In the parts of the Netherlands where I live, this weekend is all about celebrating carnival. I used to celebrate this as well (not this year though). While I could write a lot on this feast, I’m not going to do that.
What I am going to bring up, is the small and sweet companion I brought with me the last times I went to celebrate it: the Werra.
The what?! Not the most famous of products ever, nonetheless the Werra is a camera that deserves a bit more recognition than it gets.
One of the earliest posts on this blog covered the Canonet QL17. In that post, I wrote near the end:
Once you discover which rangefinders I decided to keep, you will find the madness in the decision – what I have left now, isn’t as reliable or well-rounded as the QL17.
The Werra is part of the “what I have left now“. Off to a bad start here: not as reliable, not as well-rounded. But come on. Look at it. Just look at it.
A little history
After WWII, the Zeiss company gets split up, one part going to the Russians, one part going to the occupying forces of Western Germany. The Russians get the factories where Contax rangefinders were made. They move the engineers and production moulds to the Arsenal factories. The Contax 2 and Contax 3 become the Kiev camera.
The factory in Eastern Germany (DDR) is left with qualified people and little work. They start a project for a simple camera for the masses. The first model appears in 1954, and grows into a family of cameras named after a river near Jena: the Werra. And yes, it is a Carl Zeiss camera, but truth be told: the Jena branch in the DDR era doesn’t enjoy quite the same reputation as the pre-war operation, or the Western German (BRD) post-war part.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…. just look at it
In my opinion, it’s one the best-looking cameras ever. People applaud Apple for their pure and clean designs; well, this little gem from Jena did that trick over 60 years ago. Yes, these cameras are from the 1950’s and 1960’s! On top of that, it has some pretty innovative solutions that actually work really well.
Externally, its design is as clean as can be. The only controls that are visible is the shutter release on the top plate, and a rewind lever on the bottom. All other controls are on or around the lens. The most original there is the ring closest to the camera body – this forwards the film (and cocks the shutter). It simply works well in practical use, as well as being an unique design.
Second original touch is visible on the Werra 1 above in the background: the cone-shaped lens cover. It is actually a two-piece cover. The front-most part is a round lid, which you can remove separately. That leaves a very simple usable point-and-shoot with all controls covered. The second part, cone-shaped, can be mounted reversed onto the lens to act as shade. Clever stuff.
Beyond that, the rest of the camera is relatively conventional: a ring for the shutter speed, one for aperture. The two lock together, as some sort of P-mode avant la lettre. A small push-switch unlocks them to be able to change exposure. Finally, at the front, you’ll find a ring to focus.
It is a small and light camera. On the top photo, the film canister gives an idea: it really is that compact.
The Werra family consist of multiple models, and even multiple lenses for some of them. The articles linked above have the complete info on that. Out of the 5 different models, I have 2: the simplest Werra, and the Werra 3. The latter is a rangefinder with exchangeable lenses. I only have the 50mm f/2.8 lens though.
The lens is a classic Zeiss Tessar design; not the most exciting of lenses in my view, but very far from bad. Performance at the widest aperture isn’t stunning. Close it down a bit and it’s solid. It certainly doesn’t disgrace the Zeiss name.
The rangefinder in the Werra 3 is a bit a surprise. Instead of the usual semi-transparent bright patch, it has some sort of picture-in-picture. This works well, also in lower light it is pretty easy to see. It is not a very large patch though, which can make it a bit finicky to focus in my experience. The viewfinder is pretty large and reasonably bright too. No need to squint. Frame lines are present for the 3 lenses that were available, 35, 50 and 100mm.
In contrast, the Werra 1 is just guess-the-distance. Working in broad daylight where you can close down the aperture enough, not a huge issue. But in low light with wide aperture, very much an issue.
Is it any good?
Mostly, yes. It’s a fun little camera that is easy to use. I’ve used other cameras of similar vintage, and none of those is as simple and straightforward to use as these Werras.
With the Werra 1, focussing correctly is a bit a nuisance to me. I’m not very good as estimating distances. So whenever possible, I’ll prefer the Werra 3. For both cameras, an external light meter is needed. Personally, I don’t mind that, but it does slow you down a bit. Otherwise, this camera is fine for pretty quick shooting – the ring to advance film is quick enough.
Loading film isn’t hard as such; the surprise is maybe that film canisters go upside down compared to most cameras. The entire back comes off, inserting the leader into the take-up spool is easy. Then closing the back again isn’t difficult either. Sure, not as easy as a 1980’s automatic SLR, but not bad for 1950 standards.
But it is not all good news and roses.
In reality, I have 4 Werras: the Werra 1 displayed above, and a Werramatic E which is a late 1960’s version of the Werra 1. The latter is broken; the shutter mechanism has completely locked up. The advance ring is locked and won’t move anymore. Of course, this happened mid-roll.
Also the Werra 3 is present in duplicate, both working but neither to perfection. The first one has an issue with the alignment of the rangefinder patch. It works, but horizontal alignment is off. While this is annoying, it is still accurate and otherwise everything works fine.
The second one needs the maximum diopter adjustment for the viewfinder. With that set, it is perfectly fine. And it must be added: amazing enough this little camera for the people from the 50’s has diopter correction at all. So while I’d rather not need it, it’s great it’s there.
They have a frame counter on the bottom – I never saw that working well on any of the 4 samples I have. That clever cover-hood-shade… they’re vulnerable and break easily.
Now on a whole, this doesn’t paint a picture of a terribly reliable camera. But that is misleading: we’re talking an affordable camera from 60 years ago, and I don’t treat mine with silk gloves. Nor have they ever seen maintenance while I’ve had them. Really, it could be much worse.
So what’s with Carnival?
Not a single example image from that feast yet. So what’s the story there? Well, one of the nicest things about the Werra is how people react to it. Most don’t believe it is a real camera, or that it can actually still work. So nobody minds you while you’re using it.
Second, these are not expensive cameras. So bring it into crowded places with plenty movement… if it breaks, I’ll search another one and carry on.
Being mostly late evening / night photos, part indoor part outdoor, it is using the camera against all odds. Delta 3200 or T-Max 3200, pushed to extremes, and with wide apertures where the lens isn’t optimal and depth of field even less optimal.
For me, it’s just a way to capture the atmosphere. There is no expectation this yields great photos. But to me, they have a meaning of sorts.
And in all honesty, this feast is not only particular to the region, the way it’s celebrated even varies per village and city. So these images probably have little value to most of you readers. But well, I needed a reason to talk up the Werra, so here you go.
Small, fun and more competent than you’d think. Beautiful minimalistic design. Dirt cheap too. Oh yes, there is a lot to like about the Werra.
No, of course it’s not a smooth as a Leica or Nikon F3. Not as versatile as those either. But I paid €42 for the most expensive one I have. So there is no reason to skip it if you find it at such price.
And even if it breaks or doesn’t quite work the way you hope…. put it on a shelf, and look at it. Just look at it…. It’s such a cute little gem.