Werramat by Carl Zeiss Jena

Peculiar Design, Odd Controls, Incredibly-Fast Shutter, Great Optics

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .
Werramat by Carl Zeiss Jena.

Though Werras look like lots of fun in the pictures, having received mine, I found it to be heavy, squeaky, and clunky. This old mechanical East German camera weighs just over 600 grams (1.32lb), much of which rests within its 50mm 𝒇2.8 Tessar lens. Nevertheless, it has a very fast and quiet leaf shutter that can fire up to 1/750s. Peculiarly, that same shutter is activated by twisting the large ring around the lens clockwise, which also winds the film.

Werramat with the lens cap/lens hood on.

Despite its simple, clean appearance, Werramat comes with a ton of quirky innovations and some unexpected drawbacks. Because of that, it’s nearly impossible to judge this camera without going over all of them and deciding whether it’s right for your needs. Which is why this review exists.

Werramat shutter and film advance.

Back in the 60s, the only way to advance your film and cock the shutter was to perform a mechanical action physically. This means that you could not have a “burst” mode on your camera — thus, if you’re attempting to photograph sports or quick action, you’d have only one chance to take a single frame.

Voigtländer Vitessa with combi-plunger rod sticking out.

Many, if not most, cameras would have a twist knob, requiring you to spend around 2-3 seconds fiddling with film advance, often requiring cocking the shutter as a separate action. Single- and double-stroke film advance levers were typically the most advanced systems that would cut down the interruption to about one second, plus the time it’d take the photographer to re-frame the scene. Seeing an opportunity for improvement, despite the lack of motorized solutions, brands like Voigtländer offered quirky, wonderful solutions like combi-plunger that allowed film advance and shutter cocking action to be done with a single squeeze on a long rod that stuck out of the camera body. Being a simpler movement, engineered to allow the photographer to keep looking through the finder as it’s performed, this invention felt a snappier, faster way to take a series of quick shots without any motorized assistance.

Carl Zeiss Jena, a brand that was split from Zeiss Ikon after WWII, decided to take a plunge into rapid film transport as well, with their own flavour of mechanical trickery: the twist ring. The idea is that if you hold Werra in your left hand while twisting the ring with your right, you may achieve a similar effect to combi-plunger: a simple action that would let film transport and shutter mechanism cocking happen within about one second while maintaining the eyesight through the viewfinder.

Carl Zeiss Jena’s 1/750th leaf shutter in action.

In practice, I feel like the twist ring was a bad decision on the engineers’ part; perhaps, too much weight was placed on marketing gimmicks with this camera. Combi-plunger was built to take advantage of both hands’ position on the camera and their natural tendency to squeeze the precious little brick. Jena’s variant requires twisting; not only that, you would be twisting the ring by rotating your right hand counter-clockwise (now that you’re are facing the camera’s backside). This feels quite unnatural and involves throwing your right elbow up into the air. Worse: the resistance of the film fit within a 35mm canister, particularly with Fuji films, makes this action feel straining. Werra’s twist required far more effort than Vitessa’s combi-plunger, which was already tough when compared to the now-traditional lever.

A shot out of a window of a fast-moving train. Though 1/750s is only marginally faster than the more common 1/500s, it’s still nice to have the ability to freeze the frame just a notch tighter. Combjined with Jena’s fantastic glass, Werramat seems like an overall win.

Both Jena’s twist ring and Voigtländer’s combi-plunger were attempts to improve speed using 1950s technology. Neither makes sense in 2021 when motorized film advance is common in most modern point-and-shoots. Using those tools is perhaps the opposite of what many photographers want today as we often use film to slow down anyways. And being able to advance the film while keeping an eye on the viewfinder isn’t that good of an experience: with each move, the camera shakes and tumbles to the point of requiring to take an eye off the finder and reframe.

The incredible Prestor RVS.

The real strength of Werramat is in its unusually fast top shutter speed. At the time, it was more common to have cameras actuate at 1/250s and 1/125s, with leaf shutters practically never quicker than 1/500s. Werra’s Prestor-RVS shutter achieved the incredible 1/750s speed by designing blades with a unique shape that allowed them to open and close with a single smooth motion. Because this also required them to briefly re-open while you cock the shutter, the second set of blades was placed to keep the film from being unintentionally exposed. This feature alone may be worth getting this clunky, flawed East German camera for those who wish to freeze motion without the loud slaps and focal plane distortions that come with all curtain shutters. Better: you could synchronize your flash at all speeds, including the 1/750s.

If this alone is enough to make up your mind, consider this before you start looking for your model: these cameras tend to suffer from sluggish, slow shutter speeds (which isn’t typically a problem for my uses) and a somewhat annoying shutter button that reminds me of FED-5 in terms of its travel distance and occasional misfires.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 𝒇2.8 with Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400 film. No sharpening or contrast enhancements — with only slight perspective correction.

Werramat’s Carl Zeiss Tessar 𝒇2.8 lens’ image quality and operation.

Jena’s Werramat comes with excellent glass. Plenty of sharpness, decent contrast, and great resolution. Its downsides are slight blurring in the corners and rather aggressive vignetting when shooting wide-open. Those two issues, however, may be taken as an advantage for images where you aim to drive strong attention to your well-defined subject as you melt the background distractions away. There’s absolutely nothing ugly about this lens’ renderings.

The lens doesn’t flare much, particularly when combined with its odd-shaped lens cap that you can flip and turn into a shade. Doing so isn’t quick, however: you’ll need to twist two separate screwed-on parts and keep the smaller bit in your pocket. Another gimmicky Jena invention that looks better than it works.

The only thing that may stop you from making those crisp photos is having to learn how to zone focus — i.e., to guestimate the distance before setting it on the lens.

Werramat’s viewfinder: frame lines with parallax markings, litght meter indicator (bottom-center) and lens readings (bottom-right). Note that the lens readings are projected via mirrors — it’s not an enormous barrel; also, I wasn’t able to catch the aperture values with my iPhone here, which are normally visible if you look through (even with glasses on).

As you frame your scene, you’ll find yet another unique invention — a system of tiny mirrors within Werramat’s reasonably-sized viewfinder — that lets you see your aperture and shutter values on your lens. Again, marginally useful; mostly peculiar. The good: the frame lines are crisp and easy to see — unless you’re somewhere dark since they aren’t bright lines.

My Werramat’s selenium meter requires no batteries and still works sixty years past manufacture. It’s not very precise, and, of course, it has its own unique quirks. Visible only through the viewfinder as a dark/light slider that you should aim to align so that the black/white split fits within the square bump. It has a light input window right next to the shutter button; if your finger happens to be on top of it, as is often the case when you are getting ready to take a shot, the black/white split disappears, rendering the system completely useless.

Operating the lens rings on Werramat is only slightly annoying as its tiny tabs make setting shutter and f-values a bit fiddly for large fingers. The part that sets the film ISO has its numbers completely rubbed off on my model. Setting the distance, however, is very easy with the camera’s well-positioned metering ring.

Carl Zeiss Tessar 𝒇2.8 with Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400 film. No sharpening. No noticeable vignetting or focus falloff at 𝒇8.
Slightly out of focus, Carl Zeiss Tessar produces pleasing, somewhat swirly bokeh at𝒇2.8 and its nearest distance of .8m (2’7½”).
Despite its clunkiness and quirks, Werramat worked great as a street shooter. Fast and quiet. The slight red cast in this frame is courtesy of Fujifilm Superia X-Tra 400.

The most under-engineered part of this model is a frame counter: a screw at the bottom plate with a barely noticeable grove on a plastic ring around it that would point somewhere between 0, 10, 20, and 30. Thankfully, rewinding the film is rather easy with an enormous lever; opening and loading flm is nothing special: a twist ring lock with a detachable cover.

Werramat by Carl Zeiss Jena is undoubtedly a unique camera. It has a ton of quirks — some fantastic assets, like the uber-fast shutter, some not so much. Perhaps, a collector’s must-have for its inventive features. Perhaps, a good choice for someone looking to take pictures with a nice lens at high shutter speeds without much noise and a possibility of flash syncing throughout its B — 1 — 1/750s range. But I’m a spoiled brat who owns too many incredible cameras that suit me much better, so off to the shop, it goes.

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