Watameter Super – The Rolls Royce of Rangefinders

Watameter Super – The Rolls Royce of Rangefinders

1871 1052 Cheyenne Morrison

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. 

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Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison
  • Sorry, Cheyenne, but I have to disagree with your assertion that the Watameter Super is the Rolls Royce of handheld rangefinders. Granted, it is an excellent meter of its type, has the unusual facility of being able to read the distance scale set inside the viewfinder, and can focus very closely. But, like all meters of this type it relies on a silvered/gold mirror coating which with time can flake or fade and the mirror itself can easily be knocked out of alignment (albeit it can be user re-calibrated) but given its credentials for close focusing I believe it is seriously flawed. This is due to the rangefinder viewing and optical axes being fixed and parallel, and their separation distance will be quite pronounced at close focusing distances.

    A few camera manufacturers recognised this as a problem with close-ups and to make hand-held shots easy produced rangefinders with hinged accessory shoes and which are variably geared to the distance the rangefinder is set to. The closer the subject, the more the rangefinder is angled down. Perhaps the best known of these are the Zeiss and Voigtlander Contameters and the similar Kodak system. Merely by sighting through the rangefinder parallax is alleviated and there is no further need to use the camera’s viewfinder. These devices are used with 3 close-up lenses. The early Zeiss Contameters have three fixed focusing points, but the later Voigtlander, and I believe the Kodak unit, are infinitely variable them more useful.

    A superior rangefinder to the Watameter is, IMO, the Pullin, from the early 1950’s. This is shown in the page advert you included in your post. This differs from the Watameter in one significant respect – it does not rely on silver or semi-silvered mirrors that can deteriorate with age, but uses two prisms where the Watamater uses just one. The Pullin is far less likely to go out of register even with some abuse. Looking through it one sees a “full width” horizontal moving wedge and split image and which I can confirm is clearer and far superior to the normal type of rangefinder using a mirror. Interestingly, I understand that Pullin thought it was too large for attaching to a camera, and so it was not initially supplied with an accessory foot! It has a respectable close focus of 2ft.

    Whereas the Watamater has as its unique feature of being able to see the focusing distances when looking through its viewfinder, the Pullin’s unique feature is DoF scales for three focal lengths, 2″, 3″ and 41/4″ lenses. Dialling in the focal length brings into play a DoF scale. These resemble the scales usually found surrounding the lens on scale focus cameras.

    • Hello Terry, I was aware of the Pullin Rangefinder, but I think it’s exceedingly hard to find and little-known, so I went with the Watameter-Super. Absolutely superb British craftsmanship, and I did see one a while back in a gorgeous leather case. As far as its superiority to the Watameter Super I accept what you say, but would have to try one, so now you have given me G.A.S. and I am on the hunt for one. For use with my Finetta 99 the Watameter has a much closer focus distance, so in that respect it surpasses the Pullin. I appreciate your feedback and in depth response.

      • Hi, Cheyenne.
        If you manage to get one, it will be an interesting shoot out. They are pretty rare, which could be a problem, so I wish you luck. I’m looking for a Wata meter super and they aren’t exactly ten a penny, either.

      • Hello, Cheyenne.

        I’ve been able to get hold of a WataMeter Super and the comparison with the Pullin is quite an eye opener, literally.

        As for the viewing experience the I found the the Wata left a lot to be desired compared to the Pullin. I found that lining up the viewfinder eyepiece is particularly frustrating in that seeing the rangefinder spot and the interior distance scale at the same time needed practice to align the eyepiece so both could be seen. The problem is the very small viewfinder opening and which requires very precise alignment of the pupil. This also introduces another problem if one is short sighted in one’s right eye such that the rangefinder spot and subject to be measured are blurred. This is my situation, but I have normal vision in my left eye. But then trying to use the Wata left eyed, was nigh on impossible because of the distance setting wheel which got in the way such that I couldn’t sight the Wata properly at all.

        But my biggest disappointment was trying to use the Wata in less than bright lighting conditions, and in many ways this may also be true of similar designs, but this can often negate any perceived advantage of the interior distance scale. The were many instances where I could rangefind, but not see the distance scale as the light level was too low to illuminate it. Of course, this wouldn’t have been a problem with the dial reading on the Watameter 1, for example.

        None of the above is an issue with the Pullin. The ocular of the viewfinder is quite large and as the Pullin uses a split prism system (similar to that in a camera) that doesn’t rely on mirrors, the image is optically clear and is always as bright as the ambient light level. So, as a viewing experience, the Pullin has to be the best of the pocket rangefinders I’ve ever used.

        Does it have any downsides? Yes, if one needs a closer focusing capability than its 2ft. Also, it doesn’t come with an accessory foot so it can’t be attached to a camera. And whilst it is very accurate, the distance scale characters are small, and just as with the Wata, can be difficult to read in low light levels. A small, key fob, LED torch would be useful here.

        On a final note, the build and quality of materials and construction of the Pullin are far superior to the Watameter, and which, IMO, makes the Pullin the Rolls Royce of pocket rangefinders.😊

        • Cheyenne Morrison June 27, 2020 at 7:50 am

          Hello Terry, since our last conversation I have done more research on the Pullin. The earliest model had not coldshoe foot, but later models did. The one annoying thing is they are all in feet and inches though.

          • Hi, Cheyenne.

            Feet and inches is the only way to go.😁 But if one is used to metric then, yes, it can be bothersome, especially if one’s lenses only have metric distances. I’ve learned to work between them by memorising certain distances in both scales, although guessing intermediate distances somewhat defeats having an accurate rangefinder.

            The lack of the accessory foot is more understandable when you see the actual size of the Pullin, as it is quite large and likely to get in the way of some camera’s controls when mounted. Clearly, though, Pullin relented, and I’d have to admit makes it possibly more useful to have it then not. There is a second style of Pullin with a centralised setting wheel and which has a hot shoe. This is not the model I have; mine looks like it has portholes for the viewing windows.

            For your purposes I suspect it will have more curiosity/collector interest, but if you can come across one at a good price it could be worth it to see how the different rangefinding ocular system works. Happy Hunting!

  • Andrew in Austin, Texas August 20, 2019 at 9:24 am

    Cheyenne – You definitely did your research on the origins of the Watameter uncoupled rangefinder. There’s not much real estate atop the camera shown in the first photo for an accessory rangefinder. Before I ramble on forever, all of the above was definitely an informative read on a little discussed topic.

    I have the base model Watameter and I must say that it gets the job done on one of my 6×9 medium format folders, which gets used at f/8 to f/22. I opened it up and cleaned the optic a few years back. It works well enough for my use.

    I also have two Voigtlander accessory RFs – which get used on a Perkeo II and Vito II. Both are about the same size as the Watameter.

  • Hello. I just found a Watameter II in my fathers old photo gear. The box has the number 67-2342. What confuses me is the scale on the dial says “inch” and the scale is 12 to 20. The internal scale reads 3 feet to infinity. Are the scales exchangeable?

    • Cheyenne Morrison August 29, 2022 at 9:13 pm

      Tedd, I am uncertain as they made so many variations and copies of the Watameter. My advice, try it in action and compare to another way of measuring the distance to see the accuracy.

    • Tedd,
      This arrangement is quite normal, however my understanding of the Watameters is that the model II only has the internal scale from 3ft to infinity, and it is the Super that is dual range with the closeup distances on the dial. So my guess from what you say is that you have a Super. In use, you simply use the internal scale for distances of 3ft to infinity, but the dial actually turns beyond 3ft to enter the close focus range and then you read off the inch scale to the reference point on the body. Incidentally, I don’t know why it doesn’t rangefind between 20″ and 3ft.

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Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison