Belmira

An excellent 35mm fixed lens rangefinder camera from East Germany.

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
<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">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.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.

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">Also on the shutter fasciae is a 1 in a triangle. This indicates first quality and was reserved for export items.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

Pentacon F (Contax F)

This is a ground breaking camera. This was the first modern 35 mm SLR camera (in the S version). SLR cameras have been around for a very long time and there were many SLR cameras that used glass plates rather than film. There were also earlier 35 mm SLR cameras – the Kine Exakta is generally accepted as being the first – but these earlier designs did not lead on to the ubiquitous 35 mm SLR of the 1950s and beyond.

P1040528
Pentacon F

lens: n/a
focal length: n/a
apertures: n/a
focus range: n/a
lens fitting: M42
shutter: cloth focal plane
speeds: 1 second to 1/1/1000
flash: PC connector
film size: 35 mm

The name ‘Pentacon’ was only used for cameras sold in Western Europe and North America. Elsewhere, it was the Contax F. This other name tells us a great deal about the design of this camera. It is a development of the pre WWII Zeiss Ikon Contax rangefinder. The main changes made are that the brass shutter is replaced with a cloth one, the shutter moves side to side rather than up and down and the rangefinder is replaced with a mirror and pentaprism. This last give rise to the name Pentacon which is a contraction of PENTAprism CONtax. There are also other changes – the Contax bayonet lens mount is replaced by the M42 thread lens mount. It was necessary to change the lens mount to increase the film to lens flange distance – the mirror needs the additional room to move – the diameter of the M42 lens mount (at 42 mm!) is also significantly larger than the diameter of the Contax bayonet mount (35 mm) allowing longer focal lengths to be used.

P1040529
Pentacon F rear

The camera measures 145 by 80 by 50 mm and weighs 850 g. It is an all metal construction and the exposed metal is chrome plated with a matt finish. The rest of the body is covered with a fine grained black leatherette. The controls are bright chrome plated.

P1040530
Pentacon F top plate

The top plate is not what later became ‘standard’, but is not far off. On the right is the film advance. This is still a knob at this age. This knob rotates clockwise which in turn turns the take-up spool clockwise so that the film is wound with the emulsion side outward. To the left of the film advance is the shutter speed selector. This is v very different to the speed selectors that became normal in the 1950s and 1960s. The selector wheel turns clockwise and must be depressed teen-age the mechanism beneath. In front of the speed selector wheel is a window. This gives onto a disc with two speed scales – one black and one red. The black scale is the fast speeds and offers speeds of 1/50, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500 and 11/1000. The red scale is the slow speeds and offers 1, 1/2, 1/5, and 1/20 and B. To choose which scale to use, there is a slide on the back of the top plate. When this is slid to the left a red arrow appears on the left of the selector window and the red range is selected. Moving the slide to the right changes the red arrow to a black arrow on the right and the black range is selected.

The idea is that you only select a red speed while the red arrow is present and only select a black speed while the black arrow is present. However, there is nothing to stop you choosing a black speed with the red range selected – and vice versa. If you do this, the shutter fires just fine but there is no telling as to which shutter speed you will actually get. Shutter speeds can be changed either before or after the film is advanced. Before the film is advanced, the selector knob will only turn anti-clockwise (actually, it will turn both ways but will not select a new shutter speed if turned clockwise) but after advancing the film it will turn in either direction.

When you press the shutter release button, the disc in the selector window will rotate clockwise – part of one revolution while the release is depressed and the remainder of the revolution once the release button is raised again.

Left of centre is the pentaprism hump. This is a normal pentaprism and there is not a lot I can say about it. It turns the image on the focus screen so that it is the right way around in the viewfinder. The eye-piece is nice and large and the focus screen is plain ground glass – no focus aids here.

P1040533
Film reminder – B&W at 100 ASA

Left of the pentaprism hump is the rewind knob. On this camera, the rewind knob does not double as a catch for the back – that is a slide on the right-hand end of the camera – nor does it pull up to ease the insertion of film cassettes. Beneath the rewind knob is a film memo. This consists of a ring with three icons on it. One icon is a black circle next to a white circle – this represents black and white film. The second icon is a sun and this represents colour film balanced for daylight. The third icon is a light bulb and represents colour film balanced for artificial (specifically tungsten bulb) light. To remind yourself as to what film is loaded, you rotate this ring anticlockwise until your chosen icon is against the film speed (which is ASA only. I assume that cameras intended for the home German market will have had this film speed reminder scale in DIN).

Between the pentaprism hump and the rewind knob is a PC connector for flash. There is no accessory shoe on this camera so the flash gun would need to be fitted to a bracket or separate stand. There is no indication given on the shutter speed disc as to what speed is required for flash but the manual states that it is 1/10 seconds.

The shutter release button is on the front of the camera to the right of the lens mount. Its is angled and falls nicely to my fore-finger when holding the camera. The button is threaded for a standard cable release. Below the release b button is a delay action lever. To use this, you move the lever anti-clockwise as far as it will go. To set it off, you give a slight turn to the knurled knob holding the lever in place. This takes eight seconds (on my camera) to fire the shutter. It is not possible to move the lever part way to give a shorter delay. If you try this, the shutter will not fire.

The lens mount is an M42 (42 mm by 1 mm thread) mount and so will take a very large number of lenses from many makers. This is the automatic version of the M42 mount which means that just inside the mount at the bottom is a plate that a moves forward as the shutter release button is pressed. This plate presses on a pin on the back of the lens and closes the diaphragm to the set aperture. Just beneath the lens mount there is a folding foot. Folding this out will allow the camera to stand level on a suitable surface to let you take selfies in conjunction with the delay action lever.

P1040536
back and half base removed

As mentioned above, the back is opened by a slide catch. The Contax that this camera was based on and all West German Contax derivatives have the back and base come away from the body in one piece. With this camera, the back is hinged but still takes a significant portion of the base with not. This is to facilitate the insertion and removal of the film cassettes. As was common with German cameras, the take-up spool is removable and can be replaced with an empty cassette. This avoids the need to rewind the film at the end and supposedly makes changing films faster and easier. The downside is that it is easy to drop the loose take-up spool when fitting a new film.

P1040539
back and other half base

As was the German practice, the flanges around the edges of the back are designed to be light tight and so this camera has no foam light seals to go bad. There are two light seals – velvet, not foam – by the hinge and by the slide catch. Apart from these velvet light seals, this camera has no need of seals. A boon for collectors of old cameras!

P1040540
back inside view

The one weakness of using flanges to keep out light is where the sprocket shaft attaches at the top. This shaft is connected to the film advance mechanism to control the length of film advanced each time. This locally reduces the depth of the flange. To keep the camera light tight, there is a secondary flange at the top of the back just where the sprocket shaft is.

On the base is a standard 1/4 inch Whitworth tripod boss. It looks to me that this has been fitted into a 3/8 inch Whitworth boss. Also on the base is the button to release the advance mechanism for rewinding the film. The only other thing to note is the presence of a strap lug on either front corner.

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