The Finetta 99, or more accurately the Finetta-Werk Sarabèr Goslar Finetta 99 (c. 1953-57) is a beautifully styled camera. It’s also a camera known almost exclusively to camera collectors. But it also stands as everything I love about vintage cameras; it’s fully mechanical, it’s beautifully crafted, and it possesses a fascinating history.
All of that in mind, I have to admit that I bought this camera mainly for its good looks. With its 1950s aluminum body wrapped in gorgeous “Pegamoid” skin, it resembles the Pontiac Super Lynx I which James has written about on this site. However, once I shot with the Finetta 99 I was pleasantly surprised to find that its usability easily matches its styling, and I’ve been extremely impressed with the Finon 45mm lens.
This very rare and elegantly designed camera is a handcrafted jewel which epitomizes the techniques and styling of German cameras made in the 1950s. Every aspect of the camera, from its unique spring work motor to its beautifully machined lens and dials, was built with utmost care and finest craftsmanship. But because only approximately 10,000 copies were ever manufactured, there are very few working examples left in the world. My Finetta 99 was in pristine condition when I bought it, and it has been fully restored since.
The 1950s saw an uptick in the number of clockwork cameras being made, the most well-known being the Berning Robot, as well as Bolsey 8, Bell & Howell Foton and the Italian Gami. The Finetta 99 combined the clockwork drive of cameras like the Berning Robot with a system of interchangeable lenses which was then only available in cameras such as the Contax IIa, Contax S, Exakta and of course, the Leica. The cameras made by Finetta prior to the Finetta 99 were quite primitive, and the company put a great deal of effort and ingenuity into the design and production of the camera. In fact, so much effort was put into developing the camera that is plunged the company into bankruptcy (another factor influencing the dearth of existing copies). The quality of its build, the high styling, and the relative lack of supply has made the camera a highly sought after model in the collector camera market.
The history behind unique cameras like the Finetta adds another layer of interest on top of its looks and function. I’m always fascinated to learn who designed them and the companies that built them. The Finetta 99 has this historical interest in spades. It was the final and most ambitious of the cameras developed by Finetta-Werk, located in Goslar in the Harz mountains of Germany. Adding a further layer to the personal backstory of my camera, my Finetta 99 (Serial Number 093741) came from the estate of Werner Umstätter, a well-known camera collector in Germany who was responsible for the creation of the Museum der Fotografie in Görlitz, Germany.
The Finetta 99 really achieved success after its release to an astonished photo-shooting public at Photokina in April 1954. When it was released the camera cost 198 Deutsch Mark and was advertised in May 1954 in the United States for 99 dollars, the equivalent of $938 in 2019. Other cameras with interchangeable lenses such as the Contax S, Leica IIIc, Contax IIa and the Exakta VX cost three to four times as much as the Finetta 99. It was rebadged as the Ditto 99 in the USA, and the Hanimar by Hanimex in Australia.
Finetta-Werk Sarabèr Goslar Cameras
The history of the Finetta company is inextricably tied to one man, its owner Peter Sarabèr. He is pictured above left in the only image I can find of him, which was published in 1952 when the Finetta company was at the height of its success.
Piet (later Peter) Sarabèr was a Dutch native who was born in Saarland, Holland in 1899 and died in Switzerland in 1985, aged 86 years. Prior to WWII, Sarabèr was working as an electrician in Delft, Holland where he had also studied engineering.
After the start of WWII in 1939, like millions of other men in conquered Sarabèr became a forced laborer under Nazi rule. Being a skilled electrician with an engineering background, his skills were valuable, and in 1940 he was brought into Korelle Werks by Brandtman by its chief designer. In 1942 Sarabèr married a German woman Elisabetha. Because of Korelle’s seizure by the Nazis prior to WWII, and the fact that he later brought some Korelle employees like Rudolf Trensch into his own post-war company, Sarabèr has been unfairly accused of being a Nazi collaborator. However, as this account written about the history of Goslar indicates that both Sarabèr and his German wife were opposed to the policies of the Nazis.
“Born in Delft (Holland), the native of Saarland ends up in Seesen during the war, a time when the personal happiness of the Sarabèr family is on the cutting edge, Ms. Elisabetha shows her displeasure at the injustices of the Nazi regime. This type of action aroused the interest of the Gestapo, and the Sarabèrs were no exception, it was suggested that it was “in their own interests” to divorce, which is out of the question for both […] then Elisabetha Sarabèr helped a man in his struggle for survival, who was passing secret information from Germany to the English …. “
Goslars Handel im Wandel der Zeiten [Goslar’s Trade in the Changing Times], by Kraus Geyer
Immediately after WWII, Sarabèr and his wife moved to the German town of Goslar in the Sierra del Harz in Lower Silesia, a pretty medieval town which featured in the film The Monuments Men. Only a few weeks after the end of the war on June 1st 1945, Sarabèr opened an office specializing in electrical engineering, but it wasn’t long before the emphasis of the company focused on manufacturing cameras.
From 1947 to 1949, Sarabèr developed his first camera based on a design by Helmut Finke, a veteran technician at Voigtländer Kamera Werk in nearby Braunschweig. This first camera was dubbed the “Finette” supposedly based on Finke’s name, and it was launched in 1948. However, the two quickly parted when Sarabèr discovered that Finke was working on a copy of the camera with a nearby competitor. Following this conflict, Sarabèr changed the name of his firm, and on October 23rd, 1948 the “Finetta-Werk” company was registered. Shortly after, the “Finetta” camera was released.
By 1949 Sarabèr had hired Rudolph Trentsch, who he’d worked with during the War at Korelle Werks. Trentsch was employed as an engineer and designer to help run the company and design cameras. The new company was located in a large former military barracks located in the Jäger-Kaserne, Golsar, sometimes called the Dom-Kaserne pictured above. The company shared the building with a workshop to help retrain people who were injured during WWII, and employed sixty people – mainly women – who Sarabèr hired because he believed they had better manual dexterity than men. Between 1949 and 1956, nearly 100,000 Finetta cameras were built in Goslar’s Finetta factory and exported worldwide.
The success of the Finetta cameras led to an expansion of the company. In 1951 Sarabèr brought several experienced engineers into the company. Camera designer Herrn Höhlemann and Karl-Heinz Reich who was responsible for the design of the Kühn REKA Camera also joined the company. It was this team of experienced engineers and designers who created the Finetta 99 camera.
A Closer Look at the Finetta 99
The Finetta 99 came in two versions; the regular Finetta 99 (1952) had a slowest shutter speed of 1/25, and the Finetta 99L (1953) had an extra speed knob with slow shutter speeds down to one second. To see examples of the two versions see the excellent article by Dr. Siegfried Müller.
The Finetta 99 was the penultimate camera in a series of cameras produced by Peter Sarabèr. When it was introduced to the public at Photokina in 1954 it caused a sensation. The camera featured a clockwork motor with the ability to shoot up to sixteen shots without rewinding, at a speed of four pictures per second. It also featured an advanced focal plane shutter with speeds of 1/25 – 1/1,000 second. To those accomplishments was added a variety of interchangeable lenses, and extensions tubes for macro work. Sarabèr’s electrical background had also given him the skills to add a dedicated hotshoe of his own design, and the Finelux flash, a revolutionary design, allowed the flash to be directed at an angle. Competing cameras at this time with interchangeable lenses were three to four times the cost of the Finetta 99.
I am drawn to quirky and unusual cameras and the Finetta 99 resembles no other. The company really put a lot of effort into its design, and for a consumer-priced camera the levels of detailing are first class. The cast aluminum chassis is covered by a top cover of satin chromed steel and back and base cover made of thin riveted steel sheet, which is screwed in place by a large knurled knob on the base. The outer body is covered with the distinctive silver herring bone skin made from a synthetic material called “Pegamoïd.” This material was also used on the French Semflex camera and resembles the cast metal body of the beautiful Pontiac Super Lynx from France. The accoutrements to the beautiful surface finishes of the Finetta 99 are the knobs and dials, which are made of metal and machined to extremely fine tolerances.
The most unique feature of the Finetta 99 is its mechanically charged film winding mechanism, and unlike the Berning Robot cameras which require the use of cartridges, the Finetta 99 works with regular 35mm film. Within the Finetta 99, where an ordinary take up spool would exist in most cameras, is a large chromed cylinder with sprocket lugs to transport the film. It should be noted that the camera manual carries a warning about not shooting the camera without film inserted, and this may be the reason that the clockwork motor of many Finetta 99 cameras is no longer functional. This warning hints at a larger truth – that the Finetta 99 is a quirky and unique camera. Prospective buyers and shooters should read the manual before touching the camera. It can be found here in English or German.
Shooting the Finetta 99
The ergonomics of the camera are good and it exudes a feeling of firmness and quality. The controls are all solid metal with machine engraving and operate nicely, apart from the shutter release which is has a lot of travel, and one of the lesser quality features on the camera. The shutter fires, and at the end of its travel springs back only if you lift your finger off the shutter button. Occasionally mine sticks, and the trick to getting them working is to turn the Leica-type fast speed dial to get it to complete its travel. However, be warned not to lift it as that can damage the mechanics. Mine is 95% reliable and this small nuisance I forgive because everything else about this camera delights me.
The large spring winding knob gives about sixteen shots when fully wound, although Finetta-Werk advertised it as being able to reach twenty. This knob, which both advances the film and cocks the shutter, rotates counter-clockwise and care must be taken; like all clockwork motors it’s not advisable to wind it too tightly. The clockwork function takes a while to get accustomed to, as the film is advanced solely by the friction of the take-up spool without a sprocket drive. Consequently, as the film is wound onto the spool the spacing between the frames begins to increase, posing a few scanning problems with today’s automated machinery. Once a roll is completed, rewinding the film is done via the knob at the base of the motor. Unscrewing this disengages an internal pawl.
Care must be taken that film is loaded as per the instructions in the manual. I have made a better-quality step-by-step instruction for inclusion in this article. Turn the rewind release knob on the base of the camera fully to the left and rotate the take up spool so that the holding pins come to the front, then turn the rewind release fully in again. Undo the rear panel of the camera by turning the large knob on the base of the camera counterclockwise. Inside the camera is very neat and features a lovely chromed pressure plate. Fold the pressure plate open, then hook the second perforation of the film onto the holding pins. Lay the film along the film channel, insert the film cartridge whilst keeping the film taut, and fold the pressure plate back over the film. Double check that the film is taut and the holding pins are firmly placed within the film’s sprocket holes before placing the cover back on the camera, because otherwise the film wont engage with the sprockets and the film wont transport after each shot.
The cloth focal plane shutter has speeds on the shutter speed dial beside the shutter release button, with speeds up 1,000 of a second. On the front righthand side of the camera is a selector lever which has B for Bulb setting, read the manual and be careful of using this as incorrect use can damage the camera. The other setting are synchronized flash delay settings for using the Finelux Flash.
Before taking a shot, the focus distance and aperture must be changed on the lens. This is done quite easily. The aperture is adjusted with the smaller wheel while the larger knurled knob adjusts focus. Distance can be estimated, but Finetta recommended the use of an auxiliary rangefinder. I have written a detailed article on the Watameter-Super that I use on my Finetta 99. This is especially necessary when attempting macro shots with the Finon lens. The lens has two sets of markings on the dial one from infinity to one meter, and then a completely different set from one meter down to 22 centimeters. Beware that there is an amazing amount of travel on the lens to get from close-focusing distance to infinity, with the lens rotating almost three whole revolutions between the two extremes. This gives a lot of ability to finely focus, but to be accurate an auxiliary rangefinder is a necessity.
The viewfinder is one of the poorest features of the camera, it provides no information at all, just a simple bright frame that displays an image area that’s a little wider than the real frame line. The one thing I would recommend is to get a Blind Viewfinder, the easiest being the 24×36 Voigtländer Kontur finder.
The P. Saraber Goslar Finon 45mm f/2.8 lens
Unlike the earlier Finetta cameras the Finetta 99 was released with a really superb lens, the P. Saraber Goslar FINON 45mm f/2.8. As I’ve stated before I bough this lovely little camera for its looks but was absolutely astonished when I developed the first roll of film and saw the results. The lens is sharp and produces rich contrasty images that are nearly the equal of my favorite lens, the Schneider-Kreuznach five element Xenar 50mm f/2.8.
The lens design is of the classic four-element Tessar variety, but the front element is deeply embedded within the lens body and has a deep blue coating. I believe these two features are what make this lens capable of producing such good images.
Unlike the earlier Finetta cameras the Finetta 99 came with its own special quick-release claw lock bayonet mount, which operates with two claws gripping the lens barrel, released by two small buttons on the front of the camera. The lens is typical of German lens design of the 1950s; solid aluminum construction, a knurled focusing knob, and beautifully engraved details. However, what separates this lens from all the other Finetta lenses, and in fact most lenses of the period, is its incredible close focus ability. With a minimum focus distance of 22 centimeters (just 8.5 inches). Shooting macro photos at 22 cm on a viewfinder camera is really a challenge, but using a Watameter-Super I did manage to get some impressive shots.
Finetta-Werk was unusual amongst the camera manufacturers of the time that they made nearly every part of their cameras in-house. It was common practice at the time for smaller manufacturers to buy their lenses from OEM suppliers. While this was better for ensuring quality control, the costs must have been prohibitive and was partially the reason why the company eventually went bankrupt despite strong sales. Originally the lens elements were made by Die Optisches Werk Dr. Staeble & Co., aka Staeble-Werk in München (Munich). Staeble-Werk was mainly an OEM lens manufacture, and apart from Finetta they supplied lenses for Braun, Kalos, King, Envious, Potthof, Saraber, Wirgin, Genos, Ising, Kürbi & Niggeloh, Linden, Mozar, Pohlack and Seidel. The Finon lenses were assembled at Finetta-Werk, where the barrels were manufactured. Sarabèr himself designed the equipment to grind the lenses used on the later models, and they also made the first lenses for the Bolsey 8 camera.
The Finetta 99 was designed as a system camera, and came with a variety of lenses, and extension tubes. The telephoto lenses each have a built-in hinged viewfinder mask that swings up in front of the camera’s viewfinder. Some of the lenses were made in house at Finetta-Werk, but a variety of lenses were produced for the Finetta 99 including the following – 35mm f/4.3 retrofocus design produced by Som Berthiot (France); P. Saraber Finetar 45mm f/2.8 possibly made in house by Finetta-Werk; Staeble-Finon S 45mm f/2.8 produced by Staeble-Werk (Germany); P. Saraber Finon 45mm f/2.8 (Macro) produced by Staeble-Werk (Germany); Finetta-Werk Color Finar 70 mm f/4.5; Finetar 70mm f/4.5; Telec 90mm f/4.5 produced by J. La Barre (France); Dittar 105 mm f/6.3; Finetta 105mm f/6.3.
The Legacy of Peter Sarabèr
Sarabèr really was an ingenious and accomplished camera designer, although not as successful a businessman. A testament to the ingenuity of Sarabèr’s designs is that the film advance spring wind mechanism of the Finetta 99 was copied by the Soviet designers of the GOMZ Leningrad camera, a very revolutionary camera for its time. Apart from developing the ingenious spring wind mechanism, Sarabèr also developed his own design of a Hot Shoe for the Finetta 99, and the revolutionary “Finelux” flashlight with collapsible metal reflector.
Apart from his own cameras Sarabèr was engaged by Jacques Bogopolsky, alias Bolsey, the owner of the famed Bolsey cinema cameras to design the Bolsey 8, an ultra-compact 8mm camera. This ingenious camera weighing 380 grams and measuring 30 x 79 x 65 mm – only slightly larger than a packet of cigarettes – remains to this day the smallest 8mm camera in the World. The first copies were made at the Finetta-Werk factory and included the Saraber-Goslar FINON 75mm f/2.8 lens, but after the bankruptcy the equipment was shipped first to the Netherlands, and finally to the United States; so the later Bolsey cameras had some Finetta DNA in them. First released in 1955 the Bolsey 8 went through several versions such as the “Princess” and the “Lady” but didn’t sell well commercially. However, it did have one favored market, the spies of the CIA and Britain’s MI6 who widely used it during the Cold War.
Despite the commercial success – especially overseas – of the Finetta 99, the company became over indebted and their bank in Hanover blocked their loans. In February 1957 the company went bankrupt, Sarabèr’s Son Arthur became involved in the company and desperately attempted to trade the company out of its problems. A skeleton crew kept producing cameras for sale from existing parts but sadly on November 30, 1957 the factory was finally closed and the company dissolved.
After a lifetime working in the camera industry, and all his commercial success, and what must have been the heartbreaking dissolution of his company, a then fifty-eight-year-old Sarabèr didn’t give up. He continued to work in the camera industry, including as a designer at Minox, Emo-Elektronik, as a projector designer in Liechtenstein, on binocular development at Hensoldt in Wetzlar, and he even designed a cigarette tamping machine for BILORA. Sarabèr never gave up on his beloved clockwork cameras; in 1965 (then aged sixty-six) he designed a new Super 8 camera in Germany and Switzerland in the style of the Bolsey 8, the Tellcin S8. The Tellcin S8 had no light meter or zoom and needed a specially loaded cassette to use Super 8 film, but only fifty to sixty copies were produced up to 1970.
Peter Sarabèr died in 1985 at the age of eighty-six. He was survived by his son Arthur and two other children, his grave is in Switzerland where he spent the final years of his life. Sadly his name hardly exists today, and I was unable to track down any of his relatives. Vale Mr. Sarabèr! I love and cherish the quirky, beautiful cameras you designed.
Finetta 99 Buyer’s Guide
The Finetta 99 is really a collector’s camera, sought after by people whose only intention is to put them in a display case. But I am a contrarian and love shooting old and quirky cameras. However, it’s important for me to emphasize that any prospective buyers would be exceedingly lucky to find a Finetta in as good condition as mine, and then it would be even rarer to find one that’s operational. The unique feature that sets this camera apart, the spring wound clockwork motor, is also its biggest liability. The spring wound clockwork mechanism which transports the film is perhaps not built to the best design or standards, and if it has been damaged it’s almost impossible to find a camera technician with any experience repairing one. Buyers who find one and plan on shooting a Finetta 99 should not attempt to shoot it until after having it serviced by a trained camera repair expert familiar with film cameras from this era. I am fortunate enough to have a friend who does this – Brett Rogers in Tasmania, Australia – and he was invaluable in helping me to bring this camera back to life.
Despite being a rare camera, the Finetta 99 can be found readily on eBay and other sites. They are most common in Germany, and in the USA where they were marketed as the Ditto 99. The camera is common in the United Kingdom and this may be because Goslar was located in the British occupation zone after World War II and many British soldiers may have taken them home. The British importer Haynor Ltd. in London was responsible for the spread of the Finettas widely advertising the camera during the 1950s.
For me, this little camera epitomizes everything I love about vintage cameras; a unique look, still capable of producing lovely images, and possessing an interesting history. If you are into street photography these types of camera are great. They are a real conversation starter, and when I am shooting it people often stop and ask about it. However probably the best asset to shooting street photography with vintage cameras is that people are less intimidated by them, and I always tell people that it’s a film camera which for some reason people feel more comfortable with. I wouldn’t recommend the Finetta 99 as a daily shooter, but for occasional street shooting, or just taking snapshots on holidays it’s great fun.
Want your own Sarabèr Finetta 99?
The high prices the Finetta fetches are based upon its collectibility, and examples in good condition are not cheap. So you won’t find many people shooting this camera, and shots taken with are even harder to find than the camera. So hopefully this article will encourage people to take them off the shelf and run some film through them. If you aren’t brave enough to do that, then at least this fascinating and beautiful camera will look lovely sitting in your display case.
Firstly, I must give my immense gratitude to Brett Rogers of Tasmania Film Photography who bought this lovely little camera back to life.
Some pictures and text are excerpted from the book Finetta, Peter Sarabèr, Kamerawerk Goslar 1948-1956, by Heinz Veddeler, private printing Rhauderdehn 2013. Mr. Veddeler is the expert on the Finetta cameras and has published numerous articles on the camera. His book – although now out of print – is available second-hand.