Voigtlander Bessa R2S R2C
Two New R2 Variations

The R2S with the 50mm f/2.5 "standard" lens. Note the "hole in the wall" lens shade: one of the best ways of getting maximum shading with minimum shade size. Something similar was once used by Nikon with the 45mm f/2.8 GN-Nikkor.

The Bessa-R2C and R2S are both variants on the superb R2. Instead of the Leica bayonet mount of the R2, however, the new cameras have the original 1932-1961 Contax mount (R2C) and the original 1948-1963 Nikon rangefinder mount (R2S). It is worth emphasizing that there is absolutely no cross-compatibility between the old manual Contax mount and the new autofocus Contax G mount. Nor is the Nikon S rangefinder mount the same as the Nikon F reflex camera mount, though adapters are available (from Voigtländer) to allow F-mount lenses to be used on S-mount cameras, albeit without rangefinder coupling.

Original Contax and Nikon S lens mounts are very similar: the only significant difference is that one rotates from infinity to 0.9 meters (the closest focusing distance) in 268Þ and the other in 277Þ. With wide angles and standard lenses of modest aperture, this discrepancy is not important: with faster or longer lenses, it is.

Similar, But Different
At first sight, making two cameras that are so similar is inexplicable; and in fact, the reason for making the R2C is not the same as the reason for making the R2S. What follows applies most strongly in Japan, but the same arguments also apply to a lesser extent in the US and (still less) in Europe.

There are still quite a lot of excellent Zeiss lenses in circulation in Contax fit, but the Contaxes that accept them (I, II, III, IIa, IIIa) are ever less reliable and ever less repairable. The problem lies in the "roll-top desk," the elaborate (and heavy, and slow-moving) shutter made of brass slats with silk tapes at the sides. When the silk tapes go, the shutter is difficult or impossible to repair, because the brass tabs that are folded over the silk tapes snap as the repairer tries to open them out. Anyone with a good, usable Contax is therefore likely to be hesitant about using it. As a result, Contax lenses are (or were until recently) much cheaper than one might reasonably expect: even the legendary 21mm f/4.5 Biogon could often be found for $200 or $300. Hence the demand for a camera that takes Contax lenses, the R2C.

Abbey Church of Preuilly s/Claise. The "sparkle" of the 21mm f/4 Skopar--no filter was used--is apparent in this shot taken on Ilford HP5 Plus.
Photos © 2002, Ed Buziak, All Rights Reserved

Switch to Nikons--the I, M, S, S2, SP, S3, S4, and S3M--and the cameras are still perfectly usable and generally highly reparable, though very expensive indeed: a really good black SP will cost you several times as much as a new Leica M7, and even a "cooking" S2 or S3 is likely to cost more than an M-series Leica of similar vintage in similar condition.

Because the cameras are still usable (and much sought after) there is a terrible shortage of Nikon lenses, and prices can be staggering. There is therefore a significant demand for S-fit lenses. Wide angles are particularly sought after, because they were much rarer 40 and more years ago than they are today. This prompted the introduction a year or so ago of the first series of Nikon S-fit lenses from Voigtländer, the 21mm f/4, 25mm f/4, and 35mm f/2.5, with more to follow (50mm f/2.5, 50mm f/1.5, 80mm f/3.5). But when you have the lenses, and 9/10 of the work already done on an almost identical Contax-fit body, you might as well introduce a Nikon-fit camera.

And, of course, there are always the siren songs of exclusivity and novelty. Leicas are old hat: lots of people have them. But rangefinder Nikons and Contaxes are much more unusual; and besides, they look so lovely. They are gadgets, par excellence.

Chateau de Preuilly. The 21mm finder is designed for quick use: if you peer into the corners, instead of just holding it to your eye and taking a picture, you will see rather more than actually appears on the film.

Lens Mount Musings
Which brings us back to the lens mount. It is willfully complicated. Apart from the angle of rotation (and the even more arcane point that the lens throat is very slightly larger in the original Contax than the Nikon, though the R2S and R2C are the same), the mounts are to all intents and purposes identical, so what follows applies to both.

There are actually two lens mounts in one, both three-claw bayonets. The inner mount is for 50mm lenses only, which (in the traditional versions) did not have focusing mounts at all: they were just a lens head, with an iris diaphragm. It is an internal bayonet with a diameter of about 36mm: the lenses have protruding tabs that lock into it.

This inner mount has its own little spring tab to retain the lens; its own focusing scale; its own depth of field markings; and even that bane of ancient focusing mounts, an infinity lock. It is driven by a little finger-wheel just in front of the shutter release, which is in turn equipped with an infinity lock release, so that as you focus, the lock is automatically released. Rather over three full turns of this wheel (!) rotate the lens mount by 268Þ or 277Þ, depending on the mount. This focusing wheel is also geared to the rangefinder.

The outer mount is for all other focal lengths--and it can also be used for 50mm "standard" lenses if they are fitted with a full focusing mount, instead of just being a lens head. As far as I know, the Ukrainians were the first to take this route, with a 50mm f/1.8 toward the very end of the life of the Kiev. The shortest lenses that I know of for Contax and Nikon bayonets are 21mm (21mm f/4.5 Biogon, 21mm f/4 Nikkor, 21mm f/4 SC-Skopar) and the longest I know of (offered only briefly in about 1936, before being withdrawn and re-issued for use with a mirror housing) was the 180mm f/2.8 Olympic Sonnar.

The outer mount on the camera body is an external bayonet, over which the lens mount fits. As lenses are fitted, a little bullet-shaped protrusion at about 10 o'clock on the lens mount is pushed aside: this is the infinity lock, which is disabled when the external bayonet is in use. Rangefinder coupling is effected via a tabbed collar on the inner lens barrel which engages with the inner focusing mount of the camera: as the lens rotates, so does the inner focusing mount, thereby driving the rangefinder (and the focusing wheel). The whole lens rotates, necessitating two aperture scales so that one is always conveniently visible regardless of the rotation of the lens. This also precludes anything but round lens shades and makes polarizing filters problematical in the extreme.

Nor is this the end of the story. Before you mount a lens using the external bayonet (the usual red-dot-to-red-dot arrangement, at about a quarter to three on the body), the focusing scales on both the camera and the lens must be set to infinity. If they are not, there is a risk of damage to the camera or the lens or both. This risk is less with Voigtländers than with either Contax or Nikon, because the spring-loaded rangefinder coupling collar seems more willing to "skate" until it falls into place, rather than jamming brutally and immediately.

Just to make life more interesting, when you remove a lens mounted on the external bayonet, with everything set at infinity as recommended, the lens stays at infinity but the body mount is dragged around to about 3 meters, from which it has to be reset before you can mount another lens (again set at infinity). You can now see why I describe the mount as willfully complicated!

Traditionally, most people focused 50mm lenses with the focusing wheel (though you could just twist the lens), and focused all other lenses using the conventional focusing collars (with which they were all fitted). Using the focusing collar on lenses with the external bayonet mount caused the focusing wheel to whiz around and saw up your index finger a treat, but generally, the focusing movement was so stiff that focusing lenses other than 50mm via the wheel was infeasible.

This may however have been sheer old age and dry lubricants (in the case of all the Contaxes and Nikons I have tried) or Soviet quality control (on Kievs), because I found it perfectly easy to focus both the 21mm and 35mm lenses on the R2S using the focusing wheel. Indeed, I found this more convenient than focusing with the standard lens collars, or even with the plastic extension collars or "ruffs" supplied as extras to make life easier. I shall come back to this later.

"Real" Camera Feel
Other than the lens mount, the R2C and R2S are very similar to the Leica bayonet-fit R2. They all have the feel and heft of "real" cameras, thanks to the metal chassis, mag-alloy body work, and sweetly machined bayonet mounts. At photokina, everyone who tried my R2 (with the Leica M-mount) wanted one, and many remarked on what a far cry it was from the original light and somewhat plasticky-feeling Bessa-L of less than five years ago.

Functionally, all R2 cameras share the mechanical shutter speed of 1 to 1/1000 sec plus B, through-lens metering from EI 25 to EI 3200, and three-light LED meter read-out. These are, remember, the first-ever production Nikon- and Contax-mount rangefinder cameras to offer through-lens metering. Metering performance appears identical to the R2; so does the rewind; so does the body covering material; and the trigger wind base is fully interchangeable between the two (I tried mine on both).

The most obvious visual difference, apart from the mount itself, is the faceplates. The R2C/R2S models necessarily have an extra housing to accommodate the connection to the focusing wheel, and the faceplate is also a slightly different shape around the rangefinder windows, though the rangefinder base (and essential mechanism) remain the same.

The shutter release on the R2C/R2S is taller than on the R2, probably because there would be a risk of fouling the focusing wheel while releasing the shutter if the R2 release were retained.

Viewfinder Options
There is also a difference in the viewfinders. Each manufacturer has (or had) certain "canonical" focal lengths: the speeds might vary, and the designs might change over the years, but the focal lengths remained constant. To a large extent, of course, this is a consequence of the need to provide viewfinders for each focal length: it doesn't make much sense to make (for example) both 85mm and 90mm lenses, or both 100mm and 105mm.

The R2C and R2S adhere to the Contax canon, with switchable, projected, parallax-corrected frames for 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. The great advantage of this is that all three appear as single frames, unlike the R2 where the three settings are 50mm, 35mm, and 90mm simultaneously (and distractingly), and 75mm.

There is not much to say about lens or camera performance. The lenses supplied for test were the 21mm f/4 and 35mm f/2.5, already well-known in Leica screwmount and also previously tested for Shutterbug in S-mount. The shutter, metering, rangefinder, and so forth are also of known excellence. This is a system that can at all but the widest or smallest apertures exploit any modern film to the limits of its resolution and beyond. All that really remains to be discussed is the handling.

Camera Handling
Here, the problem is that I'm the worst person to ask. I've been using Leicas for over 30 years, and I've been using Leica-fit Voigtländers since they came out. Once you're used to one system, be it Leica compatible or Contax/Nikon compatible, the other system is backward: the bayonet is clockwise to lock on a Leica, anti-clockwise on a Contax/Nikon, and the focusing ring on the lens is clockwise to focus a Leica closer, anti-clockwise to focus a Contax/Nikon closer. There's also that setting-to-infinity rigmarole in mounting Contax/Nikon lenses.

But yet... The big advantage of the Contax/Nikon system is that because of the enormous travel of the focusing wheel (over three turns, remember) it is much easier to focus precisely. Paradoxically, this can be at its most valuable in poor light, when you are dealing with precise adjustments: if you are photographing musicians, for example, a few inches variation in focus can make all the difference, and the 90Þ movement on a Leica-fit Voigtländer lens can actually be a bit too quick. As long as I stuck to the finger wheel, I was OK: as soon as I switched to direct focusing, as described earlier, I started to get crossed up, because of the "backward" focus movement. But if you still use manual Nikon SLRs, and have never used Leicas, there is no reason why you should not be perfectly happy with direct focusing using the collar.

There's also the point that because the whole lens rotates, changing the aperture is also very likely to change the focus unless you have your index finger firmly on the focusing wheel.

As for the inconvenience of lens changing, there's the point that most rangefinder aficionados tend to favor one lens above all others, and to change focal lengths fairly rarely, at which point the relative sloth (as compared with a Leica bayonet) is of limited importance. If I had an R2C, my old Zeiss 21mm f/4.5 Biogon would live on it at all times; with the R2S, either the 35mm f/2.5 SC-Skopar or the 50mm f/1.5 SC-Nokton would get the nod. Or I might just use the Biogon on the R2S anyway...

Take Your Pick
All in all, the three versions of the R2 probably have three completely different buyer profiles. The original R2 appeals to those who already use Leicas, or who always wanted a Leica but either couldn't find the money or couldn't justify the expense. It's the best camera in the series for rapid-action low-light photography, too, and it will be even better when the new 35mm f/1.2 comes out, a lens I can't wait to try.
The R2C will appeal to anyone who already has an original Zeiss lens outfit from the late 1950s, or who is canny enough to assemble such an outfit before the prices go up in response to the introduction of the new Voigtländer. It may also enjoy a vogue as an ultra-exclusive "back-up" camera for professionals and rich amateurs, usually with just one (old) Zeiss lens that never gets changed--quite possibly the 21mm f/4.5 Biogon. It's going to be a major-league collectors' camera, too, because it is unlikely that they will ever sell in vast numbers.

And the R2S? Well, it'll be a collectors' camera, too: probably less so than an R2C, though a mint outfit, with all the lenses, is going to be worth megabucks one day, and not too far in the future either. Obviously it's a way to extend a Nikon outfit, which is probably a bigger market than most people realize: probably (dare one whisper it?) most or all of the lenses are better than 40-to-50-year-old Nikkors, too.

And with current Voigtländer lenses, an R2S is a more practical camera than an R2C plus Zeiss lenses, while still retaining more cachet than a plain R2. I have already met one photographer, a neighbor, who has fallen hopelessly in love with the R2S in a way that he never did with the R2, even the olive green R2. In fact, he supplied the illustrations for this article: he was so desperate to try the camera (and he's such a good photographer) that it seemed unkind not to let him.

Ultimately, falling in love is what the vast majority of camera purchases come down to. This, I think, is where the R2S is going to succeed. Once you get one in your hands, you'll realize that there are really only two reasons not to buy an R2S: either you don't like mechanical rangefinder cameras at all, or you do, but (like me) you prefer the R2 in Leica bayonet fit. Well, OK, three reasons: it's going to be significantly more expensive than a "plain" R2, though still a fraction of the price of a Leica.

To sum up, then, I'll borrow (and modify) a phrase from former President Jimmy Carter: I have looked upon this camera with lust in my heart. Look upon it, and you may feel the same.

For more information about the R2C and R2S, contact CameraQuest by phone: (818) 879-1968 or web site: www.CameraQuest.com. The street price for either the R2C/R2S bodies is $625.