Voigtlander Bessamatic

P1040597This is a big lump of a camera – it weighs 927g – and will not be easy to use for long periods. The basic design is the same as the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex series, Kodak Retina Reflexflex, Mamiya Korvette (aka Family) and several others. The camera uses a reflex version of the Synchro-Compur shutter. This is very complicated shutter that does a bit more than control the exposure. East German Zeiss Ikon in the late 1940s introduced a reflex version of the Zeiss Ikon Contax which became the standard for SLR design that is still with us with DSLR cameras. This East German SLR used a focal plane shutter (as had the Contax) and most SLR manufacturers followed suit. West German Zeiss Ikon went with a design using the in-between the lens leaf shutter instead as did Voigtlander. This complicates things as the shutter must be open to enable viewing through the lens without exposing the film. The solution – designed by both Compur and Gauthier – is to use a secondary shutter behind the mirror. To expose the film requires seven steps:

  1. close the leaf shutter
  2. raise the mirror
  3. open the secondary shutter
  4. fire the leaf shutter
  5. close the secondary shutter
  6. lower the mirror
  7. open the leaf shutter.

This is relatively slow compared to a focal plane shutter and involves more moving parts working in synch. The thought process behind doing this in preference to a focal plane shutter is long lost but the system had a long life and was used by Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya and others for medium format SLR cameras well into the 2000s. This camera cost, in 1965, a whopping £117-8-3 (in old British money, or £117.41 in modern British money). Average wages in Britain in 1965 were £70 per month so this represented 170% of a month’s wages. In 2019 terms, this equates to around £5,156 for this camera.

P1040598This camera is partially automatic. The two controls are the light meter and the shutter speed. To set the exposure, you first set the required shutter speed and then turn the meter knob until the two needles in the viewfinder are superimposed. This sets the aperture required for that shutter speed. If you would prefer to choose the aperture rather than the shutter speed you can do this by matching the two needles in the viewfinder and then adjusting the shutter speed until the required aperture is by the black index pointer on top of the shutter housing. There is no way of directly setting the aperture.

Having given an overview of the workings, I shall give a more detailed description of the camera.

On the far right of the top plate is the film advance lever. This rests flush with the back of the top plate. The lever moves through about 270° to advance the film one frame. The lever is not on a ratchet so the lever needs tone moved all the way in one movement. This is surprisingly easy to do in one motion. Embedded in the advance lever is a film reminder. This has three options:

  1. Black and white
  2. Daylight colour
  3. Artificial light colour

This is purely a mnemonic and has no effect on the operation of the camera.

P1040601Just to the left of the advance pivot is a small lever marked “R” and arrow. Moving this lever in the direction of the arrow allows the film to be rewound into the cassette. This is reset by winding the film advance lever.

At the front of the top plate, between the film advance lever and the pentaprism hump, is the shutter release button. This is chrome plated metal and is threaded for a standard cable release. The pentaprism hump is rather broad compared to other SLR cameras and the image in the viewfinder is accordingly large.

To the left of the pentaprism hump is a large combination knob. This has four functions:

  1. setting the film speed
  2. setting the light meter
  3. adjusting the exposure for filters
  4. rewinding the film

P1040602First, setting the film speed. This is a German camera and although both DIN and ASA scales are present, the German DIN scale dominates over the American ASA scale. Speeds available are from 11 DIN/10 ASA TO 36 DIN/3200 ASA. To set the film speed you need to slide out a nipple on the film speed scale and rotate the scale until the required film speed is against the red index mark.

To set the light meter, you need to be looking through the viewfinder. Zeiss Ikon, on their Contaflex, included a meter read-out on the top plate as well as in the viewfinder but with Voigtlander the only read-out is in the viewfinder. This means you holding a rather heavy (927g!) camera up to your eye for no good reason. In use, you turn the outer ring of the combination knob until the needle with a ring is superimposed on the meter needle. Turning this adjusts the aperture, turning the aperture ring on the shutter housing directly. If it is not possible to superimpose the two needles at the selected shutter speed, it is possible to turn the now stiff ring with more effort which will adjust the shutter speed as well as the aperture.

P1040611As this camera is not metering through the lens, the meter takes no notice of any filters in use. If filters are attached to the lens they have an exposure factor printed on them. Beside the combination knob is a scale from zero to five. These are filter factors. To use these, you set the exposure in the normal way. Any the base of the combination knob is a series of alternating red and black dots. To set the filter factor, you select the red or black dot by the zero and turn the light meter ring until that selected dot is beside the appropriate factor on the scale.

In the centre of the combination knob is the rewind knob which is used in conjunction with the rewind lever mention earlier. This pulls up about 5 mm to make rewinding easier and then pulls up a further 10 mm to allow the film cassette to be removed.

The front of the camera is dominated by the shutter/lens assembly. Above the shutter housing is the light meter sensor. This is a selenium meter and so has no need of a battery.


“This bayonet mount was also used by the Retina Reflex (it is called the DKL mount and Voigtlander and Kodak versions were slightly different).”

The other item on the front is a PC socket for attaching a flash gun. This can be used with either M rated flash bulbs or with electronic flash – there is a lever to select between the two on the side of the shutter housing. As well as M and X, this selector has a third option of V. This is short for Vorlaufwerk and is a shutter delay timer. This can only be set once the film has been advanced and currently (on my camera) delays the shutter firing by 12 seconds. To mover this selector between M,X and V, you need to simultaneously press a small lever on the other side of the shutter housing.

On the shutter housing itself, there are three movable rings. The inner-most controls the shutter speed and can be moved between 1/500 and 1 seconds. This moves easily without altering the exposure as the aperture ring moves at the same time but in the opposite direction. The next ring out is the aperture ring and can to be directly controlled by the user. There are two ways to change the aperture – change the shutter speed or adjust the light meter. The next movable ring is the focus ring – this will focus between 1m and infinity. To aid focus, there is a ring of micro-prisms in the viewfinder with a split-image centre.

This lens does not have a separate DOF scale. Instead, there are two red pointers by the focus scale  which move as the aperture changes and these red pointers indicate the new and far limits of the DOF for the selected aperture.


The lens on this camera is exchangeable, although few options were available. The lens is fitted in a bayonet mount just in front of the shutter blades. This bayonet mount was also used by the Retina Reflex (it is called the DKL mount and Voigtlander and Kodak versions were slightly different). To remove the lens you press a plunger beneath the shutter housing and simultaneously turn the lens through about 45° anti-clockwise.

The lens is a Color-Skopar X f/2.8 50mm lens. It has the DKL bayonet mount. The serial number (5,671,055) dates the lens to 1961. The camera body has a separate serial number (100433). Focusing moves the whole lens, not just the front element. The focus ring is fairly deeply scalloped to both provide a grip and also to allow the ring to be found by touch.

P1040607The back is opened by squeezing together two serrated lugs on the left side of the back. The back is hinged (which is better than Zeiss Ikon’s idea of a detachable back which makes loading film in the field awkward). Inside is as you would expect from a late 20th century camera. The film cassette goes on the left and the take-up spool, which is fixed, is on the right. Beside the take-up spool is the toothed sprocket shaft. This shaft has a milled section which is used to rotate the shaft prior to loading the film. The reason for doing this is that this is the only way of setting the frame counter. The frame counter counts down to zero so must be set to the length of the film plus two prior to loading the film. This is a very crude and cumbersome way to do this – it takes quite a long time – and is not up to Voigtlander’s usual standards.


Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

3 thoughts on “Voigtlander Bessamatic”

  1. I bought a Bessamatic Deluxe new in 1968. I still use it in 2020. I have all the lenses except the Skopagon 40mm, and many accessories. It is cumbersome but the image quality makes it worth using this dinosaur. It’s still my favorite camera, maybe for sentimental reasons. My other SLR’s are Rolleiflex SL35E, Yashica FX3 Super 2000, and Olympus OM4T, if you’re wondering what I’m comparing it with.


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