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Praktica LTL

The first thing you notice about this and most Prakticas is the design, or ergonomics. The camera has a square-edged body and the shutter button is on the front rather than the top. Many cameras look like the outside shape is moulded around the internal components. This Praktica looks like a box that was made to hold the working parts. It’s at the brutalist architecture end of camera design. It’s reminiscent of the Argus rangefinder, although the Argus was probably made that way for ease of assembly.

This, and many of the other Praktica models, use a vertically-run, metal-bladed shutter that seems to be reliable and long-lasting. It has the usual suspects of speeds, spanning 1s to 1/1000. Unlike its Russian cousins you can safely change the speed without winding-on first

This was very much the thinking person’s cheap camera. There were lots of different models, so pay attention. Be aware too that Praktica used electrical contacts between the lens and body before they moved to a bayonet fitting. If you have an electric-type camera I believe you will need an electric lens to be able to take advantage of open-aperture metering. My version, the LTL, uses plain and simple stop-down metering and has no electrical contacts.

The bonus features in this model were a visible indicator in the viewfinder that the shutter is not cocked, plus a lock for the shutter button. Heady stuff, but mine lacks the shutter lock.

The meter takes a mercury battery, but you can also use an air-zinc one. Or you can just treat it as a meterless camera and forget the battery.

The other thing you will notice using the camera is the way it winds on. What I’m used to with other screw-mount cameras is the feeling of gears moving. They feel like you are winding-up a clock. The Praktica has a sort of clunk to the action – like a switch is being set. It’s hard to describe, but you will know it if you try say a Pentax and a Praktica. It may be down to Praktica’s method of holding the end of the film (see peeve below).

Mine came with a typical Praktica lens, the Domiplan 50mm f2.8. This is a basic triplet design with a reputation of being soft wide open but sharpening up a bit when stopped down. The Tessars are better lenses if you find a camera with one on. Or fit any number of sharp M42 lenses. I’m using a Yashinon on mine, with Pentax 35mm and 85mm lenses rattling in the bag.

But it’s a standard screw-mount camera. Get one of the models that does not use the electrical contacts and it will take a huge range of lenses. I’m pretty sure the electric ones will work too, but the meter probably won’t work without the matching lens.

The one feature I really don’t like though is their design of film take-up spool. Praktica switched from the usual slot in a tube to a clever piece of wire. I struggle to get the wire type to engage the film. I can do it, but it’s a slow film load as I wind-on the first blank bit of the film while watching for the rewind crank to revolve. I’m sure there is a knack to it, that I lack.

The shiny wires either side of the take-up spool are my nemesis

In use, the camera works as you’d expect. The shutter speeds seem accurate, which is a tribute to their design. The meter works if you get the battery voltage right. The negative frames are evenly spaced, so the mechanical bits are working ok. The rest is down to the lens, so the pictures are as sharp as the lens I fit.

Respect is due though. They made a lot of cameras and seem to have built them well. Mine must be at least 47 years old and still works reliably. I’d much rather use a Praktica than a Zenit.

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Treasure hunt

I’ve discovered a great way to enjoy my photography, and it wasn’t even my idea. To be fair, most of the ideas in the world aren’t mine either. But back to the point, I joined a photography club a while ago. One of the things they run is a monthly session on a Saturday lasting three hours. Each session is on a type of photography: architecture, portraits, monochrome and so on. After a bit of chat on what the particular thing is, how to get the effect, what to look for, the challenge is on. We have a treasure hunt.

The point of the hunt is not the theory but the practice. We have 45 minutes to produce examples of the brief and bring them back. And therein lies the joy. No faff, no explanations, just results. Better still, results that you share and explain. Each person puts two or three of their pictures onto a laptop and we project them for everyone to see and discuss.

Now, 45 minutes is not long when you are looking for good architectural pictures or monochrome shots. Obviously we know what the subject will be, so it’s possible to prepare. The last two times I had worked out where I was going, that had likely subjects. My little trot round some photogenic sites took me to some places that I’d driven past but never walked. What I had missed was old warehouses and industrial property in shabby decay, trees breaking free of paving, odd alleys and pubs left standing as the single building in a demolished row. Sounds delightful, but it’s the history of this town and of a country where we stopped making things.

I also took a few minutes to experiment. I put a flashgun on the camera and covered it with a blue filter. Then I photographed one of the members in monchrome. The plan was that the blue light would give an ortho effect on his face while leaving the background normal. It kind of worked, in that it did make his skin look darker and more rugged with more prominent veins. It needs more practice though.

The projection of the results is not just a slide show. The person working the laptop loads the pictures into an editing program, so we can all propose changes and see the results immediately. It’s not the sort of fine-tuning you could spend hours doing to one of your own pictures. This is quick and dirty guerrilla pimping. A bit of cropping, play with the exposure, darken or lighten a few areas. Then put the original and the edit side by side. It’s usually the author who suggests the first edits, as they had something in mind when they took the picture. But then someone else will chip-in with a “what if you…” and we get to play.

What I like about this is that we all take different pictures. It’s enlightening to see what other people can see. When we did an architecture theme, the pictures ranged from old to modern, from whole to detail. There were also some pictures that pushed the accepted definition. If architecture is the built environment, then is a railway line architecture?

Wierd, I know. View through a fence.

I’m also eager to get home afterwards. I drop my picture files onto the computer and do some quick edits to capture both what I saw and also what other people saw in them. Now, I don’t know what your hit rate is when you go out with a camera – how many keepers you get. I can go out for the day, take two pictures and be bored with one and hate the other. But the hit rate from a treasure hunt is higher. I think the focus of a deadline and a theme makes me try harder. Subjects I would have previously have looked at and bookmarked for a later day become things I look at with concentration to decide if it fits the brief and could give me a good picture. So, like I said above, I spend 45 minutes doing an intense burst of photography with no interruptions. There is no “that’s interesting but I’m busy right now”; the reason I am here is to take pictures.

So I highly recommend a treasure hunt. It definitely works best with other people, as the sharing and discussion of pictures is really what it’s about. The theme and the deadline are just the method for obtaining a set of pictures to discuss. Having to shoot quickly to a theme is also an excellent way of pushing yourself to try something new.

Fed 5b

I didn’t want another rangefinder, but it was like pulling a thorn from a bear’s paw and having it follow you home as a friend (or to eat your dog).

I was mooching the Disabled Photographers stand at the Photo Show. Just out of curiosity you understand, and in case they had any wide-angle lenses. Right on the end of the bench was a grubby and battered Fed. The leatherette was scarred and torn. So of course I picked it up. The nameplate on the front was skewed and viewfinder was fuzzy and out of focus. But this is a Fed, so it can be easily adjusted to compensate for the variations in manufacture. The nameplate on the front, that contains the front windows for the viewfinder and rangefinder, is held on by a spring. It comes off to allow access to the rangefinder adjusters. So I pushed it straight again. The viewfinder itself has a diopter adjustment, so I twisted the eyepiece until it was sharp. I looked through it at a ceiling light and poked the arm in the lens throat. The double images came together with no vertical misalignment. Hmm, this thing might actually work.

Came without a lens, but I had a spare. The nameplate moves sideways and unclips to reveal the rangefinder adjusters.

The big test though was the shutter. Peggy of CameraGoCamera is clever enough to fix a knackered shutter, but not me. I’ve come to accept that I’m not good with anything more delicate than power tools. But the shutter curtains looked good – the fabric looked smooth and there seemed to be no holes when I held the camera up to the light. So I tried all the speeds (winding-on before changing speed, as one must). They looked and sounded about right.

Surprisingly clean inside

The Fed 5b has a better film winding arrangement than some other cameras, like a Zorki. The Fed has a drum with slots for the film leader, where some other cameras have a take-up spool that falls out when you open the camera. My Zorki has the escaping spool, as does my Fed 2. I think in the past I have used the spool from inside a 35mm film cassette as a replacement.

Fed 5 take-up spool
Zorki take-up spool making a bid for freedom

So of course I bought it.

With a better look at home I could see that the film counter was broken – there were no numbers visible through the window. Then I noticed that the window was in the wrong position. Someone had twisted it 90 degrees out of line. So I slacked the grub screw, turned it back and locked it. The film numbers appeared and incremented as the camera was fired and wound-on. Wow! This thing might work.

The window was next to the shutter button

Next is a torch test of the shutter curtains. No point putting film in it if the shutter is more net curtain than blackout blind. It passed – no obvious pinholes.

The Fed 5 was the last iteration of the line, produced from 1975 to 1990. This one, the 5b, was a cheaper version that lacked the uncoupled light meter of the 5. One less thing to break. The body is basically a box with rounded corners. Not as intricate as my Fed 2 or as steampunk as the Argus C3, but functional. It’s noticeably taller than the Fed 2. That’s not a bad thing for handling – I have big hands and the Fed 5 fits into my whole hand whereas I carry the Fed 2 using two fingers and a thumb (which is why it gained a raised grip on the front of the body). There are no strap lugs though, so it will be a bag carry.

Fed 2 to the left, Fed 5 to the right

The real test will be the rangefinder calibration. Setting the infinity point is easy, but you sometimes also need to adjust the close point. This means turning the cam on the end of the arm that rests on the back of the lens. It’s doable, but delicate. But I can’t wait, so I loaded a part-used film. I often tell my wife she has the patience of dynamite (with the expected result), but in this case it’s me.

The developed film showed consistent exposure, so the shutter is probably OK. The negatives were well spaced, so the mechanicals are probably OK. Infinity focus was good, but close focus was way off. So I’m going to have to twist the cam on the end of the rangefinder ‘finger’. The lens was focusing beyond a close object, so it wasn’t far enough out. The camera thinks the lens is further out on its focusing thread than it is. So I think I have to twist the cam to protrude further out. This will push the arm back in a bit, so the lens will have to be racked out a bit further. Luckily the whole back of the camera comes off to load, so it should be relatively easy to put a focusing screen over the actual film gate, lock the shutter open on B and then experiment.

To be continued…

Quality

Is there a valid distinction between high and low quality photography? I have heard pictures described as low quality, where the meaning was poor technical or image quality. But there are also pictures held up as icons of photography that would be classed as low technical quality. Think of Capa’s D Day pictures, for example.

Poor quality development

Technical quality I can understand. If a lens isn’t sharp or causes colour fringes, it’s not a good lens. If a camera is unreliable, it’s low quality. My Diana camera is low quality. It was made of thin, fragile and poorly-fitting components. I can’t be sure of its results. But it was made to be sold cheaply and still turn a profit, so it is as good as it needed to be. But I have also owned what looked like an expensive wristwatch that had fragile and unreliable working parts. So this had the appearance of quality while turning a larger profit. There are probably a lot of film-based point and shoot cameras that fall into the latter category: they appear to have good features but turned out to be fragile and giving poor results. Our family camera was like this when I was young. The pictures were always off: poorly framed, exposed or focused. I think my mum believed the marketing, that she only had to press the button and Kodak would do the rest. On the other hand the pictures are perfect, because they are the only existing record. So in emotional terms, quality doesn’t matter. But it’s nice to have better pictures if you can get them.

But aside from the technical quality of the camera and the resulting negative or image file, I wonder what other aspect of quality exists? There is good design, of course. Two things can do the same job, but one of them uses materials well or is easier to use. The Olympus Trip was a brilliant design. It simplified the operating controls, blocked being used in low light and had a sharp lens. Perfect for its job.

Poor quality in design

So what’s a poor quality photograph then? Is it one where the technical quality of the image is not overridden by the value of the subject matter? Or where the subject of the picture was not the low-definition rendering, so we feel it should be sharper or better exposed? Do we all agree that Ansel Adam’s landscapes are high quality? They are generally sharp and show a full range of tones. What about Ernst Haas then? His pictures were blurred.

The risk is of going down the rabbit hole on a Zen mission to define quality (although Pirsig sought to balance the romantic and mechanistic viewpoints, of which perhaps more anon.) But to get to the point, perhaps quality is fitness for purpose. So good quality means it does the job expected and is reliable. This would mean that a poor quality photograph is one where the subject matter and the image rendering are at odds. Adams’ sharp depictions of nature fit together well, and so do Haas’ blurred images of motion. A good quality camera or lens would do what you expected, and do it accurately and repeatably. A poor quality camera would be unreliable in operation or results.

This was taken with a poor quality camera

If that’s right, then that explains what a poor quality photograph is: it’s one where the results are worse than they should have been and where that difference was not intended (which excuses the Lomo crowd). Except that you rarely know the intentions of the photographer, which leaves it all open to argument. Rabbit hole, here I come!

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