The Zeiss Ikon Werramatic

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I think every collector knows that sweet feeling of serendipity. When least expecting it, he comes across something that had been lingering in his unconscious, just waiting there, without causing any heartthrobs, but nonetheless close enough to the surface to be recognized instantly at first sight. This Werramatic, to me, was such a find. I encountered her – if I can call this camera 'her', which she certainly deserves – at the same thrift store I once bought my Smena SL, for the measly price of just ten Euros. Ten Euros? The price of three Big Macs? Surely you jest. SHAZAM! And like lightning my wallet struck again – with this page as the corpus delicti.

However, could I say I knew what I was buying? Not really. All my unconscious knowledge about the Werra series came from an old glossy, namely the March/April 1997 edition of the aptly named Dutch camera magazine Camera Magazine. When I returned home with my new acquisition, I immediately dug it up from the slush of Camera Magazines that litter my room, re-read the story, and decided to write this article. All the background information in this article, therefore, is credited to said issue of said magazine.

Background

After the Second World War, Carl Zeiss was divided into a West German and an East German division. The East German division, Carl Zeiss Jena, lost a lot of personnel to the Russians, who deported them to create cameras for the Motherland. When they slowly started trickling back in the early 1950's, Zeiss Jena didn't have an immediate use for their expertise. They realised however that it would be a tremendous loss to the company and the country if their experience went to waste, so they gave them a project of their own: the Werra cameras. Manufactured in the Ernst Abbe Werk of Eisfeld, they were named after the river that runs near that town.

The main idea behind the whole Werra series, its unique selling point, was the rapid film advance ring. This ring, which is the big carpeted ring near the body, cocks the shutter, and advances the film and the frame counter all in one twist. A very rapid, very sure, very smooth twist.

Because Werras weren't Zeiss Jena's core business (optics was), production built up slowly. Two years after the production was initialised in 1954, a sales figure of 100.000 was reached. The original Werra was a very basic camera with a fixed 50mm f/3.5 Novonar triplet in a Vebur shutter with a maximum speed of 1/250s. Its appearance was dominated by its olive skin color, which was changed to black in 1957 when Zeiss finally got the word that everybody hates olive drab.

Other models followed:

NameDescription
Werra IA like the I but with a Synchro-Compur shutter.
Werra II like the I but with an uncoupled light meter with lid.
Werra III like the I but with a rangefinder, three frames, diopter adjustment, interchangeable lenses, and a slightly larger sun shade.
Werra IV a combination of the II and III.

Then come the black models, supplied between 1957 and 1962. After 1960, they received more rounded bodies.

NameDescription
Werra I like the olive I.
Werra IB like the IA, with Vebur 250 or Prestor RVS500 shutter.
Werra IC like the IB, with an accessory shoe.
Werra II like the olive II.
Werra III like the olive III.
Werra IV like the olive IV.
Werra V like the IV, but with a coupled light meter with lid.
Werramatic like the V but without the light meter lid.
Werramat like the Werramatic but without the interchangeable lenses and the rangefinder.

Then, between 1961 and 1966, come the E models with a rounder top, striped decoration, striped skin, and an accessory shoe. The E classification is not on the cameras themselves.

NameDescription
Werra I E as the I black.
Werra II E as the II black.
Werra III E as the III black.
Werramatic E as the Werramatic black.
Werramat E as the Werramat black.
Werramat Super as the Werramat E, but with aperture preselect.
Werra Supermat as the Werramat Super.

The Werramat Super and the Werra Supermat are extremely rare: their combined production totals only around 50 pieces!

Despite good sales, the Werra series was discontinued in 1966 after Carl Zeiss Jena was assimilated by VEB Pentacon in 1964. Pentacon's director Siegfried Böhm felt that a highly specialised company like Zeiss should stick to its core business (optics) and abandon its simple viewfinder cameras. Other companies in the Pentacon group were making viewfinder cameras too, and Böhm foresaw that the future lay in SLRs – of course, history proved him right.

Accessories

For the benefit of science, Zeiss Jena built two different microscope models based on the Werra, which were sold on the point that they vibrated much less than cloth shutter cameras and SLRs. Since I'm not familiar with those models, I won't treat them here.

For the average consumer, there was something of a "Werra universe" in which you could immerse yourself. For the more upmarket models, there were two interchangeable lenses: the Flektogon 35mm f/2.8 and the Cardinar 100mm f/4, which have both become rare and sought-after (and accordingly expensive and highly collectable). There were Werralux hand-held selenium light meters, there was an ever-ready case, there were filters, there was a loose accessory shoe for the older Werras, a close-up kit, even a stereo prefix lens and viewer, and probably much more.

Mr. T

The early Werras had Novonar 50mm f/3.5 triplet lenses, but Zeiss later upgraded to T (or Jena-T) 50mm f/2.8's. You're right to think "T" is a silly name for a lens, but this was a necessary measure since the T's were in fact Tessars, only Zeiss Jena didn't have the rights to that prestigious name. Those rights lay with Carl Zeiss Wetzlar in West Germany, which apparently didn't give permission to their eastern spin-off factory to use their trademark. However, the eastern spin-off factory had no trouble with copying the design, and anyhow, that the "T" was in fact a Tessar was public knowledge anyway. Take this tell-tale quote from a Dutch sales brochure, that pussyfoots the issue in a not altogether subtle way: "T is the new designation of the long since famed and coveted four-element lens from Jena". Geez, talk about a public secret!

(Fun corroborational fact: the Russians fitted cameras like the Lubitel-2 and the Voskhod with lenses called 'T', only their 'T' was short for 'Triplet'. In how far this was confusing to consumers and dealers at the time, I don't know. Probably not at all. Russians and Tessars?)

To confuse things, some of the early olive Werra's do have real Tessars from Jena. I take it they started out using the full name, irated Zeiss Wetzlar, and reached a compromise by subsequently using only the acronym.

The more advanced Werras had a simple bayonet mount and interchangeable lenses. In total, there were three focals available for the demanding photographer: there was the standard T(essar) 50mm f/2.8, the Flektogon 35mm f/2.8, and the Cardinar 100mm f/4. Good luck finding the last two. You change lenses by twisting a ring on the tube to release the currently mounted lens. You lift out the lens, place a new one, twist the ring again, and everything's locked like a vault. Maybe the only drawback to this easy system is that the shutter blades are open and vulnerable during the interchange.

The interchangeable lens system is actually quite an engineering feat when you think about it. Lots of information is being transferred between the lens and the body, and yet changing lenses is trivially easy. The distance (which you set on the interchangeable lens head) is conveyed across the mount to the rangefinder system, and the aperture (which you set on the fixed base) is conveyed to the lens. To create a coupling that's at once easy to use and accurate enough to reliably focus a 50mm at f/2.8, is something you can admire in the Zeiss engineers.

So far I've only shot one film in my Werra, a cheap colour film and not under standardized conditions, so I can only give a qualitative impression of what the "T" performs like. At full open, the image is soft, a bit fuzzy, and there is quite some vignetting. The bokeh at this aperture is classic: not silky soft, but delineated round, so that unsharp car headlights show as sharp circles of light. This isn't really a work aperture. As you stop the lens down, the sharpness and contrast improve remarkably, and the vignetting slowly diminishes, to disappear around f/5.6-f/8. It's always hard to judge from color neg, but I think I can say that the frames are very sharp, with a very slight decrease of sharpness to the corners. The optimal aperture is something in the range of f/8, where the T is sharp and rich of contrast. I would describe the T's overall character as being slightly softish, but not in the muddy sense. Whew, that's acumen in commentary...

Shutters

The earliest Werras had Vebur shutters up to 1/250s, which were succeeded later on by Synchro-Compur shutters. However, when the Gauthier/Compur factory fell into the hands of the rival Zeiss Ikon in 1959, supplies to Zeiss Jena stopped, and the factory had to manufacture its own replacements. The Jena-built Prestor RVS500 and RVS750 shutters (the number indicates the maximum speed) that Zeiss Jena engineered are considered to be very good. My Werra has a Prestor RVS750 that still works like clockwork.

My Werramatic is an E model, number 648702. There is some circumstantial evidence to indicate that the first letter of the serial number is the last letter of the year of manufacture, meaning that my camera could be a 1966 model, but this is unsure. Its lens is the removable T 50mm f/2.8 "aus JENA". The purchase included the eveready case and the conical lens cap – the box, all dpocumentation and the little cap for the front of the lens weren't supplied.

Design highlights

One of the first things I noticed when I found my Werramatic E was its great design. Not only in esthetic terms, but technically too. The bayonet mount with its mechanical contacts is a work of art, and the ring system is well thought out and a genuine improvement over knurled knobs and what not. The viewfinder is excellent, and the whole camera looks and feels like it's built to last. The top plate is uncluttered, and the shutter release is soft to the touch, just the right size, silky smooth, and with an excellent pressure point. The camera itself isn't exceptional in terms of size or weight, and though some might call it chubby, it's representative of its class.

The plastic cone around the lens is a useful and smart accessory. Either you screw it into the transport ring so that it covers the lens tube and guards against sand and dust while offering fast shooting capabilities, or you screw it into the filter mount and use it as a sun shade. When it covers the lens and the front cap isn't screwed on, you have a huge knurled cone to grip to advance the film and cock the shutter, while the lens is hidden and guarded. Excellent for rainy conditions. The only bad thing about the cap is that it has a tendency to screw on wrongly to the transport ring, and crack as a result. The V-shaped splinters that causes are typical among Werras of all vintage.

Viewfinder

My Werramatic E is a late model with a much improved albada viewfinder. The areas of view for all three lenses are indicated by black hairline frames with parallax marks. The shutter speed and aperture values are mirrored into the right corner by a very ingenious mirror system. In the center is an oblong rangefinder spot that's unlike those in Russian cameras, in that it's sharply bounded and almost opaque. Where the Russian cameras want you to overlap images, the Werramatic demands that you align them along the boundaries of the rectangle, sort of like a focus wedge.

The light meter readout is in the bottom of the viewfinder, and consists of a needle that moves across a scale shaped like an inverse T. When the needle aligns with the stem of the T, the values you've set are correct. Creating a light meter like this for a camera requires that it "knows about" the shutter speed and aperture that you're using, so that it can use those values in its calculations. To that end, most cameras have a linked light meter with electronic circuits and an diaphragm simulator – but not the Werra. The solution Zeiss Ikon chose to achieve the coupling is rather beautiful and ingenious: as you turn either the shutter speed or the aperture ring, the whole needle readout (which is mirrored opaquely into the viewfinder like a rangefinder spot) is shifted to the left or the right! It has, in effect, its own separate rangefinder system, where the shutter speed and aperture rings act as "parameter suppliers". This of course requires more optical parts and another piece of engineering that can break or fail, but it also neatly changes the issue of creating a difficult electronic coupling into the more familiar one of creating a mechanical coupling.

The Werramatic in use

On the whole, a working Werramatic is a fine user camera. But before I start the praise, I'll deal with of some of the minor drawbacks, so they won't stick in your mind. First of all, the transport ring rotates to the left, while a rotation to the right would have been much easier on the right hand. Now you have to grip over the camera, while otherwise your hand would have moved from shutter release to ring in a quick move. Also, the protective cone doesn't really work in combination with the ever ready case. Or, at all. I guess it works fine if you leave it on like a sunshade, but it doesn't work when you either want to respond quickly to situations (because unscrewing the cap is tedious and slow), or when you want to park the camera in its case (because you have to screw it on first). In practice, I ended up carrying it around in my coat pocket, without any use for it at all. Thirdly, the little plastic grips on the shutter and aperture rings are way too small. Trying to reset one value invariably ends up in resetting everything. The up side is that it's very easy to do a shift program kind of thing: just hold the shutter speed and aperture rings together and turn.

Then for the good parts. The rotating transport ring really works, first of all. It's quick and it's fast, and it saves a lot of hassle. Pity the rotational direction is such that it takes a lot of practice before you can do it blindly, with the camera to your eye. The shutter release button is excellent in its pressure point. The rangefinder system is less useful than the transparent Russian version for small jagged objects like birds at long distance, but for larger subjects it doesn't really matter. The viewfinder is very clear, and the rangefinder spot excellently defined. Framing the 50mm through a 35mm viewfinder with 50mm framelines was a bit hard, but being used to SLRs, it's what's expected. The Tesssar has a relatively long focusing trajectory, which did give some problems when trying to track a pigeon at short distance, but it's not something I want to complain about. The ever ready case has a fairly tight fit, so you really need to pull the nose part over the camera. Uncomfortable, but not a real drawback. Too bad it's not detachable. The case has a cut-out in the bottom for the film counter which is very useful. It also has a long strap, which is an underrated luxury.

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