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The Voigtländer Superb: Still Superb After 88 Years

Introduction

The Voigtländer Superb is a twin lens reflex (TLR) camera that fits 12 6x6cm exposures on each roll of 120 film. It was released in 1933 and was sold for almost a decade before Voigtländer focused their energy on other markets.. Wait, 1933? That makes this camera.. 88 years old in 2021! 

Connor & Nico took a Voigtländer Superb out to see how usable it is by modern standards. Click below to see the video, or scroll down for the text version.

History

As mentioned above, the Voigtländer Superb was released in 1933. It was a very different world back then, and the TLR was becoming the primary camera for press photographers. The TLR’s relatively small size made it popular, but having flash sync at any shutter speed made it world-beating. The Franke & Heidecke Rolleiflex Standard had been released 6 years prior, in 1927, and would eventually become the highest standard for TLR design. 

At this time, though, Voigtländer still wanted to lay claim to the title. As popular as the Rolleiflex would become, it was based on a Franke & Heidecke stereo camera that was itself based on a Voigtländer design. There was a lot of note-peeking in the world of camera design in the early 1900s.

Voigtländer couldn’t resist after seeing the success of the Rolleiflex and other TLRs. The Superb was their entry into this growing professional market, and offered some features that its competitors could hope to match. We’ll get to those later.

This camera comes with a Voigtländer 7.5cm f3.5 Skopar Anastigmat as a taking lens, and another 7.5cm f3.5 Anastigmat as a viewing lens. Both lenses nestle into a Compur leaf shutter with a range of 1 second to 1/250th of a second.

Using the Superb

It’s amazing to hold such an old piece of technology, but it doesn’t feel too foreign. If you’ve handled a TLR, the basics are pretty similar. There’s something about this Voigtländer, though.

People walked past me without batting an eye, even though I had my brightest rainbow camera strap attached to the Superb’s beautiful old metal. I wanted to stop someone and ask them, “do you KNOW how old this camera is? Look at the brassing!”. Unfortunately, strangers seldomly want to hear about camera brassing.

It was one of the last good days of summer, and the warm sun danced through the breeze-struck tree branches. The shadows below offered a similar show, a flattering mimicry of their creators. Long summer shadows like these are some of my favorite subjects for photography.

The Superb’s waist level finder no longer fits as precisely as it used to. The springs had lost pressure, and the metal walls that protect the focusing screen from light don’t quite fit the way they did in 1933. I gladly helped the old gal open up.

I looked down into the finder to see a stump and some overhanging branches with red berries. The stump is straight out of Huckleberry Finn, a place to sit, think, and maybe play a banjo. At least, I think I see a stump.

The finder is.. dim. I’m sure it was bright by the standards of the time, but it’s 2021 and I have bad eyes. Without the built-in magnifier, focusing with the Superb is little more than a guessing game.

Quickly, I realized why the Superb never became a world-beating press camera like the Rolleiflex. This camera is slow and fiddly to operate. You must focus, set the shutter speed, set the aperture, cock the shutter, fire the shutter, and then advance. 

This requires moving your hands around the camera, which is not the most intuitive process. After I’d finished, I fired the shutter for the first time. There was a surprisingly loud *snap* from the Compur leaf shutter to signal that I’d captured my first photo.

The sharpness, contrast, and color rendition of the Skopar Anastigmat lens is impressive by any standard, especially considering its age. The Superb’s taking lens outpaces anything made by Rollei at the time, and easily competes with lenses 40 years newer.

Right afterwards, though, the Superb’s age popped into my mind again. I cocked the shutter and fired again without realizing I hadn’t wound the film. I had made a double exposure of a building and those same branches.

This is both a pro and con. If you take a lot of double exposures, an uncoupled shutter mechanism is perfect for you. You can take as many photos as you want on the same frame of film without any fancy buttons or levers. If not, you’ll probably make the same mistake I did and then be extra conscious to advance the film after firing each time. Or you’ll lose track and waste a few frames per roll.

Film Advance/Frame Counter

Speaking of the film advance, the Voigtländer doesn’t work the same as other TLRs. Instead of the film running vertically through the camera, the Superb’s film runs side-to-side. Because of this, the camera is wider and uses a small push/pull lever on the side of the camera to advance the film.

I’m not sure what the advantage of this is, but the disadvantage is that it takes about 4-6 winds to move from one frame to the next. Compared to the elegant winders found on Rolleis, advancing the Superb feels lethargic and even frustrating.

Although the Superb has the classic red window indicating what frame you’re on, it also has an uncoupled system that’s much brighter and easier to read. To use it, simply reset it with a switch on the right side once you’ve wound your roll to frame one. 

Then, the camera will count frames for you. Not only is it easier than using the red window, but with color film you may get light leaks if you leave the window uncovered. Considering that color film was not invented yet in 1933, the frame counter is entirely superfluous. It’s pretty neat, though.

We wandered over to a playground because I wanted to swing on the swings. Nico has kids of his own, so he was patient enough to let me play a bit before we took more photos. Someone had planted flowers in a colorful raised bed, so I took the opportunity to test the bokeh from the 7.5cm f3.5 Skopar Anastigmat.

Turns out it’s quite nice! It has a bit of cat’s eye in the specular highlights and is overall a bit busy, but when using an 88 year old lens I think it’s fair to expect some character. Subjectively, I think it’s awesome.

Looking at the flowers, you can see just how sharp this lens is, even wide open. With a lot of older lenses, you need the subject in the center of the frame to get sharp results wide open, but the Superb’s lens has a sharp plane of focus out at least to the third lines.

I took the same photo with a slightly less shallow depth of field as well, and you can see the increased sharpness and contrast. Like almost all lenses, the Superb’s Skopar assumedly has optimal sharpness from f5.6 – f11.

Parallax Correction

The flower test is also a great way to showcase one of the Superb’s most impressive features; parallax correction. If you have a life outside of cameras, you likely have no idea what this means.

Basically, with a TLR like the Voigtländer Superb, you’re not looking directly through the lens that’s taking the photo. You see through the top lens, and the bottom lens takes the photo. When your subject is far from the camera, this doesn’t matter, but when the subject is close the distance between the two lenses causes issues. If uncorrected, what you see in the finder won’t match what you see in the final image.

This is fixed in the Voigtländer with a spring-loaded taking lens that lightly tilts downward when the camera is focused on a close-up subject. Parallax correction took another decade to come to Rollei cameras.

Next, Nico and I turned into the woods. We wandered the paths at Haihara Art Center, avoiding poison ivy with every step. The dense canopy of trees laid heavy shadows over the path despite the bright sun, and my eyes struggled to adjust to the unexpected darkness.

Strong contrast is normally very difficult for older lenses to handle. Modern coating technologies have done wonders for contrast and flare control, so I wasn’t expecting much when I pointed the Superb through dark branches in front of a field of ferns.

Shutter Speeds

My meter reading told me I’d have to switch shutter speeds, so I instinctively looked at the front of the camera. The Voigtländer Superb has quite a quirky feature that makes this unnecessary.

The shutter speeds are written backwards, and there’s a prism that reflects the shutter speed upwards. This is an ingenious solution that, combined with the separate aperture dial, make it possible to see all the Superb’s settings at once.

Rollei and other manufacturers invented systems that allowed for both shutter speed and aperture to be next to one another. For 1933, though, this was a clever and usable solution.

A Superb Day

We continued to wander, eventually reaching a small lake. There was an impressively-busy beach, with a lively cafe and sauna. Conversations in Finnish echoed out across coffee cups and over the lake. Children jumped from the dock one last time before the weather made it unpleasant.

There was a metal slide in the middle of the lake, and even with a light tide the reflections gave it an endless feeling. Even as the tips of the trees turned orange, it felt like summer would never end here.

We kept wandering, walking past smiling faces and basking a bit in the sun. Nico & I contemplated stopping for ice cream and joining the crew of people in happy mourning of the sun. Few people enjoy the outdoors more than the Finns. There’s not much sunlight here, so you have to take advantage of it when it comes.

Conclusions

Almost all of my issues with the Voigtländer can be qualified by adding “for its age”. It’s slow and cumbersome to use, but there were no standards for TLR design in 1933. It’s possible to see the good intentions with most of their decisions.

The reversed shutter speeds are clever, and the parallax correction is genuinely impressive. There’s even a bubble level in the finder to help keep the camera steady. This camera was clearly designed with photographers in mind.

The film advance is less intuitive, though, and the focusing system isn’t as smooth as the Rollei’s. My copy in particular had very stiff focusing, and the sharp knurled metal dug into my hands all day.

Did I like using the Voigtländer Superb? Yes. Despite its flaws, it’s full of character and was a joy to learn. 

Without any rules or design standards, the Superb added features decades before their competition. They may not have won the TLR war, but Voigtländer came out swinging when they released the Superb in 1933.

PS

TLRs like the Voigtländer Superb can make great entry points to the world of medium format photography. Check out our Medium Format Overview to learn more about TLRs and other 120 cameras! Once you get a sense of the different types, send us a message or email. We’d love to help you find your first, or last, medium format camera!

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