No one wants to be the person with the obvious schtick. But after volunteering to review a rangefinder, an SLR, and then a medium format and even half-frame cameras from the Soviet Union, I’m starting to wonder if I’m typecasting myself. The smart thing to do would be to wait a year before doing another review of a camera from behind the Iron Curtain. Instead, I’m pondering another proletarian camera – this time it’s the Praktica MTL 5B.
In my defense, this Praktica was purchased for a very specific reason; I’m continuing a project started last year in Berlin documenting East Germany. Using film that expired in the same year as the GDR did, I saw using an East German camera as an opportunity to give the project even more authenticity. My camera came from the German city of Chemnitz (formerly called Karl Marx Stadt) less than fifty miles from the Pentacon factory in Dresden.
When the camera arrived, I couldn’t believe how pristine it had been kept. If the previous owner had used the camera there wasn’t any evidence to prove it. The metal was unblemished, the leatherette unmarred, and the inside clean enough to eat from. As far as I was concerned, I’d be shooting a 35-year-old camera as though it was brand new.
What’s a Praktica MTL 5b?
There’s a silver lining to reviewing an East German Praktica compared with machines made in deeper Soviet territories. East Germany (officially known as the German Democratic Republic or GDR) famously had the most stable and successful economy of all the Soviet satellite nations. While the economies of other Warsaw Pact nations relied almost exclusively on natural resources and agriculture, the GDR was able to diversify its economy with precision tools and chemical productions. Preexisting facilities and a deep knowledge base equipped East Germany with the best camera industry in the Soviet world – one centered in Dresden at the Pentacon factory.
Formed from the bits and pieces of six camera manufacturers, Volkseigener Betrieb Kamera und Kinowere Dresden started manufacturing cameras in 1959. Smartly renamed VEB Pentacon Dresden in 1964, Pentacon would quickly establish itself as a manufacturer of relatively reliable and well-made cameras. Four years later, the company integrated VEB Feinoptisches Werk Görliz into the fold and benefitted from its Meyer-Optik Görlitz lenses (soon rebranded as Pentacon lenses.)
By the 1970s, Pentacon was producing a wide variety of cameras, most famously its Praktica line of SLRs and Pentacon 6 medium-format camera. The company’s lenses didn’t perform as well as those coming from Carl Zeiss Jena, but they did feature smaller price tags. The factory’s reputation for well-made cameras and a general lack of real competition quickly made Pentacon the leading Soviet camera producer.
Among Pentacon’s Praktica SLRs, its “L-series” was far and away the most popular. From 1969 to 1989, forty-nine different cameras would fall under the L series umbrella, and with more than 4.8 million units produced, it dwarfed all other Pentacon product lines. Even with this many different models, the L line cameras all share the basic core DNA; they are all beginner-friendly feature sets coupled with robust construction. Some models offered a detachable pentaprism while others had LED information readout. The standardization of the camera body made production in a planned economy easy, and the line’s ubiquitous M42 lens mount opened up a world of lens possibilities from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
By the mid-eighties Pentacon was in the fourth generation of its L-series, and in 1985 they released the Praktica MTL 5b. The 5b was the followup to the MTL 5, though finding a difference between the two is difficult. The 5b loses the 5’s PC flash synch socket, but that seems to be the only external difference.
Specs, and Shooting in 2018
The Praktica MTL 5b is about as basic as an SLR gets. It looks like so many other SLRs of the manual focus era – black leatherette with a metal body in either silver or (the less common) black finish. Controls are similarly common with a combination shutter dial and ISO control on one side of the top plate, and a film rewind lever on the other. There’s a front-mounted shutter trigger, a ten-second self-timer and a button to activate the camera’s stop-down metering system. On the bottom is the 1/4” tripod socket and a compartment for the battery, which uses either the now banned mercury oxide battery or LR44 alkaline batteries depending on the date of manufacture. Add the hot-shoe and frame counter and that’s the complete list of controls and gizmos.
The MTL’s steel focal plane shutter has the typical range of 1/1000 second to 1 second plus a bulb mode, and the flash sync is a surprising 1/125 of a second. The camera’s meter – engaged by flicking the lever positioned next to the lens mount – is a stopped-down TTL meter using a CDS cell which is shown in the viewfinder using a cramped match-needle indicator. The meter reads based off the film speed (from 12 to 1600) chosen by the user on the shutter speed dial. Fortunately the camera is fully mechanical and batteries aren’t necessary for operation beyond the meter. I had no way of finding out which battery my version used, so I stuck with the handheld meter I was sure would do a better job than the one inside the camera.
The two things that really distinguish the MTL from other cameras are its front-mounted shutter trigger, and its film advance.
More cameras should have front-mounted shutter triggers. It’s a life hack that you can’t believe you ever lived without. Having it there improves grip and stability, and that added stability is especially important with this camera. Pushing the shutter trigger will unleash a mirror slap that will alert the nearest seismic measurement center. If you’ve ever hit baseballs with an aluminum bat in the winter, you’ll be prepared for the camera shake caused by the MTL’s shutter release.
Film advancement is another standout, but not in a good way. The advance lever of the MTL gives more resistance than any other modern camera I’ve used. It’s tough enough without film in the camera, but becomes utterly mulish with film loaded, and once the shot is advanced the lever remains in the forward position rather than springing back. When I first inspected the camera, this weirdness felt funny, more of a quirk than an annoyance. But after using the camera, it quickly became a frustrating distraction.
Frustrations don’t end with the advance lever. The first time the MTL felt truly Soviet was when I went to unwind my film. The actual mechanism is typical enough; push the button on the bottom to disengage the film spool and use the lever above the film to rewind the roll. It’s easy enough to start, but by the end of the roll, the milling of the rewind lever will have your hand begging for mercy. Resistance was so extreme toward the end of the roll that I worried about tearing the film perforations and ruining the roll — something that happened twice with the Zenit E that I reviewed.
The MTL’s M42 lens mount opens a whole world of optical possibilities to its owner (and it’s fitting that a camera made for the people would use the people’s lens mount). Made without proprietary elements, dozens of manufacturers produced lenses for the M42 screw mount, and it’s this mount that makes L series infinitely more attractive today than its B-series counterpart (named after the proprietary bayonet mount the series would use).
Someone using this lens mount can get lenses on the cheap from Pentacon and Zenit before moving up to lenses from Pentax, Carl Zeiss Jena and Yashica. You could even dabble in the obscurity of brands like Isco-Gottingen, Miranda or Montgomery Ward.
My MTL came with a Pentacon Auto 29mm f/2.8 lens. The later versions of the lens (mine included) are multi-coated, have seven elements in seven groups and an aperture range from f/2.8 to f/22 in half stop increments. It’s relatively light at 8.5 ounces and can focus as close as 0.8 feet. The lens is based on the Meyer Görlitz Orestegon 29mm lens. That lens boasted zebra striping which led to the perception that it is a Carl Zeiss Jena creation. But this is a straight Pentacon lens – one that even with the added multi-coating has a shaky reputation regarding materials used and build quality.
When it comes to making images, it did little to impress me. I found muted contrast, a good amount of distortion, and a propensity to retreat in the face of backlighting. It’s soft up to f/5.6 but sharp when stopped down, making it a decent performer for landscapes, especially those not threatened by the distortion. That will go a long way with much of my project, but for the portrait segment I’ll have to find something else.
Legacy and the Consumer Report
The Praktica MTL 5b was a popular camera in its day. More than half a million were produced over a four year period, and sales went far beyond the Soviet sphere. Foto-Quelle, at one point Europe’s largest photographic retailer, sold the MTL as the Revue ML (the company had quite the racket renaming cameras from Soviet countries, as well as many from Konica, Mamiya and Yashica.) My copy has “Made in German Democratic Republic” in English, indicating that while these were manufactured in East Germany, English speakers were also an intended audience.
Its widespread success is understandable; the MTL 5b appealed to beginner photographers and cost less than the rest. It’s a basic, mechanical camera that forces its owner to learn about exposure even when using the light meter.
But is it a good choice for beginners today? Certainly the price of entry is low. This camera (with a lens) costs about as much as a case of beer. But if I were to hand this to someone that had never shot a film camera, I’m not sure operating the Praktica MTL 5b would convert them. One of life’s great simple pleasures is advancing a roll of film and this camera almost manages to turn that joy into a miserable chore. And if that doesn’t sour the shooter on film, you can bet that rewinding the film will.
The MTL’s closest peers would have to be the Pentax K1000 and the Minolta SRT-101. When stacked against them, I’m not sure it holds up quite as well. When it comes to the experience of using all three, the MTL feels less enjoyable. If there was ever a photographic testimonial for the power of capitalistic competition, it’s the comparison of these three cameras. The socialist MTL falls slightly behind the capitalist K1000 and SRT, which is all the more chocking when we remember that the MTL came out a full decade after these other two machines.
Let me be clear – I don’t dislike the MTL 5b. It’s equally interesting as a camera and as a relic. While it isn’t something I would normally buy, I know it will do the job I bought it to do. In most cases, that’s all a camera needs to do. With the Praktica MTL 5b I have literally seized my means of production.