The 2021 meeting of the Friends of Flexaret took place in Hradec Králové in June. The meeting was (again) kindly sponsored by Foma Bohemia, so there was no shortage of material to waste put to good use.
As is usual for meetings of this type we had a short photo walk in the town, followed by a lunch and an intensive discussion session in one of the local pubs.
A defining element of this year’s meeting was an oppressive heat. Our photo walk was, by necessity, shorter than usual. Some of the Friends even sought refuge in the waters of the Elbe river – of course maintaining decorum, and their dedication to Flexaret cameras, at all times.
Praktica MTL50 was the last model of the L series. Manufactured in the late 1980’s it was roughly concurrent with the EOS 650 from Canon.
In the 1950’s Exakta Varex might have ruled the SLR game, and the VLC model of the early 1970’s, with its interchangeable focusing screens and open aperture metering, could still be – if you squinted your eyes somewhat – considered a player when compared to the Japanese models of the era. But by the late eighties the technology gap between the East and West was huge.
The main selling points of the camera back when it was new – its rugged simplicity and compatibility with the lots of existing M42 lenses – were focused backward. The technology was something clearly 1970’es. And not top of the line seventies, but mid-range seventies to that. Gone were the advanced features like open aperture metering of the LC models.
My favorite little detail is that even though the battery was upgraded from obsolete PX 21 to a smaller (and still manufactured today) PX 28, the battery compartment door retained its 1970’s specs. It was not a major surprise that the production did not survive the fall or the Berlin Wall.
The fun part is that while the Praktica MTL50 might have seemed inferior when compared to the Japanese competition of the time it makes an excellent film body by today’s standard. The mechanics are simple yet sturdy, the shutter loud but reliable. There is next to no electronics to speak of – so the risk of an irreparable catastrophic failure is low.
And the other main selling point – compatibility with the vast reservoir of M42 lens – remains as relevant as ever. In my case the body is paired with the excellent Flektogon 2.8 / 20, the widest angle lens of the Jena Zeiss lineup.
Getting the next generation of photographers hooked on shooting & printing in the film way is very important for our craft to survive. The delayed gratification of having to finish a roll and have it developed complicates things somewhat when compared to digital. We are fortunate to have the dark magic of darkroom work to compensate for this.
I count myself lucky in a number of ways: one of them is that I was able to set up a permanent darkroom at home. The second, and more important one, is that I have a young daughter that shares my passion. The subject matter may not be the highest of high art, but we all have to start somewhere, don’t we?
When I was a young man – during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, in a country that ceased to be – a serious camera meant a Praktica. It had all the features of an advanced camera: interchangeable lens (even if only few users ever owned more than one), built in light meter and build quality worlds apart from the Russian Zeniths. And the most advanced model in the Praktica lineup was the VLC.
The features did not quite compare to western competitors – the L series was roughly concurrent with Nikon F2 and Canon F1 – but as these were completely out of the question for an East Block kid this did not truly matter. And as it was made by the hundreds of thousands the camera was widely available.
The Practica cameras came in two chief variants – screw mount L series, and bayonet B series.
The newer B series was supposedly more advanced, with more electronics and more plastic parts. But by the time it entered production the gap from western technology was already too wide. The shortcuts that had to be taken led to an inferior and unreliable product. It suffered from a bad reputation even when new, with many experienced users preferring the older model.
The earlier L series on the other hand represents a solid all metal piece of work, in line with the finest German engineering tradition. It remained in production from 1969 to 1989, with close to 5 million pieces (supposedly 4,836,879) produced.
The Praktica VLC model was special for combining two (by the 1970’s standard) very special features:
open aperture metering: the aperture value was transferred from lens to body via 3 electronic contacts; a remarkably advanced method for its time.
interchangeable prisms & focusing screens: the black pentaprism can be replaced by a waist level finder or a special loupe magnifier; this required placing the exposure metering cell behind the mirror, again a remarkable method for the time.
My camera is from the second generation, produced from roughly 1975 to 1980. I count myself lucky that I was able to purchase recently one that saw only a light use. I had the light seals replaced as a precaution, and the shutter mechanism got a CLA.
The electronic system is surprisingly resilient, given its 40 years of age. While the official 4.5 V Varta V21 PX battery is no longer available, the meter works perfectly OK with a plain 1.5 V AA battery of the same size. This is due to the ingenious Wheatstone bridge design of the photo sensitive element, making it voltage tolerant. The meter readings are to this day reliable, if a bit slow. The meter accuracy is perfectly within the tolerance for a B&W film.
And as a bonus I get the warm and fuzzy feeling of showing off a piece of camera history that I remember as a status symbol from the times my youth.
On 12th May 2018 the fourth meeting of Czech fans of the Flexaret cameras was held in Hradec Králové. More than 30 Flexaret enthusiasts (and their Flexaret cameras) took part. The event was sponsored by Foma films, so everyone got a couple of rolls of film, and there was no excuse to not waste some of it.
We started out with a photo walk in the city – Hradec is justly famous for its modernist architecture – and continued to a bar for beer stories and swapping of secret developer formulas.
A fun fact is that the second party in our venue was a meeting of Baby Reborn life like dolls (they were actually rater death like, as they lay there silent and still). Such company made us – fans of analog photography – feel almost mainstream.
I am a great fan of the Flexaret camera. But despite my warm feelings I am aware of its shortcomings. One of them is that it uses a proprietary B36 filter bayonet. This bayonet was introduced by Meopta Přerov in the 1960’s and included a number of filters – the classical sequence from ultraviolet, through shades of yellow, green and orange up to red. Even an almost mythical polarizer, of which many collectors have heard but nobody that I know ever saw one.
But the last Flexaret – and the last B36 filter to go with it – was produced in the year 1971. The number of filters available is therefore limited. More significantly the range of filters is limited to 1960’s technology. To overcome this I have obtained a simple filter adapter.
My main film camera is the Bronica ETRSi, which uses 62mm filters over the whole fixed lens range; a major advantage. I have over time obtained a large stack of 62mm filters, including some rather exotic ones. I have therefore requested my favorite camera technician, Mr. Maštalíř of Škoda Foto, to make a B36 to 62mm adapter.
The adapter has the look of a home made hack, but it does the job. It fits the B36 bayonet snugly. The big 62mm filter seems sort of awkward on a 36mm lens, but I do not mind. I was at first a little worried that it would obstruct the view from the upper focusing lens, but it just about clears the view. The only problem is that the camera with the filter adapter on will not fit into its carrying leather case, and I can live with that.
The Flexaret Filter Adapter allows me to use the full modern range of filters, up to and including the Hoya R72. This greatly increases the possibilities of my Flexaret.
Shooting infrared with a non – SLR camera is great fun; I can have the best of both worlds: shoot with the opaque filter on my taking lens, and focus easily on the screen. With a little care, and fast infrared sensitive film such as the Rollei Infrared, it is even possible to shoot handheld.
I am on a lookout for a new film for my long exposure photography. When doing research on available slow films I came across the Rollei (Maco) RPX 25. I liked the specs of the film, and I was greatly impressed by its close cousin, the Rollei Infrared.
For some time I have used Foma 100 as my go-to long exposure film. Firstly for its low, low price, and secondly for its very high reciprocity failure. Usually a high reciprocity failure is thought of as an weakness. Films showing less of a failure – such as Fuji Acros – are preferred. But in the special world of long exposure photography a bad reciprocity failure is actually an asset. You get two extra stops of light loss for free! However, I have recently experienced quality issues with the Foma film and started looking for other options.
One issue I found with the RPX 25 film is that the published reciprocity failure is quoted only for 4 times: 2, 10, 20 and 50 seconds. Of these the 10, 20 and 50 second times are outside the usual sequence of exposure times. This was a problem to me, as with such a slow film I expected to run into reciprocity failure areas quite often. Both on purpose, shooting with heavy ND filters, and unintentionally in low light.
To make sense of it I tried modelling the exposure times in my trusty RStudio statistical package. I tried several different regression algorithms and settled on a power regression. This seemed to fit the data better than an exponential. I was able to model a function that matched the reported times closely. The biggest difference is about 4% off at the 50 second data point, and I can live with that.
When I first came across the lith process I was intrigued. All the pictures I found on the internet looked different (in a good way) from the usual black and white prints. The colors and sense of unpredictability inherent to the process appealed to me. But in the Czech Republic, where I live, no commercial lith developer was (or is) easily available. If I wanted to try the process I had to mix my own developer. After some research I settled on the Ansco 70.
The formula calls for common and inexpensive chemicals and does not contain formaldehyde. It is capable of deep blacks, rich midtones, and when used with the Foma Fomatone paper also of warm tones for which the lith process is justly famous.
At first I tried the developer in recommended dilution 1 part A + 1 part B + 17 parts water. After some practice I found the warm colors of slow development easier to obtain when using a more diluted developer.
Now I use a nearly homeopathic dilution of 1 part A and B to some 50 or 60 parts warm water. When printing on size 18×24 cm paper this means 15 ml A + 15 ml B + 800 ml water and 50 ml of Old Brown. Such heavily diluted developer needs to be replenished often – after processing two prints or so I add 10 ml of A and B.
Ansco 70 recipe:
The published formula of Ansco 70 is usually calculated to mix 1 liter of the solutions A and B. The solutions have working life of several months, but considering the high dilution I work with one liter of stock solution is too much for me to use up before it goes bad. The chemicals are not expensive, but I don’t like the idea of throwing away good developer. I found it better policy to prepare only 500 ml at a time.
Water 375 ml
Hydroquinone 12,5 g
Potassium Metabisulfite 12,5 g
Potassium Bromide 12,5 g
Cold water to make 500 ml
Cold Water 375 ml
Sodium Hydroxide 18 g
Cold water to make 500 ml
Dissolving Sodium Hydroxide is strongly exothermic reaction, best performed with caution and wearing protective glasses.
A selection of my lithprints made with the Ansco 70 developer can be found in my lithprint gallery.
The Zenza Bronica ETRSi is my main camera. It is a system camera, modular, big, and beautiful. But the negative size comes at a price – it is not the kind of camera I can carry all day, every day. The Rollei 35 T is in many ways its exact opposite – it produces smallish negatives, but fits easily into my pocket.
I have even found a way to share my substantial filter collection between the two cameras. Finding a reduction from 62 to 24 mm was not easy, but the Chinese eBay sellers rose to the challenge.