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March 2005
The "Vitomatic Effect"

   Picture of the month

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

High-quality design (i): the Vitomatic effect, or timeless quality of quality  It is not easy to define the quality of a good design; but somehow, when we encounter "it," we recognize it immediately. Quality of design, though subject to fashion and technical progress, is in a mysterious way timeless. I recently experienced this, once again, when I celebrated a happy reunion with a favorite camera of my youth, the Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa.

 

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The Vitomatic effect  Remember the Agfa box camera from the entry page of this web site? I used it until the age of 12, when I moved up to a Kodak Brownie box and soon afterwards to an Agfa Karat camera, while beginning to save for the camera that I really wanted: the Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa (pictures below). My decision fell on the Vitomatic after a long process of selection, in which I examined many excellent cameras of that epoch, from the popular Kodak Retina to the Zeiss Ikon Contessamatic. However, once I had discovered the Vitomatic, none of the other cameras could really interest me any longer; it radiated a special quality that (for lack of a better name) I called the Vitomatic effect. The camera's technical features were convincing, but there was more to it its design had quality. Somehow, I just knew this was the camera I had been looking for.

I'll never forget the overwhelming impression of quality that I experienced when I finally was holding the Vitomatic in my hands, in March 1964. In this moment of truth, the "Vitomatic effect" proved itself real and reliable! The Vitomatic IIa turned out to be the special camera that I had hoped it would be: compact, functional, versatile, reliable, and elegant. I used it with much satisfaction until 1973, when it was stolen from me in Italy, much to my regret.

 

 

Forty years later: a persisting sense of quality  Since March 2004, exactly forty years after first becoming the proud owner of a Vitomatic IIa, my regrets over the loss of that camera are definitely a thing of the past. I am owning a Vitomatic IIa once again. The miracle became possible through an Internet auction in which I found a perfectly preserved collector's item. I was curious how the camera would feel in my hand, after so many years gone and so many other cameras used. To my amazement, I find that the forty years have not at all changed the sense of quality that this camera radiates. It has lost nothing of its beauty and fascination. Its design quality appears to be an invariant. The "Vitomatic effect" still works! What is more, the camera still functions perfectly, so I'll hardly resist using it along with my digital camera.

 

 

Technical specifications  For those interested in old cameras mind you, it's a highly contagious passion , here are some of the features that made the Vitomatic IIa (manufactured from 1960 to 1963 and marketed until 1964) such a special camera of its epoch and which continue to be appealing today:

 

 

Lens: Voigtlander Color-Skopar 1:2.8 / 50mmm anastigmatic four-element lens, well-known to this day for its excellent sharpness and contrast, low distortion, and faithful color rendering. Unlike most other lenses of its time as well as of today, this lens is focused by moving the whole lens system as a self-contained optical and mechanical unit, which explains its optical precision and mechanical reliability. There was also a more expensive and rare version of the camera with a faster six-element lens, the Ultron 1:2.0 / 50mm, which was considered to be one of the best 50 mm lenses of its time.

View-finder: Crystal bright-line frame finder, shows the subject 1:1 in natural size so that it is possible to keep both eyes open and to observe the surrounding area as well. Both the exposure meter and the coupled range-finder are visible in the finder and can be set there.

Universal setting ring: A single turn of this ring (= the outer of the two large rings in the picture on the right; click on the picture to increase its size) allows setting the exposure value over the entire range of possible aperture-speed combinations.

Combination ring: Once the universal setting ring is set to a correct exposure value, the combination ring ( = the inner of the two large rings in the picture on the right, also called "combination setting ring") allows a quick and convenient selection among all the aperture-speed combinations that correspond to that exposure value. Turning the ring right or left (as seen from top) means changing the combination either towards faster shutter speed with increased aperture and lower depth of field or towards  lower shutter speeds with reduced aperture and bigger depth of field, without any need for controlling the exposure again. This is similar to today's "program shift" function of digital cameras, but in the 1960s it was a new and unique feature among the small-picture (35 mm) cameras of the time.

Focusing ring: Indicates the depth of field for any chosen lens aperture and offers two predefined settings for snap shots (close or distant) with full depth of field at f/5.6.

Film change: Partially exposed films can be taken out and reinserted at all times.

Compact build: 11.4 cm wide, 7.8 cm high and 7.4 cm deep, the camera was uniquely compact and handy for its epoch, as well as fast and precise to handle. Everything about it bespeaks quality!

Vitomatic IIa: the universal setting ring and the combination ring - click to increase size

Vitomatic IIa: the universal setting ring and the combination ring.

(Click on picture to increase size)

 

This month's picture  Past and present meet in the following picture of my Vitomatic IIa camera (manufactured in 1963), photographed with a Canon Powershot digital camera (manufactured in 2003). The Powershot's settings were as follows: shutter speed 1/8, aperture f/3.5, ISO 200, focal length 13.6 mm (equivalent to 61 mm with a conventional 35 mm camera). The original resolution was 2272 x 1704 pixels; current resolution 826 x 635 pixels, compressed to 87 KB. The technical data for the second (roll-over) picture are similar; its current resolution is 568 x426 pixels, compressed to 42 KB.

Note: roll over the picture to see the camera from a different angle.

 

March 2005

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March, 2005

March 2005 - The Vitomatic effect

              Quality of design: Voigtlander Vitomatic IIa, 1963/64  (roll over)

Quality cannot be defined. But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974, p. 200f)

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Last updated 25 July 2010 (first published 5 March 2005)
Layout last modified 6 Junl 2009

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