Voigtlander Bessaflex TM review

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Black Bessaflex – a retro shooter in a digital age (Pic: Mark Vanstraelen)

A decade ago, digital photography suddenly meant business. Digi compacts had taken the place of their film counterparts, and digital SLRs were starting to make serious inroads among more serious photographers.

It was, then, a strange time for camera company to introduce a model which harked back to the technology of the early 1970s. But that’s precisely what Japan’s Cosina decided to do.

Released in 2003, the Voigtlander Bessaflex TM was a step back in time. A compact, lightweight SLR made mostly out of plastic, the Bessaflex was 30 years behind the times. An all-manual SLR, it used the M42 lens mount – the mount made famous by Pentax’s Spotmatic more than three decades earlier.

The Bessaflex was the brainchild of Cosina’s Hirofumi Kobayashi, a man with a track record of introducing some unconventional designs. Many of these wore the Voigtlander name. Voigtlander is the oldest name in photography, a German manufacturer of optics which had started life in 1756. In the 20th century, Voigtlander introduced a number of excellent designs, such as the Brilliant TLR and the Bessamatic SLR. After merging with Zeiss in the 1960s, Voigtlander’s faded into obscurity. Cosina bought the rights to its name in the 1990s.  The first camera under this (new) old name was the Bessa L, a no-frills camera designed to take the old L39 Leica screw lenses at a fraction of the cost of an original body. It was a hit, and rangefinders of increasing sophistication joined the ranks.

234864224_dcd475ee90_oResurrecting a camera mount last seen during the era of the oil crisis and glam rock might have seemed like a foolhardy pursuit, but there was method in Mr Kobayashi’s madness. The M42 mount was also known as the Universal Mount – and camera and lens manufacturers didn’t have to pay for a license to build models using the mount. It meant that from the mid-60s until the early 1980s dozens of manufacturers built lenses using the mount, including big names such as Pentax, Sigma, Richoh, Chinon and Fujica. East of the Iron Curtain, the M42 mount was enthusiastically embraced by the major manufacturers – most of the millions of Prakticas and Zenits made during this time used the screw mount aswell.

Screw mount lenses had fallen out of favour because they were unable to transmit electronic information from the camera – meaning no auto aperture aside from a handful of later Pentax lenses for their ESII – and professionals preferred bayonet mounts such as Nikon, which were much easier to use. Aside from a few models from Russia, new cameras hadn’t been made for at least 25 years. But some of those old lenses were nothing less than exceptional. And there were millions of them. Making a new model – using batteries which could be bought at any local store – seemed like a good idea.

The Bessaflex is a rudimentary camera, but what it does it does very well indeed. Compared to the mainly metal designs of the 1970s it’s a lightweight camera. While it takes batteries, the only thing these power is the meter, a simple centre-weighted design which helps produce perfectly exposed pics. Where the Bessaflex scores over most of the old M42 cameras is its fastest shutter speed – 1/2000 – and the fact its batteries can be bought everywhere.413215577_d6bc51ace5_o

When I took to photography, I learned on an old Praktica MTL 5B, one of the dozens of models using M42 lenses made in East Germany, and started collecting a few other screw mount bodies and lenses. When the Bessaflex was announced, I bought one through Cameraquest in the US, and took it on a long weekend trip to Zagreb in Croatia, alongside a Spotmatic.

It was the first of three Bessaflexes, two of the Olympus OM-2-lookalike black model and one of the silver models, designed to look like one of the old Topcon SLRs (even though the plasticky body doesn’t quite carry off the classic chrome look). It soon became my go-to travel camera, light enough to chuck on an overnight bag for a quick trip out of town, and reliable enough to take on a longer trip. The Bessaflex might not have the heft and solidity of something made of metal, but it is reliable.

My Flickr account has hundreds and hundreds of pics shot on my Bessaflexes. I’ve taken them on a trip to Valencia to shoot Fallas festival and to a week based in Dubrovnik; two weeks travelling across Ukraine and winter city breaks to Istanbul and Nuremberg.  Sixteen countries and counting, in fact.

Before choosing to shoot only on a pair of Nikons for my soundcheck project, I also used them for shooting a bunch of bands. The Bessaflex’s only major drawback is that it’s meter only reads up to ISO 1600. If you’re looking to shoot in low-light, you’ll either need a tripod or a handheld meter. Having said that, I’m particularly happy with some of the pics I took with Bessaflex when I shot David Kilgour and band back in my native New Zealand in 2007, especially the shot of drummer Taane Tokona you can see below. I even shot an album cover on it – a pic of Buffalo Tom’s Tom Maginnis which became the cover of the band’s 2011 album ‘Skins’.

It’s a shame Cosina only made the camera until 2007 – Bessaflexes very rarely come up for sale (eBay is your best bet) but well worth keeping an eye out for. Mr Kobayashi, it seems, knew what he was doing.

More pics taken on the Bessaflex can be seen below, or on Flickr.

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Street shooting with an old Schacht-Travenar portrait lens in Budapest
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Cross-processed slide on a spring day in Hampstead, north London
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Behind bars on a summer’s day in Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, shot on their 2007 European tour
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Candid shot on the streets of Siracusa in Sicily
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Blurred photographer in Red Square
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Soundcheck atmosphere before Calexico/Iron and Wine in London in 2006
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A snooze on the rocks in Dubrovnik
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Taane Tokona at soundcheck in Napier, New Zealand

12 Comments

  1. I believe that the Bessaflex is a very close relative of the Nikon FM10, which was made for Nikon by Cosina. The FM10 was made in greater numbers and continued to much later, so it is easier to get hold of one. Of course the FM10 has a Nikon F-mount, not M42.

  2. I believe that the Bessaflex is a very close relative of the Nikon FM10, which was made for Nikon by Cosina. The FM10 was made in greater numbers and continued to much later, so it is easier to get hold of one. Of course the FM10 has a Nikon F-mount, not M42.

  3. The Bessa R series M mount rangefinder cameras by Cosina are okay, however be prepared that having them repaired/serviced can be a nightmare, at least here in Europe. Even for warranty repairs they have to be sent back to Japan. No repair shop I know of will touch these, for understandable reasons (very uncommon camera, availability of parts etc.). You might consider a Leica CL or an older used Leica M body instead. These are much better built cameras, they keep their value and it is not a problem at all to have them serviced or repaired, not now and probably not 20 years down the road. The difference in price is not as big as one might suggest. The price of a new Bessa R2/R3 will buy you a nice Leica M6 in good used condition. And for the price of a used R2/R3 you could buy a Leica CL.

  4. The Bessa R series M mount rangefinder cameras by Cosina are okay, however be prepared that having them repaired/serviced can be a nightmare, at least here in Europe. Even for warranty repairs they have to be sent back to Japan. No repair shop I know of will touch these, for understandable reasons (very uncommon camera, availability of parts etc.). You might consider a Leica CL or an older used Leica M body instead. These are much better built cameras, they keep their value and it is not a problem at all to have them serviced or repaired, not now and probably not 20 years down the road. The difference in price is not as big as one might suggest. The price of a new Bessa R2/R3 will buy you a nice Leica M6 in good used condition. And for the price of a used R2/R3 you could buy a Leica CL.

  5. A nice review and the pics are very good indeed. I was under the impression that the Bessaflex was made mostly of metal, not plastic. Considering its price, I really see no reason buying one. You can easily get a nice Pentax Spotmatic or even a Fujica ST801 (if you’re really lustful for that 1/2000 top speed) for peanuts on eBay, then get it serviced for another 50-60 euros (that’s what I’m paying for a full CLA here in Greece at the moment) and end up with a full-metal, all mechanical vintage beauty to use all those M42 lenses with. If weight is a problem, you can always use M42 lenses (at least those with an A/M switch) on a Pentax ME Super via a dirt-cheap M42-PK adapter and enjoy small size, light weight, an unparalleled viewfinder and aperture priority autoexposure with a camera that has a top sped of 1/2000s and ASA up to 3200.

    • The Bessaflex does have a metal interior, but there is plastic on the outside. it is a nice robust camera though. Originally i had three, but sold the silver one and will probably offload one of the black ones – to be honest, if I’m travelling I shoot on Pentax ESIIs now. I’d wholeheartedly recommend them though – lovely little cameras.

      I have heard good things about the top-of-th-range Fujicas too…

  6. Hi, very interesting review. I bought a silver Bessaflex some time ago and was very disappointed that the various M42 lenses I had (Industar 61L/Z, Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 2.4/35, Pentacon 3.5/30) didn’t work well on it because of the rear part of the lenses blocking the mirror when focusing over 2-3 meters. The only working lenses are the Jupiter 37A and a Chinon MC 1.7/55… I saw that you had the Voigtlander Ultron 40mm F2 lens on it and decided to buy one… but the problem is the same, the mirror is blocked by the rear part of the lens when focusing over 2m… 🙁 It’s still ok to use under 2m but it’s annoying that it doesnt go over that distance… Is this a problem of the silver bessaflex in general or of the particular model I bought?

  7. Hi, very interesting review. I bought a silver Bessaflex some time ago and was very disappointed that the various M42 lenses I had (Industar 61L/Z, Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 2.4/35, Pentacon 3.5/30) didn’t work well on it because of the rear part of the lenses blocking the mirror when focusing over 2-3 meters. The only working lenses are the Jupiter 37A and a Chinon MC 1.7/55… I saw that you had the Voigtlander Ultron 40mm F2 lens on it and decided to buy one… but the problem is the same, the mirror is blocked by the rear part of the lens when focusing over 2m… 🙁 It’s still ok to use under 2m but it’s annoying that it doesnt go over that distance… Is this a problem of the silver bessaflex in general or of the particular model I bought?

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