Zeh, not Meh - The Zeca Zeh Goldi Camera

For the classic camera collector, picking a handful of favorites can not only be a huge challenge, but it can also be something that largely defies strict logical thought.  

Consider one of my recent acquisitions that has quickly catapulted itself into "Top 10" camera status among my varied collection.  This is a camera that lacks any focusing aids whatsoever, has a top shutter speed of a "whopping" 1/125 of a second, and uses a film format that is especially difficult to find.  

So why would I be so enamored with a camera with such a limited feature set and usability? Because what I have is a camera compact enough to fit in a shirt pocket featuring a sharp, fast f/2.9 lens capable of focusing down to a mere 18", and giving an image size nearly 40% larger than the frame of 35mm film, all in an extremely well made housing indicative of a quality standard that has been abandoned for decades.  This little favorite of mine is the Zeh Goldi.

The diminutive and delightful little Zeh Goldi.

Though marked as "Zeca," the brand of this little known camera is actually known as "Zeh." This German camera maker released the Goldi in 1930, primarily as a half frame shooter of 127 film, though some less common full frame examples are also known to exist.  Zeh also made versions of this camera body for Rodenstock, which sold it as the Ysella.  Thus, while many various lenses can be found on Goldi cameras, it seems that Rodenstock Trinars are among the more common variants.  My particular version has a "Zecanar" branded lens, which may be of Rodenstock make, though it has a particular "hidden" talent that the Trinar variant lacks.  More on that later. 

In fitting irony, my purchase of this 127 folding camera was sort of belabored.  Spotting it on an eBay listing for sale at about $23 during a period in which I really didn't want any more cameras in my queue, I passed on the camera, later seeing it relisted for under $20, at which point I finally pulled the trigger resignedly. I expected to give it a quick cleaning and tuck it on the shelf for months with other members of the queue that have been awaiting their "first assignment" as well, thinking I'd get to this camera eventually.

As luck would have it, a friend of mine had recently supplied me with a new plate for my home made "slitter"and I'd hoped that the placement of the 127 slot was in the perfect spot to allow me to use the remnant of the cut to stock Minolta 16 cartridges.  As it turns out, the slot was placed perfectly, allowing me to cut stock for the sub mini cam, while also giving me a roll of 127 to play with. Rather than put this roll in a 127 camera I'd already used, I elected to put this roll of HP5+ into the Zeh so it had some film whenever I was ready to actually use it. 

A few days later, I had an errand to run on a rainy morning, and figured this would make an ideal fit for the higher speed of HP5+, resulting in me suddenly putting the Goldi into service much earlier than expected.  I'd certainly used guess focusing folding cameras many times before, and had admittedly gotten spoiled since by the amenities such as TTL and RF focusing as well as auto exposure that my more recent acquisitions had provided me.  Still, I was pretty decent at distance estimation, and figured I could manage a good shot or two on the roll.

The no-nonsense layout of the Goldi has distances set by rotating the lens ring, shutter speed set by use of the outer bezel, and aperture set using a moving indicator on top of the camera by the lens board.

Usage of the little Zeh Goldi was actually pretty straight forward.  It's main hiccups tend to be in setting some aperture settings (the lever is somewhat recessed in a channel) and in releasing the shutter near the lens.  These were pretty minor annoyances however, and I quickly was pleased at how easy the film loading and advance were in this camera, given many 127 cameras have a tendency to be a huge pain to load.  

After having dealt with a string of poor results of focus from 127 half frame cameras, my expectations from this "guess focused" Zeh camera and its relatively unknown Zecanar lens  were not terribly high, particularly with many of these shots in heavy overcast, or as rain fell. So I was pleasantly surprised to see a nice selection of well exposed and generally well focused photos on the negatives of the HP5+. 

It's always nice to "Start Safe" with a new camera, and that's more or less what I did with this shot.  The result is not spectacular, but does give the validation that this camera is light tight and can at least focus and fire properly, which is more than I might say for some other 127 cameras I've recently dabbled with. 

However, I wasted little time in getting this camera's feet wet - LITERALLY.  With a shower starting up, I fired off a few quick shots at the 4 foot focus mark.  The Zeh actually did a good job of capturing the rain itself. 

Bokeh on the Zeh wasn't quite as swirly as some cameras, and is actually a bit indistinct, but the shape of aberrations is actually less of a circular shape, and more one with a bit of a clover shape. 

Another quick snap at about the 4 foot minimum MARKED focus point.  Excellent separation of field evident in this image, and a tad bit of swirl in the backdrop. 

Stopped down a bit to about f/8 with the fast film inside, the Zeh picked up some excellent details in this tractor wheel. 

Before even finishing my first little batch of shots, I began to get a bit more curious as to how close this camera could focus.  A quick test is seen here, which gives off a fuzzy rendering.  Note the odd shape of the highlights in the backdrop. 

By this point, the lens was almost certainly affected by some water, resulting in a rather impressionistic result from these Black Eyed Susans.  Still a very pleasing and vintage looking result.

I'd driven a few more miles and the rain had stopped when I snapped this image, which the Zeh hit spot on with the focus.  

My only shot from the roll actually taken at f/2.9 was this one.  It definitely renders soft, but for that matter, with a subject like this with a flat face, there is no margin for error in focus estimation.

The Zeh was definitely off to a good start, but my cynical mind expected that this may just be a fluke, an anomaly that I couldn't replicate on a sophomore roll.  Regardless, I was excited to see just what this next roll would hold.  I wasted little time in slitting down a roll of Rollei Retro 80S to 127 width for a second try.  This time, I tried (and somehow succeeded) in stretching the exposures out to encompass lighting conditions ranging from rain to full sun. I also got a bit more adventurous with the (then) unknown close focus point to try to push the camera's capabilities just a bit.

My only minor gripe with the layout was that it was sometimes a bit tricky pulling aperture tab to stop it down from f/2.9.  Note the unusual reference of the aperture setting between 4 and 8 being marked as f/5.5.

A true indicator of my interest in the Zeh was that I used a pre-numbered backing paper that I'd designed to get an extra exposure when using the Zenith Comet, which tends to have 58mm long exposures rather than the 65mm long exposures typical of full frame 127 shots. The result was a bit of overlap between some frames, which will be evident in some of the scans below. 

Sure enough, the first roll of the Zeh was no fluke.  The second roll delivered some stellar results as well.  The overcast shots had a nice atmospheric feel to them, while shots taken under clear conditions were amazingly sharp, given the non "brand name" triplet lens on the Goldi.  

Rollei Retro 80S isn't an every day film for me, but still a film I like for its smooth grain and tonal rendering of skies.  Here, the Zeh shows it can handle this film quite nicely.  

Soon into this roll, I began toying with the closer end of the focusing range again, and wound it almost all the way down for this image, only to be disappointed in a blurry subject.  However, the grass nearer to the camera shows evidence of being more in focus.

And on yet another shot, it seems I actually did get good near focus, though my recollection of where the focus ring was set, is a bit spotty.

For this photo, focus was set at about 12 feet, and the results are really quite nice in managing to diffuse the backdrop.  The frame overlap on some of these images is the result of using the backing paper that was custom numbered for another camera. 

Hoping to regain my rainy day luck with the first roll, I took to get some more images during a shower.  Armed with only 80 speed film, I was left shooting most of these at f/4 at 1/50 of a second.

Though the negatives from this batch of wet shots were a bit thin, there were some decent results in the batch, including this image.  Despite a fairly close focal point and wide aperture, the backdrop doesn't seem to get very muted and dreamy. 

Another image taken at closest focus.  Overall quite good but with a bit more depth of field than expected or desired.

Rain clouds departed, I snapped up the remaining shots on a vivid sunny day.  The Zeh and Retro 80S responded with authority in delivering great shots with a nice deep tone to the blue sky. 

My interest in the closest focus point however began to be piqued however, leading me to take a second photo at the same site as the one above, thinking the tops of the flowers might be in focus with the tower being muted.  As is evident here, the closest focusing point was much closer than the 3 feet I'd expected.

One of my favorite bridges in Baker Park provides another good photo and framing test, which the Zeh did well on. 

This image was another one where I was curious about how close this camera could focus.  I thought it might be just under 3 feet and would give a sharp result just to the left of the center of the image.  When it turned out that the sharpest part of the image was to the far left, I began to realize that the closest focusing distance might be MUCH closer than I'd initially thought. 

For the last few photos on the roll, I kept it mostly to predictable distances, such as an overall shot of an old school hall awaiting reuse. 

Focused at a closer distance, the results are impressive, even if a focusing point can't quite be discerned.

Here, however, the Zeh nailed focus right where I set it, and the result is fantastic.  The detail and sharpness in the near foliage is excellent, while still giving good separation to the backdrop, despite the slow shutter speed limiting how wide the lens could be opened. 

It was only after this roll that I realized just how close this camera could focus. So the light bulb went off (literally!) as I did what I should have done in the first place, opening the camera and opening the shutter with the lens wide open and a matte screen in the film plane, with the camera pointed at a light bulb. It was only here that I realized that the close focus point of this lens is an amazing 17 inches! This distance was ideal in that I could actually "spot" it by positioning the camera at my elbow, and extending my forearm and pointing to literally touch the subject, then holding the camera at that position to take the photo.  

The place where the "magic happens" is the 55% of the focus ring that lacks any distance markings.  It was from trial and error that I discovered that turning the ring to all the way beyond the word "Feet" would result in the camera focusing to about 17 inches!

I loaded the camera with a third roll of film with this newfound knowledge of the hidden "Easter Egg" that is this Zeca camera's macro capabilities.  This roll was a roll of "true" 127 Efke that I had been saving for a special occasion, and I figured no other 127 camera had proven itself as worthy of having the honors as this little gem.  I went out a third time and snapped away, dividing the 16 shots on the roll roughly halfway between close focus images and those at distances actually marked on the focusing ring.  

Even as I shot these images, I wondered if I was wasting my time.  After all, the close focus distances weren't marked on the scale of the focus ring.  Was my "discovery" of this capability something I imagined in my late evening "putzing," or the product of a pseudo-real dream. I nervously dunked the film into a tank of HC-110 for a half an hour of stand developing, and anxiously pulled the very curled roll (an Efke trademark) from the final rinse to discover that the close focusing prowess of the Zeh was not a figment of my imagination. 

The Goldi had already taken some fine images, but if there was one photo of them all that effectively cemented this camera into the "top ten" status, it would definitely be this one.  Taken at the closest focus point at about f/5.6, this simple photo is one of the favorite close up images I've ever taken, sharp as a tack where it needs to be, and falling off to a playful rendering in the foreground and background to give excellent separation, almost giving off a large format type of vibe. 

Almost as nice is this image, again at closest focus but stopped down a tad more.  A slight bit of film distress is noticeable on the expired Efke stock. 

When the subject is not in the direct center, the image isn't as well defined.  However, I was pretty shocked to get a usable image from this exposure, as I was shooting directly into the sun.  Note the flare in the upper left corner. 

Shot at a more intermediate distance, but with tricky backlight, the Goldi pulled off a usable image.  It's something of a shame that a light fixture with such character is so far away from the camera.

Among the less stellar images on the roll was this one, shot at about f/4 and focused at about 25 feet, where the center fountain is located.  The subject is obscured in shadow, so the somewhat indistinct wall in the distance is the first item that catches the eye.

Viewfinder on the Zeh is surprisingly accurate.  I framed this to try to get symmetry and it was pretty close.  The sharpness of this image taken at f/11 is impressive.

Back to some more of my close focus follies, I'm again very pleased to see some excellent results given my insistence on saving this roll of Efke for a "special occasion."

Tonality of the Efke is quite good.  Bokeh on these images is largely compromised from earlier shots from having to stop down due to the slow top shutter speed, but it does make for a sharper shot for the portions of the photo in focus. 

Sunlit, and stopped down, a photo of this statue renders with great sharpness and detail through the Zecanar lens. 

And again, another close focus gem from the Zeh. 

In doing minor edits of the photos, the one thing I occasionally see is a bit of washed out look in some images taken at near infinity focus.  This may however be due to the film or the stand development process combined with the scanner.

At the "marked" close focus point of 4 feet, the Zeh is more or less right on the money at getting good focus.  I'm just glad I didn't assume that 4 feet was the closest I could come to my subject with this camera! 

One final image, again at the 4 foot focusing mark.  Shot between 5.6 and 8, this image gives off some very good center sharpness as well. 

Zeca's Zeh Goldi camera is hardly perfect.  My version is hampered by a slow top shutter speed and a few ergonomic issues that take a little bit of adaptation.  Working within its confines though, this is a camera that is capable of some amazing things given its size and age.  It is one of those cameras that I can't wait to shoot again and again, in spite of its limitations, because of the wonderful things of which it is capable.  And it is definitely a camera for which I'll be on the lookout for a spare, in hopes that lightning can strike twice with this great machine that has somehow made it to my personal "top ten" list!   


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