Imitation Perle: Whispers of the Welta

It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  This definitely rings true for consumer products. It was often with much amusement that I would see "COBY" headphones done in a style and typeface that looked just like those from "SONY." There are many more examples to be sure, but I don't need to belabor the point.  

But what about products that look just like another established brand, but lack any markings whatsoever, leaving you to wonder if they are made by the brand itself? Is that flattering, or just downright odd?

And herein lies the mystery of my latest acquisition. It minces no words when it comes to who made the lens and shutter, but is totally "hush hush" on the actual manufacture of the camera itself.  Still, it is close enough in form to a Welta Perle to make me think it might be a product of this German manufacturer.  Thus, I can't resist the play on words in calling this new acquisition my "Imitation Perle." It turns out that this may be a Welta made camera marketed as either the Rodenstock Citonette, or alternately a Schaja 100, but I'm not entirely sure.  In any event, I'll stick to my moniker for now.

I stumbled across this camera upon perusing classified listings at the Analog Photography Users Group.  The seller listed the camera as an "Antique 120 Folder With Rodenstock Trinar 75mm 4.5 Lens," quite possibly also seemingly baffled by the lack of a maker to the camera itself. Initially listed for $37, the price for this working camera had just been dropped to $22 including shipping.  It seemed like a good buy with no big risk, and I'd been contemplating getting a second 645 folder to supplement my Ikonta A 521, so I wasted no time in making contact with the seller to make the purchase.

The camera arrived quickly and safely, and looked to be in good working condition.  It showed some signs of use, but considering it was over 70 years old, it was to be expected.  A gentle cleaning and some checks of the shutter confirmed that it was at least ready for a test roll. The shutter sounded like it fired pretty accurately, but instead of color transparency film, I elected to test this camera using a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 color print film to allow some degree of exposure latitude if the shutter speeds were off.  

The "Imitation Perle" on the left bears a lot of striking resemblances to the real article, seen at right, and has a nearly identical form factor despite a few interesting differences.  

The most challenging difference to adapt to can be seen here, or more accurately can be not seen here.  The camera has no body mounted shutter release, requiring the user to either connect a cable release to the socket on the shutter bezel, or use the lens mounted shutter release.  Body mounted releases became more wide spread by the late 1930's, so this camera must have just missed that mark. 

The eye of this classic machine is a Rodenstock Trinar 75mm f/4.5 triplet design lens, that, if the markings are to be believed, can focus as close as 0.5 meters, particularly close for a folding camera design.  The Rodenstock name has a good reputation for quality.  Note the rather unconventional aperture scale seen below the lens.  Instead of f/5.6, 8, 11, 16, and 22, we are greeted with f/6.3, 9, 12.5, 18, and 25.

A rather odd quirk about this camera (common also to the Perle pictured above) is that rather than having a single ruby window aligned with the 645 numbers,  there are a pair of ruby windows aligned with the 6x9 numbers, similar to those on a 6x9 camera with a 645 mask.  My guess is that the 645 format was in its infancy when the camera was made, so 120 film backing paper of the day didn't typically have a set of numbers for the 6 x 4.5 exposures, resulting in this improvisation.

So what was my experience in shooting this mystery camera? It was actually pretty good. Though one flap of the flip up viewfinder resists sitting upright and the lack of a body shutter release is a bit tedious in operation, the camera performs pretty much just as it was designed, impressive considering it is about 80 years old.  Setting of shutter and aperture (even with a unconventional scale) was pretty easy, and there was not much fuss in guessing distances for my shots given that most were landscapes.  Just as with my Ikonta A, the tripod mount is a large 3/8 thread, so I'll need to get some thread adapters for using it mounted for longer exposures.

And the results?  Surprisingly good!  I didn't really put a lot of thought into the shots on the test roll, so some were yawn worthy in relation to composition, but the negatives came back with a surprising amount of sharpness and color fidelity.  I would definitely say that this camera was well worth the investment, and I am looking forward to getting some more use from it very soon!  Have a look!  

One of the first shots taken on the camera shows some surprisingly decent results for both sharpness and color, even in a low light situation.

Another dusk shot taken at f/4.5 shows some softness in the aspects of the image in focus, but a nice softening of the background details.

Stopped down, the Rodenstock lens provides some very good sharpness in what is almost becoming a cliche photo location of mine.  There does appear to be a frame overlap and some evidence of a light leak.

Another favorite landscape setting of mine with a light coating of snow.  The distant details look mushy but the shed, silo, and hay bales look crisp and sharp, as do the hay remnants in the foreground.

Shot deliberately at f/4.5 to minimize depth of field, there is something that I really love about this image, between the blur in the background, the sharpness of the front of the bridge, and the color rendering on the Ektar film stock.  This one image more than any other definitely excites me about the potential for this old camera. 

Another landscape, this time with more evidence of a light leak on the upper right.  Even with the imperfections and a bit of softness, I really do like how this color image was portrayed by the 1930's era lens.  

A rainy shot at dusk gives off a flatter color profile, but still delivers a nice image with some surprising sharpness.

So what is the verdict to me?  Very positive.  This 1930's "Imitation Perle" delivers some really nice images with good sharpness, nice color rendition, and some really nice qualities when shot wide open at f/4.5.  In fact, having recently shot a roll on the Ikonta A 521 at wider apertures that was particularly disappointing, I am actually going to take this camera instead of the Ikonta on a forthcoming photo trip, as I have greater degree of confidence in its abilities at wider apertures.  As well, I think I have located the light leak, and it looks like an easy fix.  

This is one "Imitation Perle" that has really shined!