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.
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