Exakta RTL 1000 cameras (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Exakta RTL 1000, with a metered prism (front) and pentaprism (background)

Exactly an Exakta, but practically a Praktica.

 For a camera marque behind the evil Iron Curtain, Exakta did pretty well in the West.

The Exakta brand came from Ihagee (Industrie-und Handelsgesellschaft), a camera and lens maker from Dresden in the east of Germany. Ihagee was set up in 1912 by Johann Steenbergen, a Dutch engineer who had been trained at Ernemann, another Dresden maker of cine and still cameras.

Ihagee began its camera-making life making rollfilm and plate cameras. World War I and the following economic downturn was not kind to it, and the original company was liquidated in 1918 before being resurrected. Just seven years later, Ihagee was making some 1,000 rollfilm cameras a day.

Spourred by the development of the 35mm Leica rangefinder in the 1920s, Ihagee’s engineers came up with an even more novel camera format. In 1933, its engineers, led by Karl Nuchterlein, came up with the first 35mm SLR prototype – the first 35mm camera with a ground glass viewing finder. This, in 1936, became the Kine Exakta, named for the fact it used cinema film (kine in German). This began a long line of 35mm Exakta SLRs, masterpieces of shining metal and clockwork engineering.

In an era of Leica and Contax rangefinders, decades before the arrival of Nikon Fs, the Exakta range of SLRs were eagerly sought after by pro photographers. Ihagee made a dizzying amount of accessories for them. And the cameras just looked the very definition of classic, all silvery shine and mysterious buttons and levers. When James Stewart glowered his way through the 1954 Hitchcock masterpiece ‘Rear Window’, playing a hard-bitten photojournalist, the camera he used from his windowsill perch was an Exakta.

Being in Dresden, Ihagee was behind the Berlin Wall. Its idiosyncratic designs were high quality, with fantastic lenses, but as SLR technology developed, they looked more and more like something more likely to sit on a museum shelf than in a modern photographer’s kit bag.

Praktica IV (Pic: Denis Barthel/Wikimedia Commons)
The Praktica IV, the shape of things to come (Pic: Denis Barthel/Wikimedia Commons)

Alongside Ihagee, another giant of East German photography had appeared in the post-war years. VEB Pentacon was the result of a union of several Dresden camera and lens makers, among them Welta Kamerawerke Freital and lens producer VEB Feinoptisches Werk Görlitz. In 1949, one of Pentacon’s constituent parts, MECHANIK Zeiss Ikon VEB, had further revolutionised the fledgling SLR. Their Contax S was the first SLR to have an unreversed, eye-level pentaprism viewfinder, showing the photographer exactly what the lens was seeing. It also introduced something else – the universal M42 screw mount, a lens mount still being used by lens makers today.

The Praktica range of SLRs had also started in 1949, but really got into its groove a decade later with the stylish Praktica IV. The Praktica had a twin-speed shutter mechanism, one for slow speeds and another for fast, and a bottom-mounted winding crank. Both of these were old-school idiosyncracies you might expect to find on cameras like an Exakta SL, but in other ways the Praktica IV showed how SLRs would develop in the coming years. Aside from its double-disc rewind crank, the Praktica had relatively few buttons and knobs. It looked clean and sleek compared to the Exakta.; Pentacon would take this design and run with it through the 1960s. Prakticas, cheaper than SLRs from Japan and West Germany, became immensely popular in Western countries, becoming an important source of hard currency for East Germany. Exakta’s market began to collapse.

In 1969, the inevitable happened – Ihagee was absorbed into Pentacon. The union meant the end of the classic Exakta 35mm SLRs, though it didn’t mean the end of the Exakta line entirely.

Enter the Exakta RTL 1000. Designed by Herbert Scholtze, the new Exakta was the result of a diktat by East German chiefs demanding a new line of SLRs to complete with the latest Western models. According to Mike Eckman, this call to arms compelled Pentacon to come up not only with the Exakta RTL 1000, but the Praktica L-series aswell. The two cameras were apparently designed a the same time. The Exakta was unveiled to the world at the Leipzig Autumn Fair in 1969, and finally released in December of that year.

Exakta Varex (Pic: Darkside/Flickr)
An Exakta Varex, showing the classic Exakta shape which had proved popular in the 1950s (Pic: Darkside/Flickr)

The RTL 1000 certainly looks nothing like the Exaktas which came before it, and could definitely be forgiven as a Praktica. A conventional rectangular shape, the RTL 1000 has an uncluttered top plate with nothing more than a shutter speed dial, ISO dial and rewind crank and a film winding lever. It’s a long way from the knobs-and-levers buffet of Exakta cameras like the Varex IIa.

East Germany was certainly keen to get the RTL 1000 into consumer markets west of the Berlin Wall, and the camera was common enough in Western Europe during its four-year-long production run. Mike Eckman’s own impressions of this camera were probably shared by a lot of photographers at the time.

“On one hand, the large cubed rectangle shape of the body with sharp 90 degree angles was reminiscent of Praktica SLRs made from the same era, but where 1970s Prakticas are generally rudimentary screw mount SLRs with few features and a limited shutter, the Exakta RTL 1000 seemed, at least at first, to be quite a bit more.”

When you look at the camera front on, you can see the biggest change from the older Exakta cameras. Up until the RTL 1000, every Exakta SLR had the shutter on the left hand side (which definitely takes some getting used to if you’ve used any other marque of SLR). The RTL1000, instead, has a shutter release lever on the right hand side. Its placement is partly thanks to the inclusion of a pin which operates the lens aperture when the shutter button is depressed. The self-timer, meantime, also incorporates ultra-slow speeds of 2, 4 and 8 seconds. These are operated by pressing the button in the middle after having selected ‘B’ on the conventional shutter dial on the top plate.

Exakta RTL 1000 (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The RTL 1000 fitted with the conventional pentaprism

But the RTL 1000 didn’t have the M42 mount like the Praktica family. The Exakta range had been such a success – and so many lenses made both by Ihagee and third parties outside East Germany – that is seemed foolish to suddenly change mount and still keep the Exakta name. The camera came with a new suit of lenses that lacked the characteristic plunger style shutter button on the left-hand side, but in case Exakta owners wanted to use older lenses, there was a second shutter button on the left hand side. Even if you had the newer lenses attached you could still press this with your finger.

The RTL 1000’s shutter was similar to that used in the Praktica L, a vertically travelling metal shutter which earned a reputation for being incredibly reliable. What it didn’t earn a reputation for was whisper quiet operation – the “Praktica clack” is not exactly music to a street photographer’s ears.

Like the earlier Exaktas, the camera came with a choice of prisms. The standard was a black plastic pentaprism (which gave you a heavily vignette view of the action), a metal waist-level finder and a metering prism. The standard prism also came with a choice of focusing screen aswell. It was almost a system camera.

Front of RTL 1000 (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The RTL 1000’s front-mounted shutter lever and slow speed dial

While the old Exakta lenses could be used with this new SLR, the new lenses were not backwards compatible. The RTL 1000 usually shipped with a Meyer-Optik Gorlitz Oreston 50/1.8 lens. As Vintage Camera Lenses reports, it is “very good at rendering warm colours and creates a distinctive vintage look”. The lens is very soft wide open, and not coated, so has a tendency to flare.

A cheaper Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50/2.8 was an alternative to the Oreston, and the RTL’s suite of open aperture lenses was rounded off with a 29/2.8 Orestogon and a 100/2.8 Trioplan portrait lens. A pretty useful trio of lenses for an amateur, but obviously not the kind of range the pros who used to shoot on Exaktas would expect (though you could of course shoot stopped down on earlier Exakta-fit lenses)

Read more: Ten classic East German cameras

This being just before the widespread adoption of through-the-lens metering, the bulky, Heath Robinson-esque metering prism turned what was a large if relatively sleek camera into a real monster. Mind you, it was a step ahead of most other Eastern Bloc cameras; the ubiquitous Zenit-E’s meter, for instance, was an uncoupled one you had to read off the top plate. The Exakta’s at least kept your eye fixed on the scene, even if it was incredibly bulky and almost impossible to use without close study of its manual.

RTL 1000 metering prism (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The RTL 1000’s over-engineered metering prism

The RTL 1000’s prisms, by the way, are another massive clue to the fact this was in intents and purposes, a Pentacon camera: they’re exactly the same as those used on the Praktica VLC family of SLRs from the mid-to-late 1970s.

Compared to its contemporary, the Praktica L, the RTL 1000 was a relative failure. It lasted four years in production, whereas the Praktica L inspired a line of SLRs in production almost until the end of East Germany itself and built to the tune of at least four million units.

With the end of RTL 1000 production in 1973, the Exakta name itself was consigned to history, at least in East Germany. The RTL 1000, a Praktica in everything but name, would bring the story of one of photography’s most famous names to a close.

Read more:

Review on Mike Eckman.com
Profile by Christopher J Osborne
Profile on Early Photography
Review on Old Camera Blog

Stephen Dowling
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