Big Quirk, Small Format: The Praktica FX3

A few film photographers had asked me, "Why don't you give 35mm a try?"  And I had been repeatedly shelving the idea.

Perhaps I just needed a gateway to something other than 120.

After a period of some fairly cheap camera acquisitions, and a feeling of overwhelming contentedness with the 120 format, I'd begun a new period of complacency.  I'd felt that my stable of oddball medium format film equipment was pretty much more than I'd ever need, and really didn't feel the need to expand upon it any further by acquiring any more cameras of any format.  As well, I didn't see where most of the offerings in 35mm allowed me anything new in the way of shooting experience that I did not already have either in 120 or in digital. However, I was open to the idea of trying 35mm if I were to find a very affordable camera that offered something interesting in its shooting experience.

Interestingly enough, I found such a camera, and it was right in the curio cabinet in my living room.

Say "Hello" to the Praktica FX3:

This interesting old camera from the 1950's wandered into my collection almost arbitrarily. It first belonged to my late father, who later gave it to my older sister.  When she heard of my penchant for using old adapted lenses on mirrorless digital bodies, she gave me the Zeiss Tessar 50mm f/2.8 M42 mount lens to which this camera was attached so that I could give it a try.  She also gave me the camera body for which she no longer had any use.  At the time, I was not terribly interested in shooting film any more, and it didn't seem that the camera even worked.  The lens turned out to have a really tight focusing collar and had surprisingly dull contrast, so I ultimately put the camera/lens combination in the curio cabinet as a display item and thought little more of ever using either for actual photography.

A little later, I picked up one other M42 lens, the Helios 44-2, which I mounted to the micro 4/3 adapter that I'd picked up for the Zeiss, and began using it as a fun lens for its wild bokeh patterns. And only weeks later, I'd dabble again in film photography for the first time, only to realize how much I'd missed it.  In the months to follow, I picked up a small stable of affordable medium format cameras and got familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each.  During this entire time, the FX3 sat idly in the curio cabinet.

By late June of this year, with my film funds growing tighter amid some life changes, I began to slowly contemplate giving 35mm a fresh try, despite my enthusiasm for the 120 format.  I knew that if I were to give 35mm a try, I would hope that I could replicate at least some of the very involving process that was now quite enjoyable to me in my shooting of my medium format equipment.  I actually had a trio of 1960's to 1970's Konica SLR bodies that came with some of the adapted Konica-AR lenses that I had picked up.  These seemed like a decent (if albeit boring) starting point since I already had a range of lenses with which to use them.  However, I was not able to get any of them to show any interest in working.  I then took a look at the only 35mm camera left as an option, the 1950's FX3 sitting on display.

Tarnished and musty, the old Praktica was not showing any more interest in working than the Konica cameras were.  However, the interest in seeing if I could get this camera working again was far greater than its newer cousins.  Not only was it an older mechanical beast that did away with the need for tricky batteries, but it was also a family heirloom of sorts. And if that wasn't enough reason for making the Praktica my "go-to" machine in 35mm, there was one very compelling reason: quirk!

Among the earliest of SLR style designs, this interesting German relic sports a fairly oddball design feature that really sets it apart from later designs: namely, a removable pentaprism. Not only can one use the Praktica in the traditional SLR type of eye-level shooting, but as well, it can be used in a fashion similar to a TLR when the pentaprism is removed to create a more "waist level" shooting style.

After a good degree of familiarization with this unusual camera, I tinkered about with it several times and after nearly giving up any hope, I gave a final firm press to the seemingly frozen shutter button only to finally hear it "chunk."  Fantastic!  Only, it didn't close back up! Initially I thought it a problem with the shutter itself, but after a while I noticed that the shutter button itself was stuck in the released position.  A little bit of innovation with using a screw-in shutter release with some gentle coercion, and after a few tries, I was not only able to get the shutter release to return to its position, but function correctly in the process.  I had *just* enough confidence in this durable old camera to run a test roll through it to see how it could perform.  At worst, I would at least get some hands-on experience using this fascinatingly unusual old camera.  At best, I'd have some new images to add to my archives and a fun camera to use in the process, at no added equipment cost.

In short, it took me three tries to get a usable roll through the FX3.  The first, a roll of Agfa Precisa CT, was promptly lost soon after shooting, while the FX3 ripped the second attempt off the supply spool, making it impossible to rewind.  Finally a roll of "Retrochrome 160" from the Film Photography project managed to make the trip through the camera and back successfully.  By this point, I'd managed to get a decent idea of how to use the camera.

While the ability to frame and focus through either a eye level viewfinder or a "waist level" finder is a welcome quirk to the Praktica, other idiosyncrasies are not quite as coveted.  The shutter release of this camera is on the front of the body.  This is actually pretty easy to get accustomed to, though I've found that the example I am working with does NOT work with my cable release.  In addition, as with many M42 cameras, the apertures automatically stop down on setting, and as a result, focusing is best accomplished from the lens' maximum aperture and then stopping back down to the desired aperture.  In practice, I found myself too often neglecting to do the last crucial step of stopping the lens back down and overexposing the photo by several stops.   

Waist Level Finder on the FX3, one of the cooler features of this odd camera. 

The biggest trial and tribulation however with the Praktica is the shutter speed dial. Clearly designed under the expectation that all users have 20/10 vision and like to go on an Easter Egg hunt each time they wish to change the shutter speed.  At the same time, the dial has two ranges: red for slow speeds and black for fast speeds, and an additional dial atop the shutter speed dial must be set to align with color coded ticks coordinating with the desired shutter speed.  As a result, switching from a 1/200 to a 1/5 speed in dim light seems like an experiment that will never yield a positive result.  The 1/2 speed and 1/25 speed share the same spot on the dial, which is not too easy to locate, while the last digit of the 1/100-1/500 speeds is largely obscured, making them look like 1/10, 1/20, and 1/50 respectively.

The "Red Range" of slow speeds on my example seems to be hideously off in timing, as the shutter seems to never be any slower than about 1/25 of a second at any of these speeds. Thus, I had to stick with the  faster speeds of the shutter, and use the Bulb setting for any longer exposures, in hopes that this would yield better results.   

The Eye Level Pentaprism finder on the FX3 certainly lacks much in the way of streamlining, poking out in a bulbous fashion from the top of the camera.  Generally it works well, though this one didn't like to stay put in its slot. 


A couple of "bokeh" shots above and below taken using the 44-2 show some promising results.  Very interesting to see the lens used to its full potential rather than limited to a crop sensor image.

A contemporary image shows decent sharpness in the 44-2 lens, though a color shift in the film, as well as some light "chatter" in the top left corner detract from this usability of the image. 

A "retro" scene on this "retro" film.  The yellowish cast and grain are not terribly endearing, but are interesting nonetheless.  

One of the best aspects of 35mm SLR photography is the ability to compare the rendering of different lenses on the same roll of film.  The above scene was taken on the Helios, while the below scene was shot on the Zeiss Tessar.  There is actually some better color rendition using the Zeiss lens than using the Helios, interesting considering I've gotten some great color results on the Helios on the Olympus Pen.   

Out of focus rendering on the Zeiss is not nearly the busy scene that is rendered by the Helios.  The light leak spots are apparently the result of holes in the curtain.  

A scene I'd passed daily for some time, and looking like a scene out of a Thomas Kincade painting, Mrs. K's Tollhouse Restaurant was a no brainer to be the subject of some images on the FX3.  The camera overexposed the scene due to a laggy shutter, but some post processing helped somewhat.

When given proper exposure, the FX3 rendered a rather contrasty scene on the Retrochrome.  Results are not too inspiring.

Another scene with shallow depth of field gives some painterly strokes in the background, but has to be pushed quite a bit in post processing.  

A scene on a humid day looks overall fairly flat. A shot taken on one of my 120 cameras renders a much more vivid taking of this scene.  
So has the Praktica become a regular part of my rotation?  Not particularly.  I find the shutter speed dial annoying, the pre-set lens apertures often aggravating, while the laggy shutter and light leaks make this an item I could only see myself using occasionally.

But this doesn't mean that I've given up on 35mm.  The Praktica was indeed a gateway back to adding the smaller format to my stable.  Since trying out this camera, I've discovered a similarly quirky camera that is far more usable, and gives better results.  Stay tuned for a review and results from this other competitor!