Praktica MTL 3
In September last year I ran a analogue photography project with 5 young people from Austria. They lived in the village of Kingsand & Cawsand, commuted to Plymouth to use a darkroom and shot a body of work all over the South West. All on film. All with manual SLRs.
It was my task to source a collection of cameras for the group to use. I know, I know - its a hard job but someone has to do it. And it led me to the Praktica MTL 3, a simple, no fuss camera reminiscent of the Pentax K1000 in style and layout, with just a few cultural differences to separate the design and operation.
Thats because it hails from East Germany, made by Pentacon. It was produced in high numbers between 1978 and 1984. Its considered to be a little rude and crude, especially in comparison to its Japanese counterparts.
One example of this is the film advance. It pulls the film along with a definitive clunk, it has a long pull with no easing at the beginning or end of the movement. The film sits behind a plastic block which holds it in loosely place, this feels rather crude - its simple and functional, albeit despite the odd miss pull which only registers a half frame advanced. The film advanced status is indicated in the viewfinder by a black triangle on the left side. A nice touch.
Don't get me wrong, its not a Zenit either, it won't rip your film to pieces if miss handled. Its, well, very German. Efficient, direct, reliable and without compromise.
I like it.
This ethos goes further to the shutter, The MTL 3 has a metal curtain, it moves vertically and has an indestructible quality to it. Unlike some of the cloth shutters of the day. Speeds include B, then 1 to 1/1000 sec.
The body is solid. All metal with a black leather cover. Its a square and bulky design, functional in its form, pretty in its functionality. The detailing in metal is stylish, beveled edges around the film rewind handle show thought and care. Possibly pride, surly not in East Germany.
From the top it also look great with its clear film counter window, nice use of colour for the shutter speed index and slower speeds. Its large body is a treat when compared to some of the smaller Pentax cameras I have been using recently.
I assumed this is where the strengths would end. The mechanics would be great but the electronics? Nah.
It has a battery powered light meter integrated in the mirror consisting of a needle in the viewfinder that can point to + (overexposed), 0 (correct exposure) or – (underexposed). This all works through-the-lens in a centre-weighted pattern.
To turn on the meter you push the black lever next to the shutter release. This is way more practical than the Pentax Spotmatic (albeit an older design) where by the meter button is on the left on the lens mount. But it doesn't have the simplicity of the K1000s half press metering system. It does however stop any battery drain from leaving the meter switched on.
The metering button stops down the lens to the selected aperture, with further adjustments to aperture and shutter until the needle indicates a correct exposure - position 0 - the middle. Basic, but it works, and has the handy side-effect of working around any aperture miss-calibration.
For speed it trumps handheld meter. It's good for films from ISO 12 up to 1600.
This metering system is the only battery-dependent system in the MTL 3. It takes a single 1.35v PX 625 mercury cell; without it, everything but the meter will continue to function. The modern day replacement for the obsolete mercury cell is the MRB 625, available from WeinCell and the guys over at Small Battery Company.
The standard lens supplied with the camera, or at least my camera is a Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 M42 lens, screw fit. I prefer the Zeiss 50mm Pancolar for optical quality, but the build quality is better and less prone to a sticky focus ring - a pain on the M42 design if your focus ring does stick as it loosens the lens from the body. All M42 lenses will work just fine on the MTL 3. If your lens has an automatic aperture (identify by the pin on the back, which stops down the aperture when shooting), the camera will use it; if it doesn't, or has an M/A switch, it'll work just fine with that also.
Its a good looking lens too making a nice overall package.
But how does it make you feel? My short answer is Zen. I felt a Zen like calmness born from its no frills simplicity. The worry of a technical issue soon melts away, and wind after wind you stop thinking about the machine and starting thinking about your work.
Using the MTL took me back in time. No doubt the viewfinder shape helps, you compose images in a rounded frame with a distinct 70s feel. However it was more than just nostalgia - I felt what it was like to be a young photographer who just picked up a camera, if only for a moment.
There was no pressure to deliver professional images - the love, excitement and passion for exploring the world through this magical piece of technology was the only thing that mattered. The world made sense when I looked through a viewfinder for the first time, I love the MTL 3 because it reminded me that no matter how complicated my life gets, I can pick it up and feel like I was 12 years old without a care in the world.