Praktica Nova 1B and Kodak film (Pic: Keith Walker)
The Prakrtica Nova 1B was one of many Pentacon-made SLRs under the Praktica name (All pics: Keith Walker)

By Keith Walker

The first LP I bought back in the mid-1970s was ‘A New World Record’ by ELO. The opening track on the album, ‘Tightrope’, begins with the line “They say some days you’re gonna win, they say some days you’re gonna lose.” Though the world wide web was still a good way off in the future, I like to think that the wonderful Jeff Lynne, was somehow imagining buying cameras off eBay when he penned this line. I know that it’s what runs in my brain every time a package arrives with the latest addition to my ever-growing collection of Soviet and East German cameras.

So, humming a tune first released in 1976, it was with some trepidation that just after New Year, I opened a parcel containing a Praktica Nova 1B.  I’d been drawn to this particular camera by four things:

  1. It looked in fairly good condition.
  2. It came with a case.
  3. It was fitted with a 50mm CZJ f2.8 Tessar zebra.
  4. Being auctioned, and with little time to go it was remarkably cheap, even for a Praktica.

Given that I fancied giving something with an M42 mount a go, it was just too tempting.  Now I know that Prakticas are almost universally unloved for having been shoddily made and for terrible reliability, but before I’d thought it all through, the bid was in. A few minutes later I was confirming my purchase and that certain song started up in my head again.

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Straight out of the box, things were looking good. The case was in good condition, inside the camera was clean with no corrosion, the film advance lever was smooth, and the shutter not only fired but also appeared to do so at speeds linked to the dial on the top. Happy days, or so I thought. Though the lens stopped down as required, no matter how hard I tried, I could only focus on objects about 30cm away from the front element. “They say some days you’re gonna lose.” Unusually decisive, I made my mind up almost immediately to get the lens sorted.  So, following the inevitable Google search for a suitable repairer, I found myself two days later masked and socially distanced at a local Post Office with the lens packaged ready to send it off to get fixed and serviced.

Suffice to say that this cost a bit more than the camera did, but the job was done quickly and efficiently, and less than a week later I had a smoothly functioning, nice piece of glass to put in front of the Praktica body.  All it needed was some film, and by chance an old roll of Kodak Ultra 400 had turned up during a bit of tidying, and it needed using.

Now, I know that many scoff at what was a cheap beginner’s camera back in the late 1960s. However, I’ve been delighted with this piece of East German optical engineering. Firstly, it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, remarkably simple to operate, particularly if you’ve ever used manual SLRs from this period. Loading the film is straight-forward using the “Pentacon Loading” system. However rather than describing this process, it’s probably better to show you how it was described in the Praktica advertising literature of the time.

Pentacon Loading instructions (Pic: Keith Walker)
The Pentacon Loading system was a pretty ingenious tweak to make loading 35mm SLRs easer

It’s a good system and works absolutely fine; I’m just not sure that it was an “epoch-making innovation…..”.

Exposure is worked out by setting the film speed and then adjusting a pointer connected to the uncoupled selenium light meter found on this model. (Again, I was fortunate in that not only is the light meter responsive on the camera I’d bought, but it also gives exposure readings which agree with my reliable old Zeiss Ikophot meter.)

The viewfinder is bright, and the model I have uses a micro prism focusing screen.  (Other variants use a rangefinder screen.) The viewfinder also has a rather quaint feature in that once the shutter is pressed a small red flag pops up in the top left-hand side.  This is, and I quote from the leaflet, “… to remind you that the shutter needs to be cocked.”

Talking of the advertising and “Instructions for Use” documents which came with my camera, these are simply, wonderfully bonkers. The tone throughout is instructive and gently firm (think slightly scary primary teacher) interspersed with a mixture of interesting and occasionally perplexing images.  The guidance on how to hold your camera (shown below) is a particular favourite.

Praktica Nova 1B instructions (Pic: Keith Walker)

So, on an early spring day I headed out into my local area and shot the roll of Kodak.  Here are some examples of what came back from DS Colour Labs.

(Images 1 and 3 have been straightened, 3 and 4 have been cropped, the exposure in 2 has been slightly decreased, and the contrast increased in 5.  This was done in Affinity photo. I neither own nor use Photoshop or Lightroom.)

I’d ordered 6×4 prints (as well as a CD of HiRes images).  Printed on lustre Fujifilm paper, the colours were a reminder of that wonderful intangible feeling that you only get from film.  Given it was ISO 400, the lack of grain came as a bit of a surprise. So much so that I think I’ll get some of the images enlarged. The lens does everything that the reviewers suggest it should in terms of rendering colours and contrast, and I was more than pleasantly surprised with the final results.

So next it was off to try some black and white, and what else other than a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono!

So, what’s not to like here? I read somewhere online that this is a lightweight camera. Well at over 800g (1.8lbs) with lens attached, it didn’t feel too lightweight after a couple of hours lugging it around the local area. It’s a big lump of a thing which would not be ideal for either inconspicuous street photography or as something to throw in the backpack when travelling. I doubt it would win any camera beauty pageants (if camera beauty pageants were a thing) and hanging over it are questions over its long-term reliability. Indeed, some online reviewers, consider this Praktica as little more than an unusually styled paperweight.

I don’t agree. There’s something about this camera, something that isn’t easy to describe, something which perhaps almost encapsulates part of the spirit of film photography. It’s a combination of having to engage with the whole process of picture taking, the industrial clunk of the shutter, the joy of function over form, the slight unpredictability of how the final result will turn out, and that wonderful feeling when everything does work out and you end up with a photograph that brings you joy.

“Some days you’re gonna win.”

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Keith Walker
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