The legendary Leica, Nikon and Cosina Voigtländer Meister and member of the LHSA and NHS Tom Abrahamsson died last January 6th 2017 at the age of 73 in Vancouver (Canada).
This is a huge loss to the world of photography, since this unique and great man has left an indelible imprint through his amazing technical skills in the sphere of gorgeous CNC machining of aerospace alloys with his world famous Classic Softreleases and Minisoftreleases for a number of different cameras and brands, his masterpiece rapidwinders for Leica analog RF cameras, tons of experience, insightful and practical approach on getting pictures as a first class black and white photojournalist using rangefinder cameras to share space with his subjects and beget interactions in reportages and images teeming with life, and above all by virtue of his human qualities and kindness who turned him into a reference-class benchmark wherever he was, being beloved by all the ones who had the privilege of meeting him and learning very much listening to him and his wife Tuulikki Abrahamsson.
A product oozing impressive quality and sturdiness, handcraftedly made by Tom Abrahamsson with a painstaking level of noble metals (high tensile strength alloy, stainless steel and brass) machining inside his famous workshop in Vancouver (Canada).
This very well built device replaces the base plate on Leica M cameras and allows the rapid advance of the film inside the camera using your left hand on the folding lever located on its base to pull it outwards, so the photographer doesn´t have to take his/her eye away from the viewfinder.
The drive is a reinforced toothed belt quieter than the original chain drive of the Leicavit MP, and optimized for avoiding stretching, and the multiple pin clutch used in it allows the photographers to shoot very fast, in the 2-2,5 frames/second range, a mechanical accomplishment in the scope of 24 x 36 mm format analog rangefinder cameras.
Unlike loud and bulky motordrives, it doesn´t use any batteries, remains utterly integrated with the body of the rangefinder camera (it only adds 1,4 cm to the height of the camera along with 125 g more) and preserves its small size and weight, as well as working in a very smooth way.
Following the creation of his firm T&T Abrahamsson – One-Off Industrial Designs in Vancouver (Canada) in 1987, he started to design, manufacture and sell these highly functional gadgets featuring a thorough attention to detail in 1989, after a very hard self teaching of machining from late seventies, until by dint of strenuous work, love for the well made products and an unswerving commitment to spread out the photographic possibilities of rangefinder cameras, he gained breathtaking proficiency with all kinds of small and large lathes, drills, Dremel devices, jewellery file sets, milling machines and a wide range of tools of every size and shape in symbiosis with CNC milling machines which enabled him to improve the precision of cases machined from alloys and progressively upgrade parts and designs, subsequently founding www.rapidwinder.com in 1998.
Such was the significance as breakthrough devices for increasing the shooting rate of Leica rangefinder cameras, quality, ruggedness and reliability as a minimalist design (with less than ten individual parts in comparison with the very complex design of the original Leicavit MP featuring more than fifty components) and usefulness of Tom Abrahamsson´s rapidwinders, that the great Leica technician Reinhold Mueller, another preeminent expert in machine work and custom fabrication of instruments ( among many other devices he was one of the designers of the altitude meters used during the NASA first moon landings) and who in mid nineties had already a long background of 25 years in Canada as a Leica service specialist, made some modifications to Leica M2, M3 and M4 cameras (the M4-2, M4-P, M6, M7 and MP 2003 don´t need any changes) to enable them to couple Tom Abrahamsson´s rapidwinders for professional photographers.
Some years later, in 2005, Tom Abrahamsson manufactured a limited series of three hundred M2 rapidwinders fitting the Leica M2 and Leica MD cameras without having to do any modifications.
On the other hand, a further reason for the international sales success of Tom Abrahamsson´s rapidwinders was the exceedingly careful quality control carried out by his creator, including the testing of each individual device with three different bodies with black and white film inside.
The mythical Mr Barnack softie, which has currently become a cult object among users of 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras all over the world. The highly appreciated and very special cat passed away on August 4, 2010, after twelve years of loyalty to Tom and Tuulikki Abrahamsson.
It was often placed among many others on the Leica M2 and original M3 black enamel cameras repainted in black semi-gloss finish by the great Japanese artisan Shintaro Yaginuma.
After having begun his career as a photojournalist for a Swedish newspaper during sixties working with a repainted in gray Leica M2, he subsequently travelled worldwide during seventies and first half of eighties until he settled in Vancouver (Canada) in 1987.
His indefatigable labor was instrumental in the Renaissance of RF cameras since mid nineties, along with other keepers of the faith in that scope like Roy Moss, Joseph K. Brown, Julius Foris Jr, Harry Soletsky, Roger Pelham, Sal DiMarco Jr, Fred Sternenberg, Ed Etzold, Vahan Shahinian, Steve LeHuray, Lucian Niemeyer, Randol W. Hooper, Jim Kuehl, Donald B. Chatterton, Ted Grant, Folke Kristiansson, Mervin Stewart, Eric Bohman, Shin Yasuhara, Hirofumi Kobayashi, Ed Schwartzreich, Seth Rosner, Bill Grimwood, Carl Merkin, Roger Hicks, Hans Ploegmakers, Rick Oleson, Jason Schneider, Stephen Gandy, Ben Shulman, Michael Agel, Will Wright, Eli Kurland, Daniel Zirinsky, Ron Johnson, Raymond Piganiol, Stan Tamarkin, Igor Reznik, Terry Maltby, Stefan Daniel, Roy Moss, Joseph K. Brown, Dick Gilcreast, David Spielman, Jim W. Vestal, Bill Thomas. Albert Bruce Knapp, Richard Gladden, Bill Rosauer, John Patterson, Dick Santee, John E. Hayden, Bill Caldwell, Norm Woodward, Al Wolsky, Doug Richardson, Thomas Campbell, Alex Shishin, Shiniziro Mizuchi, Stephen Wright, Rob Clayton, Terance Dixon, John Lehmann, Terry Cioni, David Schumaker, Pierpaolo Ghisetti, Eric Baker, Richard Wasserman, Howard Cummer, Craig Semetko, Dr. Michael Schwartz, Henning Wulff, Shinichi Nakamura, Brett Prestidge, David Young, Edward Kowaleski, Toru Tanaka, Hans Pahlen, Kaeru Nakayama, Bob Baron, Greg Lorenzo, Mark Rabiner, Kjell Kullsten, Jim Shulman, Joseph Yao and many more on the five continents, after almost twelve years in which
This ten year stage between mid nineties and 2005 was fundamental in the preservation of the very small 24 x 36 mm format mirrorless with rangefinder concept camera and top-notch tiny and quite light highly luminous lenses (whose compactness and optimization for handheld shots without trepidation even in dim light conditions at very low shutter speeds, its amazing smoothness and almost inaudible sound on pressing their shutter release button, the keeping of eye contact with the subject right through the moment of exposure thanks to the lack of a swivelling mirror, the invaluable help of the area visible outside the framelines, particularly in the Leica and Cosina Voigtländer rangefinders, to anticipate unpredicted moving subjects that may enter the frame and an exceedingly short shutter lag turn the RF cameras into the best by far choice for street photography and people photography from short distances) before the definitive consolidation of the digital Leica M concept, firstly embodied by the Leica M8 and
Tom Abrahamsson with his black Leica M2 coupled to a Voigtländer Nokton Classic S.C 35 mm f/1.4.
He is pressing the Abrahamsson softie (installed on the threaded socket of the shutter release button of the camera) using the special technique recommended by him, hooking one´s finger on it so that the second joint applies the pressure.
Gorgeous Tom Abrahamsson´s softie manufactured to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the LHSA during the Annual Meeting held in Louisville (Kentucky) in 2008.
The polishing of this thoroughly engineered tiny product is simply stunning, flawless, without any hint of imperfection, paint rugosity or any minute metal cranny. A real masterpiece of miniaturization accuracy, boasting a very beautifil cosmetic look which enhances the appearance of the camera.
Likewise first class is the high resistance of its very special ultralight aerospace alloy which makes possible the engraving of all kind of inscriptions, logotypes, drawings, diagrams, letters, etc, a long lasting permanence being achieved through an avantgarde technique based on laser beam
From scratch, they were made to the highest standards of quality, solving the problems inherent to previously available softies from different companies and countries, made in cheap cast aluminum, which had too small diameter or featured a concave surface resulting in the need to use the tip of the finger, exerting pressure on the shutter release button of the camera, so on shooting with slow and very slow shutter speeds, there was frequent trepidation and blurred images.
That´s why Tom Abrahamsson took the decision of striving upon stretching the handheld capabilities of Leica rangefinder cameras when getting pictures at low and very low shutter speeds, conceiving his own softies with a bigger diameter (15mm) and a dome convex shaped upper area, in addition to using the most adequate stuff to manufacture them: an expensive top quality very tough and resistant aerospace metallic alloy assuring maximum strength and durability which avoided any snapping or getting stuck of the softies in the cable release thread and simultaneously enabled to engrave and anodize them in a wide range of colours.
Lateral view of the LHSA 2008 softie made by Tom Abrahamsson showing the painstaking accuracy in the machining of both the knurled edge, the screwed tip for inserting the softie on the thread for cable release socket of Leica rangefinder cameras and its exceedingly sturdy base.
From the beginning, manufacturing these masterpieces of machining work proved to be a conundrum, particularly if we bear in mind that it was an utterly private adventure, far from any craving for huge revenue and based on the keynote of top-notch craftsmanship, making use of the best materials in existence, and fulfilling a personal control unit by unit of each softie and the different stages until completing them.
A self-made man in many a respect, Tom Abrahamsson´s iron will and his impressive know-how and prowess on machining of metals and alloys learned the hard way since mid eighties (when he began to thoroughly study the design of the first ones of his famous rapidwinders) was pivotal in the beginning of the Abrahamsson Softrelease Classic devices production on July 23, 1998, and the turning of this great photographer, artisan and Renaissance man workshop into a very high level center using CNC machines.
These state-of-the-art little wonders enabled to extend the handheld safe shooting capabilities of the rangefinder cameras up to a shutter speed of 1/8 s with lenses between 50 and 90 mm without trepidation, while on using lenses between 21 and 35 mm a photographer can often reliably work hand and wrist at 1/4 s and even 1/2 s.
As a matter of fact, Tom was able to shoot indoors at a shutter speed of 1/8 s with a Cosina Voigtländer Bessa R4M rangefinder camera coupled to a prototype of the Elmar-M 24 mm f/3.8 Asph lens during the LHSA visit to the Woodword Bourbon Reserve Distillery in 2008.
Tom Abrahamsson getting a picture of Bill Rosauer, Editor of Viewfinder magazine, the reference-class illustrated international publication on Leica along with LFI and Vidom.
Tom Abrahamsson, a true gentleman, was always one of the Viewfinder magazine flagships with his superb articles about Leica and Voigtländer lenses, whose pictures and texts (he was also a gifted writer who made unforgettable chronicles with lavish information on such international fairs like Photokina Köln, Bièvres, Tokyo Camera Show, Takashimaya Show, Mini-Camera Club in Tokyo, Vancouver Camera Swap Meet and many others) were a true relish for any enthusiast of photography, also leaving his distinctive mark in the acclaimed Friday Zen gatherings of photographers at Vancouver´s Zen Café every Friday morning, with fascinating conversations about a myriad of photographic aspects and personal stories
Friday Zen is an informal gathering of photographers who meet each Friday morning for coffee at Vancouver´s Zen Café, bringing about a fascinating time with lots of interesting conversation.
Tom was a real maven on black and white films, to such an extent that he was even able to shoot Kodak Plus X movie stock exposed between 80 and 100 ISO and then develop it during 6.5 minutes (which he reduced 30 seconds if the pictures had been taken under scorching sun conditions) in 1:1:10 diluted Beutler to get fantastic outdoor results regarding smooth grain, midtones and highlights, since he perfectly controlled the superior grain edge of Beutler in comparison to the classical 1:100 Agfa Rodinal.
In addition, he used a slew of black and white films like the Kodak Panatomic-X (developed in Rodinal 1:75). Fuji Across 100 (developed in FX-37), Efke 25, Kodak Super-XX rated at iso 250 and developed in D96 (a lower contrast version of D76 used for movie stock) , Ilford Pan F 50, Ilford Delta 100 (developed in FX 37), Spurs DSX, Fuji Presto 400 (developed in D-76), Ilford SXF, Kodak T-MAX 100, Arista Premium 400 (developed with Pyrocat HD), Kodak T-MAX 400 (usually developed by him with HC110) and of course
Kodak Tri-X 400, a black and white film with which Tom Abrahamsson made a myriad of experiments during his life, managing to expose it even at 6 ASA and 6,400 ASA and all the imaginable sensitivities in between, reaching the conclusion that on being rated from 100 ASA to 1600 ASA results were most times good or very good and printable. Such is the formidable exposure latitude of this legendary b & w chemical emulsion, and as explained by Tom Abrahamsson, the arrival of this black and white high speed film in 24 x 36 mm format in 1954 (then featuring ASA 200) to the photographic market meant that in combination with a rangefinder camera like the Leica M3 (also launched into market that year) with highly luminous top class M lenses like the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Type 1 (1953), Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Type 2 (1954) and the Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 (1958), allowed the professional photographers to take pictures that would have been difficult if not impossible to get before, in addition to establishing the Leica M as the leading camera for available handheld shots.
the Kodak Tri-X 400 (which he rated at ISO 320 and most times developed with Kodak D76 diluted 1:1 and 10 minutes for decades, as well as with Agfa Rodinal 1:25 and 1:50 for 14 minutes as a practical travel developer, and in some specific occasions rating it at ISO 250 and developing in Microdol X to minimize the grain), having the knack of optimizing results with each one by means of painstakingly tested developing times, adequate agitations and a vast choice of homegrown solutions he always liked to share with his legion of worldwide admirers.
The upshot of it is that in addition to creating the best possible black and white images according to his talent, experience, intuition, remarkable quickness and exceedingly accurate timing on shooting (Tom was consistently able to get pictures of people from a very short distance going unnoticed at the defining moments), he was a great advocate of the significance of tonal range, feel, acutance and the visual perception of sharpness inherent to it in synergy with contrast over the resolving power of a lens, so using films with the least amount of grain wasn´t his priority.
Instrumental for it was his very deep discernment on the chemical properties of every b & w film in existence and particularly his long lasting know-how in the sphere of chemical emulsions and the analysis of black and white negatives and the resulting images on photographic paper, so he had an enormous interest in the transitions between edges and differences in density which vary with the subject matter, lighting, exposure, contrast and other aspects, including the relevance of Mackie lines to acutance in pictures when they´re born at gradations between areas of different densities, it all being influenced by the developers and agitation techniques used, a further realm in which Tom Abrahamsson was a full-fledged master.
A Leica M3 mirrorless with rangefinder camera with the mythical Mr B softie threaded on its shutter release button.
When he was only fourteen years old, Tom Abrahamsson started getting pictures in Sweden with a second hand unit of this breathtaking entirely metallic photographic tool attached to a Summicron M 50 mm f/2 Dual Range and fell in love with the Leica M System of cameras and lenses, a passion which would keep on throughout his whole lifetime.
The milestone Leica M3 camera (the best ever made along with the Nikon SP) launched into market in 1954 has an extraordinary 0.92x magnification viewfinder whose crispness, contrast and clarity is far superior to the viewfinders of the cream of the crop of excellent current 24 x 36 mm digital slr full frame professional cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, Canon EOS 1DX Mark II, Canon EOS 5DS R, Canon EOS 5DS, Nikon D810, Nikon D810A, Nikon D5, Pentax K-1, Sony full frame mirrorless and rangefinderless EVF digital cameras with a very good price/performance ratio and top of the range sensors like the Sony A7, A7II, A7R, A7S, A7RII, A7SII, APS-C sensor Fujifilm cameras (though to match the amazing compactness and low weight of these cameras and avoid very large and heavy objectives in comparison with bodies, the best choice when it comes to getting top image quality is coupling to them manual focusing Leica M, Leica R or Asahi Takumar Super-Multi-Coated lenses) , and Micro 4/3 Olympus and Panasonic cameras.
Back view of the 24 x 36 mm format Leica M3 rangefinder camera with the Mr B softie made by Tom Abrahamsson installed on the thread of its shutter release button.
The digital mirrorless EVF (electronic viewfinder) cameras are not rangefinder cameras, because the different models of rangefinder cameras have had (since 1936 with the Zeiss Ikon Contax II and since 1954 with the Leica M3) and go on having superb optical viewfinders in which the VF and the rangefinder (an engineering masterpiece made up by 150 components) are combined and work integrated, so a mirrorless digital camera lacking rangefinder and featuring EVF (for example all the varieties of Sony A7, the Fuji X-Pro 1, Fuji X-Pro 2, Fuji XT-1, Fuji XT-2, etc) or any digital camera with " electronic rangefinder simulation " like the Fujifilm X-100T, Fujifilm X-100F and other models are not rangefinder cameras, but very different things, not only in terms of optomechanical quality but also in a much lower production cost.
Therefore, to go out to the street with a mirrorless without rangefinder camera or a
Leica M mirrorless with rangefinder camera (whether 24 x 36 mm format analog or digital one) is not the same thing or similar experience at all, of course always understanding that anybody is free to buy the camera or lenses from the brand he/she wishes.
On the other hand, the Leica M lenses set the standard for quality in the 35 mm photography field (with excellent sharpness and contrast at their widest apertures, to such an extent that on stopping down, performance is very similar and you only gain more depth of field) and always stand the test of time, as well as sporting exceedingly small size, very short diameter and amazing low weight for their very large apertures (something much more difficult and expensive to design and manufacture than building lenses featuring big size, long front diameter and heavy weight), and their prior specifications defining base parameters, mechanical tolerances and optical system performance are the most exacting.
That´s why Leica M lenses deliver superb results coupled through adapters to a very comprehensive range of mirrorless professional cameras from different brands and 24 x 36 mm, APS-C and Micro 4/3 sensor formats.
Leica M2 with Summicron-M 5 cm f/2 Rigid Dual Range with shade and goggles for near focusing range.
The camera has a Tom´s Abrahamsson´s black colour softie screwed on the shutter release button thread for cable.
Detail of the same camera with the Tom Abrahamsson´s black colour softie being pressed with the special technique recommended by him to greatly expand the handheld shooting capabilities of rangefinder cameras in subdued light conditions, enabling to safely get pictures using very low shutter speeds of 1/8 s and even 1/4 s and 1/2 s to experienced photographers once they get the hang of it.
Since his years as a teenager in Sweden, his native country, Tom Abrahamsson became a great reader of old Life magazines from thirties, forties and early fifties including extraordinary black and white pictures, mostly made with Leica rangefinder cameras and 50 mm lenses, acquiring a breathtaking visual and compositive culture, until becoming an accomplished photographer holding sway over technical sides and honing a discerning style whose core was an uncommon gift to capture defining moments, something which was enhanced by the support of a relative of his father who was a press photographer and in 1957 gave him a Leica M3 coupled to a Summicron DR 50 mm f/2 and some rolls of the just released three years before 35 mm format Tri-X black and white film featuring ISO 200 at the moment.
This way, when Tom Abrahamsson was only 14 years old, his everlasting relationship with Leica started and within a very short span of time, he was already a guru on RF cameras and imagery, driven by an unyielding passion for black and white photography and an adamant penchant for taking the already huge potential of Leica rangefinder cameras shooting handheld with available light at very low shutter speeds without getting blurred images to new limits.
But in spite of being a great admirer of the standard 50 mm lenses (he used all of them, particularly the Summicron Rigid 50 mm f/2, the Elmar 50 mm f/3.5 in M mount, the Carl Zeiss Sonnar C 50 mm f/1.5 for the Zeiss Ikon camera, the Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/2 for the Zeiss Ikon camera, the non aspherical Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4, the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 Asph, the Voigtländer Heliar 50 mm f/2, the Voigtländer Skopar 50 mm f/2.5, the non aspherical Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 versions 4 and 5, the Heliar 50 mm f/3.5 from the Bessa T limited edition, the Summitar 5 cm f/2 and many others) and the iconic historical pictures made with them by the foremost photojournalists in history like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Brassaï, André Kertész, Arthur Rothstein, Izis Bildermanas, Robert Capa, David Seymour "Chim", Inge Morath, Werner Bischof, Elliott Erwitt, W. Eugene Smith, David Douglas Duncan, Eve Arnold, René Burri, Larry Burrows, Nick Ut, Phillip Jones Griffith, Erich Lessing, Paul Fusco, Constantin Manos, Garry Winogrand and others, Tom Abrahamsson was a world class guru of wideangle and super wideangle lenses, with a tremendous gift for shoosing subject matters with interest in the foreground near distance as well as the middle distance.
Therefore, the main and most used lens by Tom Abrahamsson (who also loved the Summaron-M 35 mm f/2.8, the Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 ASPH, the Summicrons 50 mm f/2, the Super Angulon-M 21 mm f/3.4, the Voigtländer Ultron 21 mm f/1.8 ASPH, the Carl Zeiss Biogon 21 mm f/4.5 from 1957, the Elmar-M 24 mm f/3.4 ASPH, the Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH, the Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4 and others ) was always the non aspherical Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Classic (so the Leica M2, optimized for this focal length, was his favourite camera), because he considered the 50 mm lenses as short teles, while the 35 mm was the par excellence photojournalistic focal length and with which he took roughly 80% of pictures throughout his lifetime, without forgetting his frequent use of under 35 mm lenses like
Carl Zeiss Biogon 21 mm f/4.5 late model from 1957, one of the superwideangle lenses most admired by Tom Abrahamsson. It is and extraordinary 90º coverage lens even to current standards, and was originally designed by the genius Ludwig Bertele in 1954 for 24 x 36 mm format Contax rangefinder cameras, being at the time the widest lens ever made for 35 mm photography. As opposed to the Distagon lenses used in single lens reflex cameras and featuring reverse telephoto designs, it is a true super wideangle objective with superior potential to greatly minimize optical aberrations, delivering impressive sharpness as well as boasting a non retrofocus design with a correction of distortion in a class by itself, superb colour precision and tight clearances making possible an exceptional centering of the optical elements. It can be adapted to a Leica M by an experienced repairman.
the 1957 Zeiss Biogon 21 mm f/4.5, the Elmarit-M 21 mm f/2.8, the Zeiss C Biogon 21 mm f/4.5, the Super Angulon 21 mm f/3.4 (by far the superwideangle lens most used by him during his life), the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 21 mm f/4, the Ricoh 21 mm f/3.5 in screw mount and other 35 mm lenses like the Summaron-M 35 mm f/3.5, Summaron-M 35 mm f/2.8, Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4, Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 Aspherical, Voigtländer Nokton Classic 35 mm f/1.4, Zeiss C Biogon 35 mm f/2.8, Voigtländer Color-Skopar 35 mm f/2.5, etc.
Voigtländer Bessa R4M analog rangefinder from 2006, one of the best and most interesting cameras manufactured by Cosina Voigtländer under the guidance of its president Hirofumi Kobayashi, who had the wisdom of ignoring the "Advanced Photo System" during the second half of nineties and devote his efforts to the making of 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras with an amazing price/quality ratio and highly luminous manual focusing first class primes strongly inspired by legacy lenses whose performance was most times improved using modern glasses and multicoatings, as well as oozing great beauty.
Along with his Leica M2, Tom Abrahamsson used extensively both the Voigtländer Bessa R4M and the Voigtländer Bessa R3M 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras (the latter to a lesser degree) coupled to Leica M and Cosina Voigtländer in Leica M mount lenses alike.
It features a silky-smooth focusing ring with metallic tab and a 10 blade diaphragm. The barrel is made in black anodized aluminum and the mount is built in chromed brass.
As happens with the vast assortment of lenses manufactured by Cosina Voigtländer, the Voigtländer Ultron 28 mm f/2 delivers very good image quality at a hugely competitive price considering its excellent mechanical construction entirely made in metal, its excellent optical performance on the image center it renders even at full aperture (the best values of uniformity of top optical performance between center, borders and corners will be attained stopping down from f/5.6), and its beautiful bokeh thanks to its high number of blades.
Needless to say the using this classic lens scheme wideangle lens is a treat, becoming a stellar performer when it comes to tackling the drawing of ten-point sunstars.
Voigtländer Bessa R4M rangefinder, sagely defined by Tom Abrahamsson (who loved it and was a key man in the worldwide promotion of Cosina Voigtländer cameras and lenses) as a milestone camera, because of its highly versatile 0.52 x viewfinder optimized to be used with a very comprehensive range of wide angle focal lengths through built-in framelines for 21, 25, 28 and 35 mm, as well as enabling the acceptably precise use of standard 50 mm lenses stopping down between f/2 and f/22 (the short rangefinder base length of this great camera doesn´t enable exact focusing accuracy with standard 50 mm lenses when shooting at diaphragms f/1.1, f/1.2, f/1.5 and f/1.9) through a further frameline for this specific focal length.
This way, the Voigtländer Bessa R4A and R4M are certainly unique rangefinder cameras excelling with wide and very wide lenses, and the framelines for 21 mm lenses are a hallmark trait which hadn´t existed before.
Only the great Nikon SP rangefinder (also highly appreciated by Tom, who had a black one) manufactured between 1957 and 1962 beats the Bessa R4M and its electronic version Bessa R4A in terms of VF capabilities on coupling lenses of different focal lengths, thanks to its state of the art two finder windows (the main one on the right, with 1x magnification for 50, 85, 105 and 135 mm lenses, and the left one with 0.4x magnification for 28 and 35 mm lenses), it all with the added benefit of a very large rangefinder base length of 60.5 mm.
10 elements (three of them aspherical ones) in 7 groups manual focusing Voigtländer 35 mm f/1.2 chromed version 1 from 2007 (the black version was manufactured from 2003), an extraordinary lens made by Cosina Voigtländer.
Only 300 units of this chromed lens were produced and its appearance is really fabulous with the scalloped focusing ring inspired by the ones featured by the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Rigid (1956-1958), the Asahi Takumars and Super Takumars 50 mm f/1.4 and 55 mm f/1.8, in addition to delivering superb image quality with an excellent bokeh between f/1.2 and f/2.8 thanks to its twelve blade diaphragm.
It´s a great performer in all kind of low light environments where has proved its mettle both with analog and digital professional Leica rangefinder cameras like the M9, M9-P, M Typ 240, etc, along with the Bessas R2A, R2M, R3A, R3M, R4A and R4M.
Hirofumi Kobayashi helped by the advice and experience of professional photographers like Tom Abrahamsson (who was also a great friend of his and had frequent meetings with him in Japan) created a number of very high quality Voigtländer lenses like the Heliar-Hyper Wide 10 mm f/5.6 Aspherical (the widest rectilinear lens ever produced), Skopar 21 mm f/3.5, Ultron 28 mm f/1.9, Skopar 35 mm f/4, Nokton 35 mm f/1.2, Nokton 40 mm f/1.4, Nokton 50 mm f/1.5, Ultron 50 mm f/1.7, Skopar 50 mm f/2.5, Heliar 50 mm f/3.5, Heliar 75 mm f/2.5, Heliar 75 mm f/1.8, Apo-Lanthar 90 mm f/3.5 and others, in different mounts including Leica M mount, Nikon S mount and Zeiss Contax mount, wholly made in metal with sturdy mechanical construction able to endure a lot of decades of intensive use and delivering high scoring optical performance.
And all of these manual focusing Voigtländer Leica mount lenses boasting a full-metal construction and built to very high standards can be coupled to all Leica M rangefinder (both analog and digital ones) and with the correspondent adapters to all digital APS-C format Fuji-X series, Sony NEX, and Micro 4/3 Olympus and Panasonic cameras, with the added bonus of excelling in Full HD and 4K videography.
Front view of the manual focusing Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 Aspherical Version 1 Chromed lens.
Tom Abrahamsson tested extensively one of the first version 1 prototype black units of this lens (the most luminous 35 mm wideangle made hitherto for 24 x 36 mm format) in 2003 with Kodak Technical Pan, Kodak Tri-X 400, Ilford Delta 100 and Ilford Delta 400 black and white films, verifying its remarkable sharpness even at full aperture (typycal in much more expensive f/1.4 lenses of the same focal length), on a par with the Leica Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4, in addition to a great pretty smooth bokeh and an uncommon resistance to flare, with medium contrast at the widest apertures but very good stopping down from f/2.
On the other hand, the Associated Press stringer photographer William B. Tuttle proved the impressive competence of the Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 Aspherical for night photography with available light without flash when he made an excellent reportage on March 1, 2004 at the Sebring (Florida) Twelve Hours of Endurance race, tackling less than adequate lighting contexts with high marks using a Leica MP coupled to this lens and Kodak Tri-X 400 b & w film, often taking wide open f/1.4-f/2 shots at 1/15 s with a very accurate shutter release technique in very low light situations with critical focusing, getting commendable detail and texture and preserving tonal range, it all being confirmed the following year when he made tests at the same circuit with identical camera/lens combo and Kodak Plus-X 125 ISO.
Lateral view of the manual focusing Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 chromed lens 1st Version with its shade on. The machining of the metallic brass surfaces covered by chrome, including the gorgeous scalloped focusing ring, is truly breathtaking, together with the anodizing of the lens hood.
Tom Abrahamsson was a great enthusiast of knurled focusing rings and this trait is also present in some of the best Cosina Voigtländer M mount lenses like the Heliar-Hyper Wide 10 mm f/5.6 Aspherical, Super Wide Heliar 15 mm f/4.5 Aspherical Version III (introduced in March 2015 and correcting colour fringing on digital bodies of any format size), Ultron 21 mm f/1.8 Aspherical, Ultron 28 mm f/1.9 Aspherical, Ultron 35 mm f/1.7 Aspherical, Nokton 50 mm f/1.5 Asph and Nokton 50 mm f/1.1 Aspherical.
Voigtländer Bessa R3A in Leica M mount from 2004, another of the great rangefinder cameras with excellent price/performance ratio manufactured by Cosina Voitländer under the helm of Hirofumi Kobayashi.
It features aperture priority, electronic shutter and a 1:1 lifesize magnification viewfinder with framelines for 40 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm and 90 mm, along with a close focusing distance of 0.7 m.
The large and bright optical viewfinder of this remarkable camera in symbiosis with its very good rangefinder is only second to the VF of the Leica M3.
Between 1999, year of introduction of the first Cosina Voigtländer lenses for 24 x 36 mm format and the launching into market of the Bessa R (first RF camera of the firm) and the introduction in 2015 of the Voigtländer Super Wide-Heliar 15 mm f/4.5 designed to be used with the full frame Leica M 240 and Sony A7 series cameras and in 2016 of the Heliar-Hyper Wide 10 mm f/5.6 Aspherical, Hirofumi Kobayashi made a praiseworthy strenuous endeavour to steadily update and improve the construction of its cameras and lenses, churning out a lot of different affordable, well built, beautiful and above all highly reliable rangefinder cameras in Leica M, Nikon S and Contax mount, together with a very comprehensive assortment of first class primes (many of them in chrome and black mounts), it all at very interesting prices and delivering excellent image quality consistent throughout many decades, thanks to their exceedingly sturdy and painstaking mechanical construction and a commendable centering of the optical elements.
A relish to use with the Bessa R3A and Bessa R3M rangefinder cameras thanks to the accuracy of its 1x viewfinder.
Though inevitably soft and suffering from coma at its widest f/1.1 aperture and still present at f/1.4, its optical performance is very good between f/2.8 and f/8, with a sweet spot at f/5.6.
Obviously, Walter Mandler´s Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 is far better in performance at f/1, f/1.2 and f/1.4 aperture, and the same happens if comparisons are made with vast majority of Leica M 50 mm lenses, but it´s important to bear in mind that the Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.1 is essentially a tremendous effort of balance without using exotic lenses, aspherical surfaces or floating elements simultaneously striving after preserving the best image quality feasible and the aim of getting a selling price not exceeding the 1,000 euros boundary to create a superluminous standard lens with available working f/1.1 and f/1.4 apertures with acceptable performance as an ultra-fast design for low-light shooting in which high resolving power and contrast are not defining factors (portraits, all kind of pictures in which it is important to highlight the subjects with respect to out of focus backgrounds, fashion photography, etc) and significantly improving its sharpness and contrast values from f/2.8 onwards to get pictures in contexts with more available light.
Tom Abrahamsson could test one of the first prototypes of this lens in March 2009 in Japan, coupled to a black Bessa R3M and an olive green Voigtländer Bessa R3A camera with Fuji Acros 100 subsequently treated in Beutler developer, proving that the lens performance was acceptable at the two widest apertures and that unlike other previous and much more expensive superluminous 50 mm lenses with f/1.1 and f/1.2 widest apertures, the image quality improved significantly on stopping down from f/2.8 onwards.
It´s important bearing in mind that designing a lens with a maximum f/1.1 aperture is geometrically more difficult than doing it with an f/1.4 widest one, particularly if we want to get as small size as possible, a short front diameter and low weight, in such a way that though the Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.1 is not a small lens, its length of 57.2 mm and diameter of 69.6 mm with a weight of 434.5 g are convenient for a super fast f/1.1 objective like this.
Evidently, the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 and the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH play in another league in terms of optical performance and mechanic construction.
But the first one has a usual price of 6,000 euros or more in the second hand market and the latter one a price tag of 10,000 euros brand new, so for a price of around 1,100 euros the Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.1 is a keeper able to get very good results in the hands of an experienced or advanced amateur photographer choosing well his/her subjects and backgrounds for wide open f/1.1, f/1.2 and f/1.4 shots with blurred backgrounds and stopping down to turn it into an all-around performer between f/2.8 and f/8 with very good image quality, and the added bonus of a top of the line mechanical construction with a gorgeous retro touch enhanced by the scalloped focusing ring.
Obviously, it is not a stellar performer at full aperture, but getting at f/1.1 an excellent sharpness like the one featured by the Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.5 ASPH (a lens which impressed Tom Abrahamsson, who could see some M mount version prototypes of it in late 2012 during a visit to the Cosina Voigtländer factory in Nakano, Nagano Prefecture, Japan ) at its widest diaphragm opening would have meant a minimum increase in weight of around 300 g, the adoption of new manufacturing methods and a huge production cost with at least two more elements featuring aspherical surfaces built with very expensive and exotic optical glasses, along with a pretty good rear floating element to keep that performance in the nearest distances, something with a selling price virtually impossible to offer under a hefty price of 4,000 euros.
But it isn´t less true that the f/1.1 widest aperture of the Voigtländer Nokton 50 mm f/1.1 is fully operative and good pictures can be taken with it handheld in really dim light situations that couldn´t be taken any other way without spending a lot of thousands of euros. And to have available f/1.1 makes a difference over f/1.4 when tackling photographic contexts with exceedingly low light, so this lens is truly a bargain for what you get.
Its a bit harsh profiled bokeh (different to the remarkably smooth out of focus areas rendered by the also non aspherical Voigtländer Heliar 75 mm f/1.8 Classic) is acceptable, though far from the magic of Mandler´s Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 and Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4 featuring unbeatable glow along with a swirly and unique bokeh at full aperture, thanks to Walter Mandler´s optical wizardry balancing the aberrations to achieve these fantastic results at full aperture with highly luminous non aspherical lenses which albeit not reaching the stratospheric values of the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH or the Apo-Summicron-M 75 mm f/2 ASPH in terms of resolving power and contrast, deliver an unbeatable wonderful aesthetics of image at their widest aperture, with exceedingly beautiful rendition of the out of focus areas, thanks to a masterful grasp of optical aberrations balance.
This camera does expand the comfortable and very accurate focusing not only with super luminous M lenses like the Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH, pre aspherical Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 and Voigtländer ones like the Nokton 50 mm f/1.5 Aspherical, but also top-notch medium tele lenses like the Apo-Summicron-M 75mm f/2, Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4, Voigtländer Heliar 75 mm f/1.8 in Leica M mount, Voigtländer Color-Heliar 75 mm f/2.5 in Leica M mount, different versions of Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 made from 1957, Apo-Lanthar 90 mm f/2, Apo-Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 ASPH and even the Apo-Telyt-M 135 mm f/3.4 ASPH.
As a matter of fact, Tom Abrahamsson made extensive tests with two units of this camera (a black Bessa R3M and an olive green Bessa R3A) of this camera coupled to a Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4, an Apo-Summicron-M 75 mm f/2 ASPH and to an Apo-Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 ASPH shooting at full aperture and often at the nearest focusing distance and din´t find any focusing problems,
Manual focusing 6 elements in 4 groups non aspherical Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Type 5, designed by the great optical wizard Walter Mandler and manufactured between 1979 and 1994.
An extraordinary non aspherical lens taking the Double-Gauss design to its physical boundaries and still beating in performance vast majority of 50 mm f/2 aspherical lenses currently in existence, with the exception of the superior Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH and on a par in global optical and mechanical performance with the also non aspherical Zeiss 50 mm f/2 Planar T* ZM in Leica M mount (both of them share impressive resolving power and contrast), though the distortion correction of the Summicron is slightly better, as happens with its smoother transitions, detail rendering and a superior bokeh, albeit the Planar also exhibits a very smooth out of focus rendition and is slightly better than the Summicron-M 50 f/2 Type 4 and 5 in close-up performance at 0.7 m and 1 meter.
It features exactly the same optical formula as the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Type 4 manufactured between 1979 and 1994 and was the world standard f/2 lens benchmark throughout thirty-three years until the launching into market of the 8 elements in 5 groups Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH designed by Peter Karbe in 2012.
Since early eighties, Tom Abrahamsson was friend of Walter Mandler, from whom he learned very much about optical design and among many other things that though a properly designed aspherical element with a complex surface can replace two conventional spherical elements in a lens design, attaining a better transmission of the light (along with superior levels of resolution and contrast) thanks to fewer elements, eliminating spherical aberrations and reducing other optical aberrations such as astigmatism and coma streaks around light sources at the edges or in the corners of the frame in comparison to a simple lens (particularly with very wideangle and fast normal lenses), if a lens features elements with aspherical surfaces it doesn´t automatically mean at all that it will give better performance than an spherical one.
Id est, there can be aspherical lenses of low quality, good quality, very good quality, superb quality and stratopsheric quality, depending on a number of factors like the position of the aspherical lenses in the optical cell, their shape and difference of thickness between the center and borders.the quality of the glasses and method with which the aspherical lenses are made (it is a very different thing and the production cost also very different if they are ground and polished ones or precisely molded blanks with exotic and expensive glass and very costly breakthrough manufacture methods and technologies to get an aspherical surface curvature deviating from a spheric ball-shaped surface and being instrumental to get extraordinary edge-to-edge definition at the widest apertures, or if they are made with a small quantity of cheap glass, plastic or resin through molding and allowing the massive production with a low or very low cost, something even cheaper with 18-135 "Aspherical" zooms, 50-230 mm "Aspherical zooms", 28-200 mm "Aspherical" zooms, 28-300 mm "Aspherical " zooms (to name only a few examples) and many others having very reduced and variable widest aperture and hailed as a kind of "do it all" solution for any photographic assignment, in addition to featuring a very scarce capability of selective focus (something which worsens even more with APS-C and Micro Four Thirds format cameras) in creative photography or those contexts in which you need to highlight the main subject with respect to the background, the centering of the optical elements, the mechanical construction enabling to draw its full potential, the type of optical glasses used, and many other sides.
And the same applies to the term "APO". Suffice it to compare for instance the low quality Sigma AF 400 mm f/5.6 manufactured between 1988 and 1995 (previous to the Sigma AF 400 mm f/5.6 HSM Apo Macro, which is a good lens) with the stratospheric and diffraction limited Leica Apo-Telyt-R 280 mm f/4. Differences in optical and mechanical performance, along with durability in time are like night and day, also being very apparent if the comparison is made with a non apochromatic but excellent manual focusing Nikkor Ai-s ED 400 mm f/3.5 or a manual focusing Tamron SP 400 mm f/4 LD IF with adaptall mount or (to a lesser degree) with a non apochromatic Takumar 400 mm f/5.6 Super-Multicoated.
On the other hand, small polishing errors when creating spherical lenses are easy to fix, while on manufacturing aspherical ones they are exceedingly difficult to correct to avoid modifications in the direction of a light ray, so their production cost is inevitably much higher if the aspheric element is made with a proper care, the best optical glasses available and state-of-the-art grinding and polishing technologies, with the product ontology propped up by Leica.
The 1:1 VF magnification of the Voigtländer Bessa R3A and R3M rangefinder cameras makes possible to use 50 mm lenses with amazing accuracy and comfort, as happens with the Leica M3 featuring a 0.91x VF magnification.
Its symbiosis with the Voigtländer Bessa R3A and R3M cameras is truly outstanding, as could be confirmed by Tom Abrahamsson during his tests in 2009 when he put this lens through its paces along with the Summarit-M 75 mm f/2.5, the Voigtländer Color-Skopar 75 mm f/2.5 and the Summilux-M 75 mm f/1.4, with the added bonus and viewing comfort provided by the single frame line for 75 mm lenses in the finder featured by these two cameras.
In addition, during April 2010 of the following year he tested one of the pre-production units of the non aspherical 6 elements in 3 groups Voigtländer Heliar 75 mm f/1.8 Classic, whose generated aesthetics of image is strongly inspired by the mythical stellar performer in portraiture non aspherical and uncoated Leitz Thambar 90 mm f/2.2 from 1935 featuring a very wise conceived undercorrected spherical aberration to get that aim.
Manuel focusing 6 elements in 5 groups Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 (1957-1979) early chrome version designed by Walter Mandler at the Ernst Leitz Factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada).
The very well conceived and versatile four component Leica M System bayonet for interchangeable lenses (designed by Hugo Wehrenfenning, patented in 1950 and optimized for the maximum light quantity coming from the optical system of the lenses to arrive at the image corners, activating the corresponding luminous frame in the viewfinder of the camera) enables the use of all the Leica M lenses manufactured since 1954, and also the Leica screwmount lenses manufactured between 1925 and nowadays.
Albeit as to resolving power, contrast and uniformity of performance between center, borders and corners the last generation aspherical Leica M lenses get the upper hand when connected to both analog and digital cameras, the possibility of using both Leica M and Leica screwmount vintage lenses through adaptors in the same way is a true relish for any lover of photography and admirer of the superb mechanical construction, great cosmetic beauty and very special aesthetics of image inherent to these legacy objectives, particularly in the bokeh scope, since their usual very high number of diaphragm blades begets a really nice rendition of out of focus areas, as happens with the aforementioned early Summicron-M 90 mm f/2 chrome featuring a 15 blade diaphragm.
Manual focusing 6 elements in 5 groups Apo-Lanthar 90 mm f/3.5, a very good medium tele lens made by Cosina Voigtländer and broadly used, often with an orange filter, by the also recognized expert in rangefinder cameras and black and white photography Roger W. Hicks.
It features an excellent and sturdy mechanical build with an entirely metallic lens barrel and a 10 bladed diaphragm, so it is able to render gorgeous portraits at full aperture.
The 1:1 lifesize magnification viewfinder of the Voigtländer Bessa R3A and R3M rangefinder cameras turns both of them along with the Leica M3 with 0.91x VF magnification into the best choice to use 90 mm lenses (a focal length at the comfortable focusing limit of the Leica M System) with very good precision,
It can be used on M39 screwmount Leica cameras and also in Leica M ones with the special adapter ring, having also being
The comprehensive range of high quality primes launched into market by Cosina Voigtländer under the directorship of Hirofumi Kobayashi since 1999 hitherto has been one of the most remarkable optical and entrepreneurial ventures in the history of photography.
9 elements (one of them with a top-notch ground aspherical surface) in 6 groups Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH, the world benchmark in terms of mechanical and optical performance as to f/2 wideangle lenses in this focal length.
Tom Abrahamsson knew perfectly the stratospheric optical calculation of this lens designed by Michael Heiden with a tremendous mathematical know-how making possible to create it with less weigth (270g) and size (length of 40.8 mm and a diameter of 53 mm) than specified, along with the impressive mechanical construction by engineer Holgen Wiegand (who managed to solve the conundrum of lack of space to assemble the elements close enough together through making changes in the glass mounts), the optics montage and image quality control by Thorsten von Eicken and the acumen as to optics and mechanics montage solutions implemented by Rainer Schnabel, which became this wideangle lens virtually unbeatable in sharpness, high contrast transfer, accurate rendition of detail and saturated colours, but inevitably at a very high price beyond 3,000 euros, since if you stop down between f/2.8-f/11 you only gain depth of field and the uniformity of optical performance in center, border and corners is amazing at every diaphragm and focusing distance.
Thereupon, with his vast knowledge, experience and input, Tom Abrahamsson (who visited the Cosina Voigtländer factory at Nakano, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, for the first time in November of 2000, after having met Hirofumi Kobayashi, President of Cosina Voigtländer and Head of its Designing Team, during the Photokina Köln of that same year two months before) was instrumental in the design and development of the Cosina Voigtländer lineup of rangefinder lenses and part of the selected panel of experts like Sadamitsu Osawa, Shintaro Yaginuma and others who gave their insight, advice and proposals in some annual meetings and discussions held at the Cosina Voigtländer factory in Nakano City, Nagano Prefecture (Japan), aimed at the design of manual focusing fixed focal length lenses boasting a superb mechanical construction (thanks to the use of noble metals in their components and a wholly manual assembling of the lenses and their brass helicoid tubes by highly specialized and experienced workers, together with the setting of the aperture blades in separate tables and the checking for tolerances on test bodies), far better than the one featured by AF lenses, and very good optical performance at an affordable price.
That´s why these Voigtländer lenses keep on being so coveted and sought after not only for the photographic scope but also within the Full HD and 4K videography where they excel with their large aperture and the great accuracy and smoothness of their generous pitch focusing rings enabling plenty of long throw and exquisite feel resulting in a very easy and precise focus.
Leitz Focomat Ic enlarger, model mostly used by Tom Abrahamsson, who was also a master printer trying to get the best aspects of Ansel Adams, Eugene Smith and Bill Rowlinson schools in this regard, with very deep knowledge on photographic laboratory techniques, different films and developers, often experimenting and mixing all of his own darkroom solutions, encompassing developers for film and paper alike, thanks to his amazing grasp of chemical ingredients.
On the other hand, albeit being probably the best enlarger for 35 mm negatives ever made, with a very sturdy and accurate overall mechanism together with a flawlessly working AF if properly calibrated, in addition to featuring a hybrid mixture of diffusion and condensor light source generating smoother gradation and grain than fully consensor type enlargers, Newton rings can appear sometimes as a consequence of the uneven contact of the condenser glass against the back of the negative, so Tom Abrahamsson, utterly aware about it and the difficulty to find the specific etched glass anti Newton ring attachment that slipped on the bottom of the Focomat Ic condensor, solved the problem with his typical resourcefulness, recommended to build up a slight elevation by putting a couple of layers of masking tape on the carrier to prevent the base of the condenser from pushing too hard against the negative.
" To me, the Leica is the visual pen that chronicled the 20th Century. It created a documentary style of photography showing us the horrors and pleasures of our century and it forced other camera makers to raise their quality as well as popularizing one of the more enduring standards in the world ... the 35 mm format ". Tom Abrahamsson
Text and Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza