Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Voigtlander Bessa R & Leica M3

My experience purchasing a rangefinder; or two.

Why did I buy both?
Because I was curious. I certainly had a lot of questions regarding the differences between the Voigtlander and Leica bodies, and from searching online I've found a lot of explanations that didn't tell me things I already had heard a hundred times over:
"The Leicas have a better feel, while the Voigtlanders feel cheap"
"The Leicas are quiet to the noisy Voigtlanders"
"The Voigtlanders are Leica knockoffs. If you want a real rangefinder, buy the Leica"

After not finding the exact comparisons I was looking for, or many examples of proof, I decided to find out for myself. I wanted to know how these two camera systems are to shoot and whether the quality of the Leica is truly worth the extra expenditure, especially since I wouldn't be able to afford one with a meter. I wanted this rangefinder as my everyday camera and my intention was to find a good system for a reasonable price.

Is it worth buying a Leica body if you're looking on a budget?
Sure, everyone's idea of a budget camera is different and if you can afford it, its worth it. Now with the obvious out of the way, let me recount my experience purchasing a cheap LTM Voigtlander and a cheap M mount Leica (relative to the Leica brand).

Voigtlander Bessa R
-Price. ($365 with lens)
-LTM Lenses are cheap and everywhere.

-Feels cheap
-Sounds cheap
-Many LTM lenses have issues due to age (cleaning marks, rough handling)

My general feelings towards this camera are very good. The camera has a meter which at this price point makes it extremely good value for money, M6 bodies go for 1k+ and M5 bodies for about 700+.
The frame-lines in the viewfinder can be manually changed, and even better the focus patch is bright, even indoors. The viewfinder's magnification is .68, which is drastically different from M3's .91, allowing it to accommodate wide angle lenses.

Bessa R's Viewfinder:

Leica M3's Viewfinder:

The feeling of the R is plastic, but I do not mind as it keeps the cost and weight low. The only parts of the body that do feel really cheap are the main dial and advancement lever, both of which lack the smoothness and quietness of the Leicas. For those pickier about feel, the R2 and later Bessa versions are supposed to be of more solid construction, I'm unsure about their dial's feel though.

The lens I chose to go with my Bessa was the Jupiter 8 which is a 50mm F2.0. The first and foremost reason being their low cost, they're plentiful on Ebay, and do not seem to have the same focus shift problems as the Jupiter 3.

After a few days, however, I felt that the lens performed sometimes not so spectacularly wide open, but was always amazing at 5.6. It also flared horribly when my subject was back-lit, making a lens hood a very useful addition. Knowing the flaring is something unavoidable in these cheaper type of lenses, I started looking for a sharper lens wide open.

Other problems with my lens were its terrible focus movement, sticking in some areas and rough to rack focus. The aperture ring also does not click between stops and is very easy to shift out of your desired aperture.

New Lens Possibilities
After looking at a number of different lenses I could replace my Jupiter with, I ended up deciding upon the LTM Voigtlander 50mm/1.5 due to its relatively recent manufacture date. One small problem was that it was more than I wanted to spend on a lens ($800). Seeing that the Jupiter 8's markings didn't always line up with the LTM mount on the camera, and not really knowing whether it was the lens' fault, or the cameras, I decided the bayonet style M mount would be a more consistent mounting experience that would rule out that variable as to why the Jupiter would sometimes be decent to downright horrible at 2.0.

One possible solution was the Bessa R2. It had everything I was looking for: a M mount, meter, sturdier build, and price. The bodies often go for around 400-500 and the lenses I was looking at were about the same. (I was set on purchasing a 50mm because I'm was tired of always using the 35mm focal length on the X100)

Seeing as how I was looking at spending ~1000 dollars as it is, I decided to take a look at used options and see what else was out there.

Being that I originally disregarded M mount lenses as being too expensive, I started to look at early M mount glass as cheaper alternatives. Lenses worth looking at for me were the Summarits, early Summicrons, Elmars, and Summars.

I ended up finding a Leica M3 with a Dual Range Summicron for $1200. The lens did not come with the goggles to allow close up work, but I wasn't looking at spending the price tag associated with a DR lens set anyway.

Leica M3
-High magnification viewfinder (perfect for 50mm)
-M Mount

-Lack of an internal meter

The obvious stuff I knew to look for
1. Body Condition - (Dents, Covering, Scratches)
2. Viewfinder - (Possible to see through it?)
3. Lens - (Coating, Scratches, Haze, Fungus, Smoothness of Focus)

The not so obvious stuff I stumbled upon through researching
1. Viewfinder - (Starting Separation? Complete Blackout?)
2. Seals - (Intact? L seal?) 
3. Shutter - (Shutter speeds accurate? Curtain intact?)

For this I will only touch on the not so obvious:

1. Viewfinder
While I was looking at purchasing my M3 I found the vast majority of cameras out there all suffered from some sort of problem if they were selling for less than $1800 w/ lens. Many of the sellers did not even know what a usable viewfinder looked like. I was told by many that the viewfinders were clear and bright when in fact they were incorrectly looking at just the focus patch, thinking the blackout around the focus patch was normal. It took a number of photos from sellers for me to accurately diagnose the issue of their cameras which many had listed as fully working.

Viewfinder Blackout:

That small square in the center is its focus patch, which many sellers on Ebay thought was its viewfinder. "All bright and clear!"

This blackout is a result of a common problem for the M3, caused by the separation of the viewfinder elements due to oxidation of the viewfinder's organic adhesives. Subsequent drops and bumps to the camera body then cause the prism inside the viewfinder to separate and black out. You can see more about M3 viewfinders restoration here.

Viewfinder Separation:
(quality is terrible. iPhone wouldn't focus on the separation very easily)

Initial pricing estimates for repair did not leave me very excited. For a brand new viewfinder from Leica, the price to replace it would be $950 plus hardware required to install it. I was then informed that because he already had viewfinders in stock that it would only cost $450 for a replacement. The best sounding estimate would be that if the viewfinder just needed to be resilvered that it would just be $160.

-M3 CLA $180
-Main prism repair: $160
-Repair dented top plate: $100
-Recover: $40
-Lens CLA: $80
-Shipping: $15

Total cost of repairs: $575

2. Seals
Any camera as old as the M3 should be CLA’d (Cleaned, Lubricated, and Adjusted) if they are to be put back into working order. There are a number of people out there that recommend to purchase only M3s that have an intact L seal above their top screw on the bayonet mount, as this is an indication whether its been opened since leaving the factory. I personally don’t see a problem in buying a camera that has been repaired during some part of its life, but it is something worth looking for if you happen to find one that still has it intact. 

3. Shutter
This is the hardest to verify by the seller, as most sellers apparently do not use the cameras themselves and have inherited them from their parents or grandparents. One thing they can look at easily is whether the curtain has suffered any visible damage but looking at the exposed curtain while cocking and firing the shutter on Bulb mode.

Between the two cameras
Having both cameras in hand, I decided to take them out to see how they are to shoot with. The feel of the Leica definitely trumps the Voigtlander, its heft and smoothness really does make you want to focus the camera just for the sake of focus practicing. After firing off a frame, the film advance lever is fun to use and makes it feel like you're advancing film on something special. The Voigtlander on the other hand just feels like another camera, springy and metallic.

As I've come to see, sound has a lot to do with how I feel about the two cameras. Much like how a car door shutting gives a satisfyingly solid sound on a high end car, the Leica gives you that same sort of feeling with its sound and really does make it a pleasure to shoot for your eyes, hands, and ears.

I couldn't find a comparison between the two cameras in terms of sound, so I made my own.


Jonathan Desmond said...

Thanks for posting this up. This kind of review is what I'm looking for. I was targeting the M3 but seeing as how there could be a lot of problems with these older cameras (or so it seems)... hmm... makes me think twice.
What was your overall take on this?

Tyler Watkins said...

@ Jonathan - I ended up selling my Bessa and have held onto the M3. I also recently purchased a M7 because I wear glasses (the 50mm frame is hard to see at times). The M3 still has the best accuracy when focusing with fast lenses, but I prefer the .72 finder so I can see outside of my framing as well when shooting with a 50mm.

Tyler Watkins said...

@ Jonathan - I just looked at your blog. Congrats on the M6, it is an amazing camera :). I agree that many people purchase cameras believing that it will solve the missing spark in their photos. I'm sure that with time you will bring your new camera to become an extension of your vision. I enjoyed your Japan images. It makes me relive the time I visited Japan a few years ago. One of your shots from Asakusa was even taken right outside a hotel I stayed out.