Once, the rangefinder was king. Then in the late 1930s there appeared the primitive ancestor of the modern SLR, of which the Praktica FX2 is a perfect later (1950s) example. Read on more about the advantages and quirks of this early SLR after the break.
Once upon a time, the rangefinder was king. From the 1930s well into the 1960s, every serious professional photographer wanted a Leica or a Leica copy. In 1939 however, from Dresden, there appeared the Praktiflex, the first relatively cheap and reliable consumer SLR. War interrupted, but after the war was over, production resumed in 1950s East Germany and led to the Praktica FX series. Both the first Praktiflexes and later Praktica FXs looked vaguely Leica-like, probably so as not to appear too foreign or shocking to a market that still hungered for Leica. Nonetheless they represented a genuine innovation-it was a single lens reflex, or SLR, system, with focusing done not via two separate eyepieces as on a rangefinder, but through a single piece of focusing glass.
For people used to today’s SLRs, the Praktica FX2 undoubtedly looks and feels odd-which is exactly what I like about it. It’s probably now my single favourite 35mm camera. But there’s no question that it has some quirks that, until they were ironed out, meant that rangefinders would continue to be more lusted after and desired. As fate would have it, the Japanese would be the ones to iron out most of these quirks. So what were these issues?
For starters, the shutter speeds are odd by today’s standards: B, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 500. The shutter speeds were situated on a Leica-like speed dial which is tiny, and also has a top switch to change between slow and fast speeds. The wind on mechanism remains a Leica-style knob rather than a more ergonomic lever. Finally of course, this generation of SLR had a waist level viewfinder rather than a eye-level prism, so shooting from the hip is often the only choice- unless one wants to guess with the primitive flip-down sport viewfinder.
The waist level viewfinder also had no instant return mirror. This means that you have to wind the camera to both cock the shutter and make a picture appear in the viewfinder-and when you take the picture, the image will disappear again till you wind for the next shot. It’s primitive but reliable, but not what people now think of as an SLR. None of this stops it taking great pictures, but it does make it somewhat less attractive than a contemporary rangefinder, which could be focused through the viewfinder at any time.
As you can probably tell, not only do I think the Praktica FX2 is a great camera, I also think it tells an interesting story about the early competition between rangefinder and SLR design. The Praktica’s advantages were that it had a snap-off back and very simple film loading, when most rangefinders were both bottom-loading and also required the film to be trimmed in some way. Leica and Fed lovers will tell you this is really simple and one quickly gets used to it, which I’m sure is true—but the reality is, it’s a bit fiddly.
With the Praktica, the shutter curtain is also immediately exposed with the back off, making it very easy to check for holes or tears or a slow shutter curtain-something that is much more difficult to do with an early Leica or Fed or Zorki. The Praktica FX could also be focused very quickly through just the one viewfinder, but the fact it was a waistlevel viewfinder also meant that the image is sometimes difficult to see. This is due to the light coming through the lens not being able to compete with the ambient light around the viewfinder at narrow (say f16) apertures. The secret on a sunny day, when you need a small aperture, is to focus with the aperture wide open, then close down the aperture before shooting-which is admittedly not always a handy procedure.
Also, one cannot hold the camera up to your eye the way you could with a contemporary rangefinder, nor hold it vertical to get a lengthwise image, and to see an image at all, you always have wind on and cock the shutter. Once the Japanese ironed out all these issues in SLR design—by introducing top-mounted pentaprisms so you could hold the camera to your eye, and instant return mirrors, so that the image is always there without having to cock the shutter—the relatively superior simplicity of SLRs over rangefinders led rangefinders to fade almost overnight.
But until then there is no doubt it was a much more even balance of advantage versus disadvantage between the two systems, and most people like holding the camera to their actual eye, giving rangefinders the edge until then. For all the technological superiority of these later SLR evolutions however, which finally led that system to eventually ‘win’ in the general popularity stakes, the quirky early Praktica FX design still remains by far my favourite SLR, and my everyday go-to 35mm camera. Love is strange!