If you do anything every day, you have to change things occasionally to stop it getting too repetitive. You might decide to have toast instead of cereal for breakfast one morning, or take a different route to work just for the hell of it. I’m now finding that when you decide to take a photo every day for a year, you also have to mix things up. I’ve been trying to keep the variety going by shooting different subjects, experimenting with macro and trying to think in black and white and it’s all been a lot of fun. But now, perhaps inevitably, I have come to the point where I feel the need to go back to basics, back to a time before “megapixel” was a word and when sensors were something you found on the USS Enterprise. That’s right, I’ve decided to shoot some film…

I no longer own any film cameras – my last was an Olympus iZoom 75 APS compact (but it looked like this French one) which I stopped using after the zoom switch fell into the Vltava in 2003. That led to a retreat into the photographic wilderness with only a terrible camera phone and my other-half’s 3 megapixel Olympus compact. Four years later I returned and bought a Pentax K110D, then promptly realised I’d bought the wrong thing and changed it for a K100D to get image stabilisation. I’ve now worked my way up the Pentax range and am actually pretty content with a K-x and the wonderful K-5.

All of which left me scrolling through eBay trying to decide what to go for. I wanted something that takes 35mm film, handles reasonably well and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Sadly it seems old Leicas are still holding their value rather too well – my budget for this exercise is more on the order of a trip to Costa for lunch. I toyed with the idea of trying a rangefinder and some of the late 60s to 70s Canons and Yashicas looked like they’d be a bit of fun. But then it struck me – I just needed to look back to the camera that kindled my love of photography in the first place, back when I was about eight years old: the relatively little known East German wonder that was the Praktica BMS.

Sadly that camera is long gone, but a few clicks on eBay and ten pounds plus postage later and I had one of its comrades I could call my own:

Features, or a Lack Thereof

In fact, for my tenner, I not only got the camera and lens but also a flash, some filters and a bag which seemed like a pretty good deal. But this was an eBay purchase, so the flash turned out to have degenerated into a solid lump of leaky battery gunk and the filters were somehow all the wrong size for this lens. At least the bag was a nice bonus…

Anyway, I digress. This is a basic camera. So basic that if you take the battery out, it still works – albeit only at a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. In fact it was basic even by the standards of late-80s East German SLRs – most of the “B” range featured automatic exposure, but this one was all manual to make it cheaper and to appeal to students (and to parents of eight year olds, I guess). That said, the word “electronic” emblazoned on the front hints at a certain amount of technological advancement. The shutter speed is electronically controlled and the bayonet mount lenses indicate the selected aperture via three electrical contacts on the mount, but essentially this is a solidly built machine which only gives you what you need to take photos and nothing you don’t.

The viewfinder in particular is excellent. It is larger and clearer than a modern DSLR and because it is designed for manual focusing it has a very useful split-prism focusing aid in the centre (where a central strip at 45 degrees appears to slide sideways relative to the surrounding area when out of focus), surrounded by a circle of micro-prisms (which looks like it’s pixellated when out of focus) and ground glass. Even with the f1.8 lens’s shallow depth of field and having to press the camera up against my glasses, I can very quickly find the right spot on the surprisingly long-throw focusing ring when the prism images line up and the subject snaps into focus. I honestly think the viewfinder on this cheap communist-built 80s throwback is a couple of orders of magnitude better than the ones on my modern DSLRs.

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There is also a clever little window on the front of the camera that reflects the aperture number from the top of the lens into the bottom of the viewfinder – you can see it just above the letter “K” of Praktica. This lets you set the aperture without having to take your eye away from the viewfinder, which is very handy.

Despite being completely manual, the camera is actually very simple to use. You select the aperture with the ring on the lens, which moves in half-stop steps. Then you half press the shutter and a little red LED appears on the right hand side of the viewfinder next to the shutter speed the camera thinks you should use (or “under” or “over” if it’s just not going to work), along with a flashing one showing the current speed if it’s different. Then you turn the big chunky shutter speed dial on the top, fully press the shutter and it fires with a nicely mechanical feel and meaty “ker-chunk!” sound.

K5IM9245

The only luxuries are the plastic collar round the shutter button to prevent you from accidentally pressing it, and a self timer lever on the front which is actually clockwork! In fact the latter is enough to earn the camera the S in its name – there was actually an even cheaper “BM” variant that didn’t have a self-timer.

Testing, Testing

All of the above makes it sound like this was a brand new camera that I just took out of the box and started shooting with, but at probably about 23 years old, it was never going to be that simple. There were three main problems. The first was that as soon as I fired the shutter for the first time, the bits of foam the mirror bumps against at the top of its travel disintegrated into dust. The second was that the light meter did not work at all and just showed “under” the whole time. And finally, the lens has quite a bit of lens fungus creeping in from the edges (don’t worry, it’s not as gross as it sounds). The latter is not something that can be easily repaired, other than by hitting eBay for a cleaner example – which I am still in the process of doing.

The mirror bumpers were actually remarkably easy to replace, using some of the thin foam we have in my son’s arts and crafts box. A couple of small bits cut to size with a craft knife and stuck on with superglue did the trick:

The bumpers are the little white blocks between the focusing screen and the lens mount. Ideally I probably shouldn’t use white foam, but while the film is being exposed the mirror will be in the way so they are not going to cause any trouble with reflections or anything like that. Also in the above photo you can see the clockwork self-timer lever to the left of the lens mount (the bit with a white dot on the end), and the focussing aids I described previously in the middle of the focussing screen.

The non-functioning meter was more worrying. I played around to see if maybe it was just grubby contacts on the lens or mount, and although that didn’t fix it, I did get a very brief moment of operation out of the meter – so there was hope! After more poking about I got a second brief period when it worked. Both times seemed to be immediately after fitting the lens onto the camera, albeit not consistently. That gave me enough of a hunch to get out the watchmakers’ screwdrivers and start disassembling the lens.

IMG_1559

This revealed two interesting things: firstly the fancy electronic communication between camera and lens is actually just a potentiometer (aka variable resistor) attached to the aperture ring, and secondly the wire to the wiper (the part of the potentiometer that moves) was broken. A bit of fiddly soldering later and I had a fully working camera and lens! Hurrah!

All the remaining tests looked good – the meter now agreed (more or less) with my DSLR set to an equivalent ISO and aperture, the shutter sounded like it opened for the right amount of time when compared to the DSLR, and the light seals around the rear door looked to be intact . But there is only one way to see if a film camera really works, and that is to stick a film in and take some pictures. So I stuck in a roll of cheap and cheerful FujiColor C200 and set off.

The Results

The thing is, when you shoot on film you have to be patient and wait to see what comes out when you get a roll developed. In the same way, you will have to wait to see how my first roll in ten years turned out…

2 Comments

  1. I’m tempted to have a root around in the loft and dig out my old Canon AE-1. I’m pretty sure it still works… at least it did in 2003.

    • Do it! It’s a completely different experience to taking digital photos – it’s all about patience. You have to wait for the right shot so you don’t waste film, then wait until you finish the rest of the roll, then wait for it to be developed before you can see it. It’s kind of zen.

      But keep the digital camera around for when you need instant gratification!

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