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.

~ Victor

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Victor Lefelman

67, retired and finally doing what I want.

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9 Comments

 

  1. I’ve got one of these little beauties too. I love the simplicity of the design, winding the film on by rotating the lens, and its green-ness – all the Leica Safari feels without the price tag!

    I found an instruction manual online and loved the line:

    “The “WERRA” is so designed that by resorting to the “three-point setting method, (aperture, distance, time) less experienced amateurs and beginners may be certain to obtain satisfactory photographic results. Once these three factors have been set, the protective cap may be screwed on to the front, thus guarding against the setting being accidentally interfered with.”

    So you don’t use the shade as a shade, you leave it inverted on the camera. It’s great for the minimal look of the camera and handy for stealthy street photography. I shoot black and white with mine and have always been pleased with the results.I tend to take it with me when I don’t want to use a fancier, more fragile camera.

  2. A wonderful camera; the only one Carl Zeiss Jena ever made; besides some Jena Contax back in 1945.I have the Werra IV with RF and light meter but still retaining its flat top plate: this is my favorite I admit. Lenses are top class those the 35mm and 100mm are hard to come by meanwhile. Hartmut Thiele wrote a small booklet about the history of this camera; unfortunately in German only. But still interested to study for the English audience as well.
    The RF patch is something of class and by far better than any Leica one (Sorry…)
    Thank you for your pictures, Victor…you have an excellent eye…

    To our reluctanttenor; there is one in Vienna with a helping hand and the experience and skills you need..
    If you want, I will pass on his mail address to you.

    Best for now and many thanks again

    Harry Machold from Baden, Austria

    1. Hi Harry, I’d love the contact details of your Viennese specialist. Having just had my Exakta and Pentacon 6 repaired, it would be nice to finish off with the little Werra. As to the contrast patch, I have an M3 Leica and I agree, the Werra is better!

      1. His name is Juraj Tichy; he worked as a repairer and restorer with Leica Vienna; that was at a time when I joined myself as well..
        Phone is +43 688 64678896 he speaks English Say hello from me to him, to pave the road.
        Oh; I don´t get a commission…so no extra costs.
        Best regards Harry

  3. They are wonderful things, such purity of design. I have a Werra 3 with a bright and clear viewfinder and an excellent contrast patch. I would use mine more but the shutter mechanism is unreliable now and I miss too many frames. I have the Tessar but much prefer the 35mm Flektogon, a cracker of a lens, if a little large on the Werra. One day, if I can find someone competent and inexpensive enough to repair it!

    A good write up and cracking photos, thank you Victor!