Camera Review: Greetings from the GDR

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by Bellamy /

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Camera Review: Greetings from the GDR
Today we have a great guest review of a camera that often gets overlooked. Patryk Burchard talks to us about the Praktica MTL5B. A fantastic piece of German photographic history, which you can pick up for a song. Check it out.

What will happen if we take German photographic industry, add some soviet production philosophy and a lot of silver-metallic paint? Well, we will get a big, bulky SLR, that operates as smooth as ferocious KV-2 tank, is reliable as German car, comes in big numbers and is silver (mostly).

When in 1985 Minolta marketed world’s first autofocus SLR system, German Kombinat VEB Pentacon Dresden, based in former GDR, introduced one of their last cameras that used M42 thread mount from the very successful L series – The Praktica MTL5B.

At first glance, the MTL5B looks like a typical, humble SLR. It features vertical metal focal-plane shutter, with speeds from 1s up to 1/1000s with B and 1/125s flash-sync, self-timer and hot-shoe. The camera is fully mechanical and one LR/SR 44 battery is needed only as a power source for built-in lightmeter.

Even though it looks like GDR engineers mistaken “ergonomics” with “centrally planned economy” the camera lies in hands pretty comfortably, unless you have very small ones. The position of shutter release button and lightmeter switch on the front of the body seems to be quirky but serves the user well. The viewfinder is bright and split-image focusing screen is very helpful in darker areas. Besides lightmeter needle it features also shutter advance indicator.

Film loading is another thing worth mentioning. Besides cameras with quick-loading system, Prakticas are so easy to load that you can do it even when wearing thick winter gloves without any significant problem. Be sure to press lightmeter switch when metering properly. If you don’t do that the aperture won’t close fully and the metering will be off.

Nowadays Praktica serves as good alternative for other M42 bodies. It is newer and in some ways more advanced camera than Spotmatics or Fujicas. You can mount almost every M42 lens on it (some Takumars tend to be a little problematic on non-Pentax bodies) so you gain access to a wide variety of cheap and good lenses. The lightmeter needs just one LR/SR 44 battery so there is no problem with looking for alternatives for discontinued mercury-type batteries.

Unfortunately, the biggest drawback of MTL5B is the fact, that quality is piece-dependant. Most of these cameras work pretty smoothly, but some need more strength when advancing film or rewinding. If it’s possible check it before purchase. Another one is that the mirror clap feels like a Kalashnikov’s recoil so you have to hold it really firm while shooting.

The camera is surely fun to use. Even now, despite having cameras considered to be better (Leica M4, Nikon FM, Pentax SP1000) I still like to load it with a roll of film and take it for some shooting. This camera served me well whilst on a trip to Scotland. It survived hard drinking nights with my friends, walking on flooded shore of Loch Lomond and my right side wheel driving. Maybe it is not the most compact SLR ever made, maybe it is not as smooth as freshly CLA’d Leica M, but for sure it is a good camera. It’s tough, not too heavy, not too expensive and has everything you need for taking photos. Film advance indicator proved to be pretty useful considering the fact that I don’t have a habit of film advancing after I take a shot. One look on the side of viewfinder and I know if have to advance or not. I used to use it for portraits, landscapes, candid shots and even street photography and it was almost as good as my Nikon FM. Split-image focusing screen makes focusing easier for me, especially with fast and/or longer lenses. I really like to use it with Pentacon 50/1.8 and for me it’s a perfect combo for my typical shots.

My girlfriend with my Praktica. I lent it her so she could learn something about film photography

The production ended in 1989 and 567831 MTL5Bs were produced. The camera is very common and in some countries you can buy one in pristine condition for about 20$. The Praktica L series consists of over 20 models and in most cases you can extrapolate this review to other L-cameras (there are minor differences in battery type or focusing screen type). Add another 20-25$ for lens and you will get great camera for the beginning of your film photography adventure.

Thanks for the review, Patryk. If you have some links, please share them with us, I am sure people would love to see some more results from this camera.
Thanks
JCH

11 comments on “Camera Review: Greetings from the GDR”

    Leonardo February 8, 2016 at 2:37 pm / Reply

    My first camera! My father give it to me when I was fifteen! :)

    Stallberger February 8, 2016 at 5:37 pm / Reply

    Really handmade Photography. The Sound is far from “designed” and loud, but the Controls are easy to use and the Lenses great. Especially the 1.8 50mm, thats really the best Combination with the Praktica.

    Bernd February 8, 2016 at 5:41 pm / Reply

    awwhh, you never forget your first.
    thanks for the nice read

    Tom Aspin February 8, 2016 at 9:15 pm / Reply

    A nice trip down Memory Lane. My first camera in 1980 was the PLC3, which used the Pentcon Electric lenses, and had open aperture metering. Patryk is right, the mirror slap is pretty spectacular, so not one for candid photography! I found the 50mm 1.8 to be quite a serviceable lens, and it focuses down to about 30cm which is quite handy. I still have the camera, and apart from the now erratic meter, I doubt it will ever die

    LeoLensen February 8, 2016 at 9:27 pm / Reply

    My first SLR! Still love it, in fact, I held it in my hands yesterday and discovered it still had film in it… Going to be shooting with it soon!

    Radu Serbanescu February 9, 2016 at 12:47 am / Reply

    Wow! I got exited when I saw my camera on the homepage of JCH :P
    This is my first film camera and I love it. I have three at home and indeed the build quality varies with each one.
    I’m a fan of the M42 system and this camera is one of the best choices for this mount, except maybe the Voigtlander Bessaflex TM :)
    Nice review and keep shooting film!

    steve February 9, 2016 at 7:19 pm / Reply

    Oh no, why did I have to read this review now I have more GAS

    Enrique February 10, 2016 at 2:02 am / Reply

    I discovered photography With this camera.
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/14132285@N08/10442004335/in/album-72157633219933008/

    Yassine S. February 11, 2016 at 10:44 pm / Reply

    I don’t have the MTL-5 but the model below, the MTL-3, and it’s one of my fav film cameras… stunning design and a lot of character inside !

    (it looks like this on one of my photos =D ! Love the design ! https://www.flickr.com/photos/yassence/17145466565/in/dateposted-public/ )

    Unfortunately, the mirror seems stuck in high position, does anyone have a clue on how to unstick it ?

    Patryk Burchard February 18, 2016 at 12:37 am / Reply

    Thanks a lot! Good to see that you like this article!

    Jon Snape April 29, 2016 at 6:53 pm / Reply

    Had an L2 in the early seventies, along with a Leningrad Lightmeter and a 50mm 2.8 Zebra Ziess Jena Tessar. I remember it costing 40 Pounds new.
    What a wonderful way to learn photography.

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