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Nick's Classic Corner - No. 4 - Praktina FX and IIA

Discussion in 'Classic Models & Marques' started by Benchista, Oct 6, 2013.

  1. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    Many people think that the Nikon F was the first true system 35mm SLR camera. These people are wrong, because seven years before the F was launched the Praktina appeared from East Germany with interchangeable viewfinders, screens, backs and motordrives.

    Pick up a Praktina, and it's obviously related to early Prakticas, but the build quality is in a league above. Perhaps the first obvious oddity of the system is the direct-vision viewfinder for 50mm lenses, additional to the normal reflex finder, an unusual feature but quite useful for low light shooting or if you have the WLF fitted and need to shoot an action shot, or for continuous viewing, give the mirror is of the non-instant return type and requires wind-on. The two models are broadly very similar, the main differences being the shutter speed range (1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/75, 1/100, 1/200, 1/500, 1/100 for the FX, a now-standard range of 1 - 1/1000 for the IIA, with an additional X synch speed of 1/40) and the fact that the FX has semi-automatic diaphragm actuation within the camera body (a first), the IIA a fully automatic aperture actuation. It's hard to imagine what a breakthrough this was at the time, allowing full aperture viewing with stop-down at the moment of exposure - without it, it's unlikely that the SLR would've conquered the world.

    It's important to remember that at this time the East German camera manufacturers were at the forefront of innovation in the camera world, with SLRs in particular. Dresden and the surrounding areas had been the heart of much of the pre-war German camera industry, and despite - or probably because of - losing the Contax rangefinder tooling and designs to the USSR as war reparations, development of SLRs went ahead apace, with many firsts from East German Zeiss, with the Contax S, Ihagee with various Exakta models, and KW, with Prakticas and Praktinas, and they were well ahead of all the competition at the time. By the time the Nikon F was launched, all 3 of these companies had been merged into VEB Pentacon, a name which is of course short for PENTAprism CONtax. Equally, many excellent lenses were available, particularly from Carl Zeiss Jena, but also from Hugo Meyer (lenses most familiar to many as Pentacon or Prakticar later on) and many West German manufacturers.

    The lens mount was a dedicated breechlock bayonet, something of a departure from the M42 mount introduced by KW for the Prakticas and East German Zeiss on the Contax S. The locking ring is attached to the body, unlike Canon's FL/FD breechlock.

    In terms of controls and layout, the two cameras are very similar, with very minimalist topplates. On the right is the windon knob, with exposure counter and the shutter speed dial around the base. On the left is the rewind knob, surrounded by a film speed/type reminder, and in the case of the IIA, a switch to change the flash synch between X for electronic flash, FP for focal plane flash bulbs, and F, presumably for other flash bulbs.

    On the front is an angled shutter release - the idea was to reduce camera shake - a flash synch socket and a self timer. Under the lens mount is a release switch for the viewfinders - several types were available, often in multiple variations: standard plain prism, waist level finder (both of which I have and have used), high magnification finder, and metered prism, with an external selenium cell meter. I can't comment on either of these two. With the finder removed, a clip can be slid over to assist with changing the screen for a different type - a horizontal split image screen is standard.

    The back is removable, and bulk film backs were available; there's a latch at the bottom of the opening side. Loading is absolutely standard.

    The baseplate has a tripod bush (3/8" on my FX, 1/4" on the IIA), a rewind release button, and a threaded drive socket - various accessories are available for this, including a lever wind, and two types of motor drive, a fairly standard battery-operated one, and a clockwork one tensioned by, well, a large knob.

    Final major difference is the standard lens - the FX came with the 58mm f2 Zeiss Biotar, familiar to many in Helios guise on Zenits, the IIA with a 50mm f2 Zeiss Flexon, better known as the Pancolar. A range of lenses was available from various suppliers from 24mm to 1000mm.

    Without doubt, these are extremely interesting cameras that were in many ways ahead of their times; they owe a lot to earlier models such as the Contax S, and are very much 1950s cameras in terms of handling, but the features are more those of the mid to late 60s. It's a shame that the range wasn't more successful and developed further, although there was a brief glimpse of where it could have gone with the magnificent Pentacon Super, almost certainly the best M42 mount camera ever made, and one I would dearly love to be the subject of a future post.
  2. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    I bought a Pentacon Six new in 1971 from 'Gifford Boyd' of Hastings for £112-00 and still have it - then I was GIVEN many Prakticas ( saved them from going to the Council Tip) -- MTL3, LB, LLT, Super TL etc and I joined the 'Pentacon Club' which had a very good magazine then it all went BROKE as soon as East Germany merged with West Germany and the factories had to pay West German wages -- also ORWO film stopped and it was one of my favourite B&W films.
  3. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    The Pentacon Six (and Praktisix) look rather like larger Praktinas, especially the breechlock - the Praktinas are very much better made, though.

    I have a rather unaccountable fondness for Prakticas, and have a load of them - several also saved from the tip. I guess it's because I used them for some time. I hope to get round to cevering some of them later.
  4. stevejs

    stevejs New Member

    I have an FX, bought off eBay, which I rebuilt. The shutter is ahead of its time, the 2nd curtain release being controlled by a timer delay instead of the rather hit-and-miss method of using the 1st curtain to release the 2nd curtain, which was normal on cloth focal-plane shutters at the time. In my opinion it's the best 35mm SLR of the '50s by a significant margin.

    Unfortunately I haven't used it yet. It had spent its life in Aberystwyth and the sea air had left the Biotar lens with such an advanced infestation of fungus that even after cleaning it is unusable and 'standard' Praktina lenses are rather thin on the ground!

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