Praktica MTL 5B

A Mechanical Beauty

6 min read by, with images by
Praktica MTL 5B.

Praktica was an East German camera brand manufactured by Pentacon out of Dresden. Their MTL 5B camera, reviewed here, was manufactured between 1986 and 1989. Unfortunately, after the German reunification, the brand got cleaved in parts and sold. Today’s Practica produces various digital and lens components but not in the same capacity and under different ownership.

As a curiosity, the name Pentacon derives from the Contax brand of the Dresden Zeiss Ikon Kamerawerke and Pentagon. This is because the first cameras made in Dresden had pentaprisms in the shape of a pentagon. Some say that the name “Practica” may be related to or derived from the Russian word that’s pronounced the same way (spelled практика), which means both “practice” and “practicum.”

The Praktica series left an impressive legacy of innovation before being dissolved in the ‘90s. This includes developing one of the first roll film SLRs in 1933, then a 35mm SLR in 1936, and their famous pentaprism in 1949.

Why I prefer mechanical shutters on my film cameras.

Despite my professional background in electronics, I am the guy who hunts fully mechanical cameras. It’s true that when it comes to the shutter, you can get an electronic timing device with a resistor and a capacitor. You can even find a more precise solution to produce greater speed and accuracy with an integrated circuit on a film camera. However, that often means that you’d have to deal with “exotic” batteries, such as the banned mercury cells. Their modern counterparts often require adapters or even full camera modification as their size and voltage often differ.

It’s not just the batteries that can cause issues within electronic cameras. Shifts in temperature, such as shooting outdoors in the cold or leaving your camera inside your car on a hot summer day, may cause the nominal values to drift and affect timing devices. Though there are solutions that can compensate, they aren’t available on all but a few modern film cameras, like the Minolta TC-1.

Practical MTL 5B. Notice the extrusion coming out at an angle from the camera’s body. The one immediately underneath the text “MTL 5B.” That’s the shutter button. A rather unusual position but it works quite well with this camera.

If the electronics aren’t protected, changes in temperature can cause moisture to condensate on the electronics board, kind of like your lens or your car’s windshield. That moisture creates new connections where there shouldn’t be any, which can cause serious damage in extreme cases. In less severe cases, this condensation may cause the battery to drain very quickly. This happened to me once I left my Nikon in the hot car as I travelled the beautiful island of Azores; the camera ended up discharging its flash soon after I closed the door, which ate up all of its battery. A weather-sealed camera may have prevented this, but that’s a rare feature to find on a film camera.

The mechanical camera has to have its multitude of springs, weights, gear, and metal parts operate harmoniously and precisely to expose a photo. Dust that creates friction and mechanical fatigue may cause shutter speed deviations after years in the attic. The good news is that film’s forgiving latitude makes those deviations imperceptible most of the time. And in the case the camera needs service — it’s much easier to find a repair shop that can take care of the mechanics rather than an old electronics board.

My first impressions shooting with Practica MTL 5B.

Practicas can be characterized as having a clean design and robust mechanics. Compared to other camera-manufacturing centres under the old Soviet-occupied territories, the German Democratic Republic often delivered superior quality, which shows with this MTL 5B.

Having read a few reviews and done some research on eBay, I figured that Practicas sell for anywhere between just a few Euros, up to 200€. Luckily, I was able to get a good deal on a serviced model.

The back of Pratcica MTL 5B camera with some film.

I waited with anticipation for my Praktica until the day came to finally open up the box and handle my mint “new” shining camera!

Like many other SLRs from the era, it has a full-metal body with a silver-black finish. The top plate sports a combination of a shutter dial and ISO switch with a rewind lever on the other side. Also, a hot shoe and a frame counter.

The shutter button is on top of an unusual extrusion at the front of the camera. In my opinion, the unique position of the trigger adds a bit of stability to the camera while taking photos and isn’t difficult to get used to.

A self-timer lever is immediately underneath the shutter button, and the depth-of-field preview trigger is immediately above — all positioned rather conveniently.

This camera isn’t a great street or candid portrait shooter. It has a loud steel focal plane shutter that alerts the subjects and shakes the camera, making slow exposures difficult to make without blurring the scene. The shutter syncs with flash at 1/125s and has a top speed of 1/1000s.

The TTL light meter on my camera takes an LR44 battery, the door for which can be unscrewed with a small coin at the bottom plate. Certain Praktica models are designed to take the now-banned mercury batteries; thankfully, my MTL 5B was OK with the modern, easy-to-find button cells. The light meter takes the reading of the film ISO, combines it with available light coming through the lens, and provides an output in the form of an analogue needle within the viewfinder. To get an optimal exposure, you’d want to match the needle with a small groove in the middle by changing the lens’ aperture and/or camera shutter speed.

In my experience, I found Praktica’s meter over-exposing the scene a bit. Thus I recommend using an external light meter with this camera, particularly if you plan to shoot slide film.

I’ve been enjoying my Praktica for a long time. After considerable use, its timing mechanism is still spot-on, and there are plenty of affordable M42 lenses and adapters to expand the possibilities of this mechanical film SLR.

Shooting my Praktica, I felt a photographic reawakening, on the streets with this East German mechanical beauty.

By the way: If you choose to get your camera, M42 lenses, or an external light meter online, please consider using the above links so that this website may get a small percentage of a sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!