I admit I’m biased towards single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras, since the viewfinder shows me exactly what the lens is seeing. I found this particular SLR, a Praktica F.X3, in a South Dunedin second hand store. It was after school one day in 2009. Boredom had set in, so I went hunting for affordable vintage cameras. There it was, sitting in its brown leather case in the bottom of the display cabinet. A crinkled silver and black leatherette gem, eagerly awaiting a new home. Fifty dollars later, it was going home with me.
When I got it home, I set about cleaning it. Having done the pre-requisite checks at the shop (covered in a later post), I knew it wanted nothing more than a cosmetic clean. An hour later, it was ready for action. A few weeks later, I was putting it into action.
Loaded with a roll of Kodak BW400CN black and white film (one of my go-to film options), I drove out to Port Chalmers and shot most of the roll, then returned home and finished it off a few days later. The camera was accompanied by my Gossen Profisix light meter, being as it doesn’t feature an in-built meter. Simple and reliable, the combination of meter, film and camera is actually quite well matched (even if there are decades between the advent of each). Those three items form one of my favourite vintage camera outfits, especially where I want a classic aesthetic mated with good image quality.
After the film had been developed and printed, I was quite pleasantly surprised. It transpired that this spartan camera from the 1950’s, with a lens whose design dated back to the 1940’s or earlier, was more than capable of holding it’s own against modern photographic equipment.
As with any camera, it’s all about the lens. Meyer (sadly no longer in business) made the Trioplan lens using only three lens elements (pieces of glass), in an arrangement known as a Cooke Triplet. This led to a lens of simple (therefore affordable) design, which was capable of quite sharp images. This particular lens is a coated version, which means that it has less image-degrading flare and fewer internal reflections. This leads to higher light transmission, and better contrast. All of this equals nice images (provided they were composed well).
Naturally, the lens would be hopeless if it were used in isolation. The Praktica FX-3 body itself is a capable platform on which to mount the lens. It is purportedly the first ever SLR to stop the lens down to taking aperture automatically (but not with the Meyer Trioplan…). Made of solid metal, with solid internal gears and robust control dials, it is a rugged camera. There are no electronics to fail, nor any expensive and unobtainable components to be wary of. A part of this ruggedness is a charming weight to the controls: a shutter button that is thumped, not pressed; a shutter speed dial that clunks rather than clicks; and a winding knob which is wrenched, not turned.
The simplicity and ruggedness of this setup are a large part of why I came to love older cameras. There is a feeling of invincibility emanating from them whenever they are in use, which gives the photographer great confidence in using them. Having had parts of plastic cameras break off without any help from me, it is quite comforting to pick something virtually unbreakable up. By far and away, I prefer the metal, leatherette and beautifully honed looks of vintage cameras to the majority of modern cameras. Those modern cameras I do like, incidentally, are modelled on vintage cameras. Go figure.
The Praktica F.X3, for its simplicity, quality, alluring aesthetics and tasty tactility, has earned a special place in my collection. Praktica, in the F.X3, had a capable and dependable tool which, with the right lens, could turn out some lovely images. It’s a charming camera to use, and I would encourage you to try one if ever you are given the opportunity.