The Werra I is an east german jewel of a camera, produced from 1954 until 1967 by Cal Zeiss Jena. Love at first glance is how it started for me; the camera looked like the brainchild of a team of designers free from the directives emanating from marketing executives, or any other authority, as a matter of fact.
On the top plate you will find only the shutter release button, that is sexy. Leica M philosophy taken well beyond the point where Leica goes; that was my first impression of the Werra. So, I bought an early model (Werra I) the model that provides just the bare essentials, in its typical green vulcanite dress.
The first thing I notice when I opened the camera is that the film goes from the right of the camera to its left, quite the contrary of what I am used to; as if it were an English camera. And then a long list of no’s:
No film advance lever… To advance film and cock the shutter you have to twist a ring around the lens, an operation that feels and sounds more like loading a firearm than advancing film.
No light meter… Never mind, Sunny sixteen will always guide me.
No rangefinder… This is really challenging, I can somehow guesstimate beyond three meters, but not closer than that; however the camera has a real DOF scale, much needed in a non-reflex film camera, that helps.
No hot shoe… But that is OK, I don’t use flash anyway and if I did it wouldn’t be mounted on the camera; but no cold shoe/accessory shoe either, impairing my ability to succumb to the sweet calling of bourgeois niceties such as a shoe-mounted rangefinder or light meter.
No articulated rewind knob, just a flat metallic circle… My Werra, being an early one had just this circle. This is not challenging but it is very frustrating, it slows you down, but then I think, all the better, you need to slow down to be in the contemplative mood that allows you to see the world around you and pick a part of it to become a photograph.
I was going to shoot B&W in the street, I had the luck of finding a 30.5mm yellow filter in a local camera repair shop but soon found out that I couldn’t mount the sunshade/lens protector with the filter installed. So I put the yellow filter in my pocket.
I needed a high-speed film that would give me a large DoF to hide my guesstimate focus fails. In goes a roll of HP5 PLUS, I take a selfie in the mirror and hit the street. To take the selfie I counted tiles from where I was standing to the mirror, multiplied by two, set the focus, and… not exact enough for f/4 at close range but good enough, anyhow.
On the resulting images, the quality of the Tessar design, “Jena” branded, Zeiss-made lens is well above its price and my expectations. All in all, I loved the experience this camera was delivering, raw artisanal photography, and that (not a digital photography format) is what “raw” means to me. The experience might be better than the resulting photographs. From my point of view, all the better.
Later Werra models incorporated all manners of luxury features alien to its spirit, such as a normal rewind knob, rangefinder, light meter, and even interchangeable lenses.
When I feel light-hearted and would like a light feeling to my photography I pick up my Olympus SP, or Contax G. But when I want to do what I do with care and hopefully add some depth to the experience, constantly being reminded of what things “are in themselves” (thanks, Kant) it is the Werra that will take me as far as I can go.
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