Praktica MTL 50 review

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Chrome, black leather, and all you need to learn the basics… (Pic: La Fille Renne/Flickr)

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.

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New York street life, on vivid Lomography 100 print film

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.

Buy Praktica MTL cameras on eBay

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.

(Click on the pics to see a bigger version)

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.

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Barcelona busker and fans on Afgaphoto Precisa CT100 slide film

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.

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Old Agfa Optima 100 print film on a cold but bright winter’s day in New Cross, south London

Most of the time my travel camera is the Pentax ESII, 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.

Check out the rest of my pics on the Flickr set. Thanks to La Fille Renne for the pic of the Praktica – check out her Flickr too.

17 COMMENTS

  1. The MTL-50 is a special model in the line-up of L-Prakticas, not only because it was the last model in the series, but also because it has a hugely improved viewfinder due to the introduction of a much better and more sensitive focusing screen (which is also used on the later electronic B-series) which addressed the only real drawback of the L-series. The MTL-50 seems to be made to slightly lesser standards than the early L-Prakticas, as the materials used are of slightly inferior materials, but all the good features are still there. I wholeheartedly recommend getting one of the later VLC models (the VLC-2 is my favorite) with a waist-level finder to enjoy shooting from the hip!

    • Thanks Christos. I’ve actually found the MTL 50 pretty robust (the only slight problem is some play on the ISO dial) but for £25? A bargain. Shooting slide film, even expired slide film, has been no problem at all.

      I actually hav my eye on a Praktica VLC – would love to get one with a waist-evel finder and the finder for tabletop photography…

  2. Dang, now you’re making me want one. I see Prakticas show up on eBay all the time but I always hesitate. Maybe I won’t next time.

    I really like the shot of the ’70 Chevy.

  3. The L series was top of the world in two aspects:
    – first camera with plastic top and bottom
    – first camera with the metal blade shutter
    Although I’m not shure the second is true, fact is all Praktica promotional brochures mentioned it and the fact that finest swedish steel was used.

  4. The L series was top of the world in two aspects:
    – first camera with plastic top and bottom
    – first camera with the metal blade shutter
    Although I’m not shure the second is true, fact is all Praktica promotional brochures mentioned it and the fact that finest swedish steel was used.

  5. Whatever the camera – you always produce such good pictures – you mustn’t discount your skill. I doubt anything I could produce with the same equipment would be half as good.

  6. Whatever the camera – you always produce such good pictures – you mustn’t discount your skill. I doubt anything I could produce with the same equipment would be half as good.

  7. I have one of these. Such a robust camera! And the metering needle is really quite useful to give a better indication of over or under exposure. Allows more creative control.

  8. I have one of these. Such a robust camera! And the metering needle is really quite useful to give a better indication of over or under exposure. Allows more creative control.

  9. I was born in Dresden, hometown of Practica production. 25 years after the wall came down I have just got my MTL 50 bargain on ebay for 36 euros (25 pounds). In 1989 the price was more than 1.000 marks of GDR, this was more than a monthly salary in this country. It is really strange that you can get this camera much more cheaper than comparable western companies. I also like the simple and pure design.

  10. I was born in Dresden, hometown of Practica production. 25 years after the wall came down I have just got my MTL 50 bargain on ebay for 36 euros (25 pounds). In 1989 the price was more than 1.000 marks of GDR, this was more than a monthly salary in this country. It is really strange that you can get this camera much more cheaper than comparable western companies. I also like the simple and pure design.

  11. As for the Praktica front mounted shutter button, they were quite a lot of camera manufacturers in the 50’s and 60’s who used a similar arrangement: Exakta, Topcon and Miranda, at least. Even Zenit/KMZ used one (clumsily implemented) on their “Start” camera.

    I have (and use) a couple of older Miranda cameras, and love them for their shutter release. I agree that more camera designers should have taken notice…

  12. As for the Praktica front mounted shutter button, they were quite a lot of camera manufacturers in the 50’s and 60’s who used a similar arrangement: Exakta, Topcon and Miranda, at least. Even Zenit/KMZ used one (clumsily implemented) on their “Start” camera.

    I have (and use) a couple of older Miranda cameras, and love them for their shutter release. I agree that more camera designers should have taken notice…

  13. A Praktica MTL3 was my first SLR in 1980 and I used it for nearly 20 years, latterly with a Tokina 28-70 zoom. It was totally reliable (more than can be said for its replacement, a Pentax MZ50), very intuitive to use, and taught me to focus and meter manually (something I still do occasionally on my DSLR). I now use a Pentax ME Super for film, but miss the simple needle meter indicator of the Praktica.

  14. A Praktica MTL3 was my first SLR in 1980 and I used it for nearly 20 years, latterly with a Tokina 28-70 zoom. It was totally reliable (more than can be said for its replacement, a Pentax MZ50), very intuitive to use, and taught me to focus and meter manually (something I still do occasionally on my DSLR). I now use a Pentax ME Super for film, but miss the simple needle meter indicator of the Praktica.

  15. My first camera was a Praktica Nova in 1967, no meter, but everything was easy when I was 15. I traded it in for a Pentax H1a after a year or so, isn’t that how it goes with cameras?

  16. My first camera was a Praktica Nova in 1967, no meter, but everything was easy when I was 15. I traded it in for a Pentax H1a after a year or so, isn’t that how it goes with cameras?

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