I spent the past week shooting the Wirgin Edixa Reflex B, a West German-made SLR from the 1950s, and when I took it this weekend to a Boston film photographer meet, the reactions around it were varied and insightful. The Edixa was described by my fellow photo geeks with words like “adorable,” “magical,” “weird,” and “stupid.” Paradoxically, every one of those descriptors was and is accurate.
The Edixa Reflex B is magical and weird. And it’s beautiful and clumsy. It’s everything I love about classic cameras and everything that frustrates me about them, both at the same time.
A Quick History of the Wirgin Edixa Reflex Camera
The Wirgin camera company was founded in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1920 by three brothers, Heinrich, Max, and Josef Wirgin. In 1927, Wirgin produced their first branded camera, the stunningly elegant Edinex, and in 1934 they produced a well-respected 127 camera called the Gewirette. Along with these important machines, the company quickly became known for manufacturing compact, affordable cameras.
In 1936, as Nazi persecution of Jews intensified, the three Wirgin brothers fled Germany and moved to the United States. There they waited out the war while their company back home was expropriated by the Nazis, and folded into the German photographic materials manufacturer Adox. Following the war, Heinrich Wirgin (who had now changed his name to Henry Wirgin) returned to Germany and with the help of the U.S. Government, once again became head of the Wirgin company.
Around 1948, a former German soldier, prisoner of war, and relatively unknown technical mechanic named Heinz Waaske, developed a prototype (at home and in his spare time) for a 16mm miniature camera. He then sold that design to an American firm, after which he began looking for further work in the camera industry. He was introduced to Wirgin, where he found employment as a camera technician. He quickly rose within the company, becoming the head of the prototype workshop, then a technical designer, and finally landing the job of chief designer. He then went on to streamline production, invent new products, and increase profitability of the Wirgin company by implementing innovative design and manufacturing methodologies.
Waaske, by most accounts, was an intuitive genius. Without formal training in engineering or design, he produced some truly remarkable products. This is most easily illustrated through the story of his most successful machine, a prototype camera that he developed in the 1960s while still working at Wirgin. This tiny prototype camera had a collapsible lens, a fundamentally new type of shutter, a totally unique film transport mechanism, and it was all packed into the smallest 35mm film camera body ever made to that point in time.
This prototype was shown to Waaske’s employer Heinrich Wirgin, who balked, and informed Waaske that he’d been planning to exit the camera manufacturing business in short order. Dismayed but not defeated, Waaske then showed his prototype to Leitz (maker of the Leica camera) and Kodak (who’d been producing a long-running and well-regarded series of cameras in Germany for nearly thirty years, the Kodak Retinas) but both firms showed little interest in Waaske or his prototype camera.
In 1965, Waaske found work at Rollei, but he was hesitant to show his prototype machine after the lukewarm response it had received elsewhere. There, mostly by accident, his managing director Dr. Peezel happened to catch a glimpse of Waaske’s prototype camera. Dr. Peezel was taken with the machine’s sophisticated design and its tiny form factor, and immediately directed Waaske to pursue refining the design with the aim of manufacturing the camera. In 1966 the finished prototype debuted to the world as a real product, the now legendary Rollei 35. This camera went on to be one of the most successful 35mm film cameras in history (and one of my favorite cameras, as it were).
But before any of that, Waaske was still developing machines for Wirgin, and by the early-to-mid 1950s, he’d decided to design West Germany’s first mirror reflex camera for 35mm film. This camera was the Wirgin Komet, a workhorse camera unhappily saddled with a name that other manufacturer’s claimed infringed on trademarks. As a result, the Komet was renamed Edixa, and 1954 saw the release of the first Edixa Reflex, which was essentially an improved Komet.
The Edixa Reflex line went on to be West Germany’s most popular, successful, and respected 35mm film SLRs. Waaske and Wirgin had made a magical machine.
What is a Wirgin Edixa Reflex?
Wirgin’s Edixa Reflex was produced for many years, and the range is therefore comprised of many models. But all of these share a similar (if not identical) basic framework – Edixa Reflex cameras are 35mm film SLRs. They use a focal plane shutter, feature the M42 Universal Screw Mount, have swappable prisms and focusing screens, feature rapid advance levers, and various degrees of mechanical sophistication depending on model.
The first Edixa Reflex lacks the automatic aperture mechanism found in later models, meaning that lenses must be manually stopped down prior to shooting and after focusing (which is typically done with the lens at its brightest wide-open setting). Later machines, the Reflex B and onward, feature automatic aperture mechanisms which stop-down at the moment of shutter release. The Reflex B, however, does lack automatic mirror return, meaning that after the shutter is fired the viewfinder is blacked out until the film advance lever is actuated and the shutter cocked (later model B’s did add the newly-developed mirror return function, but knowing which one you’re buying without having the camera in-hand is a challenge). The Reflex Model C features a simple uncoupled selenium light meter, and the Model D features a simplified shutter control.
Choosing and Shooting the Edixa Reflex B
I chose the Reflex Model B for pragmatic reasons. To start, I find it to be the best looking of the models. With predominantly chromed controls on the top plate (compared to later models’ painted black dials), its stunning stamped geometry, and its utterly utilitarian lines, it is simply a gorgeous piece of photographic sculpture.
Next, I don’t care about having a light meter on a camera that I’m only going to shoot occasionally. The Wirgin Edixa Reflex B will never be my everyday camera. It’s a diversion, a vacation from more serious cameras, and a way to stretch and tear my inert photographic muscles that have become too reliant on automation. Every shot in this review has been taken with no light meter, judging the light entirely by eye and experience (and in some cases this is clearly evident in my missed exposures – but that’s okay).
Lastly, I chose the Model B because it’s the one that I found in working condition. When you find a camera as interesting and beautiful as this in perfect working order for a good working price, you buy it.
Although its fit and finish are somewhat less-than the precision of some other German cameras (think of Zeiss’ clockwork-perfect machines of the era, and even Kodak’s Retina series), the Edixa Reflex is hefty enough that it constantly exudes the feel of old-world craft. Advancing the film presents the delightful mechanical noises of all the best film cameras. The front-mounted shutter release button depresses smoothly and softly, and shutter release is deliberate, snappy, and smooth.
The fitted waist-level finder is not only charming and delightful in the same old-world way as the rest of the camera, it’s also amazingly bright and vibrant. This, of course, will change depending on the maximum aperture of the lens fitted to the front of the machine, but even with the relatively sluggish 50mm f/2.8 lens which came packed with mine, there’ve been only a few issues focusing in even darkened environments. Focus accuracy is helped along by an adorable magnifier that, with the flick of a fingernail, flips into place for precise focus. I used this constantly. It’s amazing, and I love it.
There’s a shutter release lock, a film frame counter, a film reminder dial, and slow shutter speed selector hidden beneath the shutter speed dial. All of these controls are firm and compliant. Dials click into their detents with mechanical precision, and switches, knobs, and levers provide the tactile feedback that makes classic cameras the rewarding experience that their digital successors so often aren’t.
Shooting the Edixa is fun, and the sentimental swooning of the last few paragraphs espouse the truth that the Edixa Reflex B is everything I love about classic cameras. Now let’s spend some words talking about why it’s also everything I hate about classic cameras.
The waist-level finder is adorable and magical, as I’ve mentioned, especially to those who’ve never seen one. In fact, these words “adorable and magical” are not my own. They were exclaimed by a young photographer who used it to describe the experience the first time she looked down through the top of the camera and saw her friend rendered there in the finder’s miniature focusing screen. And she was right. It is adorable and magical. But it’s also a challenge.
This is because the waist-level finder, as experienced shooters will know, presents a mirrored image of whatever’s funneling into the lens. That means that any adjustment in angle or framing or composition becomes an exercise in breaking habits, the result for the dim-witted among us (that’s me) is that many shots will be just a bit mis-framed, or show undesired Dutch Tilt (no offense to the Dutch – I love their cameras).
Fitting the eye-level prism finder naturally solves the problem, if we can call this a problem. But I found that it also strips the machine of much of its charm. Call me an anachronistic nincompoop, but if my 35mm SLR came from the factory with a waist-level finder (and these cameras did – the prism was an add-on accessory), then that’s what I’m going to use. And suffer for it.
And then there’s the shutter speed dial. To start, it’s one of those spring-loaded, lift-and-twist dials that users of the oldest 35mm film cameras will recognize. To change speeds we must lift the outer ring of the dial and twist it to our desired speed, then drop it back down into place. Distances between the demarcations aren’t uniform, which is vaguely annoying, and the distances between the higher shutter speeds are so close to one another on the face of the dial that it’s often a finicky task to choose the desired fast speed. Its design also means that it’s impossible to adjust the shutter speed without actually looking at the dial, not a problem when using the waist-level-finder, but when looking through a prism it’s quite a pain (though I believe later Edixa Reflex models added a speed indicator in the VF).
But the worst offense of this shutter speed dial is that it’s also a moving part of the shutter mechanism. Many cameras from the early days of 35mm film have these types of dials. When the shutter is cocked and the film advanced, the dial spins with the loaded springwork underneath (clockwise in the case of the Edixa). When the shutter is released, it snaps back anti-clockwise. The problem with this, is that if the photographer is not careful and his or her finger is resting on this dial at the time of shutter release (with even the slightest touch) the shutter dial will drag or halt altogether, and subsequently the shutter itself will drag or halt. This, of course, causes uneven and prolonged exposures. It’s important, therefore, to remember to keep our digits away from this dial at all times.
This is the part of the camera that was described by an observing photo geek as “stupid,” with an unprintable expletive added for emphasis. Ever the champion of stupid, old cameras, I tried to make excuses and reason with him that with the right touch and fifteen years of continuous practice it might be possible to leverage this design drawback into a kind of haptic exposure compensation dial. By intentionally dragging the dial when we release the shutter, we could almost create a sort of organic exposure compensation or backlight mode! It’s genius, really.
But I was reaching, and he was right. It is pretty stupid.
And then there’s the film transport problems. I’ve had plenty of cameras stutter when advancing film. Slipped sprockets, take-up spools that are too wimpy to pull the film lead a full frame with one actuation of the advance lever, jagged metal spools that rip acetate. The Wirgin Edixa Reflex B (or at the least, my particular Reflex B) did all of these things. All told, I lost five frames across two 36 exposure rolls to various film transport faults, and while this could easily be a problem limited to the individual example in my hands, I’m not convinced. These cameras were made to a price point, and not all components are as precise as those found in other same-era cameras. It’s possible that all of these Edixas have some degree of quirk. Though not a deal-breaker in any way, these flaws have been a part of my user experience that’s impossible to ignore.
With all of these foibles combined, shooting the Reflex B is a somewhat slower process than I’m used to, and one that will certainly be slower for a majority of shooters. We spend most of our time clutching Nikons and Canons and Leica Ms. These Japanese and pinnacle German cameras are refined and perfected in a way that the Wirgin simply isn’t.
For me, that’s not a bad thing. The Wirgin slowed things down and kept me on my toes. It made me miss some shots, but that’s okay. Because it’s a charming, beautiful, fun camera.
For all its quirks, I do love the Wirgin Edixa Reflex B. It’s a joy to shoot. For those of us who love classic cameras, it’s a winner. It won’t replace the daily shooter, it can’t hold a candle to more modern machines or even the best machines of its own era. But it doesn’t really need to. It’s a camera that makes you fall in love with shooting film, and for most people that will be enough.
The added gravitas of its heritage helps it stand out among the countless other affordable, everyman film cameras floating around today. It was the brainchild of one of the most talented designers to craft a camera, and even if only to own a touchstone of that man’s career, the Wirgin Edixa Reflex is worth owning. It may not be the best camera, or the most collectible, or the most capable, but it’s pretty special anyway.