Back in 2009 I had a camera that died on me. It might only be a camera to you but to me it was everything. It was my first camera. I was heartbroken. To those of you mocking me, just think back to your first car and to your first accident in that car. Alright, you may not be shedding a tear you unemotive bastard, but you might just have the smallest of inklings about my loss. It was my fist camera that had taught me the basics of photography, and since 1987 had been a relatively constant companion, and part of me. My son now has it on a shelf looking pretty damn cool on one of his shelves.
It was at that time that I had come back to film from digital. Why bother using filters that would emulate film photography when you could get the same thing straight out of camera without going through the rigmaroles of messing around in Photoshop to get that result? At that time, although digital gave me a lot, there was something missing. Like most of us I was looking for something authentic.
I went to the camera shop to see if anything could be done to repair my camera and bring it back to life. With hope I entered the shop that would become a familiar haunt, and had to face the brutal truth. My Praktica MTL3 was dead. It had passed on, this camera was no more. It had ceased to be. It had expired and gone to meet its maker. It was a stiff. Bereft of photographic life. It was resting in peace. It was pushing up daisies. Its metabolic processes were now history. It was off the twig. It had kicked the bucket. It had shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bloody choir invisible. IT WAS AN EX Praktica MTL 3! Any similarity to a Norwegian Blue parrot pining for the Fjords is a mere coincidence! So I asked him if I could buy the one in the display cabinet and he said of course I could and that yes it was a little expensive, it came with a 6 month guarantee, and here was a film for it, and no mention of Bolton or Ipswitch. Although not exactly the same it was a purchase that set me off on a series of events that lead me to “collecting” a certain quantity of cameras. It was either that or becoming a lumberjack.
Through YouTube, articles on the net, and my own research, I learnt about some of the iconic cameras that I never had, and at that stage, the hipsters hadn’t bought up everything on EBay and you could still get something very decent for un £50, which now of course might set you back between £150 to £200! So I was very fortunate to start collecting when I did.
On the famous YouTube, and its infamous photography videos that I still seem to watch on a regular basis, I went down the rabbit hole of specialising in film cameras. There was one guy, called Matt Day, who waxed lyrical about his Leica M6, and how much he loved using it to take images from his everyday life. I started thinking, could this be my next acquisition. And then I started looking at the prices that these things cost. Megabucks, which is something that I don’t have and even if I did, such a purchase would be grounds for divorce. It’s cheaper to keep her, as the classic Rhythm and Blues (before it became R’nB) so wisely reminded us.
Therefore, what is the difference between my new old Praktica MTL3 and a Leica M6 I hear you say. Well, both are German. One is a classic camera from a West German manufacturer, and was the gold standard of 35mm cameras from pre war times right up to the modern day, and was a rangefinder, the other one being a relatively cheap and yet very solid SLR from the old East Germany.
So both were made by the Boche, one further to the left that the other. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so a video must be worth two thousand words! Earlier I talked about a certain Matt Day, well here is a video of his from last year talking about the differences. I’ll let you watch it, and then we will be both on the same page! I can tell you’re impressed.
Soooooo, I wanted to learn about a rangefinder and see how they worked out in real life. But, as I said earlier it’s cheaper to keep her, so I was going to have to find another way of doing things. As many photographers on a budget but wanting to get some half decent materiel, I looked East, towards Mother Russia. Communism is messed up, but it did leave some rather solid cameras, and to the rangefinder aficionados, the names Zorky, and FED will be familiar. The Zorky looks very vintage, rather sexy and exclusive with its Cyrillic writing on the top of the body, but I was not comfortable about using a camera without a light meter. The Sunny 16 rule should be easy enough to follow, and with the latitude that black and white film photography gives you, you shouldn’t go too far wrong, but I was being stubborn, which is so out of character for me.
I moved on to looking at the FED 5, especially since I had found one for only 15€ imported directly from the Ukraine, which at the time was not at war or hadn’t been annexed either by Mother Russia. Oh you naughty boy Vladimir!!
Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first. The FED 5 was produced in the Ukrainian city of Kharkov from 1977 until 1990. It is a 35mm format rangefinder camera, with interchangeable lenses with a Leica M39 screw thread, (mine has a 35mm f2.8 lens, which is great for street photography). It has a focal plane shutter, shutter speeds of 1 second to 1/500th of a second, bulb mode, and the flash sync speed is 1/30th of a second. What more could you ask for. The film loading is similar to the Leica where you remove the base of the camera, load your film etc. and then put that base back on. Because you know that it’s about the bass, ‘bout that bass no treble…
To do the metering you have to put your faith in the selenium cell light meter, on the top right of the front of the camera. This will give you a reading on an EV meter on top of the camera next to the “calculation wheel”. One dial is for the speed of you your film. Now don’t go looking for Din, ISO, or ASA, but look for GOCT, or GOST. 90 GOST is 100ASA, 180 being 200ASA etc. For 400ASA I just turn the little dot to the S in GOCT. It’s one of those Soviet things that is just a quirk of this camera. This will give me a reading on the outer dial with my shutter speeds and F Stops combinations to nail that exposure!
As with other Soviet-era rangefinders, the shutter-speed selector rotates when the shutter is released, and this should not be changed “until after” the shutter has been cocked. If you change the shutter speed before you cock the shutter first, the setting pin can be broken when you advance the film and cock the shutter! Don’t even bother trying. I never have, and it still works today!
Focussing is easy which is always something that catches my eye, no zone focussing, and it’s slightly different to the SLR. As you saw in the video, there is a ghost image in the middle of the viewfinder and as soon as that ghost image disappears, it means that you have focussed successfully.
Anyway, I paid my 15 Euros and a Ukrainian camera arrived two weeks later in an original box which is still in a display cabinet in my hallway. The leather case still smells of leather! So I tried the damn thing out. Worked out how to load the film which as completely foreign to me but still doable and not too demanding even for me. It is supposed to be the street photography camera par excellence for a few reasons. Firstly it looks pretty sexy around my neck and the leather is top notch without necessarily having a leather fetish, but each to his own! You can use zone focussing with the lens as you can see at such and such an F-stop, the part of your photo which will be in focus is shown on the lens. There is no mirror that slaps up, and the camera is relatively silent, and can be used to close to your subject and get that trendy and yet timeless street portrait. Shooting from the hip.
I can hear you saying, well thank you Ian for all this information. Really great, and almost useful. But pray tell, is it any good? What’s it like to shoot with? Is it worth me looking into? Can I buy you a Leica M6 for your birthday?
Well Dear Reader, let me address your interrogations. Firstly is it any good? It is definitely slightly sexy and certainly looks the part! I wasn’t used to the focussing of a rangefinder but found the focussing to be spot on. I’ll let you have a look at the photos and let you judge! What’s it like to shoot with? Once you get used to the way a Soviet camera functions it’s actually pretty neat! What I do like is being able to get my exposition without having to look through the viewfinder. You know that you’re going to be spot on, and indeed I was. That’s half the battle won, which is what we’re all about. It works mate, it works! You need to be able to get that sot that you want and I think that’s pretty simple to do. Is it worth me looking into? All depends on what you’re looking for. If you can get one for a relatively cheap price then get one just to try out; you can always sell on. I certainly have no regrets and it’s still in my collection which just goes to show you! Can I buy you a Leica M6 for your birthday? Who am I to refuse such generosity?
The photos in this article were taken in Montaigu, Vendée in 2016 and feature my daughter. The film is Illford XP, which is a black and white film that is developed with colour film chemicals and processes. C41 for those in the know. It’s always strange seeing photos from nearly 6 years ago and I remember that outing with my daughter as if it were yesterday. It was one of the ways I used to cope with my depression. I might not know what day it was but I remember taking each photo. We all cope in our own individual ways I suppose…