The search for a good street photography camera

Voightlander Vito B
Almost 70 years old but boy what jewel

I used to think I needed one camera. One that would be just right for portraits in the studio and outside. The same camera needed to be perfect for landscape and nature photos. Of course, this meant it had to have interchangeable lenses for wildlife, and it needed to be weather sealed.  It also needed to be suitable for discrete street photography, something small and inconspicuous. No compromises, just one camera. Just one camera-and a bag of accessories.

I’m not sure when the idea of street photography seeped into thoughts. When it did I was back in the “one camera” trap. Street photography required a small and discreet camera, not the big portrait/ landscape camera system I was building. And so began the search for a single purpose camera that could hide in plain sight while I walked the streets.

My journey for this camera started in earnest with a Fuji 645. I was attracted to the larger negative, approximately two and a half times larger than the 35mm format. It wasn’t what I was looking for, so I sold it about a year later. While I continued to look for the right camera I returned to my trusty Canon AE-1.

What isn’t to like about the AE-1? Although it is an 80’s era manual focus camera, it is easy to wield in a crowd and with the stock “nifty fifty” lens isn’t large. I’ve owned the camera for a long time so there was no cash investment and I didn’t think the lack of autofocus would be an issue. It worked okay but the search continued.

Then I fell into a cash of old film cameras. I mentioned them in this blog before. I’ve had a wonderful time looking at the old manual cameras. I put film through some of them. The previous owners cared for some of the cameras like I do. I’ve sold many (that was the reason I agreed to take them.) It was in these boxes I saw an old Rollei 35, marketed as the smallest 35mm camera made. It sold quickly and for a reasonable price. It made me think about a 35mm with a small footprint that would feel right in my hands, have a quality lens, and likely be an old rangefinder.

Enter the Voightlander Vito B. The Vito was made in West Germany in the 50’s. Measuring 5” x 3” it is smaller than the AE-1.  It had one issue, however. It is a viewfinder camera. A viewfinder has meter/foot markings on the lens to help in your guess-to-focus. Guesstofocus means you can’t see through the lens to focus the camera, instead you view area the lens is pointing at. It isn’t a blind exercise as there are distance markers on the lens. Combined with an understanding of depth of field based on f stop, it was state of the art for consumer cameras since the turn of the last century. Nearly every kodak folder uses the same system. I have a couple of folders, so I was ready to give it chance.

Voightlander knew a thing of two. They put two marks on the lens to help the user. One mark signifies focus for 12’ or less and another, located before the infinity symbol, is for everything between 13-20’. Using these two marks and the “sunny 16” rule the camera becomes a point and shoot camera. In addition to making the exposure math easy (match the film speed and shutter speed at f16 in midday sun) the sunny 16 rule allows for a large depth of field making nearly everything in the frame in focus. In the future I’ll go into more depth about the advantages of sunny 16, but for now it’s enough to say the two marks on the lens combined with sunny 16 turned this camera into the perfect street camera! So much for a single camera to meet all my needs.

So, there we are, a perfect sized street camera that fits into a large pocket or the side pocket of a backpack, doesn’t require a lot of messing with, will shoot in black and white or color, didn’t cost an arm and a leg (under $20 if you can find one), and is amazing sharp.

Update: February 10, 2019: I found this rangfinder accessory that mounts to the cold shoe. It lays a transparent image over the view for focusing ala a rangefinder camera. The focus dial has a distance scale. After achieving correct focus with the rangefinder, adjust the lens to match. Amazing.

Next time we’ll look at it’s modern day digital equivalent in size and quality.

Voitghlander Vito B specs:

35mm, viewfinder, 50mm f2.8 lens, count down film counter, all metal, all manual. Approximately 5”x3”. Manufactured between 1950-1957. A few quirks of the camera: it has a wheel over the focal plane to cock the shutter and prevent double exposure. It is nearly impossible to confirm the shutter will fire without film in the body. The frame count counts down not up and must be set each time a new roll of film is put in the camera. Cold shoe, a flash will only work with a cable connected to the lens. Some people I’ve handed the camera think it is too heavy for its size.


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