Belmira

This is a smallish fixed lens rangefinder camera from East Germany. Initially, the Belmira was designed and made by Belca (who used to be Balda) and latterly by Welta. German camera makers are rather complex as a result of many mergers through the 20th century and particularly after WWII in East Germany. Zeiss Ikon was split in two with the West German and East German parts operating independently. Other makers – such as Ihagee and Balda – were entirely in the new East Germany but the prewar owners started new companies in West Germany using the original name. So, there were East German Ihagee and West German Ihagee and West German Balda and East German Balda. To avoid the confusion generated, East German Balda changed its name to Belca and there were further name changes. The East German camera makers were merged into a series of VEBs (Volkseigener Betrieb or Publicly Owned Enterprise) ending with VEB Pentacon (the name ‘Pentacon originated as a trading name of East German Zeiss Ikon to avoid legal conflicts in Western Europe and North America). My camera was made in the middle of these mergers, in between April and August 1956, going by the lens serial number.

  • lens: Tessar
  • focal length: 50mm
  • apertures: ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/16
  • focus range: 2.5 feet to infinity
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: Vebur leaf shutter
  • speeds: 1 second to 1/250 seconds
  • flash: PC socket
  • film size: 35 mm

The only indication of maker is the Ernemann Tower logo on the shutter fascia which indicates either East German Zeiss Ikon or VEB Pentacon (depending on date). The lens is marked ‘Carl Zeiss Jena’ so this is before the end of the legal wrangles between East and West Zeiss Ikon companies.

Also on the shutter fasciae is a 1 in a triangle. This indicates first quality and was reserved for export items.

There is another logo on the lens fascia which I suspect indicates first quality but I have never seen this particular logo before.

So, a description of this neat camera. The camera body is fairly plain. It measures 126 by 78 by 658 mm and it weighs 580 g. The top plate has a raised portion the right which houses the viewfinder. On the rear of the top plate is the viewfinder eye-piece which is circular and measures 7mm diameter. On the front is the viewfinder window. This measures 20 by 14 mm and is tinted quite a heavy green. I think that this is to provide contrast with the rangefinder spot which is uncoloured – at least, I can think of no other reason for the tint.

To the left of this raised portion is the frame counter. This consists of a knurled knob and a curved window. The knurled knob is to reset the counter to zero on loading a new film. The counter has every fifth number in white – the intervening numbers are represented by dots. The counter counts up to 35 and then continues from zero. The window is covered by a yellow plastic film. I am not sure if the colour is intentional or a result of ageing (or both, perhaps). Next is the accessory shoe, this is a standard Barnack shoe with no flash contacts.

On the left of the top plate is the rewind knob. This is a very sloppy fit on my camera which does not match the build quality of the rest of the camera. The centre of the rewind knob is a mnemonic for the type of film in use. The options are Schwarz-Weiß or Color and for each, Neg (negative) or Umk (Umk is short for Umkehrfilm which means reversal film or slide film in German). Each of these has a number of film speeds – these are in DIN only. Of course, these have no effect on the operation of the camera.

The back of the top plate, as well as the viewfinder, has the film advance lever. This is unique as far as I am aware. First, it does not rotate – it is a slide. It is also on the opposite end of the camera to the take-up spool and moves in what feels to be the wrong direction. Internally, this is the same (or at least very similar) to the Werra mat with this sliding lever rotating a sleeve around the shutter mechanism. On my camera, this grates quite a bit in use which I am putting down to ageing and dried-up grease. But it does still work.

The front of the top plates well as having the viewfinder window, has the rangefinder window. Mine has a rectangular rangefinder window but other Belmiras had a very thin window with a large diamond section – mine has this internally but the external window is plain rectangular. The shape change was around late 1958 to early 1959 – I am judging the timing by looking at images of Balmira cameras on Google Images and checking the serial numbers on the lenses for each type of rangefinder window. The range of lens serial numbers (Tessar lens only) for the rectangular window was 4467343 to 5208392 and the range of lens serial number for the thin/diamond window was 5180425 to 5309389 showing that the rectangular window was the original one. This also suggest that the rangefinder window change occurred part way through a batch of Tessar lenses or perhaps when Welta took over from Belca in making this model. Between the viewfinder and rangefinder windows is the camera name engraved in the metal in Italic script.

The body of the camera is covered by fine-grain black leatherette. As this is clearly an export camera, I would expect to see the country of origin (either Germany or DDR) embossed on the leatherette somewhere but I cannot find it. In the centre of the front is the shutter/lens assembly. The housing is anodised aluminium. The shutter is a Vebur which started off as an East German Zeiss Ikon shutter based on the West German Zeiss Ikon’s Compur or Prontor shutters. Seeing as they already made a Prestor shutter – the name clearly derived from Prontor – I suspect that the Vebur shutter was based on the Compur but apart from the name I have no reason for saying that.

Working outwards from the camera body, the base of the shutter housing has a depth of field scale with pointers to the focus scale. This focus scale is the first ring out from the camera body. The focus ring turns through about 120º in order to focus from about 2.5 feet to infinity. The lower part of this ring has coarse knurled cut-outs to provide a tactile grip for focusing with the camera at eye-level. This ring is coupled to the rangefinder so focusing is easy and accurate with the camera at eye-level. When focusing, the entire shutter/lens housing moves (so this is unit focusing, rather than front-cell focusing).

In front of the focus ring is the aperture ring. This runs from ƒ/2.8 to ƒ/16 which is a very useable range. This rings turns easily and smoothly – no indents here so the user can set intermediate aperture values if they want to. The aperture index is a large red triangle infant of the aperture ring. The iris diaphragm has nine leaves giving a very smooth aperture which will bode well for those concerned with bokeh.

The shutter speed setting ring is on the front of the assembly, around the lens. This is not as easy to use as a ring around the shutter housing would be and I find I need both hands to turn the ring – not because it is too stiff (although it is rather stiff) but purely because of the ergonomics of the ring’s position. Shutter speeds are from one second to 1/250 seconds plus B.

The lens is a Carl Zeiss Tessar – a four element lens with the elements in three groups. People can be a bit snotty about East German Carl Zeiss for purely political reasons but their lenses were as good with as high manufacturing standards as they had before the partition of Germany. The lens will accept filters – either 32m push-on filters or 30.5mm screw-in filters.

Beside the shutter/lens on the right (as you are using the camera) is the shutter release button. This is fairly low down and angled – it is very much like the shutter release buttons on my Pentacon F or on Praktica cameras starting with the Nova. This button is threaded for a standard cable release. There is no delay action facility here, for some reason. On the left hand edge of the body is a PC socket for flash. There is no indication as to synchronisation speed but as this is a leaf shutter it will not be too important.

The base of the camera has a central tripod socket – 1/4 inch UNC – and next to this is a small sliding button. Sliding this away from the tripod socket releases the back/base of the camera. There is also a fairly large button to release the internal mechanisms to allow the film to be rewound. When the back/base is released, they come away from the camera body in one piece to allow for inserting new film.

The film cassette goes on the left and the film pulls across the film gate to the right. Here is a novelty I have not seen before. There is a cover over the sprocket shaft which must be lowered before the film can be loaded. The task-up spool is on the right. This spool is loose which might help some people to attach the new film but I just find this to be an added nuisance, particularly in the field where I am likely to lose the spool and have to resort to hands and knees to find it again. The back/base fit nicely and, being a German camera, there are no foam light seals to go bad

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