Reviewing the Zeiss Ikon 517/16 120 film camera.
This is the story of a little camera that could. A camera that is underrated and forgotten. Despite its quality and performance, it's not very popular and it's pretty cheap on Ebay at around $35 for a good one. Despite it's lack of love, The Zeiss Nettar is a camera worth looking at and worth reviewing and remembering. This is a review of the Zeiss Ikon Nettar, a German camera that produces some wonderful images at a great price.
Manufactured somewhere between 1951 and 1957, a camera so awesome that you should still buy it 60+ years later was born. Though the Nettar cameras were advertised as being for amateurs, the camera shares many of the same parts as the much more expensive Ikonta series. While the Nettar lacks higher spec lens and shutter combos, and lacks some of the bells and whistles of their pricier brethren, the build quality is the same as the Ikonta.
The camera shoots a 6cm by 6cm square image on 120 film. The square aspect ratio is very versatile and has come back into fashion now days thanks to sites like Instagram and print services offering cheap and quality prints at a square aspect ratio. On a single roll of 120 film you get a whopping 12 exposures per roll. Compared to the 8 that you get on 6x9 and that extra 4 shots is a bonus, giving you a great value for the money.
The lens on this camera is very good, its the Novar Anastigmat 1:6.3/75mm (coated) with a Vario leaf shutter. While the aperture markings say that it only goes down to f/22, you can actually go further to about f/32 before the blades make a hard stop. This great feature means that if you're daring, you can guess your exposure a bit and get some extremely sharp photos with a slow shutter speed even on a sunny day.
Stepped down to the higher aperture settings there is strong vignetting in the corners. This isn't really a problem and if it bothers you, crop it out. You've got a whole lot of resolution to play with if you scan at even a moderate resolution. The combination of great glass and large negative means that even though this camera is old and small, its capable of capturing tons of detail and rendering it in a pleasing way.
Speaking of how this camera renders. It's hard to explain but the camera seems to make photos that "feel" like they were taken during WWII or shortly thereafter. Even with modern black and white film the photos seem to take on a feeling of being old. I think this is a very useful and magical aspect about the camera. I also think black and white film will be your bread and butter if you decide to use this camera. Creating photos that look like they belong in an old TIME Life magazine is just weird, but its cool too, and sometimes it can get downright creepy.
Something just feels "off" with photos like this that have modern technology in them. It has the feel of a time-traveler having visited long enough to snap a picture. Sometimes it feels creepy. When a camera itself can produce such emotions, you need to have it and utilize it to stir emotions in ways modern cameras can't.
That's not to say that this camera can't shoot color. Far from it, you can actually get some awesome color shots with this camera. Just remember that back in the day this camera was using film where 100 ISO was consider fast. 20-60 ISO equivalent was the norm back then so the slow shutter speeds this camera has as options were the norm. Don't fret about this, it's a feature not a bug.
Speaking about shutter speeds, there's only a few options so you're going to have to make some creative decisions and some math ones too. Your options for shutter speed are limited to 3, no more, no less. 4...is right out, at least without a shutter release cable. Seriously, if you are going to shoot this camera buy one on Amazon as your first accessory. Three shutter settings is going to sound really limiting, it is, and you will need to work around that for normal shooting. You're going to have to use a light meter or a digital camera to find a shutter speed close to either 1/25, 1/75 or 1/200. Now, here's where this gets annoying. Without a tripod you really can't get good pictures at f/25. 1/75 and 1/200 will probably require you to drastically open your aperture in many lighting conditions and ruin your sharpness as focusing is very wonky if you aren't shooting at infinity.(greater than 30 feet) You will therefore be fighting a balancing act with your camera, trying to finagle a combination of settings that will give you the image you want. In many cases you will be making compromises to your camera.
On the other hand, give this camera a tripod and a shutter release cable to cut down on vibration and you've got a real neat setup for taking sharp images. Once I gave up on just shooting from the hip and mated my camera to a tripod for all my photos, most of my problems with settings went away. Being able to put 400-1600 ISO film into this camera gives you options that people who used it back in the day couldn't fathom. You could take this camera to a rock concert, or shoot indoor family photos without a flash. This camera was never designed with anything more than 100 ISO film in mind and modern films can push it beyond what it was ever expected to do.
I'm convinced that correct metering, a tripod, and shutter release cable are mandatory to getting good photos from this camera. With those three tools, this camera is capable of creating some wonderful, tack sharp images that rival a modern DSLR. Taking good photos with this camera requires slowing down a lot and requires more patience than most people are used to in a modern camera. You just have to stand there like an idiot with your phone or a DSLR figuring out your composition exposure, then your focus, then you gotta arm the shutter, and hopefully everything works out alright. This isn't like modern photography and if you try to treat it like such, you're going to get frustrated real quick.
Speaking of focusing and composition, oh boy are you in for a headache compared to what you are used to with modern cameras. The viewfinder is almost 1/3 of the way blocked when the bellows is extended. You're going to have to guess a little bit on how you position your camera. I swear my viewfinder aims slightly high and to the left. Focusing is achieved by guessing at the distance. I'm a perfectionist though and carry a tape measure if I'm shooting closer than 20 feet. You measure from 3 feet out to 30 feet and then use the markings on the lens to focus the lens. But wait, there's more. My camera lens was screwed up when I got it and had slipped a bit from those numbers. I had to take the lens apart and twist the barrel to get it back to focusing at the correct distance.
Once you have focusing figured out you can do anything you could with a better camera lens. You can create a strong depth of field or a very flat image. This lens would be a 35mm equivalent of an 41.25mm f/3.47.
Something really nice about this camera is how portable it is. It measures 135 x 100 x 45 mm and weighs only about 550 grams without film. This means that you can easily slip this camera into your pocket and carry it around. I kept slipping mine into my jacket pocket while I was using my DSLR and then swapping back to it with my DSLR around my neck. This little Nettar is wonderfully thin and compact. Sadly it does not have strap rings
Construction of this camera is great, it's sturdy and I felt very confident putting the camera in my pocket. its wonderful how portable it is. It's also very stylish and despite being vintage, I didn't feel like a hipster using it. I had exactly zero mechanical issues with this camera after getting it and disassembling it for a badly needed cleaning. The components needed only some TLC, a good scrubbing, some gun oil, and a bit of polishing. That's all I've done to this camera and yet it has yet to fail me. I actually plan to keep using this camera after reviewing it here. It's even still loaded with a roll of 100 ISO Arista.edu film while I was photographing it for this review.
I'm also not alone in falling in love with this camera. A prominent film photographer on Youtube named Roger Lowe is using this camera to shoot photos in order to sell professional quality prints. His channel is "Shoot Film Like a Boss" and you should definitely go check it out.
The fact that I am not alone in thinking that this camera is capable of taking gallery quality photos is really encouraging. What's also encouraging is that you too can own one of these cameras. These cameras are dirt cheap on Ebay. I'm talking under $30 cheap. This camera could be a great way to take the plunge into medium-format photography and play with it before investing a few hundred bucks into a camera. After shooting 3 rolls through this camera of both black and white and color I'm convinced that this camera is a great addition to my collection and I highly recommend that you pick up one of these cameras as well if you get the chance.