I thought I was looking for something simple- a small, high-quality, fully manual 35mm rangefinder that wouldn’t bankrupt me. I wanted to get into street photography, and needed something more portable and less conspicuous than my Nikon FE or finicky Zorki 4K in its never-ready case. My trusty Olympus Trip 35 had been filling this gap for years, but I’ve been caught out by its zone focusing on more than one occasion, and with only two automatic shutter speeds there are situations it just can’t handle. I didn’t have a lot to spend. A Leica was several orders of magnitude over my somewhat unrealistic budget of around $90.
It had to have sharp glass and a coupled rangefinder, and I had to have complete control. The Rollei 35 came close, but zone focusing was an issue again, and the models with the best lenses were expensive. The Olympus XA was perfect, with everything I needed, but if I wanted something in good condition within my price range, I’d need to move away from such a zeitgeisty camera. I considered the beautiful-but-elusive Voigtländer Vito BR, but it was too hard to find, and lacking a light meter. And then it appeared: the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR.
I’d found a rangefinder with a top shutter speed of 1/1000, a Carl Zeiss Tessar 42mm f/2.8 lens, and CdS exposure metering, in fully working condition for €40 on eBay. Strangely square and unusually shiny, with a snub nose and sharp corners, it leapt from the cluttered page of auction search results – a modernist incongruity in a sea of classics. Across the top in clean sans serif, two of the most respected names in photography sat side by side: Zeiss Ikon Voigtländer. It looked compact enough for street photography and had all the features I needed. I didn’t have to consider it for very long before I paid the bill.
What is the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR
The Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR belongs to the Vitessa 500 series, an update of the more-famous models of the same name from the 1950s. Both versions of the Vitessa are defined by their rapid film-advance features – the original had the iconic plunger, the 1960s version favors a lever on the bottom left of the camera body, leaving the right hand free to shoot. The 1000 SR is the ultimate model in the 500 family: avoiding aperture priority, swapping the Color-Lanthar lens for the Tessar, and graduating from 1/500 to a top shutter speed of 1/1000.
In production between 1966 and 1970, the Zeiss Ikon Voigtländer Vitessa is a product of that unwieldy period when the two photography giants briefly merged, before the company dissolved and the Voigtländer factory closed down. As far as I can tell from combing through decades-old forums and Google-translated blogs, the Vitessa 1000 SR is quite rare, with only 18,500 units ever made.
My first impression out of the box was how unusual the camera looks. It’s unmistakably mid-century. Some have disparaged the Vitessa’s boxy shape, its dated ‘60s lines, and there’s no question that it feels ‘of its time’ aesthetically. But if you’re a fan of brutalism and modernist design, as I am, then the old-fashioned angles start to feel special. The Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR has the quality of something conceptual and deliberate – almost like a piece of designer furniture rather than a tool, in the same way an Eames Lounge Chair is more art than seat. The Vitessa 500 series even came in imitation rosewood, resembling the Eames, which adds to the impression that these cameras might have been designed with fashion in mind.
The Vitessa 1000 SR isn’t a light camera. It’s surprisingly dense and solid. For its size, its inordinately heavy, but it’s a reassuring weight in the hands – the kind of weight that speaks to the toughness. There are plastic components on the Vitessa, it’s true, but from the feel of it these are limited and never found where strength is required. Like the robust and rectangular buildings constructed in the modernist period, this brick of a camera seems like it would be hard to demolish.
It was time to test it out. I live in Bath, UK, a beautiful and beige 18th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had recently finished a photography project focused on Bath’s landmarks and Georgian architecture, and I wanted to take the camera somewhere new.
Generally, there’s not much modern architecture in Bath but, lucky for us, our windows look onto a ‘brutalist eyesore’ over the road – one of only a handful of post-war housing developments in the city. For one reason or another, I’d never got around to exploring the concrete complex, and I liked the idea of taking a camera from the late ‘60s to a development built in the same style and at the same time, possibly even the same year. If I was shooting something gritty, I needed a gritty film, and one that could enliven the grey English weather: JCH Streetpan 400.
Design and function
My first challenge was inserting a battery. The camera was designed for the PX625 mercury cell, but as these are now banned, I sourced a Wein Cell zinc-air MRB625. The Wein Cell is the recommended replacement for the Vitessa 1000 SR, with the correct voltage of 1.35, but either due to a slight variation in size or an issue with this particular model’s battery compartment, the exposure needle refused to register. A carefully folded bit of aluminum foil soon fixed the issue and the needle leapt to life. Indelicate DIY repairs like this usually irritate me, but as issues go it was a small one, and it seemed to add flavor to my brutalist photowalk through a smudged and scarred environment.
There’s a mysterious green button on the side of the camera, which the manual lists as a ‘battery testing key’. I initially assumed mine didn’t work, as pressing it had no apparent effect. After re-visiting the online forums for the umpteenth time, I found it odd that not a single person’s battery testing key seemed to be working. Upon reading the confusingly worded couple of lines in the relevant section of the manual, it became clear that the button functions by lowering the exposure needle when pressed, if the battery needs replacing. Though there are many aspects I like about the camera, this fiddly feature was the first in a series of counter-intuitive design choices that I discovered as I tested the Vitessa.
First, the positives, as this camera does have some nice touches. It’s a pleasingly compact size. Not much bigger than my Olympus Trip 35, it could theoretically fit in a coat pocket if one doesn’t mind the weight. The shutter speed and aperture rings around the lens are distinct enough to the touch that they can be operated blind. And though I was initially suspicious of the triangular plastic shutter release, in practice it’s a joy to use, ergonomic and wide. Combined with the soft, staccato snap of the impressive Prontor 1000 LK leaf shutter, the act of taking a photograph is satisfying, a welcome combination of comfort, speed and silence.
The viewfinder is bright, and there’s a large red square to indicate aperture (though, there’s nothing to indicate shutter speed selection). The rangefinder patch is perhaps a little faint, but I found it more than adequate. The light meter is quick and simple to use, being made of a match-needle system with a single central notch on the right-hand side of the viewfinder to indicate exposure. The ISO tops out at 400, which isn’t an issue for me as I don’t often shoot anything faster.
The Tessar lens is one of the main reasons I took a chance on the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR, and it didn’t disappoint. Despite my unfamiliarity with the camera, the high contrast film, and the challenging lighting conditions of a bright and overcast day, there are a number of images I’m pleased with from the roll. The lens seems satisfyingly sharp, clearly picking out the texture and clean lines of the concrete. Craving a bit of greenery after mapping the grey development, I wandered to a nearby park, where I photographed an ornate bandstand column at f/2.8. The detail on the column is crisp, framed by a subtle swirl of bokeh. There’s a touch of vignetting, but I quite like how this adds to the feeling of spiraling movement in the shot.
Despite its strengths, the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR has a number of quirks that prevent it from being a true sleeper success. The placement of the CdS cell is inconvenient. It being placed so far to the side and underneath the shutter release (combined with the squat, square shape of the camera) meant that every time I went to shoot in portrait, the needle dropped as my hand obscured the meter. At this point, I’d have to juggle the camera, gripping with my fingertips until the needle sprang to life again. This is something that probably just comes with practice, but it’s another of the Vitessa’s bewildering design choices, which could have been avoided by placing the meter above the lens.
Similarly, having the film advance on the bottom of the camera is fine in theory, but in practice it means moving the camera away from your face after every shot unless you want the lever to jab into your cheek. It’s also very loud, the clockwork clatter making the camera feel a bit like a wind-up toy at times.
My final and chief quibble with the Vitessa is the focusing. Because the lens is fairly flat and completely covered in ISO, shutter speed and aperture controls, there’s only room underneath the focus ring for a small black bar. A touch too shallow to grip with two fingers, I had to awkwardly adjust this with only the index finger of my left hand. A number of times, I almost touched the lens by mistake, or placed my finger on the self-timer lever, which happens to be in a similar place and of a similar size. Frequently, I had to lower the camera to reorient myself, which inevitably slowed down the shot, a frustrating setback for a camera named for its rapidity.
Final Thoughts on the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR
Is the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR a brutalist eyesore or modernist masterpiece? I’m not quite sure – perhaps neither. It falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a capable rangefinder and an intriguing oddity. The more I consider it, the more I understand why it isn’t revered, remaining a bit of a mystery today while other cameras with similar specs gain popularity and clout amongst a new generation of film nerds. Its lens and range of features are impressive, but it has a tendency to get in its own way. It’s weighty, unclear, awkward. Though its relative anonymity means it can pack a punch for the price (if you can find one), the Voigtländer Vitessa’s cumbersome nature means it isn’t the quick answer to street photography I was hoping for.
I am pleased with the images produced by the camera, but ultimately this isn’t why I’ll forgive it for its shortcomings. I appreciate the camera for its character. Plain yet playful, stubborn but charismatic. Perhaps the Voigtländer Vitessa 1000 SR is quite like the Eames chair after all – more icon than instrument, a notable moment in history and design.
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