Prakti – Early prakticalities
The Prakti could possibly be considered the predecessor of the modern automatic compact camera. Who would have thought! Sounds like a stretch, as it is a camera built in East Germany, not exactly small, heavy and is made of metal.
Considered as one of the more advanced cameras in its time, it incorporated both automatic exposure and automatic film transport in 1960. Imagine, automatic film advancing was not common until at least another decade and then some.
The Prakti was made by one of the companies that merged to become Pentacon, it was VEB Kamera und Kinowerke Dresden (Camera and Cinema Factory, Dresden). It will often be accredited to Pentacon though, even though that is not technically correct.
I bought the Prakti from the Australian Pickers, a reality show based on the American show American Pickers. Who knows where this was found, possibly in a barn somewhere in the countryside. Uniqueness aside, let’s see how this camera performs now.
VEB Kamera und Kinowerke Dresden was formed in 1959 with the amalgamation of the East German companies VEB Kinowerke Dresden (this was originally the East German Zeiss Ikon), Kamera Werke, Welta, Altissa, Belca and Aspecta. The name Pentacon did not emerge until 1964.
In 1960 they released the Prakti. According to some online resources, it caused a bit of stir, remembering this was only a year after Nikon released the Nikon F. But this was a compact and it had some advanced features including a motorised film advance. Furthermore, it also had automatic exposure.
In 1960 it sold for 460 DDR Marks, which today in 2019 equates to AUD $1356 (USD $943). This was not a cheap camera so would have been aimed at the higher end of the market.
Production of the Prakti only lasted a handful of years with 61,000 copies produced. With electric moving parts that were ahead of their time, it was difficult to maintain the required quality for reliability. This means they broke down often, so they were finished off in 1964 with the Prakti II.
The Prakti is a 35mm viewfinder camera. It has a G⍤rlitz Domiton 40mm f/3.5 lens. Focus and exposure is achieved by twisting the lens, which when turned also moves the combination speed/focus indicator on top. The options available are Bulb (which is called “as long as you like” in the manual), Flash, Portrait (1.3 – 4.5m), Group Shot (2-20m), Landscape (2.5m -infinity) or person riding horse which is likely Sports mode (4 – 40m).
Based on this setting, and the film speed selected, the camera determines the exposure using the built-in exposure meter. The depth of field is affected though by the light available as the different apertures will be selected based on the meter reading, so the above ranges are slightly variable. An example is covered in the manual but is only available in German.
The film speed is selected by a vertical wheel at the back of the camera, which displays it in ASA and DIN formats. The only other setting on the camera is the frame number on the bottom which needs to be reset manually.
Film is loaded by taking the back off the camera, inserting the canister on the right side and threading the leader into the catch on the left. While frame advancing is motorised, and loud, rewinding is manual and is rewound using the lever on the bottom.
The shutter release is on the front with a tripod thread on the bottom and the whole camera is operated by 2xAA batteries, which makes it very easy to replace when expired.
The viewfinder is quite simple with no frame lines. There is some indicator on the side with a match needle, but on this copy, it only moved a few times and there is no markings. The manual as far as I can see with my basic German, does not refer to it.
Accessories available include a hard leather case and a couple of little clips to attach a camera strap.
I came across the Prakti online one night and was fascinated. Reading the description, I read that it fires up and winds on, but had not been tested. As it was not too expensive and was something fairly unique, I took the punt and bought it. I was really surprised to find that I had just bought it from the guys from the TV show Australian Pickers.
When I first got it, I opened the packaging and loved how it came with the original box. Inside I found the camera in the leather case. The case is very hard and severe which is something that fits a product from East Germany. Then the camera really sets that scene even better. All metal with very utilitarian symbols on top.
I inserted a couple of AA batteries and depressed the shutter release. The noise is amazing. Imagine an electric motor built in 1960s East Germany and the sounds it makes. It is exactly like you can imagine it. Loud, metallic and grinding!
First film I used was some Kodak Ultramax 400. I set the film speed and took it out for some shooting. This is not a camera you could ever sneak up on someone with but it was really convenient not having to think about exposure or much else. I set it on Group Shot or Landscape and pressed the shutter release. I didn’t see anyone riding a horse, so did not use that setting at all.
When I dropped the film off at the lab, I mentioned that I did not expect anything. While the motor obviously worked, I was suspicious over the meter. I should have not worried, it worked very well.
What was really interesting is the colour rendering. The photos have a real 1960s look to them even on a modern emulsion. I was really surprised on how they looked but was even more surprised on how sharp they were. The expectation was for something with some sharpness in the middle and quite a fall off, and while there is fall off, nothing even close to expectations. We do have to remember, when I talk about sharpness, it is not the grain peeping razor sharp Zeiss measuring I refer to, it is within context of the camera.
Regarding the colour rendering, I can’t put my finger on it. Initially I thought maybe the exposure was off, but when I checked the negatives they look good. So it definitely is not a product of the scanning function. I am quite pleased, it gives a really unique look to the photos. I could have done some colour adjustments outside of my usual workflow, but I like them the way they are.
Next I wanted to see how it performs with some black and white film, so I loaded the camera with Kodak Tri-X. Here is where things went wrong for me. I got so used to using it without thought, that I just fired away a dozen or so frames on a lunch break one day. Only problem was that I had left it in the “as long as you like” setting, so was effective taking snaps in Bulb! Needless to say, they did not come out ok.
I shot the rest of the roll using the correct settings. The results again were quite good. The rendering is definitely unique, it has that old time contrast to it. Quite pleasing on the eye, but in both colour and black and white, the blacks do get a little muddy.
Another issue I found is that the single person focus is not correct. I tried a portrait of my son, at the recommended distance, and it was way off. I ended up with a blur in the middle and focused trees. This may be specific to my copy or to the user (I have been known to balls things up).
I love old unique cameras and this did not disappoint. I had a lot of fun making photos and seeing the reaction of people, due to the metal on metal grinding sound it makes, which was quite funny. More to the point, holding it up with others shooting with their phone creates quite a contrast.
While there is not a huge number of them available for sale, they are there. The trick is to find one that works. With an old motor, the chances of a working are not as high as a fully manual mechanical camera. They are not very expensive and if you are interested mainly from a uniqueness point of view and can find one that works, you will have quite a bit of fun with it.
The DDR Design Museum has a some great information on the Prakti – Günter Höhne writes DDR Design PRAKTI Camera.
A surprisingly good performer!
Yes, I was not expecting that.
Nice and how awesome for it to function so well!
Thanks. It is pretty amazing considering such an early motor.
Indeed. I really hope you won’t run into mechanical problems.
Hello! Really interesting test and amazing pictures. I acquired one recently and I have a question; since I do got the manual but can’t read German. Is it normal that it start working as soon as there are batteries inside?
I haven’t put a film in mine but from what I can tell, mine performs normally : if I depress the shutter release, the shutter opens, the film spool(?) winds up, etc. if I point it to a strong or weak source of light I can see that the diaphragm moved accordingly, and in mine, the needle inside the visor does move (though it might stop soon as it did with yours). The only thing is that it start making noise as soon as I insert a battery, I suppose it does since it keep measuring and ajusting the diaphragm. Is that a normal behavior?
Not sure about yours working so much. Mine doesn’t make a noise until I depress the shutter release. So I am not sure if yours is working correctly in that sense. I guess the best way is to try a roll and see how it performs. Maybe use a consumer film in that case to give some extra latitude.
Fingers crossed, hope it works for you!
Paul del Rosario
It’s not normal for it to start making noise. It should be silent like any other camera. It’s an old camera, so as long as it does what it’s supposed to do, then just remove the batteries when not in use. However, if it sounds like motors are spinning, then it will drain the battery as you can imagine.
Great article Theo. Lots of information and pictures of the camera itself. And really good shots you got with it too. What a fascinating little thing it is, so typical of East German functionality of the time, and yet look at the performance you achieved with it. This article was very helpful and informative. Many thanks and happy shooting.
Thank you Paul, I am really glad you have enjoyed the article! East Germany was on quite an interesting trip of camera innovation during that period, giving us quite a few fascinating cameras.