Like many of the items of photographic film equipment I’ve accumulated over the years, I’m not sure how, when or where I came by the Pentina 35mm camera. I do know I’ve had it for many years and haven’t used it, mainly because of problems with the shutter and mirror return mechanisms. It would be a complicated camera to repair and the cost would probably be more than its value as a collector’s item. I still think it worthwhile to write this article about this unusual, even for its time, 35mm film camera.
Pentacon was an East German camera manufacturer founded in the 1950s. It was initially the exporter of Zeiss Ikon Contax cameras but progressed to manufacturing cameras under its own name.
Here’s the Pentacon motif and the more recognisable Zeiss Ikon motif, both taken from the camera bodies:
The Pentacon Pentina is an odd sort of animal. Its external shape makes it look like a rollfilm camera and its size certainly indicates 120 rollfilm could easily fit into its internal dimensions. One of the main reasons for this is its minimalist shape is roughly rectangular at 130mm long, 90mm high and 50mm deep, sans lens. This is deceiving, as it incorporates a TTL pentaprism within the top section, fully housed within the rectangular internals. Externally there’s no indication it has a pentaprism, unlike nearly every other 35mm SLR of the time, which is the early 1960s. The following image compares the similar body dimensions of the Pentina (left – 35mm) with the Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta (120 rollfilm) on the right. It’s easy to see why the Pentina could be mistaken for a rollfilm camera.
The German reunification in the 1990s saw the demise of Pentacon. It simply was not profitable so it was shut down; thus it had a shorter history than most other camera manufacturers. Notwithstanding this, Pentacon produced a number of interesting 35mm cameras during its manufacturing history from the 1950s to the 1990s, including the Praktica Nova B, my very first 35mm SLR. Another interesting camera it produced is this Pentina that, during its short manufacturing period from 1961 to 1965, had a number of model variants, each developed from the earlier model rather than being discrete. There’s some dispute, or simply disagreement, as to whether there were six or seven Pentina models, so this academic argument is best left to camera collectors.
The top of the camera is rather plain in that it has a cold shoe for attaching a flash unit and a needle light-measuring window. That’s it! The first image shows the sparseness of the top plate of the camera.
The main information section is incorporated into the bottom plate of the camera body. There’s a film type indicator, a rewind (possibly also used for double-exposure) button, a tripod socket (standard thread), ISO/DIN indicator and rewind mechanism. The camera would need to be turned upside down in order to check this information. Thus most if the information is hidden if the camera is housed in a leatherette case for travelling, requiring the camera to be removed from the case to check, and especially so if a deliberate double-exposure was required. Pentacon may have thought there was little need to continually check this information once the film had been loaded and the camera ready for use. It’s also rare that deliberate double exposure is wanted, so I guess there was some logic to moving these dials and buttons to the bottom of the camera. The important requirement was correct exposure that’s adequately seen in the window in the top plate. Here is the bottom plate of the camera, looking like it should really be at the top:
The camera has other differences to other SLRs on the market at the time. Apart from the hidden pentaprism, it appears more suited to a left-handed photographer. The wind-on lever is positioned at the top left rear of the camera immediately below the top plate where the exposure counter is located, and the shutter button is at the front of the camera to the left of the photoelectric cell that dominates the area immediately above the lens. See the first image. There’s a flash nipple located at the left lower section of the lens mounting frame.
Exposure is set using the match-needle principle. There are two levers for this: one sets the shutter and the other sets the aperture. Both are located closest to the camera body where the lens is attached. The shutter speed setting ring is closest to the camera body. These, as well as the ISO/DIN indicator in the bottom plate, are coupled to the photoelectric light cell match-needle indicator.
There’s a rather smart system incorporated into the lens/aperture mechanism, in that once the aperture is matched to the needle, the shutter ring can be moved and the aperture automatically adjusts to its corresponding reciprocal setting through being coupled with the shutter ring, obviating the need to adjust both the shutter and aperture rings to change the depth of field.
Another feature this camera had that was different to many other emerging 35mm SLRs was the use of a leaf shutter instead of a focal plane shutter. This, unlike focal plane shutters, meant flash could be used at any shutter speed, which, on this camera, is similar to most Copal shutters used in large format photography: B plus the usual ten instant speeds from 1 second to 1/500th second. Aperture scale goes from f/2.8 to f/22; fairly standard for its time for nearly all 35mm SLR cameras but one difference being the aperture within the lens is controlled from the ring attached to the body instead of a ring within the lens. The following image shows the leaf shutter just inside the camera body behind where the interchangeable lenses are affixed.
The lens on my model is a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm. This is the same type lens as on my first SLR already mentioned. It’s an extremely good Zeiss lens well known in its day for its sharpness. The lens system of the Pentina also allows for interchangeability. The lens is removed by turning the metal ring clearly seen in the forgoing image. This is similar to the method used by Mamiya for attaching their lenses to most of their rollfilm cameras. The lens mounting system on the Pentina became known as the Pentacon bayonet mount, and has similarities to the Nikon, Canon and Pentax bayonet mounts. Interchangeable lenses available were 30mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm. This catered for landscape through to portraiture and medium telephoto. Whilst 50mm lenses are reasonably obtainable, lenses for the other focal lengths appear to be rare and highly collectible, as is this particular 35mm camera. I couldn’t find any additional information on Pentacon or after-market lenses, whether fixed-focus or zoom. Average price for a Pentina with a lens attached was about $100 at the time of writing. I did find some of the lenses for sale on the Internet with prices ranging from about $50 (mostly poor condition) to a 30mm for ~$160, an 85mm for ~$230 (vg condition), another 85mm for ~$380 (not in the best condition!) and a 135mm for ~$50.
There are other dissimilarities between the Pentina and other 35mm SLRs. The rear back plate is fully removable when the tab at the bottom of the right hand side (another dissimilarity) of the body (looking from the rear) is pulled down. That is to say, the rear cover plate is not hinged to the body of the camera. This makes it easier to load film but make sure you know where you put the back plate! The next image shows the back plate removed, the leaf shutter is also visible, and here’s another quirk: the manufacturer’s serial number is also located inside the camera, at bottom left, hidden when the back plate is re-attached. There are certainly some oddities with this camera!
There’s a film counter re-setting button housed within the body also located behind the back plate. There is no automatic zeroing of the counter when the back cover is removed. The film counter button requires manual clicking through the numbers until it is reset back to 0. The following image shows the wind-on lever, the film counter, and the counter reset button. The film counter goes to number 38. This was because 36-shot film quite often allowed a few extra frames.
Film transport is also unusual in that the cassette is placed in the right hand side of the camera, opposite to where other 35mm SLR cameras are loaded. When it’s considered the wind-on lever is located on the left side uppermost section of the camera, it stands to reason this is the location where the take-up spool also has to be located; thus winding on is from right to left, not the usual other way around. The film, following development, would have the first frame, viewed right-way up, on the right hand side of the film strip instead of the left as is the case with cassettes loaded on the left hand side with take-up spool on the right. “Reading” the negatives would therefore be from right to left, not left to right.
The viewing screen is a simple Fresnel screen with no split screen focussing. I like this, as the interchangeable focussing screens I prefer to use with my Nikon FE and F2AS cameras is just that; a flat Fresnel with no split focus section in the middle. This system is handy when using long focal length lenses and I’ve always found it allows precise focussing, even with wide-angle lenses.
Another unusual feature I haven’t seen on any other camera took some thought before I realised its purpose. There’s another scale at the bottom of the shutter/aperture rings. I’ve already mentioned that, once match-needle for exposure is made, moving the shutter ring automatically changes the aperture setting to which it’s coupled, allowing easy changes for reciprocity depending on the depth of field desired. When the shutter ring is moved, the scale at the bottom closest to the camera body (reading 8,11, 16, 22, 32, 45, 64, 90, 128 & 180) changes relative to the outer ring scale that reads metric distances from 0.7 through to 22 metres expressed in similar numbers to apertures. This can be seen in the earlier image of the bottom plate of the camera. I realised this scale showed distances relating to the output of flash units. E.g. assume a flash unit Guide Number of 22 (metric) at full power. Electronic flash units in the early sixties didn’t incorporate thyristor circuitry to control output so were fully discharged each firing. Thyristor and TTL circuitry enables flash batteries to last much longer.
Let’s assume we wish to take a subject indoors using flash. Our subject is 2 metres from the camera. We align “2” on the base scale against GN22 and the aperture is already set at f/11 on the top scale. No need to calculate the f/stop! (NOTE: The flash unit’s GN divided by the distance always gives the required stop). Whether I want to use shutter speed of 1/125th sec or 1/15th sec, re-positioning “2” against “22” on the bottom scale still sets the aperture at f/11. Now move to 4 metres from the subject. Align “4” against “22” and the aperture automatically sets at f/5.6 (~GN22 divided by 4). A very clever and handy feature with non-thyristor flash units!
These days, thyristor circuitry in flash heads, or TTL flash output control, obviates the need to calculate placement of subjects using flash Guide Numbers, but realise that back in the 1960s before such electronic advancements in flash units, the scale at the bottom of the lens section of the Pentina, providing it was adhered to, would ensure correct flash exposures instead of what was, in those days, fairly common over or under-exposed photos using flash. Whilst B&W and colour negative film can reasonably cope with some over or under-exposure, transparency film with its narrower exposure latitude is far less forgiving.
Rewinding film when fully exposed was a fairly simple process by going to the controls at the base of the camera, pressing the rewind button, pulling out the pin nested in the centre of the rewind mechanism, locating it in the slot cut into the rewind disc then using your thumb to rewind the film back into the cassette before removing the back plate and removing the exposed film. The following two images show the rewind pin extracted and slipped into place for rewinding.
Yet another difference to other 35mm SLRs of its era: Once the film has been wound on and an exposure made, an internal baffle moves across the viewfinder eyepiece. It’s not then possible to compose another shot until the film has been wound on. The purpose of this was to prevent ambient light leaking in through the pentaprism to fog the film. Remember: this is not a focal plane shutter system, where the focal plane blinds protect the film from ambient light coming in through the pentaprism. This feature was therefore a necessity due to the use of the leaf shutter.
In my opinion this was, in its time, a rather complicated 35mm camera that had so many counter-intuitive features, especially when compared to the vast majority of SLRs then coming on the market. No doubt anyone who used the Pentina consistently would become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies. What I did like was the unique and intelligent inclusion of the GN scale at the bottom of the lens for determining flash photography, and the coupling of the aperture scale with the shutter setting to allow automatic reciprocal exposure settings. The overall dimensions don’t bother me, with its hidden pentaprism, but the controls mostly seem out of whack.
It’s an unusual camera and, according to what I can find on the Internet, highly collectible but not overly valuable. Unfortunately I can’t give it a test run due to the faulty shutter and mirror return mechanisms, although I do know the Tessar lens would be as good on this camera as it was on my first SLR manufactured by the same company.
Had Pentacon not gone out of business, and allowing for the odd features of the Pentina, I wonder what other innovations they might have developed for newer camera models. I do think, however, that maybe the complications and oddities incorporated in the Pentina range may have resulted in reduced sales and helped eventually to precipitate the company’s demise in the 1990s.