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.