An entire generation of photographers learned the tricks of the trade on Praktica’s L range of cameras. From the late 1960s, the giant East German camera works of Pentacon in Dresden created a range of sturdy, simple 35mm SLR cameras that were sold in the hundreds of thousands on the other side of the Iron Curtain, giving countless photographers a cheap and reliable first step into proper photography.
Some of the most common of these were the MTL models. The MTL 5 and 3 were both released around 1984; classic-looking chrome and black leather screw-mount SLRs, manual shutter speeds up to 1/1000th of a second and metering to ISO 1600, flash sync at 1/125th of a second and usually partnered with a Zeiss Jena 50mm lens. It was no-frills, but a perfect student camera; the Praktica had a simple centre-weighted meter, but everything else was manual. If the batteries ran out of juice, you could still able to take pictures if you were confident enough to guess the exposure.
The MTL 3 and 5 were followed by the 5B in 1985, and, a few months later, the MTL 50, the last in a long line of Praktica cameras using the M42 lens mount. Some 25 years after production stopped, the MTL 50 is still a really useful tool for anyone wanting to get stuck into film photography.
Prakticas had an undeservedly bad rep in the 1980s and 90s – and often from people who’d never shot with one. Politics might have been part of it – consumer goods from the former Soviet bloc were usually derided for their crudity and lack of sophistication. But the MTL-marque Prakticas were simple and sturdy. The metal shutter at the camera’s heart makes a hell of a clack, but is incredibly reliable. As photographers developed their skills, and had more disposable income, many sold their Prakticas; used examples soon filled second hand camera stores and charity shops.
By the time the Praktica MTL 50 was released, all-manual cameras using screw lenses were decidedly old hat; the first generation of auto-focus cameras were hitting shops, and cameras were losing their metal shells in favour of more lightweight, plastic ones. About the only major update the MTL 50 had over previous models was replacing the metering match needle with LED lights showing under or overexposure.
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I learned basic photography on a Praktica MTL 5B about 15 years ago, having decided to put my autofocus Canon EOS in a drawer. I used it for a couple of year before giving it to a friend so he could do the same; the Praktica introduced me to the screw-mount system, which allows you to build up a decent bunch of lenses (and spare bodies, if you want them) for next to nothing, and the Praktica was followed by several other camera bodies using screw mount lenses.
Then in 2012, I found a Praktica MTL 50 on eBay for £25; about half the price I paid for my MTL 5B more than a decade before. It seemed a bargain too good to ignore.
The Praktica might not be lightweight, quiet or bristling with features, but it’s one of the cheapest system SLR outfits you can buy. Nearly 300,000 of these were made up until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and any that have managed to solider on til now are likely to give years more service.
So what’s so good about these old Prakticas? It’s the simplicity, on top of that legendary shutter (reputed to be cleared for over 100,00 exposures). The centre-weighted metering works perfectly fine in 95% of lighting conditions, and the placement of the shutter button on the front of the camera is a much more natural place for your fingers than the camera top plate; shoot a few films on a Praktica, and you’ll wonder why more camera designers didn’t do the same thing.
Pentacon also developed a special loading mechanism that helped make sure films were loaded safely. The film was placed behind a small plastic tab in the film chamber, and then fed onto the roll underneath two wires that help clamp down on the film as it’s wound on. It’s a pretty ingenious system, and one that makes mis-loading a Praktica pretty difficult.
Most of the time my travel camera is the Pentax ES II, one of the best screw mount cameras ever made, with aperture priority and a range of fantastic Takumar lenses. But the Praktica is a great spare body – during a recent trip to Barcelona and Morocco, I shot all of my Barcelona films on it, using the Pentacon Auto 50mm lens. Even with slide film, the Praktica’s meter was spot on, and the Pentacon Auto is a pretty capable lens. (Some of the other East German lenses, such as the Meyer Optic Orestor 100/2.8 and the Flektogon 35/2.4 are nothing less than outstanding).
I recently took the Praktica on a trip to New York for work as well; the one afternoon I had free to walk the city, camera in hand coincided with beautiful autumn sunshine. The Praktica’s Pentacon Auto lens paired well with Lomography 100 print film – though a lot of street photographers might have some issues with the noise the MTL 50 makes. This is not a quiet camera; the Praktica’s mirror makes one hell of a slap. If you’re wanting to take pictures on the sly, then you might want to use a rangefinder instead.
Tough, simple and reliable, Praktica MTLs are ripe for reappraisal. Get one while they’re still cheap.