed up in 1951, when it must have looked like it came from the future. Remember, in 1951 the airliners at your local airport still had propellers.
However, the Vitessa hides its true vintage behind those barn doors. Press on the shutter button and the doors pop open a little. Ease them open and the lens extends into position on collapsible bellows. Ah yes, a 35mm rangefinder with bellows, just like an old Kodak Retina of similar vintage – just way more elegant.
But the other thing you notice right way when opening up the camera, is the large plunger/antenna thingy that pops up on the left side of the top cover. That is your wind lever. Give it a press and the film advances and the shutter cocks. Under your right thumb on the back you find the focus adjustment. It’s a very speedy arrangement if you plan on shooting several shots quickly. But of course vitesse, is French for speed.
Not that it’s all that speedy. This is a ’50s leaf shutter, folding camera after all. So you set the shutter and aperture with fiddly small dials around the top-grade Compur shutter. And if you didn’t own a fancy light meter at the time, you were making those settings by reading the recommended shutter/aperture combinations off the film package.
Still, it’s the thought that counts. And the drop-dead styling, of course.
And there is a nice lens up front: a modest f3.5 50mm Color-Skopar. The “color” in the name reflected the new growth in colour photography, and the lens presumably had better coatings to prevent the overly bluish flares seen in lesser optics at the time.
So while the model N got the basic f3.5 lens, the higher-up Vitessas could be had with f2.8, even f2.0 beauties. But I’ve learned that modest aperture optics outperform their bored-out big brothers sometimes. And even though upgrade models could be had with light meters, many of those have pooped out over the years. Even if found working, their days may be numbered. The meterless N is just fine by me, and looks sleeker and prettier for it.
Another quirk of the 1950s design is that the whole back/bottom comes off for loading film, and that front mounted frame counter (now that’s an odd spot) has to be manually re-set each time. But hey, this is 35mm, and with 36 exposure film, you only have to re-load four or five times a year anyway, right?
The last Vitessas from Voigtlander did away with the collapsible lens behind the barn doors. The rigidly-mounted lens may have been a more precise build, but not only did you need a lens cap, you lost all the Vitessa’s sleekness.
The Voigtlander company was around at the birth of photography in 1839 and developed the earliest useful lenses for the Daguerrotype process, but Voigtlander eventually disappeared, absorbed into the Zeiss group in the 1960’s. The name lives on today in lovely lenses and cameras made under license by Cosina in Japan.
But back to my Vitessa. As I said, the shutter worked perfectly, but the rangefinder needed repair, since they all seem to suffer the reflective mirror falling off and rattling around inside the top cover. It can be glued back where it belongs, but getting the whole shebang correctly adjusted is a bigger nightmare than just about any other rangefinder I’ve encountered.
I got it going eventually, and tried it out with a roll of film. The lens was wonderfully sharp, but the focus was off. Sure enough, a double check showed I’d somehow missed proper alignment, or it drifted a bit during final assembly.
Since I had other things on the boil, it took me some months before I got it back on the bench, and then spent way too long getting it to perfection. But perfect it is now, and ready for its next roll of 35mm black and white.
I share it with you now, hoping you understand why I felt the first one had “got away”. Of course, there aren’t as many Voigtlander collectors around these days, and the values of these Vitessa treasures has sagged a bit. Still, if you see one, snag it, and don’t let it get away so easy.