The Bessa R is one of the few rangefinder-style film cameras produced in the last several decades. The R combines the simplistic experience of a rangefinder with a much appreciated (albeit rudimentary) light meter. It uses 2 batteries to power the meter and control shutter speeds, and has framelines for 35mm, 50mm, and 75mm lenses which are quite bright and easy to see, even when wearing glasses.
The R uses the ubiquitous L39/Leica Thread Mount, which means it can use any number of vintage Canon, Voigtlander, Leica lenses, as well as a plethora of Russian rangefinder lenses. Compared to the Leica system, the R offers a relatively economical way to experience an interchangeable lens rangefinder. LTM lenses are generally less expensive than the more modern Leica M mount lenses, but they still aren’t cheap. They’re more expensive than comparable focal length SLR lenses. Still, if you’re looking to try out rangefinders for the first time, the R is one of the cheapest ways to do it.
One thing to note about the Leica Screw Mount is that changing lenses is a tedious process and not something you can do quickly like you can with modern bayonet-style lenses. You have to be careful not to cross thread, lest you ruin the lens and the body, so you have to take your time changing lenses.
Aesthetics and feel.
The R is mostly plastic, which makes it light and easy to handle. It doesn’t feel cheap to me, but if you’re comparing it to a Leica you will certainly see a quality difference. On the exterior there are a few areas where cost-saving decisions are obvious, such as the paint, lettering, and materials used.
Beneath the surface there are more hints of efforts to reduce production costs. First, the shutter is loud, probably the loudest 35mm shutter I’ve used and more akin to a medium format camera shutter. It’s definitely not a camera to use in discrete situations.
Next, the shutter speed dial is tight. Despite having a large surface area and plenty of grip, the dial is too tight for me to move with one finger. To complicate matters further, the film advance lever blocks the back half of the dial, making it impossible to grip it using your thumb without first pulling the lever back. Needless to say, changing shutter speeds isn’t a fast process.
The exposure meter also leaves much to be desired. It’s comprised of two red arrows pointing left and right, with a red dot in between. How light or dark your subject is, as well as your shutter and aperture settings, will determine which is illuminated. Ideally, you want the dot to be illuminated, which indicates proper exposure. This system doesn’t tell you how over-or underexposed you are.
Lastly, and by far the most frustrating, is the placement of the strap lugs. The position of the strap lugs puts the fulcrum of the camera towards the front of the body, which means you need a relatively heavy lens to balance the camera while it’s hanging around your neck. If you use a light lens, like my Color Skopar 35mm f2.5, the camera is constantly tilted up at 45 degree angle.
But despite all those caveats, I still love my R. While they aren’t cheap, it isn’t worth so much that I’m afraid to take it out and use it while traveling. Compared to a Leica, the Bessa series are pretty low-key, with only “BESSA-R” printed on the front. Its less than premium appearance makes me more comfortable to take it out and use it.
As I mentioned above, it’s lightweight, and fairly compact compared to a comparable SLR camera and lens. It’s not a huge difference, but enough to make me opt for the R when traveling light, but not too light (in that case I’d bring the Olympus XA).
It feels nice in your hands, and except for the unfortunate design of the shutter speed dial, there are few things I would change. It’s a straightforward, almost utilitarian design that allows you to keep your attention on shooting. The viewfinder is bright and the framelines well-defined, even when wearing glasses.
Some might be off put by the abundant use of plastic on this camera, but I don’t see it as an issue. The materials used are pretty robust. Although I’m careful with the camera, I’ve thrown it in my backpack on many trips and used it in the elements without issue.
When I bought it, the light meter intermittently flickering and the film counter window had been pushed in. I was able to fix the flickering light meter by removing the top panel and cleaning some metal contacts near the viewfinder, but it still flickers occasionally. I also reglued the film counter window.
Although simple, the light meter is accurate and reliable. Depressing the shutter button partially activates the light meter for a few seconds.
The lenses I’ve used most with my R are the Voigtlander Color-Skopar 35mm f2.5 and the Color-Skopar 25mm f4. The images out of both lenses are among the best I’ve gotten on 35mm film.
When I travel, I usually decide between taking my Minolta X700 or Bessa R as my primary 35mm camera. The R is a simple and reliable platform that produces great images when paired with the right lenses, of which there are many.
If I have to take one camera and one lens, it’ll be the Bessa R and the Color-Skopar 35mm f2.5. 35mm isn’t my favorite focal length, but it’s a great compromise between wide angle and telephoto and works in a wide variety of situations. If I have more room, I’ll probably opt for the X700 because it has Aperture Priority – a feature I really wish the R had.