Praktina IIA

camera Praktina IIA
type SLR
film 35mm, 24×36mm
producer VEB Kamera-Werke Niedersedlitz
place Dresden
country German Democratic Republic
date 1958-1960
units 25,000
shutter cloth horizontal focal plane
speeds 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 250, 500, 1000, B
lens Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm ƒ/2
mount Praktina breech-lock


English is not my native language. Please, contact me about any grammar or spelling mistake, thanks!

The Praktina was the first professional 35mm SLR system camera. It was made in the fifties by VEB Kamera-Werke Niedersedlitz (KW) in East Germany, at a time when SLR cameras were still fighting for the leadership held back then by rangefinders.

The Praktina and its accessories were innovative and ahead of their time. They defined the path to be followed by other later SLR systems, such as Nikon's. It may be argued that the earlier Exakta also offered a professional SLR system, but the Praktina went further and its features defined the modern SLR professional system: a modular camera with interchangeable finders and screens, a quick to use lens mount, a wide range of high quality lenses, motor drives, bulk film backs and lots of accessories to meet the photographer's highest requirements. The Praktina, however, never had an instant-return mirror.

There are basically two versions: the Praktina FX (1953-1958) and the Praktina IIA (1958-1960), the main difference being how the diaphragm opens at full aperture. Only prototypes bore just the name "Praktina".

According to Gerhard Jehmlich in his excellent book about the history of Pentacon [1], the Praktina system was designed by Siegfried Böhm, head engineer at KW and also the designer of the popular Praktica cameras. Unlike the Praktica, which was based on the earlier Praktiflex designed by Alois Hoheisel, the Praktina was entirely designed according to Siegfried Böhm's own criteria.

Under Böhm's management worked Günter Hausmann and Karl Wunderlich (camera body), Friedrich Winkler (finders), Rudolf Hainy (lens mount) and Heinz Kröbel (motor drives). According to Alexander Schulz in an interview made to Siegfried Böhm [2], “Nobody could apply for this team; one was invited into it, and all ideas leading to the famous Praktina system originated within the team. Böhm was the head but everyone was given the chance to introduce ideas. Consequently, it was a very intensive work, often beyond normal working hours, for example, when some measuring series had to be performed”.

All of Böhm's efforts paid off with a carefully designed camera, which even today he remembers proudly: “What the Syntax should have been, we realised with the Praktina” [2]. (The Syntax was the Contax S project in which Böhm also worked).

The Praktina cameras are still regarded as interesting collectables by users and collectors everywhere:

“The Praktina cameras are superior in many ways to the Prakticas of the mid-fifties and are appreciably more pleasant to use. [...] The Praktina was ahead of its time and an excellent design. [...] If you can find a Praktina IIA that has had an easy life and looks and feels smooth and smart, it is a camera to enjoy.”
— Ivor Matanle, Collecting and Using Classic SLRs [3]

“The Praktina had the misfortune to come from the wrong side of the political railroad tracks, in East Germany, but apart from very occasional quality control problems and rather more frequent parts supply problems, it was an excellent camera.”
— Roger Hicks, A History of the 35mm Still Camera [4]

“Pick up a Praktina, and it's obviously related to early Prakticas, but the build quality is in a league above. [...] Without doubt, these are extremely interesting cameras that were in many ways ahead of their times; they owe a lot to earlier models such as the Contax S, and are very much 1950s cameras in terms of handling, but the features are more those of the mid to late 60s.”
Nick's Classic Corner

“The Praktina was one of the first "system" 35mm SLR cameras produced, rivaled at the time only by the Ihagee Exakta in terms of the number of professional features and accessories offered for it. The Praktina even surpassed the Exakta in the areas of motor drives and long film backs, accessories never offered by Ihagee. It wasn't until the advent of the Japanese Nikon F that a camera was offered with such a diverse number of accessories.”
Jack Dugrew

However, in my opinion, the Praktina doesn't feel like a true professional camera. It just feels like a better made and heavier Praktica. I think it doesn't have the details one would expect from a professional camera. For example, the finder doesn't show any information nor a 100% frame coverage, and the borders of the split-image rangefinder are quite thick. The pieces holding the focusing screen are quite weak and sometimes can be seen through the finder. The direct viewfinder shows a small and cropped image, it doesn't seem to cover an equivalent 50mm lens field.
I must admit that my opinion is very biassed because I'm the proud owner of a more modern Nikon F2, but a true professional SLR system camera like the Praktina should have been upgraded througout its lifespan. The slide-in finders are, however, better designed than Nikon's ones.

But please don't misunderstand me: The Praktina is a great camera with unique features making it a singular and valuable collectable. They are not necessarily expensive cameras and the lenses are usually superb. Even though I wouldn't consider it as an everyday camera, it is a camera to enjoy shooting some film from time to time.

Avid collectors should regard it as an unlimited source of challenges: there are a lot of scarce and sought-after accessories waiting to be collected.

Viewfinders

The Praktina is a SLR camera with an extra direct viewfinder. But... Does this make any sense? When the camera was developed, in the early fifties, the SLR cameras still had some drawbacks: the finder darkened at narrow apertures and the mirrors didn't return automatically. So they decided to add a direct viewfinder on which always to rely. Siegfried Böhm and Gerhard Jehmlich [1] even patented in 1952 a hybrid pentaprism-rangefinder viewfinder, but it was never produced. As far as I know, only the Asahiflex and some Alpa share this odd feature (the Alpa even has a rangefinder!).

The expert collector and photographer Ivor Matanle [3] found this viewfinder very useful when shooting press pictures with a flash and a wide-angle lens: “In days when the lack of an instant-return mirror meant that the screen went black when the shutter was fired, there was a lot to be said for a continuous view of one's subject before, during and after the flash.”

The Praktina was usually fitted with an interchangeable pentaprism finder. Also available were waist level finders, 6× magnification finders and stereoscopic finders. In 1958 appeared a pentaprism finder with an external selenium exposure meter.



The finders are very easy to remove, they slide in a similar way to Miranda's system, by far more comfortable than Nikon's or Exakta's, an opinion I share with Roger Hicks [4]: “Even better is a slide-in prism with lock, as on a Praktina, though why the key should be below the lens mount I have never been able to fathom”.



Lenses

Another peculiarity of the Praktina is the breech-lock lens mount, a kind of mount that prevents wear because the surfaces never slide against each other. This makes it the best lens mount system according to Roger Hicks [4]. The lens just has to be inserted and secured by rotating the locking ring with a quick twist. According to Ivor Matanle [3], the Praktina was the first SLR to have a breech-lock lens mount. But it wasn't the only one: the Praktisix, the medium format SLR also made by KW, had the same type of lens mount but obviously larger (there were adapters to mount the Praktisix lenses into the Praktina, though). Other manufacturers such as Canon, Altissa, Leidolf or Aka used similar breech-lock systems in some of their cameras.

Although the Praktina was never as widely sold as the Praktica, an enormous range of high quality lenses were supplied for it, not only from Carl Zeiss Jena or Meyer Görlitz, but also from other manufacturers at the other side of the iron curtain: Schneider, Steinheil, Isco, Enna-Werk and Angénieuz, among others. The Tessar, Biotar, Pancolar, Flektogon, Biometar or Sonnar were the most common lenses provided by Carl Zeiss Jena. Visit Alberto Taccheo's website for more information about lenses.

My camera is fitted with a Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm ƒ/2, also sold under the name Flexon. It was a six elements in four groups formula meant to update the famous Biotar.

The Praktina FX has a semi-automatic diaphragm (SB, Springblende-Innenauslösung). It has to be manually opened to focus and compose at full aperture, and an internal mechanism stops the diaphragm down when firing the shutter (although some early FX versions didn't have this mechanism at all). The Praktina FX is often considered to be the first camera with an internal diaphragm linkage (the Exakta's was external and the famous M42 pin would appear in the 1955 Praktica FX2), but the rare and often forgotten Gamma Duflex of 1947 should deserve that merit.

The Praktina IIA of 1958 introduced an automatic diaphragm (ASB, automatische Springblende), by which an internal mechanism opens the diaphragm at full aperture and stops it down when shooting.
Each system works with different lenses (SB or ASB), unfortunately not fully compatible between each other. However, a rare IIA version was modified in the sixties to admit both SB and ASB lenses.

Shutter

One major requeriment when designing the Praktina was to achieve a 1/1000 second shutter speed, unlike the 1/500 top speed of the Prakticas. Siegfried Böhm, Heinz Kröbel and Karl Wunderlich designed a cloth horizontal focal plane shutter (granted by the patent DE1144103) based on Böhm's earlier designs while he was working in the mid forties at Zeiss Ikon for the Syntax project [1, 2].

The shutter speed dial of the Praktina is concentric to the film advance knob and combines both long and short speeds from 1 second to 1/1000. The speed is set easily by rotating the dial, there's no need to lift any knob or select a speed range, as the Contax S and the Praktica did. It was a fast, reliable and neat design, better and more cleverly engineered than the Contax S and Praktica shutters from the fifties and early sixties.




Accessories

The film transport on the Praktina worked with a knob (wind levers weren't common in the fifties), but an accessory wind lever could be attached under the camera, similar to that of the Praktica IV. When the film advance knob (or accessory lever) was wound, the film advanced, the shutter was cocked, the mirror came down and, on the Praktina IIA, the diaphragm was opened at full aperture.
In order to speed up this procedure, spring and electric motor drives were introduced, making the Praktina the first SLR with this kind of motor drives. The spring motor drive, fully functional without batteries, enabled to take up to ten successive pictures.
A special magazine back could be loaded with 17 meters (55 ft) of film, enough to take about 450 exposures.

http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8369/8573786201_ddd6a08f8f_o.jpg
Praktina IIA with a spring motor drive
displayed at TS Dresden
http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8227/8573786089_93535cd3f3_o.jpg
Stereo outfit
displayed at TS Dresden
http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8247/8574879664_0c01db5088_o.jpgElectric motor drive and 17m film back
displayed at TS Dresden

Here is a list of some of the accessories available for the Praktina. I've included the original names in German to make searches easier. For more information and pictures about the accessories, visit Alberto Taccheo's and Jack Dugrew's websites.
It's quite impressive to notice that almost all of the following accessories would be later the essential components of the Nikon F and F2 systems. The Praktina was indeed ahead of its time, but born in the wrong place.

Viewfinders
- Pentaprism finder Prismeneinsatz / Prismensucher
- Waist-level finder Lichtschacht / Schachtsucher
- 6× magnification finder Lupeneinsatz / Lupensucher
- Pentaprism finder with selenium meter Belichtungsmessereinsatz
- Stereo finder Stereosucher
- Right-angle viewing attachment Winkelsucher
- Focusing screens (various types) Mattscheibe / Bildfeldlinse / Einstellscheibe
- Eyecup Augenmuschel
- Eyepiece correction lenses Korrekturlinsenfassung

Motor drives and film backs

- Wind lever Schnellaufzug / Aufzugshebel
- Spring motor drive Federmotor
- Electric motor drive with magnetic release Elektromotor mit Magnetauslöser
- 17m bulk film back 17-m-Film-Kassette / 17-m-Rückwand

Other accessories

- Stereo lens attachment (Carl Zeiss) Stereovorsatz
- Extension rings and tubes Zwischenringe
- Bellows Balgengerät
- Microscope adapter Mikroskop-Ansatzstück
- Lens mount adapters Adapterringe
- Filters, lens hoods, etc. Filter, Sonnenblenden
- Accessory shoe Winkelstück mit Steckschuh / Zubehörschuh
- Cable releases Drahtauslöser




Versions

The following simplified classification is based on the book Der VEB Pentacon Dresden, by Gerhard Jehmlich [1].
Alberto Taccheo and Michael Sorms have more exhaustive classifications.

camera date units diaphragm* flash sockets
Praktina 1952-53 prototype manual 2 or 3
Praktina 1952-53 prototype SB 2
Praktina FX 1953-54 67,000 manual 1 or 2
Praktina FX 1954-58 SB 1 or 2
Praktina IIA 1958-60 25,000 ASB 1
Praktina IIA 1960...(?) 4,000 (?) ASB+SB 1

* SB: The aperture of the diaphragm is manual, but the camera stops it down when firing the shutter.
* ASB: The camera opens and stops down the diaphragm.

There's hardly any information about the modified Praktina IIA to admit ASB and SB lenses. Gerhard Jehmlich [1] says that the modification took place somewhere outside the KW factory.




Chronology

Data retrieved from the book Der VEB Pentacon Dresden [1]:

1946 Kamera-Werkstäten, owned by Charles A. Noble, is nationalized by the Soviets and becomes the people-owned VEB Kamera-Werke Niedersedlitz.
19 April 1947 Siegfried Böhm is authorized to design a camera according to his own criteria.
late 1949 Development of the Praktina under the working name of "Praktica II".
December 1950 A photographical commission created by the Ministry of Mechanical Engineering (Ministerium für Allgemeinen Maschinenbau) defines the features of the Praktina system.
1952 Production of prototypes.
Showing of prototypes at Photokina (April) and the Leipzig Fair (September).
August 1953 Serial production of the Praktina FX.
October 1953 The Praktina FX is shown at the Leipzig Fair.
May 1954 Production of the Praktina FX version with SB.
1954 Production of the accessories.
June 1958 Production of the Praktina IIA.
January 1959 VEB Kamera-Werke Niedersedlitz is merged with the VEB Kamera- und Kinowerke Dresden conglomerate, later known as Pentacon.
May 1960 The Praktina production is discontinued, but the stock is still available for a couple of years.
1960s Development of a new professional camera under the working name of "Praktina N", to be realeased in 1968 as the Pentacon Super.




Pictures


Berlin
Rossmann 200

Berlin
Rossmann 200

Berlin
Rossmann 200

Berlin
Rossmann 200

Berlin
Rossmann 200

Berlin
Rossmann 200
more pictures…



Links


Instruction manuals


Books

[1] JEHMLICH, Gerhard. Der VEB Pentacon Dresden. Sandstein Verlag, Dresden, 2009. ISBN 978-3-940319-75-3.

[2] SCHULZ, Alexander. From Syntax to Praktina, at Zeiss Historica, vol. 30, Spring 2008. ISSN 1553-5371.
Available at http://issuu.com/zeisshistoricasociety/docs/pdf_zhs_journal_spring_2008

[2] MATANLE, Ivor. Collecting and Using Classic SLRs. Thames and Hudson, London, 1997. ISBN 0-500-27901-2.

[3] HICKS, Roger. A History of the 35mm Still Camera. Focal Press, London and Boston, 1984. ISBN 0-240-51233-2.



Text and pictures by Daniel Jiménez Chocrón.

First edition: 7 Mar 2014. Last update: 9 Oct 2014.

Published under a Creative Commons BY-NC License.