Praktica F.X2

This is an early Praktica made by KW (Kamera Werkstätten) between 1958 and 1959 i.e. before the merging of East Germany’s camera makers into Pentacon. In many ways, this camera is much like what became the ‘standard’ SLR camera – such as Asahi’s Pentax and Nikon’s F. In other ways it shows its position in the move from rangefinder to SLR. It also, of course, reflects the available technology of the day.

P1040504In the 1940s and 50s, East and West Germany were both at the forefront of redesigning their existing cameras into SLR cameras. East German Zeiss Ikon produced the Contax S from the Contax rangefinder. West German Zeiss Ikon also started with the Contax rangefinder and produced the Contaflex SLR series. The West German attempt was well engineered and over complicated and was a design dead end (but not for Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya and their medium format SLR cameras which used a similar system). The East German attempt lead to modern SLR cameras and not that much has changed to produce our current digital SLRs.

P1040505There are four things that really date this Praktica F.X2 camera. The first is then use of a film advance knob rather than a lever. This was quite usual for the time and the design changes necessary for using clever happened slowly over the 1950s.

The second thing is the shutter speed selector. In common with many cameras with a focal plane shutter, there are two separate mechanisms for fast speeds and slow speeds. There is a single selector knob but this is used in conjunction with a fast/slow selector. Fast speeds are the black range and slow speeds are the red range.

The third item that dates this camera is the viewfinder. Most 35 mm SLR cameras had/have an eye-level pentaprism finder or an interchangeable finder such as on Exakta cameras. This camera has a fixed waist-level finder but did have an optional pentaprism to convert the viewfinder to eye-level – I do not have one of these.

The fourth is the mirror. This does not return automatically after the shutter fires and so the viewfinder in blanked out until the film is advanced. Apart from being surprising, this does not really matter as you cannot use the camera without advancing the film.

top plate

This camera also has innovative features. The camera name, FX, is one of them as the camera provides flash synch for bulbs (F) and also for the newer electronic flash (X). Two PC connectors are provided for this.

The camera also offers automatic aperture closing which allows for composition and focus at the widest aperture and then closes the aperture to the set value without the user worrying about it (or forgetting it!). This is achieved by way of a moving bar just inside the throat of the lens mount – this bar moves forward and presses a pin on the rear of the lens which in turn closes the aperture.  In case this bar fouls the rear of a non-automatic lens, there is a rivet painted red just behind the bar that a can be slid to one side to disable the mechanism. I have never found this to be necessary.

Close-up showing the red rivet

I shall give a very general description: Film advance is a knob rather than a lever. The top surface of the advance knob is a frame counter. This counts up from zero and needs to be set to zero manually when a new film is loaded. Frames are indicated by marks with frames 0, 10, 20 and 30 having numbers.

The shutter speed selector has two ranges of numbers – one is black and one is red. The red range is the slow speeds and are 1/2, 1/5 and 1/10 seconds. The black range is the fast speeds and are 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200 and 1/500 seconds. Also in the black range is B. There is also a lightning flash on the black scale for the flash synch speed. The manual suggests that this is 1/40 seconds and will be the fastest shutter speed at which the shutter is fully open (at faster speeds, exposure is by a moving slit).

Shutter speeds are set by lifting the outer ring of the speed selector and turning until the red dot aligns with the required speed. To select between fast and slow ranges, you turn the inner ring so that the red arrow points at either the other red arrow or the black arrow. Shutter speed can be selected either before or after advancing the film (unlike shutters used on the Leica mechanism).

finder opened for use

The viewfinder initially looks very strange – there is no eye-piece! First, you must open the viewfinder by pressing a small stud on the rear of the top plate. The top of the viewfinder then springs up and forward and a small baffle at the rear springs up. At this point you can use the viewfinder (if it is blank, you need to wind-on the film).

The fact that the image is reversed left to right can make composing the image awkward until you are used to it. Focusing the lens is possible  at this point but critical focus is hard. To make it easier, there is a pull-out magnifier to enlarge the centre of the image. Using this entails holding the camera very close to your eye.

view of waist-level finder

There is a second option of converting the waist-level finder to a ‘sport’ finder. To do this, pull magnifier into place, pull up the front of the viewfinder lid and pull up a small eye-piece at the rear of the finder (see photos for clarity). Looking through this, you line up the edges of the two frames. You are just looking through the frames – no glass or focus screen is involved. You need the lens to be focused on infinity and the aperture small enough so the depth of field obviates the need to focus precisely. The idea is that it makes it easy to track movement such as a sportsman  – the image reversal in the standard viewfinder makes this very difficult.

KW also offered a pentaprism insert for the viewfinder to convert it to the ‘standard’ viewfinder used by nearly every other camera maker.

On the front of the camera, beside the lens, are two PC connectors for a flash gun. The bottom one is for F synch (that is flash bulbs – the flash is fired just before the shutter is fully open) and the top one is for X synch (electronic flash – the flash is fired as soon as the shutter is fully open).

PC connectors

On the other side of the lens, at the top, is the shutter release button. usually with front mounted shutter releases, they are angled for ease of use. This one pushes in at right angles to the front. The button is threaded for a standard cable release.

The catch for the back is a slide on the left hand end of the camera. Sliding this up causes the back to come away completely from the camera – there is no hinge. As this is a German camera, the flanges around the edge of the back are large enough to prevent light leaking in without using the silly foam seals that the Japanese insisted on.

The serial number is stamped inside near the catch in the well the film cassette sits in. Mine is 311540. The take-up spool is firmly fixed in place unlike cameras from Zeiss Ikon and Exakta at this time where the take-up spool was loose.

There is an undocumented feature. On later and more expensive SLR camera, it is possible to move the mirror separately from opening the shutter. This allows any vibration caused by the mirror hitting its stop to dissipate before the film is exposed. On this camera, you can press the shutter release gently and the mirror will flip up and then you can wait a second before pressing the release button further to trip the shutter. This works well with the camera on a tripod and using a cable release.

Other features: there is a tripod boss on the base, significantly left of centre. This is a 3/8 inch Whitworth thread and mine has a more usual 1/4 inch Whitworth slug fitted in it to allow most tripods to be used. This slug is easily removed with a screwdriver if the user wants to use a larger threaded tripod. There is a lug on each front corner for fitting a neck strap.

The name of this camera is F.X2. There were three versions: FX2, F.X2 and FX.2. The position of the dot is significant but I have no idea in which way.

I shall be fitting a test film this coming week to try out this camera. I have no reason to suspect the it will be other than excellent but time will tell. I would like to try it with an East German lens but I do not have one. Instead, I shall use a Soviet Helios 44M lens (which is a copy of a Carl Zeiss Jena  Biotar lens – designed in East Germany if not made there).


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