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A Tale of Two Cameras

Praktica VLC2 and Fujifilm Fujica ST801

After the problems I encountered with the Zenit 3m, I was still left with a taste for Russian lenses. I decided an M42 screw mount SLR (a.k.a. Pentax Screw Mount, or Praktica/Pentax Screw Mount) would be the best way forward. But what camera to get? Another, more modern Zenit? A Japanese camera?

Well, I had some ideas about the features I wanted. First and foremost, I really wanted to have a camera with a split image rangefinder, rather than the microprism focusing aid that was so common on M42 SLRs of the day. This eliminated many, many cameras. I also wanted to have a camera with a working TTL light meter that didn’t use the discontinued Mercury cell batteries. That eliminated many more cameras, although some that originally used mercury cell batteries could work on more conventional (and legal) silver oxide or Alkaline batteries.


Praktica VLC2

The first camera that really got me excited was the Praktica VLC2 I found on eBay. Made in East Germany, Prakticas are probably the best camera that was available behind the Iron Curtain. Some were imported into the west, with the brand having some popularity in England. I believe Cambridge Camera imported some to the US market under their Cambron brand name. Rare to find Prakticas that aren’t listed “As-Is/For Parts Only,” this one was listed in fully working condition, with a 7 day return period. Well, that’s  a little short, but since it had been tested, and the eBay seller was willing to stand behind his product…

This camera had the advantage of having 3 available viewfinders, with 2 included in the kit. The pentaprism finder shown, plus a waist level finder. This is rarified stuff! On Nikon’s line, we only have this on the top tier pro level cameras, like my F2 Photomic, F4 and F5 (as well as the original Nikon F, F3, and the F6). The VLC series (original, VLC2, and VLC3) also shared full-aperture metering with Praktica’s PLC series (that was nearly identical, with the exception of a fixed pentaprism finder). The focus screens were also interchangeable.

Alas, problems quickly surfaced in the form of a stuck film winder. I found some information on-line about how to unstick the film transport mechanism (has to do with encouraging a lever in the mirror box), but the whole film transport, shutter winding, and mirror mechanism was acting very unreliably. Sometimes the mirror and second shutter curtain would stick. I’ve had the 1/1000th second shutter speed act like Bulb mode. Sometimes it take 2 or 3 strokes of the rewind lever (and 2-3 frames of film to be wasted) to return the mirror and cock the shutter. So off it goes back to Canada.

Fujifilm Fujioca ST801

While the Praktica was on it’s way from Canada, this camera showed up on eBay. Fujifilm is the other film company, and like Kodak, it too produced film cameras. Kodak gave you the Plastic Fantastic Instamatic, while Fujifilm had a complete line of very serious cameras, including some wonderful medium format cameras.

The ST801 was among the last of the M42 mount SLRs that it produced. This sat one tier below the top of  the line, the ST901. The ST801 is a fully manual camera (although, with open aperture metering), while the ST901 only offered Aperture Priority Auto Exposure. I think the ST801 will prove to be the better tool when used with non-Fujinon lenses, such as the Russian (Zeiss copies) lenses I want to try out. Oh, and the ST801 used LEDs in the viewfinder to display the light metering, rather than the more common needle (as on the Praktica)

The Praktica transmits information on the aperture the lens is set to via three electrical contacts on the back of the lens mount. The Fujica has a very similar system to Nikon’s Aperture Indexing (AI) system, where a tang on the body surrounding the lens mount engages with a notch on the aperture ring on  the lens. Obviously, the systems aren’t interchangeable, but the one thing common to all M42 system cameras is they support stop down metering – where the metering is done with the lens stopped down to the taking aperture, usually via a depth of field preview lever or button.

The Fujica seems to operate flawlessly. There may be some issues with the light seals (40 year old foam usually does have issues), so I will replace the foam seals before loading with film.

This is a later version of the camera, and in the optional black body. Earlier versions of the camera (even in black) had individual chrome letters affixed to the front of the pentaprism finder, instead of the usual (as on this camera) engraved name filled with white paint. Some may like the chrome lettering. I think it’s a bit gaudy, but it wouldn’t be a deal breaker.

Price for the Praktica was about $100 plus shipping from Canada. Price for the Fujica was a mere $50 plus shipping within the US.

I’d still like to find a working Praktica VLC series camera. With the interchangeable finders, it’s about the most sophisticated M42 mount SLR I know of, and I like the ergonomics of the front mounted shutter button. If you know of one, “make me an offer I can’t refuse, and I won’t.”



This photo was taken shortly before the start of The Great Race here in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s actually one of the best photos that came out of the Zenit 3m.

Besides the horrific light leak, there were only 13 relatively properly exposed frames on the 36 exposure roll. Several frames were overlapped, and all this occurred in the middle of the roll. The beginning and end of the roll were not exposed. So there are some shutter problems, and some film transport issues.

A gentleman with a Nikon FE walked up to me to congratulate me on being the only other film camera user in the crowd. He said he was too cheap to go digital. As long as he could still get film developed, he’d be shooting film. God bless him – I wonder if he realizes that the places he takes his film digitize to a very low resolution. Like 4 Megapixels. Now, you don’t need a lot, even for an 8×10. I have a very nice 8×10 hanging in my livingroom, from my Olympus C2100UZ (the famous “UZi”), which is only a 2 Megapixel camera.

I wouldn’t have any problem replacing the light seals on this Zenit, but the other problems are show stoppers. Cheaper to buy another Zenit off of eBay that to fix this one. However, I don’t think I’m going to playing Russian Roulette trying to find a workable camera.

But I do like the idea of trying some of the Russian lenses, like the Helios 44 family 58mm f/2 lens. However, Nikon cameras have a lens mounting flange to film plane distance that’s too long for most Russian lenses (typically M42 screw mount) that prohibit focusing at infinity without some sort of intermediate lens (that ruins the optical characteristics). So I’m in persuit of a more modern camera with an M42 (a.k.a. Pentax/Praktica screw mount) lens mount.

Stay tuned!

An Oldie Gets Another Try

Nikon D300, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 12mm, 1/60 sec. f/4 at ISO 200 w/ pop-up flash

A short while ago, I bought this 50 year old veteran of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). This is a Zenit 3M. Since it had markings on the top to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, I thought it would make a nice conversation piece. But, I had to go try it out. Right now, it has it a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 film in it.

The camera is very simple. Zenit basically took an old, pre-WWII Leica II rangefinder camera, deleted the rangefinder focusing mechanism, and put a small mirror box and pentaprism on it to make it a Single Lens Reflex. Other simplifications were made, such as elimination of the slow shutter speeds (longer than 1/30th of a second). This isn’t really a problem for a camera of the day. You wouldn’t want to hand-hold a camera at shutter speeds less than 1/30th of a second, anyway.

The film advance has been updated from a knob to a ratcheting lever, and the film back opens on a hinge, unlike the Leica II this camera is based on.

I have to say, in short, I really like this camera, quirks and all. Quirks? Yes. There is no focusing aid in the ground glass viewfinder, and the mirror doesn’t automatically return after the exposure. The astute reader will notice I’ve added a larger shutter release button. The shutter button is a bit stiff, and has some knurling on top that makes it rather uncomfortable.

Did I mention how small this camera is? Let’s compare it to my Nikon F5 – another film camera that is similar in size to many professional DSLRs:

Nikon D300, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, 12mm, 1/60 sec. f/3.8 at ISO 200 w/ pop-up flash

The F5 also happens to be loaded with film. This time, Fujicolor Superia ISO 200 film.  Yes sir! They still make 35mm film!

Woman with Parasol

Nikon D300, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 1/320 sec at f/5.6, ISO 200