Vintage folding viewfinder cameras from the 1950s and earlier are most certainly an acquired taste requiring a generous amount of patience. They can be incredibly rewarding, especially the ones with 6×9 cm negatives that give you near large format quality in a camera that you can put in your coat pocket. The 6×6 cm folders are almost the same size as some point and shoot cameras. Their size and portability are some of the main attractions, but the other is their often-overlooked excellent lenses. Despite being old and lacking modern coatings, which result in less contrast than contemporary lenses, most folder lenses are quite sharp and have pleasing rendering qualities that produce very unique photographs.
The problems with folders, especially the ones in my possession, start with being scale focus. There are some vintage folders that are rangefinder coupled, but all mine are the less expensive scale focus kind that can be found for next to nothing these days. Thus instead of looking through the viewfinder and focusing the lens, one has to guess the distance to the subject and dial it in on the lens. As if film photography is not challenging enough, this just adds one more element of complexity. However, all these folders have a red dot on the scale focus and aperture setting so that when chosen give you a “snap-shot” mode where you can just point and shoot and get everything in focus from about 2.5 to 5 meters. Another issue is that there are no meters in these cameras, the exposure must be guessed at, and the shutters most often have old style speeds making modern handheld meters mostly useless. The shutters are typically the Achilles heels of these cameras as they typically need some work to bring them into working order. Finally, the pressure plates that hold the negatives in place can be loose and cause the negatives to be out of focus in places. Remarkably the folding bellows are quite often good and light tight, with the exception of Agfa cameras where they almost always have to be replaced. However, the occasional pinhole in the bellows can be easily repaired with a dab of dark black silicone adhesive sealant. Nevertheless, despite this list of problems when they work they are fantastic, and if you are willing to persevere, you will be pleasantly rewarded.
The Ziess Ikon Ercona above is from the 1950s, made in former East Germany by VEB Pentacon. After WWII Zeiss was made by rival companies both called Zeiss on either side of the Iron Curtain until the West German company won the patent dispute to the name. The Ercona has a Tempor shutter and an exquisite Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar T* 105mm f/3.5 lens. I believe this is quite a rare version as most Erconas have the Novar f/4.5 110mm lens. The Ercona takes 120 film and 6×9 negatives, with an option of 6×6 negatives if you have the insert template that is usually lost.
The Voigtlander Bessa I folding 6×9 viewfinder camera, made by Voigtlander when it was still a German company, was manufactured between 1951 and 1956. The Voigtlander Bessa I and II are beautiful cameras, extremely well made, much nicer in almost all respects than the Ercona, except for one. Mine has a Vaskar 105mm f4.5 lens, which is not nearly the same quality as the Ercona’s Tessar. Apparently the Bessa I also came with a Color-Skopar 105mm f3.5, which is supposedly much nicer if you could find one.
The Zeiss Ikon Nettar II is a 6×6 cm folder, made by Zeiss in Stuggart, West Germany, in the production period of 1951 to 1957. Extremely compact when folded (13 x 9 x 3 cm) and well made. Mine has a Novar Anastigmat 75mm f/6.3 lens and a Vario shutter. It only cost $20 and worked perfectly from day one.