Meet the Camera: Voigtländer Vito C

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Yeah, I know, another camera. Another Voigtländer camera. Another folding Voigtländer camera. Another folding Voigtländer camera named Vito. Sensing a pattern? I’m starting to bore myself, I’m sure along with anyone else who, for whatever reason, is still paying attention.

Hot on the heels of the Vito IIa comes the Vito C (which I’m assuming represents the third letter in the Roman alphabet, not the Roman numeral for 100, but given Voigtländer’s rather arbitrary naming schemes, who knows?), circa 1981 (or MCMLXXXI, if you prefer) from what little information I can find. It’s small, it’s plastic, and it looks a lot like my Minox 35ML, probably because they were both produced by Balda. When it came to German cameras, brand names didn’t mean a lot by the 1980s.

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It’s a simple little thing, simpler than the Minox. Whereas the Minox has aperture control in addition to program, shutter speed indication in the viewfinder, backlight compensation, and a battery tester, the Voigtländer has none of these. What it does have is a single-stroke advance (the Minox is double) with an indicator showing if the shutter is cocked, brighter, clearer brightlines and a focus distance indication in the finder (but gets by with a simple OK (<1/30th) or flash symbol (>1/30th) indication of shutter speed), and a film loading door (the Minox has a removable back). The Voigtländer has settings for films up to ISO 800; the Minox goes up 1600. They use different batteries (PX28 vs. 2x SR44). They’re different, but it’s all in the details – the form factors are virtually identical.

The lenses are again similar but not the same. The Voigtländer has an extra 3mm of focal length (38 vs. 35 in the Minox); both have a maximum aperture of f/2.8, and are coated Tessar-types. I don’t know what sort of committee decided that 38mm was the right focal length for the Voigtländer, but it’s the kind of oddball design choice that could only have come from a group of people sitting around arguing vehemently about it in an effort to justify their paychecks.

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I’m not sure how exactly, but the Vito C feels more mechanical but a little flimsier than the 35ML. The worst bit is the rewind crank, which you lift to release the back. It feels like it’s going to snap off in my hand every time I pull it up, and the rewind is pretty stiff, so spinning it requires some force – I need to see if I can free that up a bit. The film door isn’t exactly industrial strength either, but I guess it’s sufficiently robust to have survived for several decades. Some of this sense probably stems from my time with older metal-bodied cameras that feel like they’re carved from solid chunks of brass. Users less so-influenced may not share my trepidation.

Of course, the great virtues of both the Voigtländer and the Minox are their light weight and small size. No other camera I own, with the exception of the Olympus XA2 currently gathering dust on my shelf, is as unobtrusive and easy to carry. That they are capable of taking technically good photographs as well – and they are – makes them worth bringing along.

What remains to be seen is whether the loss of aperture control and backlight compensation prove sufficiently important to relegate the Vito C to the shelf next to the XA2 (which also lacks those particular attributes), or if it ends up in regular use like the 35ML.

 

Book Review: Fred Herzog’s Modern Color

This is a feature I’ve been contemplating for some time and, well, the time has come. In spite of my seeming inability to stop myself from purchasing cameras, I’ve offset that tendency somewhat by putting funds into photo books. I think that at this point in my photographic evolution, books are frankly a better and more valuable asset than additional gear. I have all the camera equipment I need and then some; I have not even scratched the surface on the quality photography books that have been published.

Looking at other people’s work can be inspiring, or educational, or a waste of time. But not looking at it places anyone who aspires to any sort of quality and self-improvement in the unenviable position of trying to do so without any sort of point of reference. How do you know if your work is any good if you don’t have good work to compare it to? Put another way, everything is original and brilliant if you’re only comparing it to your own work.

Why books instead of various internet outlets? One word: editing. To get a book published (by a real publisher and put up for commercial sale in major retail outlets, not something you printed four copies of to give your relatives) you have to work with an editor, and that means someone else – hopefully someone with a good, critical eye for photography – has to weigh in on the quality of the work. Any jackass can put his own photographs up on some self-aggrandizing website (I mean, look what you’re reading…), but published photographers are few and far between.

So I will occasionally write up a brief review of a book that I’ve acquired (I bought the book discussed here, and have no interest in its commercial success or failure. If some publisher decides to start throwing books at me, I’ll let you know.). I’m fairly picky in my selections, and as such I suspect there will be more positive reviews than negative, but they will all be careful and critical evaluations, not fluff pieces. If they help to introduce a few people to a few books of photography, great.

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I’m kicking this off with my most recent book purchase, Fred Herzog’s Modern Color. The title is a bit misleading, as most of the photos were taken around fifty years ago, but there is something nonetheless modern about Herzog’s use of color. A German immigrant to Canada, he was an early adopter of Kodachrome and apparently shot it for decades, working mostly with a Leica and 50mm and 135mm lenses.

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The book begins with three essays introducing the photographer and providing some context for his work. The second of these appears to have been translated from German and would have benefited from a more elegant translation. The third, Jeff Wall’s brief lament for the bygone world Herzog shows us, is particularly strong. Collectively, they do a solid job of placing us into the world Fred Herzog inhabited and photographed.

The core of any photography book must, of course, be the photographs, and here they are nicely presented, well-printed, and carefully chosen. Most are printed in facing single plates, though there are some spread across two pages, as well as the occasional blank facing page. Obviously most are color images, but there are a few black and whites included; they are fine photos, but they do feel a little out of place.

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The organization is fluid and thematic, moving easily from his early work in the late 1950s to occasional forays as late as the early 2000s and back again. But it’s clear that Herzog was at his most prolific in the 50s and 60s, and in his home city of Vancouver. Many subjects are revisited: streets awash in neon, ships and docks, cars, small run-down houses, storefronts. The palette of the time suited his tastes, the way he saw his world, and the way the Kodachrome portrayed it.

This is what makes Herzog’s work exceptional: the synergy of the technical elements and his vision shows how a photographer can make the best of what’s available. In a sense, it’s a skill that modern photographers may never develop to the degree that Herzog did. The tools available now are so capable of altering the raw material of the negative as shot that there’s simply no need to master more restrictive, more limited equipment. Sure, it’s entirely possible to create great work with digital editing tools, but it’s post-facto, with the luxury of time.

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Modern Color is an excellent book, particularly for any photographer who thinks about color as a primary element of their photography. Herzog’s work deserves to be more well-known than it is, and this book is a very good way to become acquainted with it.

Meet the Camera: Voigtländer Vito IIa

Well, I’m weak. A revived interest in photography did not mean that I had to buy any more equipment. I have plenty filling my shelves just waiting to be used. But reviewing the collection reminded me that my beloved Voigtländer Vito was really just too finicky to continue using. The film counter/double exposure lock is made up of a couple of wafer-thin gears, and they weren’t playing well together, no matter what I did to encourage them to get along.

This, naturally, turned my thoughts to its replacement. I really liked that camera. It has a very similar case shape to my beloved Leicas, and the uncoated lens was really very good (and I’m a sucker for uncoated lenses). It slipped unobtrusively into a pocket, the lens protected by the door. It was a fine camera.

Knowing that Voigtländer continued and (presumably) improved the Vito line, this seemed the natural course of action. Broadly speaking, the Vito II was very similar to the Vito except that it used a sprocket rather than a feeler for the film advance (the original was designed for 828 film before the war). Looking casually at the design, it seemed to use the very same arrangement that had killed my Vito, which didn’t encourage me.

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Which brings me to the last of the line, the Vito IIa. Yes, Voigtländer continued to use the Vito moniker on many other models for several decades, but this is the last of the proper folders. In fact, it’s one of the last folders made (not the last though – I have a considerably later Certo Super Dollina II). The IIa replaced the traditional top-mounted knobs with a small pop-up knob to rewind and a lever to advance. A cold shoe appeared on top, and the viewfinder was improved. Under the slightly taller top cover, I suspected there must be a revised – and hopefully more robust – mechanism.

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None of this would work if the camera was going to cost real money, and the scarce IIa usually commands the better part of $100, which was more than I was willing to part with for this experiment. Fortunately, I found one that was cheap by virtue of being in unknown mechanical condition. But it was pretty on the outside, so I made an offer, which was accepted, and it was soon on its way.

I tore it apart once it got here (it’s a pretty simple camera to disassemble) and found two problems: the shutter was sticking, and there was a hole in the bellows. A little liquid electrical tape took care of the light leak, and judicious application of naptha and powdered graphite freed up the shutter. Everything else, including the thankfully more substantial counter/exposure lock, got a simple cleaning and it was good to go.

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On the plus side, it retains many of the positive characteristics of the Vito. The viewfinder is a bit bigger but offset from the lens, and the lever wind is easy to use but doesn’t cock the shutter. In the minus column, it’s bigger and heavier – not by a lot, but enough to notice – and the lens is coated, which makes it less interesting in my book.

It’s an obvious direct descendant of the Vito, and I like the camera, but so far it hasn’t quite filled the void left by its predecessor. I’m not sure why exactly. Maybe I just need to use it more. I’m resisting the temptation to transplant the uncoated lens from the Vito into the IIa’s body. For now, at least.