The Werra Film Camera

Posted: 08/19/2014
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Blog by Brian Moore

One of the delights of traveling is the occasional and often serendipitous discovery of a meaningful souvenir. To me, and perhaps to some of you, this is usually an old camera.

I recently visited the Czech Republic. For picture taking it’s a photographer’s paradise. However, as a casual camera collector I was disappointed that used gear bargains seemed less than abundant. Yet reasonable deals can still be found.

I picked up three cameras on the trip: A 1930’s era Voigtlander Rollfilm camera, a 50’s era Smena-2 35mm, and a Carl Zeiss Werra 35mm from the mid- ‘50s. I wouldn’t consider them wonderful bargains, but neither were they overpriced in my view. (Fair is fair, after all, and people gotta make a living!)

At some point in the near future I’ll likely blog about the Voigtlander and the Smena, but for now I’d like to say a word or two about the Werra, which I purchased from the wonderful Jan Pazdera camera shop in Prague.

Although I had seen pictures of a Werra before I had never handled one, so when this Werra was presented to me as a purchase option that delightful feeling of serendipity swept me along to the cash register, where I handed over my money rather gladly.

Werra01

The Werra isn’t the most common looking of cameras, yet its Spartan design and Bauhaus attributes are particularly beautiful to my eye. Other than the word WERRA embossed in the olive colored leatherette on the back of the camera, there is nothing to indicate its origin. But it was made in the Carl Zeiss Jena factory in East Germany. An early user’s manual promotes it as “die kamera mit dem neuen gesicht,” which I think translates into something like “the camera with the new look.” (German speakers: please correct me if my translation is wrong.)

Werra production started in 1954 and I believe ceased in 1968 (some sources say '66, although serial numbers I've seen suggest another two years of production). Over the course of its manufacturing run the design underwent numerous modifications and enhancements, such as rangefinders, built-in meters and interchangeable lenses.

Mine is an early version, circa 1955, unoffically designated a Werra 1. It’s a viewfinder camera only with a single, tiny viewing window unadorned in any way inside or out. The only control on the top of the camera is the shutter button, which is threaded to receive a cable release. On the right side of the body there is a flash sync. All other controls are contained on the lens housing or on the bottom plate of the camera.

Werra03

As you might imagine the lens housing includes shutter speed, aperture and focus controls. Shutter speeds are 1/250 at the fast end, down to 1 second and then Bulb. On my particular camera, which has a non-interchangeable, 50mm, f3.5 Novonar lens, apertures are 3.5, 4, 5.8, 8, 11 and 16. Focus is guesswork.

Some of the Werras, even the early ones, were equipped with 50/2.8 Tessar lenses. However, due to trademark concerns (the word Tessar being licensed to the Carl Zeiss “Wetzlar” factory in West Germany), the Jena built cameras often used just the letter “T” to signify Tessar. My f3.5 Novonar has a red letter T on it. However, I believe a red T on a Novonar merely indicates the lens is coated.

Film transport and shutter cocking are unique on the Werra. You turn a ring at the base of the lens housing to simultaneously advance the film, cock the shutter and advance the film counter. The ring on the early cameras is aluminum. On later versions the ring was sheathed in the same leatherette used on the body. It’s a rapid advance: less than a quarter turn of the ring facilitates the action.

The lens housing comes with a slip on cover, also clad in olive leatherette, that doubles as a hood when it is threaded onto the front of the lens. This cover contributes much to the unique look of the camera. It is very business-like when prepared for action and quite lovely when stowed.

Werra04

The bottom of the camera has a tripod bushing, which looks to be 3/8” thread, as well as film-counter, film release button and rewind knob.

Handling Notes

I found loading the film to be a little awkward since the back and bottom plate come off in one piece to allow access. This is quite common in older cameras though, and certainly the Werra is easier to load than my Kiev 4 (for which a third hand is almost a requirement).

Once loaded, and with the hood in place for shooting, access to the aperture control is a little difficult, since average size fingers, which I like to think I have, don’t really fit in the space inhabited by the aperture ring, which is to say between the hood and the focus ring.

Trying to frame a picture has its challenges too, since the tiny viewfinder wasn’t made to facilitate eyeglass wearers.

Werra02

The hardest thing to get used to though was the film advance, in particular when shooting with the camera in its half-case. Your fingers are bound to collide with the case edge around the lens housing, inevitably resulting in an aborted advance. Removing the case helps much, but even then you are required to adopt an unnatural grip if the hood is in shooting position.

Picture Quality

Handling concerns notwithstanding, picture quality is the ultimate test, isn’t it? Unfortunately I can’t really judge the picture quality from my Werra. I only got through half my first roll before the shutter locked up. And all the frames I shot were overexposed, thus stretching to the limit my paltry post-processing skills as I struggled to show what you see here.

Werra Foma 100-015

Werra Foma 100-018

Conclusion

Like other cameras of its vintage, the Werra requires the photographer to be an active participant in the picture taking process. This in itself is a bundle of fun, at least for me. And I suppose I’m something of a publicity hog because frankly I enjoy the occasional notoriety I receive when shooting with a camera that looks like few others on the street today.

Reading the experiences of other Werra shooters its clear that the camera is considered by many to be a quality instrument capable of good images. It’s such a shame about my shutter locking up and overexposing everything, though. I do so wish it worked. Did I mention serendipity?

The Werra Camera was discussed on Film Photography Podcast Episode 108!

Brian Moore writes mostly about soccer, in particular the European soccer leagues and especially the English Premier League. However, he has been an unapologetic camera nut since his early teens and although he never fully engaged with the digital camera world, he is delighted that he has recently been reawakened to the virtues of film photography. Brian on FLICKR!

 

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