The weird & wonderful Zeiss Werra 3

8 minutes read

A strangely designed but incredibly beautiful camera that makes a lot of sense.


Zeiss by name but not by nature

When the name 'Zeiss' is mentioned, those familiar with it might imagine a beautifully smooth planar 50mm 1.4 lens, or perhaps a brand new Otus lens that sets the standard for sharpness and all round quality - with a hefty price tag to match. It's unlikely that you would think of a single camera, especially one that was designed and built with the purpose of being a camera for everyone to use and enjoy regardless of budget or experience.

illustration showing the dimensions of the zeiss werra

This niche was intended to be filled by this camera, the Zeiss Werra. With the aim to make a people friendly camera and hide away the complexities typically associated with most other cameras of the time, behind a beautifully designed exterior so that the user can forget or simply, not have to think about anything that might get in the way of the shot they are taking.

I brought this camera out of sheer curiosity over something that looked so strange, where the usual camera controls were hidden or moved elsewhere. After I put my first roll through it, I knew this was something truly unique and needed to be talked about further from an image quality and design point of view. But first, we need to know a little about the rich history behind this camera.


The camera of the people

The story of the Zeiss Werra starts with the people themselves. With Germany divided into east and west following the end of the second world war, the people in the east grew increasingly dissatisfied with the political and economic conditions of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) until in 1953 they responded with widespread protests and uprisings. In order to mitigate further possible complications following the uprising, the east german government encouraged the production of more consumer goods in the region.

Zoomed image of the Werra name on the camera
Perhaps this is what a modern day magazine ad for the Werra might look like.

This effort gave birth to the Werra series of cameras designed and engineered under the direction of Rudolph Müller, Werner Broche and Kurt Wagner who shared the vision of a 'volkskamera' or people's camera.

The most famous example of something being prefixed with 'Volks' is no doubt the Volkswagen, a car that was quoted as being capable of 'opening up the automobile world to millions of customers on low incomes, I'll let you google who said that. The Zeiss Werra was intended to fulfil this same vision, but offering photography to the masses instead of mass motorization.

Werner Broche and Kurt Wagner
Designers Werner Broche and Kurt Wagner working on the Werra Camera - Source: Deutsche Fotothek, data set 71206836

The Werra had some straining requirements, not least the expectation that it should cost no more than 100 'Deutsche Marks', around a fifth of a workers monthly salary, but the cost reductions did not compromise on the quality of the final product and it's likely that the effort to keep production costs down resulted in the design choices that I will talk about later.

The factory chosen for this manufacturing task was located in the town of Eisfeld on the river Werra, where the camera eventually got its name. The Werra camera took just 7 months to design and prototype, a triumph of combined and focussed energy and was first introduced at the 1954 Leipzig Spring Fair.

The Werra remained in production until 1968 where there were 22 different models developed and over 40 variants - from the first very simple first version to the far more complex coupled meter versions, a far cry perhaps from the simplicity of the original design. By 1968 over 520,000 units had been manufactured which means that even today many can be found online at a reasonable price.


Outside-the-box design thinking

The political and economic conditions under which the Werra was designed and manufactured may well have been a blessing in disguise. The need to keep costs as low as possible to meet the strict low price point but also its target market may have had a big part to play in the unique look and operation of the Werra line of cameras.

Let's take a look at some of the key features of the Werra III that makes it stand out from the crowd.

The lens hood

I like to consider this to be one of the Werra's party pieces, what looks like a simple protector for the lens does more than just that.

The Zeiss Werra with the lens protector in place
The lens hood acting as a cover and protector for the lens and shutter mechanism
The Zeiss Werra with the lens protector used as a lens hood
The perfect lens hood for the Tessar 50mm lens

The protector also screws on to the front of the lens to act as the lens hood. Pretty cool eh! This design is unique to the Werra and means the lucky buyer didn't have to buy a hood separately, nor did the factory have to distribute one separately to the camera itself. This screws on securely (Just make sure the lens is focussed to infinity) and perfectly protects the lens and shutter mechanism from any unwanted knocks and dust when not in use.

The Lens

The standard Zeiss Werra came with a Zeiss Novonar 50mm f/3.5 but future models including the III came with a very capable Jena Tessar 50mm 2.8. Not too fast to add extra weight to the camera, and certainly no slouch and offers many creative possibilities when focussing on close subjects as close as 0.8 metres.

Illustration showing diagram of a tessar lens

An unexpected feature of later Werra's from the III upwards was an interchangeable lens. Twisting a locking ring around the lens allows the lens to be taken off and replaced with either a Zeiss Flektogon 35mm f/2.8 or a Zeiss Cardinar 100mm f/4 which could be purchased together as part of a complete kit. Christopher Osborne has photos of the complete lens kit over on his blog.

Photo showing the changeable lens
Photo showing the tessar lens detached

Taking a picture

Taking a look now at the rear of the camera, we only see a nice large viewfinder. Such a large viewfinder was usually reserved for more expensive cameras of the time like the Canon-P or the Leica M3. The knurled ring around the viewfinder can be unscrewed to act as a diopter to allow the user to adjust the viewfinder to their vision.

The rear of the zeiss werra
Nothing but the viewfinder

Looking through the viewfinder, the view is extremely bright (in my case) and with frame lines representing each of the three possible lenses you can attach to the Werra. Offset lines help you account for parallax correction when focussing on close subjects.

Now for the most interesting bit. The Zeiss Werra does not use a 'Coincidence Type' rangefinder more commonly found on most rangefinder cameras where a duplicated image is projected into a square or circle in the center of the viewfinder and focussing is achieved by lining up both images so they overlap (or 'Coincide') like so:

illustration showing how coincide rangefinder focussing works
A typical rangefinder focussing rangefinder patch

The Werra III on the other hand uses a series of prisms to produce a 'Combined' rangefinder which is like having a mini viewfinder within the larger rangefinder. The major advantage of this is that it is incredibly easy to use even in low-light. The only major drawback is that your subject needs to have easily recognisable lines and shapes for easy alignment.

illustration how the zeiss werra rangefinder focussing works
How the viewfinder looks when focussing the Werra

Advancing the film

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Werra series is the lack of any controls or levers on the top of the camera. Just the shutter release remains in a position familiar with most other 35mm cameras of the era.

illustration showing how to advance the zeiss werra
The Werra uses a unique method of advancing the film

Advancing the film and recocking the shutter happens in one smooth rotation of the grippy inner ring where the lens attaches to the camera body. A series of buzzing sounds and clicks gives the tangible feel of movement. Once everything is in place, the ring rotates back with a spring movement. I was nervous at first as this was so unfamiliar and what I could only think was a likely source of most problems with Werras but as time went on, I relaxed and didn't think twice about it.

This is perhaps its most divisive feature but most appear to welcome this oddity. This unique method of advancing the film just oozes of character and is a testament to the outside-the-box thinking that the designers were fortunate enough to explore.

close up shop of the rear of the camera
The Werra has a unique textured film rail

Another fine point to add can be seen on the rear of the camera once the back has been taken off. The usual smooth rail where the film is pressed against is replaced with a knotched textured rail which according to some sources out there is designed to stretch the film and assist with flattening the film against the film plain.

Rewinding the film

Another familiar feature of most cameras that has been moved elsewhere on the Werra is the rewind handle and frame counter. Adding to the top-plates minimalist, simplicity-first design both controls have been moved to the underside of the camera and remain flush to let the camera stand sturdy.

close up shop of the bottom of the camera
Minimally designed film rewind handle and frame counter

In practice, this works well when you only go through one roll per week or month and use the supplied leather half-case as was maybe expected by the Werra's target audience, but perhaps this would be a hindrance for the working professional who would expect to go through multiple rolls of film in a day.

Look and Feel

The little camera that could

The Werra can draw parallels with some of the most famous pieces of design that take what came before them and turn the design on its head, approaching the same problems with fresh new solutions. You could even go as far to say the Werra may not have been a far cry from what a company like Apple may have created if they approached the design of a film camera the same way they do their products today. The Werra's clean round edges, lack of external features and excellent build quality all add to a fun and confident shooting experience.

illustration showing the dimensions of the zeiss werra
The Werra sports a small form-factor and fits easily in the hands

The Werra is a small camera, the body is measured at around four and a half inches in length and just over three inches in height it can fit comfortably in your hand. My larger hands do hold the camera a little awkwardly with little space to grip the camera body before the lens gets in the way, but it's a minor issue and not so noticeable in practice.

As mentioned before, composing a shot and focussing with the large, bright viewfinder and equally bright rangefinder make this a simple job and helps in building confidence that you got the shot you intended to take. The shutter offers a little resistance but actions very quietly and a satisfying sweeping sound, perfect for those subtle street shots.

Using the unique film advancement did come with some initial issues and the ring itself does rattle a little. Perhaps a case of lower tolerances to allow for its easy rotation or sample variation but this didn't detract too much from the shooting experience and for its original price point, I expect a little rattle here and there.

5 Frames

Kodak Ultramax 400

All the following shots were taken and scanned at home using Negative Lab Pro. Details of my scanning setup can be found here

All images have had a minimum amount of post-processing applied minus some minor exposure and contrast correction where required following the film conversion process.

Picture of colourful metalwork
The Tessar produces some nice colours in bright conditions
Ordsall hall
Good sharpness in the center of the frame
A small tree in sunlight
The lens produces nice, defined contrast
A vintage car parked outside a house
Great sharpness across the frame
Manchester city skyline
Infinity focus looks to be a little off, which may point to the rangefinder needing re-calibration

Final Words

Small, Smart and Different

What more is there to say about this little gem of east german forward thinking design and engineering?

Looking past its strange initial looks you quickly understand the reasons why the designers took away so much but gave back much more in the experience of using the Werra III. Pushed by a bureaucratic need for cost reduction ultimately resulted in a unique and beautiful camera system that surpassed my own expectations given its origins.

The Werra can sit happily in anyone's camera collection as a fine example of east german design and engineering. And therein lies its biggest problem, its unique looks and operation gives me an overwhelming need to protect and preserve it. Since running this test roll through this camera about 6 months ago, I have not put any more rolls through it for fear of the unique winding-on mechanism exploding in a cloud of springs or the rangefinder becoming so misaligned it's unusable.

A camera like this unfortunately is a ticking time bomb, just like many, many other film cameras. Some spare parts may be available but the knowledge of how to repair them is likely to be all but gone already - pickings on the Ebay seems to be increasingly advertised as faulty or 'for parts or repair'.

But, that doesn't mean that I won't use this camera again, I will have to pick and choose my moments to break it out and enjoy it - when or if the time comes when something does finally break, it won't be a total loss as it's a constant reminder of how turning ideas around, thinking outside-the-box within your constraints can have a big impact on the final experience and ultimately, enjoyment.