Okay, well it wasn’t going to be thrown away, but it was going to become spare parts. One thing I’ve been tasked with during my time working for Kamerastore.com in Finland is putting together the outlet boxes. These are boxes of things that, for one reason or another, can’t be sold on their own. Some are low value, some are broken, and some are too far outside of our tolerance to be sold with good faith. Instead of letting them rot in storage or, god forbid, go to a landfill, we box up five or six items and sell them at a low price. People get cool cameras at low prices, and we clear out storage space at the shop. Everyone wins.
Enter the Zeiss Ikon Nettar. This long-running series of medium format folding cameras encompasses twelve models, and all of them seem to end up in the outlet. I think a combination of poor care, irregular shutter speeds, and dirty lenses are the reason, but low sale prices also can’t be ignored. If it takes hours of work to salvage a camera that only sells for $50, it’s better to hand the technician a Leica rather than a Nettar. Even if the Nettar is a beautiful piece of camera history, which it is.
Starting with the lowercase “nettar” script on the front to the simple, utilitarian top plate, the Nettar is a beautiful camera. The spring-loaded folding mechanism shoots open with authority to display a Novar-Anastigmat 75mm f4.5 nestled inside a Vario shutter that has three (three!) shutter speeds. It’s made of the kind of shiny metal that Zeiss Ikon was famous for, and it’s the kind of camera that gets plenty of people to look a bit closer when you’re shooting it.
After putting maybe fifteen Nettars into boxes, I stumbled upon one in particularly good condition. The bellows, viewfinder, lens, everything seemed at least acceptable. The shutter fired, and the aperture stopped down normally as well. I’m sure I’d be horrified by the results if I used the fancy testing machines we have, but this Nettar received the prestigious “good enough” visual test.
I had been told that I was welcome to take any camera home to test, but I wasn’t going to start with a Leica or Hasselblad. A nice, cheap, simple folder was exactly what I needed. After double checking that the lens was clean, I slipped the Nettar into my bag.
Of course, this Zeiss Ikon Nettar is a viewfinder camera with no focus aid, so there’s absolutely no way to know if your shots are in focus unless you carry a tape measure around with you or measure by eye. Despite having lived in Europe for two whole weeks at that point, I was still not 100% comfortable measuring things by eye in meters. So I needed to find a solution.
My first solution was a truly dismal German-made extinction meter. No, I don’t know how the meter part of it works. I don’t think anyone does. If you do, don’t tell me. I’d rather leave it a mystery. The reason I reached for this meter was that it had a rangefinder built in. And boy, it was terrible. Dark, small, and nearly-impossible to use even on bright days.
But I persevered, and found the experience of shooting this camera absolutely cathartic. It’s a truly manual experience. You have to wind the camera while looking through a red window on the back, making sure not to wind too far or risk losing a shot. I cover my window with black tape because it doesn’t close on its own. (Maybe that’s why it was in the outlet.) Then you have to cock the shutter manually, focus through the rangefinder, set the focus on the distance scale, frame through the viewfinder, and fire. It’s a process, plain and simple, and I didn’t even mention metering. That’s a whole other step.
The photos, though, justify the entire experience. I didn’t expect much from a bargain bin camera, but that Novar-Anastigmat is incredible, even “wide open” at f/4.5. Bit of an oxymoron if you’re used to the “f/1.4 or nothing” crowd, but sometimes it’s nice to have more than one inch in focus. You can still get some nice depth-of-field at f/4.5, and the bokeh here is nice, even a bit swirly.
Overall, I was floored by the results from the Nettar. What started as a fun, quirky camera to play with gave me professional-looking results. The colors are great, contrast is punchy, and there’s basically no distortion in the 41mm equivalent lens.
Yes, it is a limiting camera, especially compared to some of the plasticky, automatic cameras I’ve reviewed for Casual Photophile. No, I wouldn’t shoot sports with it. The shutter doesn’t even go up to 1/250th, which I would say is the bare minimum for capturing motion. These limitations, though have given me a chance to breathe, appreciate the scenery, and really be sure about what I want to photograph. After all those steps, firing the shutter and hearing that click is more satisfying than the whirs of some plastic point and shoot that does it all for you.
A real upgrade came when my Russian coworker presented me a plastic box and said “this is for your Nettar.” I opened it to reveal… what looked like another plastic box. After a bit of fiddling, it became clear that this plastic box was a rangefinder. Not just any rangefinder, though, but one originally designed for the equally-plastic Smena 8 cameras. My Russian coworker told me he had realigned it just for me. How sweet – a Soviet gift for my German folder.
It had a much longer base length than my previous rangefinder, so I could trust it to be more accurate, and oh BOY was it contrasty. Like Petri’s bright green reverse-contrast rangefinders, Soviet engineers thought it would be fun and cool to use purple outside the rangefinder patch. And you know what? It is cool. And it just works.
Yellow and purple are complementary colors, so viewing the yellow ghost image over the purple background is really, really easy, even in low light. Knowing that this rangefinder was adjusted by my friend and coworker, though, is the icing on the cake. My bargain bin Nettar had just received quite an upgrade indeed.
So the Nettar became an everyday carry for me. I’m used to my big, beefy Fujica GM670 for medium format. It’s a truly wonderful camera, but being able to fit a 120 camera into my pocket is a revelation. I can even carry around a little camera like my Konica Auto S3 as a light meter and it’s still smaller and lighter than my GM670. Sorry baby, there’s a second medium format camera in my life now.
With the new rangefinder, I’m able to focus more quickly and more precisely in all kinds of situations. The Zeiss Ikon Nettar accompanied me on multiple trips to Helsinki, and allowed me to carry far more stuff with me than my other medium format options. That’s nice when you’re out all day walking around with a camera bag around your back.
I also shot it at night and had a blast doing it. The simple leaf shutter makes camera shake a virtual non-factor, and the already-arduous nature of the camera pairs naturally with the similarly-slow process of long exposures.
The only real issue I’ve had with the Nettar has been how it handles Fujifilm film. Shooting Kodak film through it, I’ve had no issues. But with Fuji, particularly Pro 400H, the Nettar doesn’t seem to wind the film tight enough. I’ve had light leaks that make half of the roll unusable, which is annoying. Maybe that’s why it was in the outlet.
Regardless of little issues, the Nettar will remain in my camera collection. I’ve grown quite fond of it and its photographic process over my two months using it, and I feel responsible for its continued use after plucking it from the spare parts bin. The camera reminds me of those early days at my new job, and of the brighter days of summer. The rangefinder reminds me of my friends and coworkers, and how lucky I am. The exceptional photos are almost a bonus.
If you’re looking for a great entry into medium format, the Zeiss Ikon Nettar, or a similar folding camera, is a great place to start. It’ll force you to learn the basics of photography and camera history as well.
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