Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

Voigtlander Vito B & BL

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

Vito B (BL details lower down)

This is a very nice camera from the 1950s (1956 for this camera). It is well designed and well made – no plastic (at least not visibly) and the pressings and millings are neatly finished. It is a pleasure to look at and to hold.

  • lens:  Color-Skopar
  • focal length:  50 mm
  • apertures: f3.5 to f16
  • focus range: 0.8 m (2.6 ft)
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: Prontor SVS
  • speeds: 1 s to 1/300 s
  • flash: PC socket
  • film size: 35mm

Voigtlander’s Vito B was their first rigid 35mm camera – made in Braunschweig, Germany.  It was brought out in 1954 and was a replacement for the excellent Vito II .  It was discontinued about 1961.  The Vito B spawned a number of other cameras – Vitomatics I and II and the BL series.  These had built-in light meters and, in the case of the Vitomatic II, a coupled rangefinderThe price new in England was around £24 for the model with the Prontor SVS shutter.  In 1959, a new model was brought out with a larger bright-line viewfinder.  The camera is only 115 mm wide, 70mm front to back and 70 mm high. This fits well into the hand and is small enough to fit into a coat pocket. It also has a lens hood which adds a further 25 mm to its length. This is the successor to the Vito II folding camera and is both slightly smaller and slightly heavier than its predecessor but with the disadvantage for carrying that the lens does not fold away. The main structure of the camera is die cast with pressed chrome plated covers.

The film advance lever falls nicely to the thumb in use but travels well to the front of the camera which is a bit awkward in use. There is also an accessory shoe on top which is designed for a rangefinder as much as for a flash gun. There is a PC  (for Prontor Compur) socket on the underside of the lens for a flash gun – the camera can synchronise for bulb flash (M) and electronic flash (X). The flash synchronising lever is also used to set the shutter delay timer (V for Vorlaufwerk) . The shutter is cocked by advancing the film – an improvement over the Vito II which had a manual cocking lever on the shutter housing. It is also an improvement over the later Vito Automatic I where the shutter release also cocked the shutter during the first part of its travel.

The lens is a 50mm Color-Skopar with a maximum aperture of f3.5. This lens is based on Zeiss Ikon’s Tessar lens – four elements, two of which are cemented together and air gaps between the others. These lenses are surprisingly good, especially if you stop the lens down to f8.   Focussing is by way of the whole lens assembly so image quality is not reduced as you focus closer.  The lens takes a 32 mm push fit filter or lens hood.

Focussing is either scale focussing which relies on you knowing the distance to the subject or zone focussing with two settings – o which focusses the lens to between 15 feet and infinity and ߜ which focusses the lens to between 8 and 18 feet. Both of these need the aperture to be set to f5.6 or better.   Voigtländer  produced a small rangefinder to fit on the accessory shoe which allowed accurate measurement of the distance but this was not coupled to the focusing and needed the user to read off the distance from the rangefinder and then set that distance on the focussing ring.

Behind the lens is a either a three speed Pronto or an eight speed Prontor-SVS shutter.  There is also a shutter delay timer but on old cameras it is supposed to be a bad idea to use this – although on my 56 year old camera it works fine on fast speeds (1/100, 1/300) but not at all on any of the slower speeds. The shutter works quite well at faster speeds from 1/300 to 1/25) but is very slow indeed on the slower speeds – 1/10 second is actually above five seconds! This probably means that the shutter mechanism needs a service but I have to ask if the cost of this is warranted. I have found on other cameras that the shutter works better after it has been used a few times. When acquiring a new old camera it is worth bearing in mind that the cameras has probably been sitting unused in a drawer for the last thirty years or so.

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

The film chamber opens in an unusual way – first you open a small door in the base and then the back will swing open.  This is designed to make inserting a film easier and works quite well but for some reason Voigtländer abandoned this on subsequent cameras. Fitting the film is extremely easy. The film sprocket holes fit over a large toothed wheel which serves to cock the shutter when the film is advanced. For this reason, an empty camera will not allow you to fire the shutter. When the film is fitted, you have to turn a toothed wheel on the underside to set the number of frames available. This number appears in a window just above the lens and shows the number of frames still available – the camera counts down from 24/36 to zero. There is also a strange prong just below the lens – this appears to be a foot so the camera will stand on a flat surface when using the shutter delay timer but no mention is made of it in the manual.

The view finder is very small being 8mm in diameter at the rear and 10×16 mm in the front. This means the view is rather smaller than real life  at about two thirds but is adequate and certainly bright enough.

The pictures that this camera produces are good even by modern standards.

Vito BL:

The Vito BL is based on the Vito B mark II – that is, the version with the larger viewfinder. There are two changes. One is the addition of a light meter to the camera. The second is these of an EV enabled shutter (I am given to understand that some Vito B cameras also had EV enabled shutters but I have never seen one). The shutter is a Prontor SVS – the same as the Vito B above.

The light meter uses a selenium cell which does not need a battery to work. Selenium light meter‘s get an undeservedly bad press predicated on their losing sensitivity over time. While this is theoretically correct, I have yet to see a selenium meter that was not still accurate, even with meters that are over 55 years old.

With the design of the meter, film speed (ISO) is set by turning a knurled knob on the back of the top plate. This moves a series of numbers into view. Each series is identified by a letter – each letter represents a different ASA/ISO or DIN rating. B is 12 DIN/12 ASA, C is 15 DIN/25 ASA, D is 18 DIN/50 ASA, E is 21 DIN/100ASA, F is 24 DIN/200 ASA and G is 27 DIN/400 ASA. For those who are not aware, films speeds double with 3 added to the DIN rating. 24 DIN is twice as fast as 21 DIN. With ASA/ISO, double the film speed has double the ASA rating. 400 ASA is twice as fast as 200 ASA.

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

To read the meter, turn the knob on the back until the letters representing your film speed comes into view.  You then point the camera at the subject and look at the needle in the meter display. It will be sitting in either a white or a black zone. At the left edge of the zones are the EV values. The EV value adjacent to the zone the needle is in is then set on the EV range on the shutter – to do this, you have to depress a chrome lug on the left, besides the EV 2.

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

The EV enabled shutter has the usual shutter speed and aperture rings but they are linked by a third ring – the EV ring (EV stands for Exposure Value). When you set the EV value from the light meter, you link a range of shutter speeds to a range of apertures. You can then turn the shutter speed ring to select a combination of shutter speed and aperture but only those that give the required exposure (it is rather like P mode on a digital camera in that a respect). See three photos below. The range of EVs available are from 2 to 18. EV 2 is 2 seconds at f/3.5 and EV 18 is 1/300 seconds at f/22. A summers day in England is usually going to be about EV 14 to EV 15.

In every other aspect, this Vito BL is the same as a Vito B.

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

EV set to 11 – 1/60 second and f/5.6
Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

EV set to 11 – 1/200 second and f/3.5


Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BL

EV set to 11 – 1/4 second and f/22

Photos from the Vito B:

Voigtlander Vito B and Vito BLVoigtlander Vito B and Vito BLVoigtlander Vito B and Vito BL


Old Cameras

Part 1

Old cameras have probably lain in a draw for a considerable number of years. As they lie the lubrication dries and the moving parts get settled into one position. Dust collects inside and out and has a tendency to reinforce the settled position. The dry lubricant means that moving parts are likely to be sticky and will resist moving.
The first thing I do with a “new” old camera is clean it. I tend to use spray lens cleaner on all exterior parts – there is nothing in it to damage either lens or case, but take care around gaps in the shutter housing. There has to be holes and slots for the controls to access the insides and we do not want the cleaner getting into the mechanism. First I brush off dust and lose dirt. In some ways, the more dirt the better- it indicates the no one has used inappropriate methods to clean the camera for sale.
I also carefully brush the insides – Care! With some cameras, the shutter is exposed (always with SLRs). Shutters should not be touched at all. Leaf shutters are very delicate and will stop working if touched. Focal plane blind shutters are not quite so delicate but still should not be touched.
When clean, I try the controls – but carefully. It is rare for an old camera to come with its manual – not unknown but rare. Sometimes there are specific ways to carry out adjustments. For this reason, I always obtain a copy manual from the internet – there are several sites that have them available. Fed cameras, for instance, must have the shutter cocked before the shutter speed is adjusted and some Voigtländers have a release that must be pressed before setting the shutter to B. In the absence of a manual, use common sense. Never force anything – if a camera part will not move easily, it probably won’t move at all.
When I have tried all the controls and seen that there is nothing drastic wrong, I try to shoot a dummy picture. The shutter will not fire unless it is cocked and there are various ways in which the shutter is cocked. In most modern cameras, the film advance will cock the shutter but older cameras have a variety of methods. If the shutter will not fire, assume it is not cocked before you assume it is broken.
In addition to cocking the shutter, many cameras have interlocks to prevent double exposures. My Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex II must have the shutter mechanically cocked, have a film in the camera AND have the film wound on after the last shot. An empty Ikoflex II will not fire! My Voigtländer Vito B has the shutter cocked by the film moving past a sprocket wheel. An empty camera will not fire – but you can rotate the sprocket wheel by hand to cock the shutter.
Do not force any controls as cameras are delicate, sophisticated devices. Yet some controls will need a firm touch if the camera has not been used for 30+ years. Older shutter mechanisms have two separate timing systems. Short shutter speeds are usually easy to set but 1/30 down to 1 second (or sometimes 2 or 5 seconds) have a separate mechanism with a bigger spring – these resist the touch much more than the short settings do – but still do not force them. You should be able to feel the difference between mechanical resistance and mechanical seizure.
If the controls are stiff, I find it helps to pretend to take pictures – cock the shutter, release the shutter, repeat – repeatedly.  Do this for various combinations of shutter speed and aperture. I might spend 20 minutes doing this repeatedly and this frees the shutter and aperture well. Not only does this dislodge any dust it also redistributes the remaining lubrication.
Once the camera mechanisms seem to be working as they should, it is time to try a film in the camera. It is possible to get 135 (35 mm) and 120 (6×6) films from most camera shops and 127 films can be obtained over the interweb. You need to used the common shutter speeds (1/60 up to the maximum available) and a variety of apertures – but avoid using the timer function if one is available. It helps when the time comes to assess the resulting pictures if you have kept notes on the settings for each frame.
When assessing the pictures, there are a number of things to look out for. Before looking at the actual pictures, check the shutter is fully opening (I have had a focal plane shutter that only exposed half of each negative) and the film is advancing as it should. If the film is not advancing as it should, that is either a faulty film advance or a faulty photographer. I have inadvertently taken pictures on 120 film as 6×6 but advanced the film as if it was 6×9 – that was an option I had not understood and is possible on my Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex II, Zeiss Ikon Nettar and Franka Solida II.
Assuming that the shutter and film advance are both working ok, it is time to look at the pictures. If you have used a reliable external light meter the pictures should all be exposed correctly – look at the negatives to assess this as the prints will have been adjusted as well as possible by the printer. I always use an external light meter even when there is a built in meter as this checks the built in meter as well. If the negatives have a good density then you can assume that the shutter and diaphragm are working at least reasonably well.
Is there anything else to look for? Yes. Focus, for starters. If the camera has been dropped or if someone has fiddled with the lens, then the lens might not be capable of proper focus. If the lens is mechanically ok, then you can see if there is a problem with dirt or moisture inside the lens – both will cause the image to be softened. If that is ok, then compare the sharpness with the lens wide open (i.e. with the largest f number) with the sharpness with the lens closed down. Most lenses work best with the lens stopped down a couple of stops and a poor lens will work best with the lens stopped down considerably.
One last thing – colour fringes. Old lenses (pre-1930) were designed to work with black and white film that had no sensitivity to red light. That made lens design very simple as the lens only had to focus blue light. When used with colour film, a very old lens will often produce noticeable colour fringes around objects and some softening when used with modern black and white film.
So, you have cleaned the camera, tried a film and found that the camera is actually very good. What now? Use it! Using a vintage film camera is very different to using a modern digital camera. They are not point-and-shoot – you need to establish the exposure, set the controls, focus the lens, cock the shutter and then take the picture. It is much slower and has the advantage of making you consider what you are doing to a much greater extent than is true for using a digital camera. Also, it is so much harder to manipulate the picture once it is taken so the need to get it right in camera is much greater. I find this much more satisfying than using my digital camera and should be improving my technique.
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