I have been a big fan of rangefinder cameras since my friend introduced me to his Leica M6 TTL. There is something magical about taking a photo with a rangefinder. It is very different experience. Unlike shooting with SLRs, you can view the scene during the exact moment when you take the photo; there is no mirror blocking your view.
Since I enjoyed the full manual operation of my friend’s M6, I chose the mechanical version of Bessa (the M in the name signifies the manual/mechanical version, R3A has aperture priority and is electronic in operation). You can shoot with R3M even if the batteries die. And even if the in-camera electronics would bite the dust one day, it’s still possible to keep shooting with this camera. I like that principle and I was willing to sacrifice the comfort of aperture priority mode for the sake of full mechanical operation.
Bessa is a popular camera here in Japan for film photographers. I’m not sure if it would be appropriate to call Bessa a poor man’s Leica but it is tempting to compare this camera to Leica M6 TTL since it’s similar in so many ways. I don’t have any information about exactly how popular the camera is, but at least two of my friends have it.
R3M is also a very portable and discreet camera (at least what comes to it’s size), making it a good tool for street shooting. When you hold it to your eye, people won’t get as intimidated as if you are holding a weapon-like SLR.
Today’s Voigtlander cameras are manufactured by Cosina company in Japan, and have nothing (except name) to do with Johann Christoph Voigtländer’s company. Nokton lenses are also manufactured by Cosina in Japan.
Operating Bessa R3M is comparable experience to Leica M6 TTL. It is a delight to to use and handle this camera and the Leica-like rangefinder magic is fully present. The rangefinder patch is bright even in low-light conditions and big enough for accurate focusing.
Bessa’s 1:1 viewfinder is bright and very easy to use. Since it doesn’t magnify, it allows you to shoot with both eyes open. The camera has 40/50/75/90 frame lines which must be manually set by using the switch. The camera won’t recognize the coding in Leica’s M lenses. Frame lines are parallax corrected just like in Leica and move as you focus.
40mm frame lines are kind of hard to see because they extend so far into the corners, so it might take some getting used to. There are no exact 35mm frame lines in R3M, but setting the camera to 40mm lines and anticipating the 5mm difference might not be such a big deal.
TTL center weighted metering turns on automatically when you press the shutter half way. Unlike in Leica, you don’t need to turn the camera on or off. This is likely to save some batteries. The metering has plus/minus scale of exposure in steps of 2, 1.5, 1, 0.5. It’s more informative than Leica’s simple arrows, because you get instant feedback how much you’re off from the optimal exposure. But this is a matter of taste. I can also understand why many prefer the Leica’s super-simple led arrows.
In my tests, I found the metering to be very accurate.
Bessa has maximum shutter speed of 2000 which is high enough for the most situations, although ND filter might be necessary if you want to open up the lens in bright conditions.
It is true that R3M’s shutter is kind of loud. It sounds like SLR shutter (it actually comes from Cosina’s cheap SLR line). This might become problem if you shoot in quiet places and the shutter sound might be one reason to choose Leica over Bessa, since it’s shutter is much more discreet.
This might also have something to do with the fact that Bessa R3M has dual plane shutter.
Bessa has no timer, but the shutter button accepts a standard mechanical shutter release.
Loading film is also very easy, perhaps easier that it is in Leica. With Bessa you don’t need to remove bottom plate to load film. Just move the switch on top plate back and pull up the film rewinding crank, and the back pops open. The switch on top plate should prevent accidental opening of the camera.
Winding back the film is easy. It requires pressing the film release button on the bottom of the camera and winding the film back to the cartridge with the crank. I would guess that the mechanism is more robust than M6, because the crank is not angled but straight; less mechanical parts.
I found Bessa’s build quality to be very good, if not as rock solid as Leica. The camera is mostly made of metal, except the back door. It feels comfortably solid and heavy, and it has some of that “real camera” feel. The camera feels very well balanced in my hands. It’s easy to carry this camera with one hand, so neck strap might not be necessary.
Shutter button and film forward lever are made of metal as well as film rewinding crank and shutter speed dial and they feel very robust.
The markings on the camera are painted and not engraved on metal (except shutter speed numbers). If one finds the top plate logo annoying, it might be relatively easy to remove it.
I have read some reports of small screws of the bottom plate becoming loose, so it might be good idea to check their tightness every now and then. But overall, if you want better build quality than this in a film rangefinder camera, Leica is the only option.
The strap connectors are positioned strangely a bit on the front side of the camera, so the camera doesn’t quite hug your body while you’re carrying it, but makes the camera’s lens to point to the sky in 45 degree angle. Although this camera has a double focal plane shutter to prevent damage from the sun, I would recommend caution. Strangely the weird positioning of the strap connectors seem to highlight this risk. My recommendation is to either use lens cap, or carry the camera so that lens faces your body in sunny days, like most pros do with their RF cameras.
Overall, it must be said that Bessa is a solid and very well built camera.
Bessa R3m is a reasonable cost alternative for Leica, plus it accepts all wonderful Leica’s lenses (but has no built-in 35mm frame lines). Bessa R3M with Nokton 40mm lens might be good option for those who want to try manual rangefinder photography for the first time. It’s also generally good idea to invest into M-mount lenses; should you upgrade to Leica one day, you can still use the same glass.
R3m offers full manual shooting experience. The camera is mechanical and only electronic part of the camera is the metering which can be turned off by removing the batteries.
The photos I took with 40mm 1.4 Nokton lens compare very well against the shots I took with Leica M6 TTL, they are similarly crisp and sharp, but that should be mostly if not entirely due to the lens and film.
The size of Bessa makes it also very portable. The camera is almost as small as Fujifilm X100, although almost twice as heavy. I personally like the reassuring weight of this camera, which makes it to feel like a solid tool.
I really recommend this camera for anyone who wants to get into the wonderful world of rangefinder photography, but are on a budget or hesitate to invest into Leica.
See the gallery below for my shots with Bessa R3M and Nokton 40mm 1.4 lens.