Why am I so excited about a camera that looks like it’s from the early part of the last century? While camera companies are doing their best to scrape their film camera divisions from their shoes, Fujifilm and more interestingly , Cosina, are coming up with film cameras that wouldn’t gotten stares snapping photos of the 1939 World’s Fair. (You could easily find film to fit it at the fair, too.) Folding bellows cameras started going out of vogue as amateur cameras at the end of World War II. So who in their right mind would release a medium format folder in this day and age? Fujifilm and Cosina, apparently…
I suspect that Cosina’s president, Kobayashi Hirofumi had a hand in this. Under Kobayashi, Cosina has made some baffling but brilliant design decisions. For example, when they decided to start making cameras for themselves under the Voigtländer name, the design they chose to improve upon was something from the 1920’s—an early Leica camera that didn’t even have a range finder for focusing. (Keep in mind that this is a company that had been building cameras for other companies for ages—it wasn’t that they didn’t know how to make a range finder focusing system, it’s that they chose not to.) When they did start putting range finders on their cameras, they made them as bright and as easy to use as the best that Leica has to offer
When they decided upon the lens mount for these cameras, it too was a design considered obsolete by the rest of the industry, the 39-millimeter threaded mount that was abandoned by Leica in the 1950’s. Canon used it too, plus lots of other companies, but nobody’s made a new one in decades. Perhaps there was a hidden market. Cosina makes fantastic lenses. The quality of the glass is superb and the image quality fantastic. Their lenses are also tremendously well-made and affordable. The lenses I have by them have held up for me for years of abuse. They’re basically brass, glass and steel, with no electronics to fail and no structural plastic. The markings are etched into the brass, not screen printed on, so they’ll never wear away. They look and feel like lenses from fifty years ago. So why the screw mount?
Leica used to use a screw mount. They made hundreds of thousands of cameras with that mount before they introduced the “M” mount, a bayonet type in 1954, with the M3 camera. Lens mount changes are never done lightly—for photographers, the lens mount on a camera body can be the most important consideration in choosing a camera, because one typically can’t use a lens made by one company on another company’s camera body. As a pro photographer will spend thousands and thousands of dollars on lenses, they wind up being committed to that maker.
So when Leica changed their mount, they made adapters for their users to put onto their old lenses so they could be used with full-functionality on the new bodies. This is still the case, actually. You can pick up a lens from 1935, say an old screw-mount Elmar, screw it into an adapter and pop it on the Leica M8, their latest digital and it will work just as well as ever.
Same thing with the Voigtländer lenses. By going with the screw mount, they probably doubled the number of bodies that these lenses will work flawlessly on. There’s an awful lot of prewar Leicas sitting in closets waiting to be rediscovered by young photographers. They were so well-made that a good number of them only need a roll of film to be put back into service. Many of the lenses also come with external finders as well, which is a good thing because these early cameras had finders that are now dim and hard to use.
While many will extoll the virtues of the old Elmar lenses for shooting, if you want some variety Cosina/Voigtländer lenses are the only new options if you want something with modern coatings to reduce lens flare and give accurate color. Compared to antique Leica lenses, they’re a real bargan, too—I’ve gotten most of mine for around $300, where similar Leica lenses would be several times as much.
I have a couple of old Leica bodies, an M3 and an M2 that I got at reasonable prices, but for the most part, I use my C/V lenses on them. Here’s my M2, with a 50mm C/V Heliar and external finder:
It’s a wonderful combination. The Leica body is solid and reliable and the lens is one of the sharpest lenses ever made for any camera. Very affordable, too, if you can find one.
Edit: No discussion of Voigtländer cameras would be complete without a link to Stephen Gandy’s excellent and exuberant site CameraQuest. There is more information than you can shake a stick at there on all things Cosina, plus it’s probably the best place to buy them.
So back to the folder…
Back in the day, the larger 120 format of film was more popular for amateur photographers. It’s several times larger than 35mm film, so the increased size made up for the all-too-often lower-quality cameras and optics in cheap folders and box cameras. The folding design and bellows made them compact and light, something that would easily slip into the pocket of an overcoat, or on a strap on your shoulder all day, unlike a non-folding design. The bellows were cloth or leather, both prone to getting pinholes from wear at the corners, though, so often they didn’t age well. Still, when combined with good lenses, they are capable of taking fantastic photos, at resolutions that far outstrip what you can get with a digital camera that any mortal can afford.
120-size film fell out of favor with amateurs though, with the 35mm SLR craze of the 1960’s and 1970’s. It stayed around mainly for wedding photographers, I’d guess, but was at risk of disappearing as they all switched over to digital a few years ago. Thankfully, it found a niche with the Holga. A Holga is a cheap Chinese plastic camera that’s wildly popular with creative amateurs, due to its quirky, heavily-vignetted style of photos. If nothing else, Holgas taught a new generation how to load and handle 120 film, which is a daunting prospect at first, as the film doesn’t come in a canister, it’s simply rolled on a spool with a heavy light-proof paper backing.
After using a Holga for a while, many people ask what other medium format cameras are out there. How can they improve their image quality, while still using this wonderfully-detailed film? I think Fuji’s folder is uniquely positioned to be that camera.
It will be light and handy. Given that it has a lens shutter, I’m guessing that it will sync a flash at any speed, a limitation with other cameras. Some modern material will keep the bellows light-tight and the range finder will be bright and a sheer joy to use. They call it dual-purpose because you can switch between 6x6cm and 6x7cm, which is a simply huge amount of film to store your image on. I hope they did this in a way that you don’t have to open the camera to switch formats, but even if you did, I could happily live with it. After all, there’s only about a dozen shots on a roll of 120, so you don’t have to wait long between changes.
Sure, there are other options for medium format, but most of them are too heavy to carry around unless you’re out “taking photos.” This will be one you can toss into a backpack and take everywhere.
Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on one. When I do, I’ll give it a thorough review.
Dual-purpose camera on the way from Fujifilm
Fujifilm has revealed additional details on its upcoming medium format film camera, the GF670.
Shown as a prototype at the Photokina trade show in Cologne, the GF670 is expected to be released in 2009. The GF670 is a portable folding camera jointly developed by Fujifilm and Cosina. It features a mechanism for switching between two film formats, 6x7cm and 6x6cm. It is fitted with a 80mm f/3.5 fixed lens, which is composed of six glass elements in four groups. It has an automatic lens shutter, an SPD sensor with both automatic and manual autofocus. The ISO ranges from 25 to 3200.
While Fujifilm will release the GF670 under its own brand in Japan, the medium-format camera will be renamed the Voigtlander Bessa III outside of Japan, where Cosina will take charge of its distribution.