One of the pitfalls of brand loyalty is that it urges us to embrace the bad with the good. For instance, I think Guns N’ Roses made the last epic rock and roll record with Appetite for Destruction and wrote the genres’ eulogy on November Rain. Those strokes of genius congealed in my heart a loyalty to that serpentine guttersnipe, Axl Rose. Ten years ago, when his cover band version of Guns N’ Roses released the overhyped and brutally savaged album Chinese Democracy, I went above and beyond to defends its supposed merits. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote when I reviewed the album in my college newspaper, but I’m confident it was hyperbolic and totally biased.
Brand loyalty doesn’t stop at Guns N’ Roses. Ask me today and I’ll defend Prince’s work in the 1990s because of what he released in the 1980s, and I’ve seen all the Transformers movies multiple times (though I won’t defend those in public). This preamble is here to illustrate the ways we sometimes embrace no-good things because of an emotional attachment to a brand. For me, that once extended to cameras too.
I’m a well documented enjoyer of optical equipment from the eastern side of the former Iron Curtain. There’s something about the staying power in the face of bad reputation and anecdotal data that endears me to camera brands like Kiev, Praktica and Pentacon. Camera after camera, these much-maligned machines proved to be more reliable and optically proficient than the propaganda against them would have us believe.
But I started getting cocky with old Soviet cameras, thinking that they were always going to punch above their weight. Until another Chinese Democracy happened. This time, my chagrin comes bearing the name Werra, and it’s brought an end to my brand loyalty blindness.
The Werra is a minimalist design camera whose body sacrifices obvious controls in order to maintain a clean, Bauhaus/Art Decco design. Almost every control for taking photos is on the camera’s lens. Calling the Werra unique is an understatement, and while it’s often beloved for its bold design, it’s equally disliked. Opinions vary in the wider world of camera collectors and users, this includes the ranks of the CP staff. We’ve spent hours over the course of months jousting over the Werra’s capability, styling, and importance in 2019.
Unfortunately, those who don’t like Werra on grounds of its styling may be onto something. In my time with the camera, it’s ripped apart as many rolls of film as it successfully exposed, it constantly created problems during use, and it ground my hands to a pulp in the process. I’ve never used a more frustrating camera and felt more underwhelmed by the results. It’s also the first camera that I wouldn’t bother using even if it produced outstanding images (which it didn’t). The experience just isn’t worth it.
Strong words, I know. Bear with me and I’ll walk through why this uniquely designed camera deserves to be placed on a shelf, and never removed from it.
After World War Two, Carl Zeiss (then based in Jena) found itself in the Soviet occupation sector. Almost immediately after the war the Red Army began disassembling the factories in its sector and shipping their valuable equipment back to Russia. Seeing this, Zeiss decided to seek greener pastures and moved to Oberkochen in the American sector. The move created a split in the company with the Oberkochen Zeiss continuing as the “original’ and the Eastern group forming Carl Zeiss Jena.
Zeiss was and remains synonymous with excellent lenses, and names like Planar, Sonnar and Tessar remain watchwords for world-class optics. After losing the rights to those names, Zeiss Jena offered Flektogons, Distagons and Pancolars, and their export products were badged with aus Jena (from Jena) to differentiate them from the western-made products. While the eastern-made products aren’t as highly regarded as the ones made in the western sector, they’re undoubtably the best lenses to come from behind the Iron Curtain.
Carl Zeiss Jena was eager to prove that it could hold its own against its capitalist sibling and set out to manufacture a rangefinder camera. Named after the river that runs near the factory in which it was made, the Werra was advertised as the “Volkskamera” or people’s camera. Most of the people working at Zeiss Jena had previously worked for the unified company and the Werra was to benefit from their institutional knowledge.
For the Werra, Zeiss Jena leaned into the fact that it was a lens manufacturer. Almost every important function of the camera is housed on its Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens. It’s not unusual to have focusing, aperture and shutter speed settings on a lens, especially from the era that birthed the Werra. But it is unique to have the film advance placed there. It takes a bit of sleuthing to realize that the ring between the lens and body both simultaneously advances the film and engages the shutter.
The shutter clicks through a button on the top of the camera, the only control found on the top of the housing. On the bottom is an uncoupled frame counter, a film rewind dial, and a center dial that allows for the camera to be opened for loading film. All Werras were made with solid, sturdy aluminum, with early versions having green leatherette and later versions having black leatherette or rubber coating. Lens covers also double as lens hoods when removed.
The Werra series would eventually span thirty iterations from 1954 to 1968, with 560,000 copies produced in total.
Later versions of the camera would include combinations of a coupled rangefinder, interchangeable lenses, selenium light meters, a reflex version, and a leaf-shutter allowing for flash sync across the speed spectrum up to its maximum speed of 1/750 of a second.
Unfortunately, I have the Werra that lacks all of those features.
The Werra 1 has a flat-glass viewfinder without any lines. Its Tessar offers an aperture range from f/16 to f/2.8 and a shutter speed range from 1 second to 1/250 of a second, plus bulb mode. It also has a highly specific focusing range, so it’s important to know the difference between 0.9, 1, and 1.1 meters.
I’m not ashamed to say that I bought my Werra exclusively for its appearance. I love its minimal sparseness and vintage futurism. It’s equal parts Gatsby and Metropolis. While I was disappointed to see that my copy didn’t have the olive leatherette around the shutter wheel, it still looked wildly unique.
I used a trip to Germany’s Münsterland to see how wonderful my Werra was. I quickly remembered just how deceiving looks can be.
FIlm loading is fairly typical. Unwind the middle dial on the bottom of the body to disengage the lock and separate the camera. Put in the film, stretch it across to the unattached reel on the other side, slide the camera back together and lock the wheel. It’s slightly more difficult in practice. The film reel being unattached slows down the process and can be annoying. Sliding the camera back together took me a number of attempts no matter how many rolls I loaded.
Then I removed the lens cap, the top of which must be unscrewed so the rest of the cap can be screwed in as a hood. It’s a small, circular piece that I’m amazed I never lost, even when I didn’t use the cover/hood as intended. For me, the cover/hood has pros and cons. Not using means the uncoated lens is guaranteed to encounter problems, but using it doubles the length of the lens and makes the Werra look like a portable cloudbuster. It’s much easier to know not to rely on the exposure counter, which doesn’t stop at 36, and doesn’t reset after film is removed. Its marking stretches across the wheel, indicating either frame 7 or 22.
With film finally loaded, I set out with my Werra and handheld light meter capturing the historic college town of Münster. Actually taking photos isn’t much of a problem. Advance the film, read the light and transfer the data to the respective dials. There’s a bit of guesstimating with shutter speed controls, as they increase in the following order: 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 250. The small prongs that move the stepless wheel aren’t always eager to cooperate and can gum up in cold temperatures.
The aperture ring has the opposite problem. Resting on the very front of the lens, it’s happy to move with or without the photographer’s help. If the front of the lens brushes your pants, f/11 becomes f/4. Setting aperture becomes much more difficult with the hood attached to the lens as its nearly flush with the dial. I know what you’re thinking: Just turn the hood and you’ll turn the aperture. But turning the hood only unscrews it with aperture unaffected leaving those with small hands the chore of digging in to make adjustments and those with large hands completely at a loss with the hood attached.
There’s nothing unique about the Werra’s scale-focusing system. As I said before, the lower measurements are quite precise, especially for someone who, like me, still doesn’t know what a meter is. I aimed for as many shots as possible with which I could use infinity focus, and knowing I’m 1.8 meters tall, measured all others with how many of me could lie down between my feet and the subject. This system worked less often than it didn’t.
All of this might be enough of a nudge to just relax and use what the camera says are the general-use settings for most photos. The settings for f/8 and 1/50th of a second and six meters are labelled in red, which I assume are meant for 100 or 400 ASA rated film or their eastern GOST equivalents.
I had just taken the final exposure of my first roll when I saw a fleet of kayakers coming down the Aasee, or Lake Aa. Eager to capture the scene, I flipped the camera over to rewind my roll and load a new one. So begins the absolute worst part of the Werra experience.
I don’t know why rewinding film in a Werra is such a painful and laborious process. Maybe the designers were masochists eager to show in design how they felt about working in a factory that only had eight percent of its original equipment left in place by the Red Army.
To rewind the film in a Werra, you have to hold down the rewind button while twisting the green wheel labeled with an arrow. A few problems plague this process. For one, the green wheel was made as thin as possible to keep the bottom of the camera as flush as possible. Because it’s so thin, it’s hard to get a really good grip and the grip you do get is rough on the hands. There are also three small rivets around the wheel that your fingers will be moving over as you rewind. The tension of said wheel builds as more film is rewound, which means if you let it go, some of the film will unspool and you’ll have to wind film all over again.
By the time I’d finally finished rewinding the film, every kayaker had passed. Disappointed, I continued swapping the old film for a fresh roll. Imagine my surprise when I opened the camera only to see the majority of the film get splashed by the blinding light of a summer day. Upset that I had just wasted three hours, I loaded a second roll of film and retraced my route in reverse. During my second rewind attempt there was no torque on the rewind dial, and after rewinding for twice the length of time that I’d spent the first time, I opened the camera to see that film perforations had torn and my second roll was ruined as well.
After that, I went home and benched the Werra for a few months. It wasn’t until last month that the wounds had sufficiently healed and I was willing to bring it for a weekend in Barcelona. This time, the three rolls I put through the camera came out relatively unscathed, though I can’t say the images were too impressive. That’s not necessarily the camera’s fault. The shooting conditions weren’t beautiful, with bad lighting and weather that alternated with volatility between haze, sun, and rain. I also clearly haven’t mastered the scale-focusing method and a number of close shots miss the mark entirely.
But even the photos that came out properly exposed and in focus didn’t blow me away. The Werra’s Tessar lens does offer great contrast and interesting color rendition, but I could get any number of lenses for any number of cameras that give the same images without the hassle of using a Werra.
I can overlook a lot of flaws if a piece of gear produces images that I admire, with consistency. But the Werra just isn’t up to that task. When I think about the camera now, I think of finicky film loading and insanely frustrating rewind; guesswork composition, and an inflexible set of shutter speeds; a focus system that speaks a different language. Add all of that up with the so-so photographs, and it’s safe to say that my Werra will forever be relegated to display status.
Since I began to write this review I’ve gone back and revisited Chinese Democracy. I’m only mildly embarrassed to admit that there are some decent songs on the album. It may be a running joke and a testament to one man’s hubris, but it’s comforting to know that I wasn’t totally blinded by my love of Guns N’ Roses’ past hits when I first heard the newer album ten years ago.
But I probably wont be saying the same thing about the Werra in 2029. The Werra may have been successful in its day, but it’s a swing and a miss in 2019. It’s a rare example of a German company choosing form over function, and it could be a warning to those thinking of making that same choice today.