I own quite a bit of photography gear, but I am not a collector. Every item I own I use at one point or another. When I travel, so do my cameras. As a result, some of my gear is a bit cosmetically (and sometimes operationally) blemished.
My Voigtländer VC Meter II (from here on in, the VCII for the sake of my fingers) is no exception. In fact its cosmetic damage has actually improved its functionality, but more on that to come.
The VCII is an external lightmeter designed for classic meterless cameras such as Leica, Contax, Canon and Nikon 35mm rangefinders. It simply slides onto the flash shoe and measures reflected light at the press of a button. Two red LEDs indicate whether you are overexposed or underexposed, you then adjust the shutter speed and aperture until the middle green LED is illuminated and transfer those settings to your camera.
I bought my VCII when I first bought my Leica M4. Terrified of being without a meter, I made sure I had the VCII from day one. These days I shoot less and less with the meter, content to let experience be my lightmeter, nonetheless it’s a handy tool to have when the light is questionable.
Design and Use
The VCII is a great piece of practical design that complements classic cameras perfectly. Available in black or silver, its metal case makes it look at home on a 1930s Contax as it does on a 1970s Leica M4-P. It is small and compact and is unlikely to adversely impact the size and portability of your camera.
The VCII is made by Cosina in Japan, a company that has kept the Voigtländer name alive across 35mm and medium format rangefinder cameras; screw mount, Leica M, mirrorless and SLR lenses; and accessories such as the VCII meter.
As mentioned before, it is trivial to use with a single button to take the reading, an aperture dial (f/1.0 – f/22) and shutter dial (1 sec – 1/2000 sec) and LEDs to indicate exposure. ISO is set by a free-spinning inner ring on the aperture dial with a range of ISO 25 to ISO 3200. Point the meter in the right direction, press the orange button on the back and away you go.
The VCII is a reflective meter (meaning it measures the light bouncing off your subject) and uses a silicon photodiode with a 30º angle – roughly the 75mm framelines of a Leica if you’ve got them (Leicas M4-P, M6, M7, MP). I don’t have those lines on my M4, so I just point it in the right direction and hope for the best.
It is simple to use, but most importantly, it is accurate. For negative films, exposure latitude is already on your side, and the VCII helps nail down an accurate exposure. For slide film – less forgiving of exposure errors – I’ve found the VCII is mostly accurate, but care does need to be taken to meter the correct area of your subject to avoid blowing out highlights. I tend to bracket more with slide film to ensure the correct exposure but as with anything, practice makes perfect. I’ve shot plenty of all film types and never been let down by the meter, only by my silliness (more on that in a second).
While hand-held lightmeters such as the Sekonic L-308S or Gossen DigiPro F2 are more versatile and can be used to measure both incident and reflective light, they are nowhere near as compact or portable. The fact that meterless cameras such as Leica rangefinders are likely to be used for snapshot genres such as street photography means a small and quick lightmeter is vital. Taking meter readings with a hand-held meter then getting the camera out adds unnecessary time and hassle to the photographic process, particularly when out in the street.
Lightmeter as a Crutch
It’s easy to lean on the lightmeter and forget everything you knew about exposure. There have been some tricky light situations where I thought the VCII was incorrect, but I went with its suggested exposure anyway. Turns out even the most accurate meters can be wrong and all I got to show for it was an over or underexposed frame. Just as the 3D matrix metering of a modern DSLR can be tricked, so can a standalone meter. Don’t point the VCII at bright, white snow for example and expect perfect exposure. Use your brain and learn the theory behind exposure.
It’s also easy to think every frame must be precisely metered before releasing the shutter. It doesn’t. Unless the lighting is drastically different from your previous shot, or you’re using slide film, don’t be afraid to guesstimate exposure. Over time, you’ll get better at guessing exposure to the point where you might not need a meter any more. Don’t let the meter get in the way of a good shot.
As good as the VCII is, it is not perfect. When I first bought it, the aperture dial and the ISO ring atop the aperture dial turned very freely. Too freely, in fact. Whenever I pulled the camera out of my bag, the ISO dial’s notch would get caught on my bag and rotate away from my intended setting. This meant quite a few shots where metering was consequently off by a stop or two. I had to get into the habit of always checking the meter’s setting before measuring the light.
In addition, when I pulled my camera out of a tightly-packed bag, the VCII would frequently fall off. Sometimes it fell into the safety of my bag, other times it careered to the ground, invariably concrete or stone. The gouges on the case are a testament to this. Ironically, though, this constant dropping rectified the first problem of the overly-spinny ISO dial. The aperture dial got a little beaten out of shape, meaning it wouldn’t spin so freely. As a result, the ISO dial would no longer spin so freely. Initially it wouldn’t spin at all – a great concern when this first occurred in Paris – but after a bit of tender beating, it spins again, although with more force than initially required.
A simple fix for both of these issues (intentionally dropping a sensitive piece of electronic equipment is never recommended) would be to make the aperture and ISO rings stiffer (perhaps a ⅓ stop click setting or similar) and employ a hot shoe locking mechanism similar to speedlights.
There are other nitpicks, like the battery flap spontaneously flipping open, particularly after the meter had been dropped, but these (like most of life’s issues) have been solved by judicious use of gaffer tape.
There are better lightmeters available for less money, however there aren’t any available that integrate so well with your classic camera. Handheld meters are undoubtedly more versatile, but they require an extra time and patience which is in short supply when shooting the genres of photography these classic cameras are designed for. There are obviously positives and drawbacks to using a camera-mounted meter of this type, however the VCII is one of the most simple and practical ways to ensure you get the best exposure every shot.