I re-bought a Praktica BX20 to relive the experience of the very first 35mm SLR I bought new. My previous camera, the Praktica MTL3 I had acquired in a ‘well-loved’ state. Did brand loyalty from the MTL3 influence my choice all those years ago? Not even remotely, it was the best I could afford to buy new, and boy did I love the thing.
Fast forward to 2023 and would my Praktica BX20 eBay haul still bring about the same feelings? Well before we explore that, let’s talk a bit about the kit I had acquired. The body was in great condition and came with a trio of lenses. A Pentacon 50mm f1.8 and 28mm f2.8, joined by a Sirius 28~70mm zoom. I couldn’t resist rounding it off with a Pentacon 135mm f2.8 I picked up for £10. Total cost £45, a bargain in my eyes for the nostalgia alone.
The BX20 was Praktica’s penultimate SLR before it collapsed following the reunification of Germany. Life for photography students and budget-seeking photographers would never be the same again. The very final model was a slight ‘upgrade’ to BX20, called the BX20S. The BX20S added DX coding and a hideous grip making the camera look like it had been attacked with a blow torch.
So what’s the Praktica BX20 like? Well, the best word to describe one would be ‘plastic’, to expand would be to add ‘hard’ and ‘cheap’. That said I’m not sure where they conjured this East German plastic from, but it’s certainly capable of surviving the passage of time. Even the faux leather grips (still 100% plastic) on mine haven’t shrunk or come away.
The Praktica BX20’s specification, for a camera released in 1987 it was nothing at all to shout about. In common with all B series bodies it has the Praktica bayonet mount. Shutter speeds run from 1/1000 second down to 1 second, and bulb. These are indicated via an LED light in the viewfinder, and a Judas window shows you the selected aperture. One nice touch is the red filter that covers the Judas window if you have forgotten to wind on (always a nice touch). Modes are limited to manual and aperture priority ‘auto’ mode. Add in an ASA range of 12 to 3200, +/- 2 stops for exposure compensation, and an AE lock button and the camera provides the basic tools needed.
However it’s not 1987 anymore, and I’m a lot older and have worked my way through a lot of cameras in the intervening years, yet I fell straight back into the flow of things with the Praktica BX20. The viewfinder is clear and bright, with a nice diagonal double-split ring and micro-prism collar that makes focusing a doddle. The metering remains accurate and apart from the odd placement of the AE lock button the ergonomics work more than well enough. The metal shutter is still accurate and it all just works.
I soon found myself forgetting about what I needed to do to use the camera and just use it. It’s small and light enough for me to carry it for long periods, even with a bag of lenses. And it’s those lenses that are just as important as the camera itself. Cheap to buy, and with even the kit variants being solid performers optically, they represent a cheap way to put a solid film camera kit together.
It would, however, be remiss of me to cover only the pros, without addressing the cons. Cons that certainly do exist. I was lucky to find an example as clean and well-kept as this one. The vast majority I see up for sale have clearly had a hard life. Many are covered in layers of grime, dust, and dirt, and it’s not a camera built to handle that kind of life. Abuse and lack of care are likely to seriously impact reliability.
The other issue is that the PB mount camera bodies never sold anywhere like the numbers the M42 models did. This means that the lenses around are far more limited in quantity, and heavily biased towards the kit versions. While 3rd parties did produce some glass, the numbers are small, and the quality is not generally high (that said the Sirius I have isn’t terrible). Now you can mount M42 lenses onto the PB bodies using an adaptor, but the only company to produce the adaptor was Praktica themselves. Making them uncommon and not as cheap as you would expect.
As such it’s really quite difficult to recommend the Praktica BX20 as a film SLR to anyone starting out. Particularly given the better bodies, with far larger eco-systems exist that you can pick up for similar money. I don’t regret re-buying one for a second, particularly when the 135mm is on the front of it, but for me, it’s an old friend, and I’m not sure their quirks have widespread appeal…
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