Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Sunday, October 22, 2006

What Now for Cosina/Voigtländer?

I have been assessing the Cosina/Voigtländer line of rangefinder cameras, which now includes the following:

  • Bessa L
  • Bessa R
  • Bessa T
  • Bessa R2
  • Bessa R2S
  • Bessa R2C
  • Bessa R2A
  • Bessa R3A
  • Bessa R2M
  • Bessa R3M
  • Bessa R4M
  • Bessa R4A

Rather than being a diverse group of twelve complementary bodies, this might be more of an evolution of rangefinder bodies, each an improvement over the previous models while adding a few features (and sometimes dropping a few). Of course, some do have unique capabilities, such as the T, the Nikon-mount bodies, the Contax-mount bodies, and the upcoming ultra wide viewfinder model. This evolutionary sequence leaves me wondering what is next for Cosina/Voigtländer. They do seem to be committed to filling a niche in the classic style camera market. But those niches are running out. There is little doubt that these Voigtländer body offerings are, in part, a sort of hobby/labor of love for Mr. Kobayashi. I’m glad to see that he is concerned about filling the needs of fledgling photographers by creating the low end VSL43 manual SLR at 1970’s prices. And with a Pentax K mount (and an additional adaptor), a college student has access to a plethora of used lenses by Pentax, Zeiss, and a dozen other manufacturers (not to mention the Russian imported lenses). Which niches has he not filled?
  • Twin Lens Reflex – true, the original Voigtländer made twin lens reflexes many years ago. But the Japanese market today does not seem interested in such large, unwieldy cameras. It is a shame, as a twin lens reflex with a 50/3.5 Heliar taking lens would give us the functional equivalent of a Rolleiflex FW that costs around $4,000. But that would require developing a new camera and new lens from the ground up. Not likely. There are the Chinese-made Seagull TLR cameras, but those do not have a particularly good reputation for mechanical or optical quality.
  • Medium Format Rangefinder Camera – This might appeal more to the Japanese market. With the demise of the Fujifilm medium format cameras, the Mamiya 7 II, and the Bronica 645 RF, there are no current medium format rangefinder cameras. Would a “Texas Bessa” appeal to photographers? Maybe, but now that things are insanely digital, I don’t know if Cosina could make a profit. A medium format folder seems even less likely.
  • Digital Rangefinder Cameras – Epson used a Cosina-made body for their groundbreaking digital rangefinder but did the genre a disservice by letting them out of the factory in less that stellar condition. Horror stories of rangefinder alignment problems and focusing errors made this camera far less desirable than it should have been. Leica’s recent M8 prototype shown at Photokina in Cologne has convinced the world that this camera will actually be manufactured and sold. Will Cosina attempt to sell a cheaper rangefinder in M mount to compete with it? I have my doubts. They seem to like to coexist peacefully with Leica.
  • Compact Fixed Lens Rangefinder Camera – This seems to be the only niche that Cosina/Voigtländer has not occupied. I have seen photos of a Cosina autofocus camera, possibly from around 1980, and have seen a homely Cosina P&S that appeared to be a zone-focus camera. There are plenty of used Canon and Olympus fixed lens rangefinders out there on ebay, but most will have to be serviced and be recalibrated for mercury-free button batteries. I bought my Konica Auto S3 in about 1978 for $169. Using one of the inflation tables on the Internet, that calculates to $515 in today’s currency. Could Cosina make a fixed lens rangefinder and sell it for $515? I think not, unless of course it is really a Bessa R with a 35/2.5 P Skopar permanently glued to it. I think the best tactic would be to make one that sells for $900 that has a truly outstanding lens, a very sturdy, durable body, and a switchable spot meter and averaging meter. If rangefinder aficionados did not buy it for their own use, they might buy it for their spouse or children.
  • Decent, Sturdy, Small Handheld Exposure Meter - How about one with a photocell that doesn’t crap out over time? These are getting to be hard to find and hard to afford. Gossen and Sekonic have dropped all but their higher-end light meters. The lower end Pilot, Scout, etc., are gone. Minolta no longer appears to be making meters. Gossen does make a small plastic meter for under $200, but it tries to do too much (timer, alarm, thermometer, etc.). Just setting the ISO is a hassle. And it is shaped more like an egg than a deck of cards.
The Cosina/Voigtländer line of cameras, lenses, and photo accessories is fledgling by most standards, having been introduced in January of 1999. But Cosina has been making photographic equipment under various labels for many years. Their seven-year run has been appreciated and exciting. I hope that Mr. Kobayashi continues to dabble in producing what might be thought 21st century vintage-style cameras and lenses. He seems to enjoy surprising people like me with new innovations. I hope he continues to enjoy doing so.