As a videographer by trade, I prefer using vintage lenses with manual focus and aperture. They often have a nice tactile feel in the hand, render very pleasing out of focus areas, and are ubiquitous and aﬀordable online.
M42 mount lenses, or sometimes called Pentax screw mount (or even Thread Mount, as in TM), were made by a variety of manufacturers, notable brands include Zeiss Jena and Pentax Takumar. Matching them onto a modern camera body, I can get great high deﬁnition video with a lot of character.
As my collection and appreciation of m42 lenses increased, I thought it would be nice to have a suitable film camera to go with them for stills. After a few sessions on ebay, I had acquired a Practika LTL3 as well as a Spotmatic, both of which I enjoy using very much.
However, as is the case with many ebay purchases, I took a chance on these without knowing if the meters worked, and alas, neither did. I've done sunny 16 before, but mostly, I prefer having a meter. I could probably have found a shop to fix them, or perhaps even tried to do it myself, but having spent next to nothing on those, I kept looking, hoping to find a body that was in better shape, or just hadn't been used so much...something newer.
And that's when I discovered the Voigtlander Bessﬂex TM. An m42-mount SLR with a battery powered TTL meter (1600 max), but otherwise a fully mechanical camera with a split-image prism ﬁnder, and maybe the best part - this thing was manufactured from 2003-2007! That's practically brand new by film camera standards. At a glance, I would think it was made in the 60s or 70s. There's a all-black version, but mine is silver with black grips, all metal body, eye level pentaprism...very simple and straightforward layout, classic SLR style.
I love this camera. I often shoot wide open so the split image finder is very helpful.
I wish it was 45 degree as opposed to horizontal, but the finder itself is quite bright, and also includes a circular microprism, so sometimes I don't even need the split. The meter is activated by pushing up on a switch located next to lens. My left thumb is naturally there anyway so activating it is a breeze. The meter readings are a simple red plus-minus if you're off, or a green dot if you're on. The button will deactivate itself after a few minutes, or when the shutter fires, to prevent excess battery use.
It has a 1/2000 copal shutter, and includes a bulb setting for long exposures. The sound of the shutter and mirror is soft and springy... similar to, but less loud than the Praktica. There is mechanical self-timer, which also doubles as a mirror-up. For ﬂash, there is a pc connection on the side, but no hot shoe on top. Apparently there is an available accessory shoe that mounts to the viewﬁnder, but I have not seen one anywhere online. I don't do a lot of spontaneous ﬂash, so for me this is not really an issue. You could always use a bracket. Flash sync goes up to 1/125.
A protruded rubber grip on the back provides nice traction for my right thumb when shooting or holding it. The shutter button is perfectly positioned and very smooth, and is also ﬁtted with a standard remote thread if you want to use a plunger.
As I mentioned, other than the meter this thing is fully mechanical. To load/remove film, you pull the winder up out of the iso dial and tug it up further to pop the door open. The film counter is on top next to the shutter and there's also a window on the back to see what you're shooting. I do ﬁnd this helpful especially because the iso dial is just a wee bit loose. It hasn't been a problem while shooting, but it has been bumped in my bag a few times, so I double check it against the window when I pull it out.
So, what's wrong with the Bessaﬂex TM? This is very basic camera, and compares closely to the Spotmatic in design and handling. Prices for a good condition Spotmatic today? $20-$80 US. Prices for a Bessaflex? $450-$600. Wow! For such a simple camera (and for me), that's a lot. For that money you could get a nice Nikon F5...if that's what you want.
Like much of my camera stuﬀ, the Spotmatic and the LTL3 probably get lonely sitting on the shelf unused most of the time. Occasionally I take them out for a spin, but it's rare, because the Bessaﬂex TM is the the perfect camera for my 35mm ﬁlm shooting: modern enough to be convenient and reliable, simple enough to keep me grounded in the basics, compatible with my favorite prime lenses from a variety of manufacturers. I love the build quality of this thing, and although it wasn't a bargain, it's decades newer than most of my other cameras. When I'm shooting 35, I'm shooting the Bessaﬂex.
Brad Lechner is an image-making, story-telling, problem-solving dad & husband who produces and edits videos by trade. Otherwise, he’s likely playing soccer, daydreaming about the next family vacation, or scouring ebay for old cameras. Visit bradlechner.com to see some of his work.