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Bessa R

After the recent, sharp increase in my interest in street photography, and after the interesting posts about the Leica for a year proposition on The Online Photographer, I started thinking more and more about getting an interchangeable lens rangefinder.

Of course it couldn’t be a Leica, despite the tantalizing logic of the Leica for a year idea, because (1) I don’t think I need to a Leica for its educational value; what will it really teach me that I can’t learn from my Koni-Omega? and (2) there’s no way I would be able to sell it at the end of the year, which undermines a key point of that tantalizing logic. I know me; I don’t like to part with gear.

But the idea of a system rangefinder remained compelling, because while I love my Koni-Omega and my Olympus XA, neither is very good for low-light work. The Koni-Omega lacks fast lenses, and the XA’s fulltime aperture priority and maximum 800 ISO metering make it great for moderate low light conditions but terrible for really dark situations.

There are some good fixed-lens rangefinders with faster lenses and manual control, but I wanted the ability to swap lenses and add in a second body later if it really clicked for me. I also didn’t want a FSU rangefinder, because I wanted something reliable and with straightforward operation. With those criteria and my persistent cheap-skatiness, the best option was a used early Bessa. What I settled on was a Bessa R which came with a 35mm f/1.7 Ultron.

Bessa-R

I haven’t used the camera much yet, but I’m quite happy with it so far.

It definitely has some odd quirks, some of which I feel comfortable identifying as design flaws — the shutter speed selector is a pain to access, because it’s obscured by the advance lever. Not impossible to get to, of course, and with the lever extended a bit, it’s not even an issue, but it’s not a very elegant design. The film rewind lever is sort of cleverly designed, but doesn’t feel very sturdy — although it’s the only aspect of the camera that strikes me that way; I was surprised by how solid most of it seems.

Also, the black rubbery plastic (or whatever) around the middle of the body has a slightly odd smell, which I got to know pretty well for a while, because I’m left-eyed. (I.e., my nose gets pressed up against the body, as with most of my cameras.) However, this seems to have largely dissipated now that the camera has been aired out.

Bessa-R v. Nikkormat

There are also some things that I really miss from my Nikkormat FT-2. When shooting 35mm film, I’m used to being able to look at the top of the camera to check my exposure without bringing the camera up to my eye — this is really convenient when I’m moving in and out of sun and shadow and I need to continually adjust the exposure. I miss that when working with the Bessa, and I also miss the positioning of the shutter speed selector on a ring around the lens, instead of on a dial at the top of the camera.

But despite the lack of those little flourishes, I was surprised at how solid and usable the camera feels. A lot of reviews point to its cheap plastic build quality — and yes, it’s inexpensive, and yes, there’s plastic in it, but it doesn’t feel shoddily made, by any means. Of course, most of those reviews were written by people who had used Leicas, and I never have, so I don’t have to worry about that particular comparison. : )

However, this is all basically tangential to what i really care about in this camera — which is fast focusing in low light conditions. In that regard, it’s fantastic. The viewfinder is bright, the rangefinder is easy to see in dim light, and it seems to focus quite positively.

I haven’t had a chance to use it all that much, yet. I’ve only put a roll and a half through it, and none of it’s exactly photographic genius, but it certainly works….

Bessa-R - First Roll

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