A decade ago, digital photography suddenly meant business. Digi compacts had taken the place of their film counterparts, and digital SLRs were starting to make serious inroads among more serious photographers.
It was, then, a strange time for camera company to introduce a model which harked back to the technology of the early 1970s. But that’s precisely what Japan’s Cosina decided to do.
Released in 2003, the Voigtlander Bessaflex TM was a step back in time. A compact, lightweight SLR made mostly out of plastic, the Bessaflex was 30 years behind the times. An all-manual SLR, it used the M42 lens mount – the mount made famous by Pentax’s Spotmatic more than three decades earlier.
The Bessaflex was the brainchild of Cosina’s Hirofumi Kobayashi, a man with a track record of introducing some unconventional designs. Many of these wore the Voigtlander name. Voigtlander is the oldest name in photography, a German manufacturer of optics which had started life in 1756. In the 20th century, Voigtlander introduced a number of excellent designs, such as the Brilliant TLR and the Bessamatic SLR. After merging with Zeiss in the 1960s, Voigtlander’s faded into obscurity. Cosina bought the rights to its name in the 1990s. The first camera under this (new) old name was the Bessa L, a no-frills camera designed to take the old L39 Leica screw lenses at a fraction of the cost of an original body. It was a hit, and rangefinders of increasing sophistication joined the ranks.
Resurrecting a camera mount last seen during the era of the oil crisis and glam rock might have seemed like a foolhardy pursuit, but there was method in Mr Kobayashi’s madness. The M42 mount was also known as the Universal Mount – and camera and lens manufacturers didn’t have to pay for a license to build models using the mount. It meant that from the mid-60s until the early 1980s dozens of manufacturers built lenses using the mount, including big names such as Pentax, Sigma, Richoh, Chinon and Fujica. East of the Iron Curtain, the M42 mount was enthusiastically embraced by the major manufacturers – most of the millions of Prakticas and Zenits made during this time used the screw mount aswell.
Screw mount lenses had fallen out of favour because they were unable to transmit electronic information from the camera – meaning no auto aperture aside from a handful of later Pentax lenses for their ES II – and professionals preferred bayonet mounts such as Nikon, which were much easier to use. Aside from a few models from Russia, new cameras hadn’t been made for at least 25 years. But some of those old lenses were nothing less than exceptional. And there were millions of them. Making a new model – using batteries which could be bought at any local store – seemed like a good idea.
The Bessaflex is a rudimentary camera, but what it does it does very well indeed. Compared to the mainly metal designs of the 1970s it’s a lightweight camera. While it takes batteries, the only thing these power is the meter, a simple centre-weighted design which helps produce perfectly exposed pics. Where the Bessaflex scores over most of the old M42 cameras is its fastest shutter speed – 1/2000 – and the fact its batteries can be bought everywhere.
When I took to photography, I learned on an old Praktica MTL 5B, one of the dozens of models using M42 lenses made in East Germany, and started collecting a few other screw mount bodies and lenses. When the Bessaflex was announced, I bought one through Cameraquest in the US, and took it on a long weekend trip to Zagreb in Croatia, alongside a Spotmatic.
It was the first of three Bessaflexes, two of the Olympus OM-2-lookalike black model and one of the silver models, designed to look like one of the old Topcon SLRs (even though the plasticky body doesn’t quite carry off the classic chrome look). It soon became my go-to travel camera, light enough to chuck on an overnight bag for a quick trip out of town, and reliable enough to take on a longer trip. The Bessaflex might not have the heft and solidity of something made of metal, but it is reliable.
My Flickr account has hundreds and hundreds of pics shot on my Bessaflexes. I’ve taken them on a trip to Valencia to shoot Fallas festival and to a week based in Dubrovnik; two weeks travelling across Ukraine and winter city breaks to Istanbul and Nuremberg. Sixteen countries and counting, in fact.
Before choosing to shoot only on a pair of Nikons for my soundcheck project, I also used them for shooting a bunch of bands. The Bessaflex’s only major drawback is that it’s meter only reads up to ISO 1600. If you’re looking to shoot in low-light, you’ll either need a tripod or a handheld meter. Having said that, I’m particularly happy with some of the pics I took with Bessaflex when I shot David Kilgour and band back in my native New Zealand in 2007, especially the shot of drummer Taane Tokona you can see below. I even shot an album cover on it – a pic of Buffalo Tom’s Tom Maginnis which became the cover of the band’s 2011 album ‘Skins’.
It’s a shame Cosina only made the camera until 2007 – Bessaflexes very rarely come up for sale (eBay is your best bet) but well worth keeping an eye out for. Mr Kobayashi, it seems, knew what he was doing.
More pics taken on the Bessaflex can be seen below, or on Flickr.