“Wow! Was that your father’s camera?” asks the young be-suited man, nodding his head toward the Voigtlander Vito III dangling like an anchor from my neck.
I pretend he isn’t the fourth person to ask me this question today, and politely reply that “no, it was not” and “yes, there is a market for used film cameras.” A predictable course of banter follows, and I answer accordingly: “Sure, you can still buy film;” and “I don’t know where the nearest lab is — I just develop it myself;” and “no, it’s very easy and quite inexpensive.”
It’s not just the Vito III — most any time I venture into a crowd with one of my (way too many) film cameras, someone inevitably asks if it once belonged to my dad. Curiously, the only camera I own that actually did come from my dad is a Canon AE-1 — yet no one’s ever asked if that was my Dad’s camera. I’ve even been asked if my digital Leica M9 was my Dad’s camera. Stranger still, given the plethora of great female photographers throughout history, no one’s ever once asked if a particular camera belonged to my mother, even though carrying my Minolta Freedom Vista would afford me the ability to answer “yes.”
Other than my Rolleicord, the Vito III solicits more “father’s camera” inquiries than any other camera I own. It is, after all, a folding camera — definitely a relic of an earlier age — though it’s an age more associated with my grandfather’s era than my father’s.
Second in popularity to the “father’s camera” inquiry is the ever-curious, “does that thing still work?” I’ve never quite understood this question. I mean, how moronic would I have to be to walk around town with a non-functioning, ponderous chunk of metal and glass slung around my neck? Do these people think it’s a form of masochistic jewelry? Do they assume I’m being hazed for entrance into some fraternity of middle-aged men? I’m less likely to enter into conversation with these folks — offering a simple “yes, it works,” before hurrying along.
I suspect most ULTRAsomething readers will be interested more in how the Vito III operates than to whom it once belonged. But just how does one go about reviewing a camera that’s over 60 years old? Today’s gear expectations are not the same as our ancestor’s. Auto-focus, auto-exposure and scene modes are now the norm. So, too, is WiFi connectivity, built-in HDR and auto-stitched panoramas.
But really, are our needs all that different today than they were in 1950? Don’t the bulk of the features contained within modern cameras exist simply so today’s photographers need to know less in order to take a photo, and work less in order to share and display it? Isn’t the ultimate goal the same — a photograph?
From this perspective, it becomes rather easy to review old cameras — one needs merely evaluate them on how well they perform one simple task: photography. This means such attributes as build, handling and image quality are the yardsticks by which to measure the camera. So how does the Vito III measure up?
A Spot of History
The Vito III was made in the early 1950’s, and is one of the last cameras from the folder era. Truth be told, the folding camera market was basically dead by 1950, and this is why the Vito III is now such a rare camera: low demand meant low supply. Dueling historians argue over whether Voigtlander produced 12,000 or 16,000 of these cameras. But whichever historian you believe, the fact remains there are very few of these cameras out in the wild.
It’s important to remember that the Vito III’s low demand was due entirely to fashion and not to quality. In fact, many believe the Vito III may well be the best 35mm folding camera ever produced. It’s a bold claim that I can’t personally verify, since I’ve shot with very few 35mm folding cameras. But what I can say is that the Vito III is an absolute mechanical wonder, which is as pleasurable to use as its photos are to view.
Obviously the Vito III contains none of the advanced features expected in modern cameras. It was born in the day when cameras required their operators to have a smidgeon of knowledge. First, one needs to have some way of evaluating ambient light conditions — either by using an external light meter or by “seat of the pants” guestimation (my personal favorite). Second, it’s beneficial to have a rudimentary understanding of how aperture and shutter speed affect an image. And finally, it helps to know how to focus the darn thing.
That’s it. If you know these few, simple basics, then you can operate any old film camera without relying on owner’s manuals, menus, and multiple modes of operation. Learn one, learn ’em all. That’s one of the many benefits of old film cameras, and the Vito III is no different — though it is both a spectacularly good and somewhat quirky example, as we’re about to see.
The good is that the Vito III is a folding camera. You could carry it in your jacket pocket, assuming that pocket is stitched with titanium thread. This is one heavy (and well-made) camera — but it folds up compactly and slips effortlessly into a bag.
Its 50mm Ultron lens opens all the way to f/2 — a rarity for fixed lens cameras (of any era). The lens quality is superb, and I have no qualms shooting it wide open. Sure, it’s a bit “dreamy” at f/2, but this is an attribute I actually appreciate. Stop it down, and this lens could be the flag bearer in the sharpness parade.
Thanks to both the camera’s weight and its Synchro-Compur leaf shutter, handheld shots remain crisper at slower shutter speeds than do shots taken with lighter cameras that feature focal plane shutters. Basically, weight + leaf shutter = the 1950 equivalent of “image stabilization.”
Unlike many fixed lens cameras of its era — most of which required the user to estimate the subject’s distance — the Vito III has a built-in, coupled rangefinder. That rangefinder also happens to be quite accurate and, surprisingly, has a focussing patch that’s still bright and contrasty enough to actually see.
The Quirkily Good
Speaking of focusing, the Vito III uses a totally wacky focus methodology. Rather than turning a focus ring on the lens to focus it, the camera is focussed by turning a knob on the top of the camera. This allows you to firmly grasp the camera with both hands — your right hand doing double duty on the shutter release, and your left hand twiddling the focus knob. It took a few days before this got instilled into my muscle memory, but once it took hold, I really started to enjoy the ergonomics of focussing this way.
Since the focus knob is where most cameras place the film rewind knob, the Vito III engineers crafted a rather clever dual-functioning knob, where flicking a button releases a handle that transforms the focus knob’s functionality into the expected rewind knob. It’s quite ingenious, and one of those things that makes old film cameras so fun to fiddle with.
Not content to limit their ingenuity to knobs, the Vito III also sports a cool little pop-up stand on its baseplate, which allows the camera to sit perfectly level on a tabletop whenever the lens bellows is extended. Again, it’s the sort of nicety that’s so utterly associated with an earlier era, that I just can’t help playing with it.
The Quirkily Quirky
Strangely, the Vito III’s viewfinder has absolutely no frame lines of any kind. Zip. Zero. Nada. This means the exact cropping of every photo you take is going to be somewhat of a surprise. And if your subject is at the lens’ minimum focus distance, there’s a darn good chance the surprise won’t be a good one — parallax errors forcing anything seen in the center of the viewfinder to ultimately appear at the top (or even off the top) of your photograph. I suppose this is something I’ll get used to eventually, but it’s going to take a few more rolls before I have a handle on what will and will not be in my photographs.
Continuing in the frame vein, I should probably mention that frames on a Vito III negative are more tightly packed than on any of my other cameras — meaning the space between photos is absurdly small. The upside of this is I always get one more shot per roll than I would get with any other camera. The downside is that one needs the hands of a surgeon to cut up negatives without cutting into an actual frame.
The next issue isn’t necessarily “quirky” nor is it unique to the Vito III: but the shutter does need to be manually cocked. My Rolleicord, which is a medium format camera, also works this way. But in the 35mm world, it’s much more common to have the shutter automatically cocked by the film advance. On the Vito III, advancing the film and cocking the shutter are two separate and distinct operations — both of which must be completed prior to taking a photograph. Having grown accustom to this two-step dance with my Rolleicord, I found it wasn’t really much of a problem with the Vito III. In the several rolls of film that I’ve now spooled through the camera, I think I forgot to cock the shutter only twice.
One issue I haven’t adequately resolved is the curious fact that the Vito III was built without strap lugs. If you want to dangle the Vito III from your shoulder, you’ll need to use the camera’s original ever-ready case to do so. As I have a psychological aversion to ever-ready cases, this has presented a bit of a problem for me.
I did my best to adapt to the ever-ready case. I used it for the first roll or two that I ran through the camera. And if it was the sort of ever-ready case that allowed you to detach the front half from the back half, I’d probably still be using it. But it’s not — it’s the sort that has the front flap firmly and permanently affixed to the body-case, thus insuring it’s always dangling like a turkey waddle below the camera body.
I next tried carrying the camera in a small, easily accessed bag — but it simply takes too long to extract the camera and open the lens. It’s already a camera that demands slow and deliberate shooting, and since I tend to photograph rather ephemeral subjects, it took a total of 6 shots for me to reject this solution.
So lately, I’ve opted for the roguishly swashbuckling technique of carrying the camera in-hand, with the lens extended and ready for business. Without any type of strap to secure the camera, I adopted a gripping technique in which I curl my fingertips into the opening where the bellows extends. Besides the fact that I need to be careful not to jam a finger into the bellows, there’s an additional complication: an extension lever, which couples the shutter release button with the actual shutter release on the lens, runs right under my fingertips — meaning I need to alter my grip before I can actually take a photo. Considering this might well be the most delightfully engineered camera I’ve ever used, the absence of any strap securing methodology strikes me as totally insane. But in the Vito III’s time, no one used a camera without an ever-ready case, so I guess there was some sort of perverse logic to this decision.
Have you ever been to one of those ‘old-timey’ tourist traps? The kind where actors dress in period costume and perform bygone tasks like butter churning and blacksmithing? I used to feel somewhat sorry for those folks — possessing a skill that nobody actually wanted. But at some point during the middle of this review, it occurred to me that I have become one of them! Film photographers are quickly facing the same fate the befell farriers — practitioners of a craft with a greatly diminished demand. But sadly, unlike the aforementioned butter churners and blacksmiths, film photographers haven’t yet (to my knowledge) become a staple in historical reenactment attractions. But if they ever do, then the Vito III would make a mighty fine prop: durable, dependable and decidedly old-fashioned in appearance.
In its day, the Vito III was considered the pinnacle of 35mm folders. It was a professional’s camera — designed to appeal to that era’s luddites, who preferred the familiar old-skool folding camera format to those fancy new Leica III’s.
In our day, the Vito III is still considered the pinnacle of 35mm folders — though it’s likely not a camera one would choose for daily use. Nor is it necessarily going to be the one film camera you choose to own should you decide to own one. But it is, in its own way, a work of art. And in the hands of a skilled photographer, works of art should emerge effortlessly from this camera.
When I bought the Vito III, I wasn’t sure how much use it would get. But now that I’ve had it for several months, I’m finding myself turning to it more-and-more frequently — often throwing it into a bag just because it slips so easily into a sliver of space. “Modern” guy that I am, I usually prefer shooting with my Leica III’s, but there’s a seductive quality to the Voigtlander Vito III that entices. It’s a camera that’s easy for camera lovers to love.
And by the way, should anyone need an old-timey photographer to set up shop in their old-timey tourist village, I’m pretty sure I’ve got an old-timey Domke photo vest around here somewhere. It’ll make a swell costume.
©2014 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
This article contains two types of photos: those taken with the Voigtlander Vito III and those taken of the Voigtlander Vito III. It’s fairly obvious which camera took the former, while the latter were both shot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 with a 60mm Macro lens. The Vito III photos shown here were shot on two different film stocks. Specifically, “A Failure to Communicate 1,” “Target Marketing,” “Demi-Monde,” “Type B: Two Types” and “Portland: First Light” were all shot on Fomapan 200, exposed at ISO 160, and developed in Rodinal 1:50. “Obstacle” and “A Failure to Communicate 2” were shot on Fomapan 100, exposed at ISO 100, and developed in Rodinal 1:50.
Regarding the product photos: “Voigtlander Vito III” shows the camera open and ready for action. “Top-Deck Focus” shows the location of the Vito III’s focus mechanism, as discussed in the article. Incidentally, you would be safe to assume that a backdrop consisting of Vladimír Birgus’ book, “Czech Photographic Avant-Garde” does, indeed, constitute a tacit recommendation.
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