Last year I was fortunate to acquire a pair of KW Praktina FX 35mm SLRs at a bargain price via a local eBay listing. These relatively rare East German-made SLRs, (not to be confused with the similarly named Praktica brand) were made in Dresden in the former DDR by Kamera Werkestätten. They were conceived from the outset as a part of a camera system for professional use, one that was quite impressive for its time (well documented at Albert Taccheo’s excellent site dedicated to the Praktina). Some accessories available for it included: interchangeable waist level or pentaprism viewfinders, and focus screens; bulk exposure magazine backs for up to 450 exposures, and; what was said to be the world’s first motor drive unit for a single lens reflex (spring-powered, originally, later, an electric version).
Although certain products from the former DDR could, at times, have variable quality control or reliability (some, but not all, Prakticas of certain vintages are a case in point) it’s still unfair to tag the entire output of what was once a global powerhouse of photographic equipment with this trait. Some of history’s finest cameras and lenses were manufactured in or around Dresden and Jena, before or after World War II—Exakta SLRs and the great Zeiss Contax rangefinders being just two examples. The Praktina may have been an Eastern Bloc product, but it’s a solidly built one with heft to match the best competitors from Nikon or Canon. It’s also a beautifully finished one, whose weight denotes the use of some high-grade metals in its interior. That it also possesses the tactile qualities one comes to associate with high-end German cameras, will be therefore be no surprise to those who have experienced them. But let’s look at a few aspects of this apparent quality, beginning with its unique lens mount.
The Praktinas rivals from its own homeland, the Ihagee-made Exakta and the Zeiss Ikon Contax S/D SLRs, both worthy, ground-breaking designs themselves, employed bayonet and screw thread lens mounts, respectively. Each of these cameras definitely have their good points, but from personal experience I can confirm that, like others of its type, the Exakta bayonet mount can certainly wear after extended use. This will adversely affect accurate lens register and hence, focus accuracy. The so-called “Praktica”, or “Pentax” M42 screw mount—in reality, first used in the afore-mentioned Contax S—is self adjusting to some extent, but fell out of favour with professional photographers, being neither as convenient nor as rapid as a bayonet type when changing lenses. But there is yet another way of securing a lens to camera. Siegfried Böhm, designer of the Praktina, chose the “breech” system of mounting its lenses. This uses a rotating collar to lock the rear of the lens to the camera body flange just as rapidly as a bayonet, but unlike those, it’s a design that neatly sidesteps any chance of wear by eliminating any sliding motion between the mating surfaces. It’s what causes play to develop in a bayonet system.
A breech mount was subsequently used by Canon in their FD-FL manual focus SLRs, and it might possibly have been inspired by the Praktina SLR that preceded it. That it is also a feature of Praktisix/Pentacon Six medium format SLRs should not be surprising, as they were designed by Siegfried Böhm also. Clearly, Böhm was motivated to improve on what he saw as certain deficiencies in contemporary camera design, but his drive to make a superb professional SLR went much deeper than its external features.
Though firmly wedded to the use of a focal plane shutter—as was fitted to most types of camera originating from Dresden—unlike most period focal plane shutter designs, the various speeds of the all-new mechanism were set with only one dial. Most other makes needed two controls—a main dial for faster speeds, and a separate one for the delay speeds, (which normally would be used only after setting certain times on the main control). Shutter speeds could also be selected before or after cocking the Praktina shutter, without risk of damage to its internals—something which often wasn’t the case with other period makes of camera. And unlike many cameras of the time with focal plane shutters, the Praktina speed control ring didn’t rotate when the shutter actuated, avoiding the risk of an exposure being ruined by an unwary photographer’s fingers fouling the spinning dial and retarding the second curtain. Design features that are all taken for granted today, but they were cutting edge at the time.
One of my Praktinas came fitted with the optional waist level finder, an attractively styled item that does its job of excluding light from the focus screen efficiently, and which has a good magnifying lens, but it’s not until you’ve finished using your Praktina that you realise just how clumsy the viewfinders of most other period cameras are in comparison. For instance, an Exakta waist level requires the magnifier, sides, and back each to be folded, individually, before closing the front, otherwise the finder will not collapse correctly. If you force an earlier Praktica FX or FX2/3 viewfinder closed without stowing the magnifier first, you’ll deform parts of it and it will then not work correctly or look right. Gently fold the front of the Praktina finder rearwards, and it just neatly tucks away the magnifier and closes—that’s it. Hasselblad for one could have learned from this. Attention to detail is apparent in the design of the Praktina everywhere you look.
The self timer gives a standard delay of around ten seconds, but has no release switch. If you arm the lever, the timer begins to run as soon you let it go, but still boasts a neat feature. Soon after you set it off the mirror will retract, but, there’s a short interval before the shutter fires. In the interim, the usual SLR mirror-induced vibrations can subside. And if you prefer to employ a cable release, moderate initial pressure on it will also fire just the mirror, enabling shutter alone to be actuated at your discretion. Such features may never be used by some photographers or only rarely by others. But if you’re seeking maximum possible sharpness in your images, they definitely will help. It reveals just how well thought out Böhm’s new camera was.
Viewfinders can be interchanged in seconds. By sliding a lever underneath the lens (which, to the uninitiated, seems to be the lens lock), hooks on the lugs at the front of the various Praktina viewfinders are engaged or released. Finders are secured when the letter “Z” is visible next to the lever (as seen in the image below). With the lever set to “A” (see the image after it) they remove towards the rear. It’s probably the strangest location for a viewfinder release that I’ve ever seen but it’s secure and is easy to use (once you’ve worked out what it is!). Once you have removed the finder, changing the focus screen is also easy. Sliding two small metal clips away from the sides of the screen and inverting the body drops it out for cleaning or replacement (which is just as quick and simple). For an SLR conceived in the early 1950s, it’s impressive stuff.
I was fortunate to acquire a pair of these beautifully made German cameras a couple of years ago for around AUD 65.00 (about USD 50.00 at the time). They are both the FX version (there is also a later “IIA” version of the Praktina, which offers automatic aperture stop down with certain lenses). One was fitted with a Carl Zeiss Jena 58mm f/2 Biotar lens and waist level viewfinder. The other, with a CZJ 80mm f/2.8 Biometar and an interesting, but entirely non-standard, pentaprism that seems to have been fabricated from the top cover and prism of a Praktica Nova (but which still works well). Each body was also fitted with a genuine Praktina rapid winder attached to the motor drive socket in the bottom cover, and these accessories are said to be reasonably uncommon. I felt it all represented exceptional value for the money. Perhaps you’d agree.
Neither body was fully functional as acquired, but they did not need much work to run well. The shutter spindle springs had lost a little tension as the speeds were somewhat slow, but happily they required a minimum of adjustment to the spring tensioners. I say “happily” because making substantial changes to curtain spring tension is likely to result from overlooking mechanical issues elsewhere which really should be sorted, in the interests of long-term reliability. Prior to this the mechanism also benefited from some general cleaning and lubrication, not at all unreasonable, given the intervening six or so decades since these one owner cameras had been manufactured.
Working on them was not especially onerous. Like certain 1950s Prakticas that followed them (and which were possibly inspired by some of their design cues?) Praktinas have a detachable film rail plate. Removing this provides much improved access to shutter spindles without the full disassembly needed to attend to, for instance, most Japanese 35mm SLRs. Access to other parts of the mechanism such as the mirror actuating system—which features a fascinating cylindrical part that looks like a cross between a sleeve valve and a camshaft—is then also possible, though cramped. In conjunction with the removal of their lower covers, I was able to make each example run nicely at their various speeds with little difficulty as films subsequently run though them attest.
The Praktina FX In Use
Having explored some of the more interesting design features of this German SLR you’ll probably want to know what it is like to actually use. Below are some observations, however you should know that I prefer using fully manual mechanical cameras without any electronic automation or autofocus for general imaging. If you’re accustomed to newer film cameras with more automation, you may take a little while to adapt to one, but it’s definitely worth perservering, because overall I have found the Praktina way to be a very enjoyable imaging experience.
On loading a film, you’ll find that the camera back is a fully removable type with no “hinge” on its wind side. Instead, the body and its cover are shaped to securely retain the cover without one (in this regard, the Praktina and Praktica FX models have something in common, if little else). As with many of the best German classic cameras, the back excludes light without any of those pesky foam seals often used by Japanese manufacturers, which are generally a gooey, crumbly mess nowadays. The back is latched into place on the rewind side via a metal locking plate that isn’t sprung, but, when it’s set, it snaps into position with a firm click that assures you it’s secured.
Winding on the film leader you might notice an odd trait. Unlike nearly every other 35mm SLR mechanism, (which will normally actuate the film advance and cock the shutter before lowering the reflex mirror), the Praktina actually reverses this. At first, the knob glides easily for a fraction of a turn to lower the mirror, then, the loadings from the shutter springs and film advance kick in and the wind action firms up. It’s a slightly unusual variation to the norm, but an inconsequential one—as long as you ensure the knob is fully wound to complete the cycle, of course.
A Praktina feels good to hold. The aperture and shutter controls are easy to use and precise in touch. Personally, I find the angled release button falls to hand very easily, but where a shutter release ought to live can sometimes be a polarising subject—you may feel differently about that. The shutter speed control deserves special mention, as it would seem possible to vary shutter speeds between the marked full stops—at least in the escapement range, I detected changes in the times between the marks. The dial can also be turned “around the clock” from B to 1⁄1000 or vice-versa and, as previously noted, you don’t have to worry about remembering to set the shutter speed (or not) prior to winding on—something you can’t always say about other 1950s cameras. It all makes the imaging process a fuss free one, and you get a sense that the Praktina is on your side and working with you, not against you.
Focusing is trouble free by the standards of the day. That’s not a euphemism for a dim, squinty viewfinder either. At the time, Germany led the world in honing the single lens reflex configuration to—if not perfection—at least a pretty respectable standard of imaging prowess. I’ve had no problems focusing either of my Praktinas in a range of light levels including moderate indoor lighting but I also like ground glass focus screens. These are as good as any others I’ve looked through and they also have a decent split rangefinder, so in summary a Praktina viewfinder is unlikely to give you too many difficulties, and by way of comparison it is streets ahead of a lot of period Exaktas I have used.
Perhaps the above should say “a Praktina reflex viewfinder is unlikely to give you too many difficulties” because—most unusually—a Praktina has two viewfinders: a conventional reflex viewfinder, and also; a fixed focus optical finder. The latter is designed to cover the same field of view as a 50mm lens such as the Zeiss Tessar. But by framing moderately tightly it’s close enough to sub for my 58mm Biotar reasonably well, so I use the optical finders of my examples from time to time, mostly when I also have the waist level finder fitted to whichever Praktina I’m shooting with. Naturally, it comes into its own when making a portrait orientated image with the waist level mounted. By pre-focusing on your subject with the waist level magnifier before rotating the Praktina 90 degrees and framing though the optical finder, images can be framed without the challenge of trying to align an upside down, reversed image through the reflex finder (and, having actually done this with various waist level finder-equipped 35mm SLRs, given the choice, it’s a no-brainer). On those occasions one needs to observe the image as it is being recorded the optical finder is also a boon. It’s a quirky feature, but also a useful one, and offhand, the only other SLRs I can recall having it are the rare, highly collectible and expensive Alpas formerly made by Pignons of Switzerland. Some of those even had fully coupled rangefinders as well as reflex focusing and unsurprisingly, I’d love an Alpa, one day. The Praktina optical finders eyepiece is visible in the picture below, just to the right of the rewind knob.
To date, the only aspect of imaging with a Praktina that has given me any grief has been the gear ratio of its film advance. I’m used to winding on all manner of manual film cameras and in the course of shooting hundreds of films, I’ve only ever ripped the end of a film off its spool a couple of times, until I got my Praktinas. But I’ve pulled three films out of their canisters with only moderate force on their wind knobs. On at least one occasion, I was winding on quite gingerly near the end of a roll, and still managed to rip it off the spool. I have to assume the gear ratio to the wind sprocket is especially low. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s more important than usual to: (A) remember to reset the Praktina film counter during re-loading; (B) keep a very close eye on it, when the end of a roll is approaching; and (C) wind those last couple of frames on very gently! The last roll I exposed in one was rewound without incident.
Those who have not experienced a pre-1960s 35mm single lens reflex before might be perturbed, on taking their first image with a Praktina, to find that the reflex mirror doesn’t return automatically after exposure. Instant return mirrors were still in the future at the beginning of the 1950s. In this respect the Praktina is on par with Exakta, Contax, Contaflex and even 1950s Hasselblad SLRs (the latter would not get an instant return mirror until the release of the 500EL some years later). The Praktina fares better than most SLRs of the time, because at least the optical viewfinder enables you to “see through” your shot if you need to, but it’s still as well to wind on promptly after each exposure in sunny conditions. With the reflex mirror retracted, its fabric second curtain is as vulnerable as that of a 35mm rangefinders. Except for a Contax rangefinder, of course. 😉
My Praktinas were won on eBay after they were listed by a local seller and I placed a few snipes. I knew a little about them but had never seen one in the flesh. Prices vary all over the place, (as do opinions about their reliability which has been faultless, in my experience). As a rare camera—certainly, they’re rare in Australia—and one with shiny Carl Zeiss Jena aluminium bodied lenses, at that, they’ve got a certain appeal that I, personally, find very hard to resist. But I had no pre-conceived ideas about what they’d be like to photograph with and frankly, I bought them more out of curiosity than anything else. So I’m delighted to say I’ve found them to be examples of that rare thing: a camera that exceeds your expectations. My pair have become two of my favourite SLRs, because they’re so rewarding to actually use. It’s hard to put a finger on a particular reason why. Perhaps it’s the feeling of solidity and sensation of innate quality imparted by them? Certainly, their tactile appeal is substantial, but this alone is not enough to justify regular use (well, not to me). Any camera can never be better than the lenses for it. As well crafted and tactile as a Praktina undoubtedly is—a quality camera is made for only one purpose—recording images of excellent technical quality. Here, the true appeal of a Praktina becomes apparent, because a range of lenses in its breech mount were produced by Carl Zeiss in Jena, and at the time their lenses were probably as good or better than anyone’s regardless of country of origin. On that note, here are a few photographs made with my Praktinas and their Zeiss 58mm f/2 Biotar and 80mm f/2.8 Biometar lenses.
All Text & Images Copyright 2016 Brett Rogers—All Rights Reserved.