My new purchase: a Zeiss Ikon Nettar 517/16

Cheaper than a tank of gas, smaller than a Leica, 6x6 medium format negs - tons of fun. This Nettar folding camera sure is bang for buck!

I really need to get my GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) under control. This year I was going to use only the cameras I already owned. Instead, this Nettar 517/16 camera is the 6th new camera I’ve added to my collection this year. Oh, well. Let’s talk about this new acquisition!

Folding cameras

A recent Matt Osborne video, about a hidden vintage gem he was enjoying, intrigued me. For a few tenners, you could buy a folding camera that would shoot 6x6cm negatives that was still easily portable. Smaller than a Leica, shoots medium format, fits in your pocket – sounds like a blast. This Voigtlander Perkeo looked very cool.

This peaked my attention because I’ve been VERY hyped about medium format the past few months. My previous new acquisitions – a Hasselblad 500 EL/M and a Rolleiflex 2.8D – are also medium format cameras. Medium format cameras shoot 120 film, a larger type of negative compared to normal 35mm rolls. The difference is impressive: a regular negative is just 24mm tall, while a medium format picture is 60mm tall. Because of this increased size you can get much more detail out of them while scanning. Just to gave you an idea – that 6x6cm negative is physically bigger than the Instagram pictures I scroll through on my iPhone.

But both the Hasselblad and the Rolleiflex are big and heavy cameras, not something you’d want to carry every day. They’re also expensive, not a gadget you’d want to risk just chucking into a bag and bringing along for a ride. A cheap medium format camera like the Perkeo sounded very appealing!

Sadly, I’m not the only one who watches Matt’s videos. The supply of Perkeo cameras has gone from plentiful to extremely scarce and the market price has shot up. I started hunting around for similar alternatives that were still cheap and equally fun to use.

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar

I discovered that Zeiss-Ikon had this Nettar line of folding cameras. Produced from the ’30s to the ’50s, the Nettar was an affordable medium format camera for the masses. The build was comparable to Zeiss’s more luxurious Ikona line, but the Nettar got cheaper lenses and shutters. What they also lacked was any visual aids for focusing. You focus a Nettar either by guessing, zone focusing, or measuring the distance with an external rangefinder. Still, if it was cheap enough, I could work with that. Soon enough, I found an interesting one on Marktplaats – a Dutch site similar to Craigslist – for 30 euros. The seller did not know much about it, not even the model type. But it looked good in pictures, so I figured it was worth a gamble.

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, closed

This Nettar turned out to be a 517/16 model from the ’50s. This model has a 75mm Novar Anastigmat f/4.5 lens in a Vario shutter assembly. Zeiss wasn’t great at naming their models, they all appear to be a code of random numbers. I’ve tried making sense of them but still don’t know what the code is supposed to stand for.

Either way, as you can see we’re definitely not talking Leica-grade levels of luxury here with this Nettar. At f/4.5 this lens is slow, and the basic Vario shutter only has 4 possible settings: 1/25, 1/75, 1/200 or bulb. Then again, this camera costs less than filling up the tank of my car.

Operating the Nettar

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, opened

Hit the little button to the left of the viewfinder and the front of the camera flips open. You can fold it down to reveal the lens assembly and folded-up bellows. The 517/16 is a horizontal folder, which means that front flips down – there are also vertical folders in the Nettar line, where the front flips away sideways to the right.

Push the cover until it locks into place and the bellows is fully extended. Now you can set the camera focus by turning the front element of the lens, which is marked in meters. After you either set an externally measured range or just guess it, you can set aperture and shutter speed on the front of the lens too. Once set up you cock the shutter with the lever on top of the lens and compose using the viewfinder. One press of the shutter release button to the right and you’re done!

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, opened front view

There is no coupling between the shutter release button and the winding mechanism, so to advance to the next shot you have to manually wind the film using the left knob, until you can see the next number appear in the red-tinted frame counter on the back. If you want to, or if you forget to wind, you can take double exposures, or triple exposures, or as many as you want to. The camera has no safeguards against any user error/creativity like that.

With the 6x6cm square format on this camera you get 12 pictures on a single spool of 120 film. That sounds like it’s not a lot, but I rather like it. I often have trouble filling a roll of 36 pictures on my Leica in a timely manner, sometimes taking weeks to do so, and banging out 12 shots and then getting results gives you much faster feedback.

State of my camera

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, bellows close-up

I was happy to discover the bellows look good – something that is always a bit of a worry on folding cameras. They’re made out of cloth and cardboard, and these commodity cameras weren’t designed with decades of use in mind. Wear and tear and natural deterioration over time kills a lot of these types of cameras. One of the reasons I looked into the Zeiss-Ikon cameras was that most people I saw posting about them on forums said that their bellows still worked fine, which is not a given after more than half a century. Other brands, like Agfa, had far more forum posts that complained about ripped bellows or pinholes that let light through.

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, lens close-up

The focusing ring turned smoothly, though there was no way to know if the ranges were accurate until we used the camera to shoot some test pictures. The aperture worked fine too, with the blades operating all the way from f/4.5 to f/22. Test-firing the shutter at the few speeds this camera has revealed no problems either, though I don’t have any tools to measure the accuracy of the speeds.

The Nettar in use

From what I gather, these cameras were actually kind of hard to use back when they were originally sold because films weren’t very sensitive (basically ISO 100 at best) at the time and this lens was relatively slow. Hand-holding the Nettar to take pictures on an overcast day would’ve resulted in many a shaky shot. But these days, with ISO 400 films being standard and ISO 800 and up being available, it’s fairly easy to shoot the camera at 1/200 while using a reasonable aperture now.

Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16 model camera, opened top view

Focusing is still a challenge, though not impossible. For distant objects and landscape shots you simply set the focus to infinity and you’re done. If you’re adventurous, you can also try setting the camera to the hyperfocal distance for maximum depth of field, to get more of the middle zone in focus.

But for anything closer you’ll have to guess, or use another method of measuring the distance. I’m terrible at guessing distances, so I bought a cheap Xiaomi laser distance meter of the type that is often used in construction. This tiny laser worked wonders for measuring close ranges but after about 10 meters in sunlight the tiny laser dot would be overpowered. I also kept losing the laser in my bag, making it harder to use the camera itself.

This frustrated me, so instead I’ve ordered an external visual rangefinder, a cheap Soviet-era Blik, but haven’t received it yet. We’ll see how well it works. The main advantage is that it fits into the coldshoe of the Nettar, which means I won’t lose it anytime soon.

Results

So what do the results look like? Well… actually… unexpectedly good. I shot a roll of Lomography 400 through it one afternoon. It was really just a test roll to see if the shutter worked and the bellows were tight, but to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised!

Now the bellows didn’t leak, but my film still did: when I finished the roll and wound it up I didn’t wind tightly enough. The spool was slightly loose and the negatives weren’t fully covered when I pulled it out – a problem that can occur with 120 film because it doesn’t come in its own canister the way 35mm does. Some light leaked in from the top and bottom on a few shots when I pulled it from the camera.

Lightleaks, Oudegracht Utrecht. Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16, Lomography 400 film

But even with those light leaks, the images look good. This shot of a bridge over the Oudegracht in Utrecht would’ve been amazing without leaks. With leaks, it has a cool lomo vibe.

Volvo detail. Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16, Lomography 400 film

A close-up of this classic Volvo shows the weak point of a camera that has no built-in focusing aids – guessing a distance is never going to be as accurate as visually establishing exact focus. Still, even with my focus off a bit, I ended up with a dreamy soft look rather than a total failure.

Church in Utrecht. Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16, Lomography 400 film

Bricks are always a good test of lens sharpness. I usually end up snapping a few shots of churches or other older brick buildings with a new camera, just to get an idea of the detail a lens can resolve. This rather surprised me – the Novar was considered a very cheap lens with an inferior construction at the time, but this shot had more than enough detail for my purposes. Of course, the very apparent vignetting in the bottom shows other lens quality issues, but core sharpness at least is not one of them.

Apartment building, Utrecht. Zeiss-Ikon Nettar 517/16, Lomography 400 film

One last shot I want to share! This brand new apartment building near Utrecht Central Station looks cool, with its irregular rectangular shapes jutting out randomly. The Nettar captures it admirably, though we got a bit more of that light leak at the bottom – but not enough to kill the shot.

Conclusion

All in all, I think this Zeiss-Ikon Nettar camera is going to be a LOT of fun. It’s a cheap and cheerful model that shoots medium format 6×6 negatives. The pictures look good, considering the quality of the camera. It fits into all of my non-camera bags and I don’t even notice I’ve got it with me. And if it breaks or it gets lost on a trip, I’ll be out 30 euros and buy another cheap folding camera from eBay. Sure seems like a sweet deal to me!

What do you think?