Beautiful. Clean Lines. Minimalist. These are all words uttered about the Carl Zeiss Werra cameras. Cameras with a top plate that only house a shutter release and an exposure value display, sitting within a smooth metal finish that would have made Steve Jobs proud. Only, the Werra 2 covered in this review was produced decades before Apple computers, yet alone the iPhone or aluminium Mac.
What is surprising is that this was made by Carl Zeiss Jena, the post war East German Carl Zeiss company. The visual design of the Werra is so simple, so straight forward and yet it really is one of the more elegant cameras you can hold. Maybe it is because we are now programmed to recognise smooth aluminium products signify better quality finish and we can be prepared to pay more for them. This is contradictory though, as you can pick up a Werra for very reasonable price.
It certainly does not hurt that this camera was produced by Carl Zeiss, of which any variant is viewed well in the quality stakes. Also now, quite a number of cameras and lenses are collectable that are from soviet and socialist states, increasing its appeal.
Aesthetics and collectability are one thing, how a camera actually performs is another, especially with a twist on the way you advance a frame. Carl Zeiss lenses are legendary for quality and precision. Let’s find out a bit more about the camera and see how it performed.
Carl Zeiss Jena was founded in 1856, in Jena, Germany. Originally it produced microscopes and a refractometer. The company was named after Carl Zeiss who was born in 1816 and passed away in 1888. He originally founded the Carl Zeiss Workshop in 1846, where with leading opticians and glass makers begun to reshape how optical instruments were produced. He had considerable collaboration with Ernst Abbe where together they revolutionised the design of microscopes. This drive led them to work with Otto Schott and completely change optical glass manufacturing forever.
Interestingly it wasn’t until Zeiss’ death in 1888 when Abbe started the process of building up the company’s photographic optics branch. It was then when the company also reduced working hours to 8 hour days, progressive in its day. During its long history, Carl Zeiss went on to create some of the most classic lens designs, which are very much in demand today. These include the Tessar, Sonnar, Planar, Biogon and Biotar.
In terms of iconic, we also can’t forget the Zeiss Ikon cameras which were produced by what was originally Carl Zeiss Palmos, formed from a company Carl Zeiss bought in 1902. In essence, the Carl Zeiss name became synonymous with quality optical products from the very early days.
In the 1930s Carl Zeiss was impacted by the depression, but luckily not as much as many other companies. The Nazification of Germany did change how Carl Zeiss worked, as it did in all German organisations. While Carl Zeiss adhered to the rules set out by the Nazi party, they did not actively target Jews until late in the period when it became very difficult not to. Even then it was mostly through suspension of employment or as in the case of at least one designer, Dr. Otto Eppenstein, continued his employment unofficially. During this time his work either had his name omitted or marked as being deceased. Though, they did provide financial support to the Nazi parties and even had apprentice camps only for Hitler supporters.
During 1935 is when the world famous coating, the T-coating, was developed which contributed to an optical clarity never seen before. It was ground breaking.
Throughout the company’s history, the management took a very pragmatic approach to their business model. They maintained the company’s growth by licencing their lens designs to many manufacturers, thus ensuring they had a tight grip on their internal production growth. This may have been a risk, but by ensuring that the Carl Zeiss name was only used on their factory produced items, was eventually proven to be a sound business strategy.
Lenses from Carl Zeiss can be found on a lot of cameras, with different mounts. Many peoples’ opinion is that their lenses rival those produced by leaders like Leica. Carl Zeiss has also produced quite a number of cameras, especially under the Zeiss Ikon banner, but also the famous Contax range of cameras.
After World War II, Carl Zeiss was split into two companies, one which was based in Oberkochen and was kept within the Zeiss Foundation. This company continued on to become an important partner to Rollei and Hasselblad and later with Yashica which also rebooted the Contax name. The other company stayed in Jena, on the eastern side of the wall (even though it was not built till quite a time later), and effectively remained as the Carl Zeiss Jena company.
The Werra cameras were produced from this factory, and were named after a small German river. These were introduced in in 1954 and continued until 1968. Due to the minimalist design ethic, they were nicknamed the Volkscamera, meaning the people’s camera. Roughly half a million cameras were produced. They are a very much an original design, as nothing similar had previously been created. The earlier Werra cameras have Novonar lenses with all subsequent models paired with Tessar lenses. The one standout feature they are well known for is the twist on the lens mount for advancing the film on to the next frame and cocking the shutter.
The Werra 2 is a viewfinder camera produced by Carl Zeiss Jena in 1957 until 1961. There is a couple of colour options for the covering, with the more famous being the olive green. This copy has black.
The camera has a very minimalistic design but also has considerable controls available for the photographer. The fixed lens is a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm 1:2.8 which has the famous coating. The camera controls are mostly on the lens. The aperture ring which ranges from f/2.8 through to f/16 is on the front ring of the lens. f/8 is marked in red, marked to encourage the user to try and keep a reasonable level of depth of field.
Focus controls are next on the lens, which are marked in both imperial and metric. Minimum focus starts from 90cm (3ft) and extends to infinity. Following that is the shutter speed selection, which has a range from 1 second to 1/750thsecond and Bulb. Interestingly there is no 1/500thsetting with available settings jumping from 1/250thto 1/750th. The lens comes with a lens cover, which ingeniously converts to a lens hood by removing its screw cap and reverse screwing it onto the lens filter tread.
The next part of the lens is the rather strange film advance. This is done by grabbing the lens mount at its base and rotating or twisting it to the right. You can feel the mechanism wind the film onto the next frame.
Apart from the viewfinder window, the front of the camera also has an uncoupled selenium meter which itself has a cover used in bright light, and when it is darker, the cover is lifted. The meter is linked to a curved window on the top plate, which holds exposure value markings. From this reading, the round calculator on the back of the camera will help the photographer determine the right exposure, but with a slight caveat. If in bright light, the value should be lined up with the green marker and if in lower light the black marker should be used. This allows for the difference of light hitting the exposure meter based on whether the cover is closed or open. There is also a ASA and DIN setting on the calculator to set the film speed before using it. The top film speed available is ASA 400.
Exposure value window aside, the only other item on the top plate is the shutter release button. It is a round chrome button with a cable release socket in the middle. It depresses very easily. Underneath the camera is a frame counter, which has to be manually set, a tripod socket and the film rewind lever, which folds out. There is also a button to release the film, allowing it to be rewound into the film canister. Surrounding the tripod socket is the lock which keeps the back and the bottom attached to the camera. Also under there is the flash type selector with the usual M, X and V settings. The flash socket can be found on the right of the camera.
Loading film into the camera is quite simple once the back is off, by threading the film onto the left side and inserting the cartridge on the right. This has to be done upside down as there is nothing holding the cartridge in until you reattach the back onto the camera.
The viewfinder is straight forward with black frame lines for the 50mm lens, which include parallax markings for when focusing close. One unique aspect of the viewfinder is that the corners of the rectangle are cut off, similar to the way paper was cut in Battlestar Galactica. Considering the mid-century futuristic approach in designing this camera, not really that surprising, but as the original Battlestar Galactica was not out until 20 years later and definitely not in East Germany, it is a funny coincidence.
The Werra cameras always intrigued me. Produced in a socialist state, with a simple design, but with a lot of care in their appearance and clean lines. This is matched with lower quality materials and possibly manufacturing facilities. When I received the Werra 2, I was very surprised on how light it is. That is because it is constructed with a very thin metal sheet. Look closer, and the design is even more ingenious, in that even with the parts not quite fitting together like in a modern camera, they look seamless, projecting that great minimalistic statement.
I tentatively tried out the film advance twist around the lens mount, having only previously read about it, and it was quite strange to reach in front of the lens to do it. The first time I did not move it enough, worried I might break it, but to its credit it is quite well build around the mechanism. Having held it now, I was all the more keen to go and shoot with it.
I first loaded it with some Fujifilm Industrial 400 (a Japan only film, which has a very red bias) and out I went. Using the camera was easy, I did not have to worry about scratching the lens, as the cover once it is converted to a lens hood gives the lens a lot of protection and cuts out glare as a bonus. Normally when I use old cameras I get some looks in my direction, but with the Werra 2 this was not the case, as I suspect the clean metal finish ensured it was mistaken for a modern digital camera.
Focusing by estimating the distance takes a bit of practice, but in general if an aperture of f/8 or lower is used, especially in bright daylight, it is not much of an issue. Close focus is another matter altogether. Unfortunately it does not have an accessory shoe, so I could not even attach the Watameter. The focus is smooth and it has a medium throw, easily set to appropriate distance. I could only adjust looking at the lens rather than through the viewfinder as the camera has no rangefinder.
Soon I hit my first issue with using the camera. When I put the lens hood on, I found it very difficult to adjust the aperture, as it does not leave much space for my fingers to fit against the front ring. I ended using my fingernail to move it over, which is not ideal, especially if I was in a hurry. This was a bit of a problem but I was still enjoying using the camera.
I did not find the camera to be cumbersome at all to use. In fact, being so light it was easy enough to also have it on a wrist strap when the mood stuck me. I looked forward to using it, and I don’t think the film advance twist ever lost its novelty. As I progressed with using it, I did start to understand some of the limitations. The shutter speed selection, while easy to set, does have a glaring omission in my mind. The lack of a 1/500thsetting for the shutter speed is a miss for me. I found that this was too much of a gap, but that could be due to my shooting style and may not affect others as much.
I moved onto shooting some black and white with it, and loaded up with the trusty Ilford HP5+. Before I went out this time, I did a few tests with the camera’s exposure meter and all seemed to be fairly consistent. I must admit when I was out though, it did strike me that the meter was on the high side, but I paid no attention to that, to my own detriment. When I received the film back from the lab, I noticed it was way too dense compared to my usual experience. Scanning it took some effort, though it is usable, it was overexposed considerably, with some highlights blown and lots of grain. I should have taken note of that out in the field, likely being the selenium meter through age is no longer accurate.
One thing I did notice is that the lens is extremely sharp, as is the signature Zeiss look. Anything past f/4 and it is fairly consistent across the whole frame. f/2.8 and f/4 do have some softness as you progress to the edges, consistent with Tessar lenses. Flare is mostly contained with only a few stray light beams here and there. Vignetting is well controlled, and did not cause any noticeable loss in quality.
The Werra 2 is a very fun camera to use, very easy to hold and performs very well in the lens department, as you would expect from any Carl Zeiss product. It does have some weaknesses in operation, especially with the aperture controls while the lens hood is on, and the gap in the shutter speed options. I did enjoy using it every time, and I am sure so would most people, but it can be challenging to do so without some experience. I will use it again, and if you come across one, do consider trying it out. They do not have an overly high cost of entry. Werra will it take you?