To a generation that has grown up with autofocus lenses and digital LCD screens it may be hard to imagine, but from the birth of photography right up to the 1960s it was very common to own a camera that totally lacked any mechanism to confirm accurate focus. These cameras that featured neither rangefinders nor focusing screens were known as scale focus or zone focus cameras, or viewfinder cameras. The user would set the distance to subject on the lens barrel and hope for the best.
Even with this limitation taken into account, there were some incredibly good scale focus cameras produced in the mid-20th century. The Olympus Trip 35, for example, was one of the best-selling cameras of all time, selling more than ten million copies worldwide over a fifteen year period of production. But that doesn’t change the fact that it (and countless other viewfinder and zone focus cameras) isn’t as accurate as a rangefinder camera or SLR.
Enter human ingenuity and the drive for improvement. For as long as photography has existed there have been accessory companies producing gadgets that solve problems and make life easier. It was quickly realized that adding a separate rangefinder mechanism to a zone focus camera amounted to an affordable and impactful improvement to these hard-to-focus but otherwise excellent machines.
There were dozens of auxiliary rangefinders produced from the 1930s, up to the Fotoman which is produced today in China, however the level of quality and features of these numerous rangefinders vary dramatically. The top-quality versions are the Leitz Fokos, Kodak Service Rangefinder, Kodak Pocket Rangefinder, Brownie Measure-Rite, AMF, Saymon Brown and the unusual Kuhn Flexameter. Some common models are the BLIK by Lomo, Hugo Meyer Pocket Range Finder, Walz, Widor, Ideal, Certo Certus, Medis, Pollux, Rowi, Prazisa and Gallus to name quite a few.
The auxiliary rangefinder I chose to buy is the Watameter Super (shown attached to my Finetta 99). This camera’s Staeble-Werk 45mm Finon lens can focus as close as 22cm, and the Watameter Super is the only means (apart from a tape measure) that would allow me to accurately shoot with the camera at such close distances. With its beautiful Art Deco styling and several unique features, it’s truly the Rolls Royce of auxiliary rangefinders.
A Very Brief History
The Watameter Super was the penultimate in a series of auxiliary rangefinders manufactured by Edmund Wateler, Fabrik Opt.-Fotogr. Erzeugnisse in Braunschweig (West Germany). It possesses features almost no other rangefinders of the era had, such as the internal distance scale, which appears on the left-hand side of the viewfinder window. The beauty of this scale is that the user can immediately see the distance without having to lower the camera from the eye.
Another almost unique feature is its macro focusing ability from 50cm down to 30cm, which is shown on the outer dial. The Super Watameter also has an incredibly useful feature of being able to calibrate focus vertically and horizontally via external dials, whereas most other models need to be opened up to be adjusted. Since rangefinders can often move out of alignment with use, this is incredibly helpful. All of these features are wrapped inside a beautiful full metal body with leatherette skin.
Using the Watameter Super
At heart, an auxiliary rangefinder is a fairly simple device which uses a coincident-viewing distance focussing mechanism working on the simple principle of triangulation. The images from the two windows are focused through a prism and mirror to measure the difference between what window sees to accurately calculate distances. The different red and green light images created by the viewfinder and rangefinder apertures through the prism and mirror are shown as two ghostlike images of the same subject, one of which moves when a calibrated wheel is turned. Turning the focusing dial causes these images to converge or diverge, and when they are superimposed on each other define when the image is in focus. This process allows a photographer to accurately measure the distance to a subject and take photographs that are in sharp focus. In the Watameter II and the Watameter Super the distance is shown in the internal meter on the left of the viewfinder.
On the left-hand side of the viewfinder window a rotating scale indicated distance. The Watameter Super came in metric and feet and inches. This method of rangefinder measurement is very common and works exactly like other rangefinders.
What makes the Watameter Super unique apart from any other auxiliary rangefinder is its macro ability. While other rangefinders can measure as close as 50cm or 32 inches the Super can measure from 50cm down to 30cm (20” down to 12”). The internal sliding scale goes from infinity down to 55cm, then continuing to turn the dial will show up measurements on the external dial from 50cm down to 30cm (20” down to 12”).
The system works very well but getting this close creates a problem; the camera distance setting in the old days was calculated from the last element of the lens, the meter calculates it from its mirror, that is the middle of its housing. So you have to measure the distance between the lens of your camera and the meter installed, and then always subtract this value from your measured result in macro mode.
The aluminum eyepiece can be removed by unscrewing it and can be replaced with an extended (but very rare) version. Eyeglass wearers should take care as the edges of the eyepiece can potentially scratch your lenses.
The rangefinder can be calibrated very easily- turning the inner dial adjusts horizontally, and the smaller dial on the side handles vertical adjustment. While this is a great feature it also means that the dial is easy to easy turn by mistake, so care should be taken to check calibration before shooting. This is done quite easily by picking something at infinity and then turning the dial until the rangefinder image coincides.
Watameter Super Specifications
- Images: Shots of the Watameter Super
- Maker: Edmund Wateler, Fabrik Opt.-Fotogr. Erzeugnisse
- Made: Braunschweig; Germany c. 1952
- Mount: Standard cold shoe
- Units: Meters/Feet
- Range: 20cm – 50cm + 50cm to infinity
- Normal Scale: 0.55 / 0.60 / 0.65 / 0.70 / 0.80 / 0.90 / 1 / 1.2 / 1.5 / 2 / 2.5 / 3 / 4 / 6 / 12 / oo metres
- Macro Scale: 30 / 35 / 40 / 45 / 50 centimetres
- Special Features: In-viewer distance scale, macro scale, eyepiece replaceable with extended version.
- Calibration: Knob or screw in centre of adjustment dial for distance, knob or screw for vertical alignment on left side of body (Watameter Super model only)
- Size: W=69 mm H=24 mm D=28 mm
- Weight: 40 g
- Price when new: DM 19.50
A 1965 advertisement lists it features thusly.
- Gold-plated mirror
- Simple accurate operation
- Standard foot
- Finished in smart black leather with chrome trim
- External re-adjustment knob
- Scale in feet
- Fits to the accessory shoe
The History of the WATA Company
The WATA company was started in 1946 by Edmund Wateler (b. 1899, d. 28/12/1964). The factory was located in Braunschweig (also known as Brunswick) a city in north-central Germany, and the full name of the factory was Edmund Wateler Fabrik Optischer und Fotografischer.
- 1932: Wateler was employed as a salesperson at Hauff-Leonar (Hamburg), then as Sales Manager at Geveart Gmbh (Berlin),
- 1935: Wateler became the regional representative for Voigtländer based in Berlin.
- 1946: One year after the end of WWII Wateler opened his WATA factory at Eulenstrasse 2, Brunswick, Erzeugnisse, Braunschweig. It was registered as a company on 7/11/1950.
- 1951: Manufacture of the Watameter (rangefinder) starts, as well as the Watamat (optical gradation transducers) and flash calculator.
- Wateler’s success really started around 1952 when the company formed an agreement with the UK company Photopia to distribute their products in the United Kingdom. Photopia Ltd. was a photographic distributor based in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, England specializing in the sale of camera accessories. The company was run by Charles G. Strasser who was granted an OBE later in life. The two companies had such a good relationship that Edmund Wateler sent his son Heinz over to England to work for Photopia for six months to learn English and marketing methods.
- 1953-1972: The company designed and sold a variety of photographic accessories such as the Watalux X2 piston flash unit, slide projectors, copy stands, auxiliary flash attachments, and a flash calculator.
- 2019: The WATA company is still registered in Germany with the Company registration number HRA7162 BRAUNSCHWEIG. Its current trading status is “live.” Although I can find no other record about what it does presently. Address – Edmund Wateler Fabrik Optischer und Fotografischer (Wata), Eulenstrasse 2, Erzeugnisse, Braunschweig 38114, Germany.
Buying your own Watameter
The Watameter came in three main variants, the Watameter I and II were sold concurrently, and the Watameter II was not an upgrade as many of us might assume. To make picking a Watameter more difficult, each model had generational changes as well. The Watameter I and II had an adjustment dial on the knob, but the Watameter I has an inset adjustment that required a tool to adjust the meter’s accuracy.
Watameter I – this is the most basic version and lacks an in-finder dial, distance is determined by the external dial only. The Watameter I is often just called Watameter. Buy it here.
Watameter II – this version added the internal readout. Buy it here.
Watameter Super – the external macro dial, internal measurement down to 30cm and the vertical adjustment dial was added. Buy it here.
The Watameter Super was an upgrade of the Watameter II with significantly better features. Watameter I and II were both quality products, stylish, well-made and still useful, they just lack the useful features of the Watameter Super. The Watameter Super came in several different versions which all function the same, and just look different. The easiest way to differentiate the Watameter Super from the other versions is that it has the vertical adjustment knob on the side, and a large S and numerals on the smaller dial on the back.