Not too little, but too late!
During the 1950s the Dresden camera industry more and more slithered into a critical situation mainly due to its fragmented structure. There were two big enterprises Kamerawerke Niedersedlitz and Zeiss Ikon Dresden and quite a lot of smaller factories like Certo, Belca, Altissa etc. A third large camera maker, the Ihagee Dresden, stood a bit aside since it still was legal property of Steenbergen and his heirs and therefore could not be nationalised (no “VEB”). So the whole competence of camera developing and making was fragmented, too. As a result of that there was no unified production programme and the manufacturing was altogether inefficient. As a reaction to this situation a constant process of concentration was started by about 1956. As a first step the camera development departments of Kamerawerke and Zeiss Ikon were merged and by 1959 most of the formerly independent facilities were concentrated in a new Camera and Cinematography Company (“KKW”) which later became known as VEB Pentacon Dresden.
But the critical situation I mentioned above was not yet solved. There was a lack of new products especially in the mid range of the market. Only on the high end Dresden did have their single lens reflex cameras with the Praktica and the Exakta selling very well on the international market. But bear in mind that both these cameras were pre-war constructions and their potential for enhancements was quite narrowed. Kamerawerke Niedersedlitz under the leading constructor Siegfried Böhm had developed a new type of a single lens reflex system camera with a modern shutter control and a fully automatic aperture mechanism. But obviously this Praktina IIa was not very efficient to produce so it turned out to be a very expensive camera (around 1000,- Mark, depending on the objective and the viewfinder). Even after the extensive price-cutting from March 1960 it remained unattainable for most of the customers in East Germany. And obviously this Praktina IIa did not have enough reputation on the international market to sell well and take over the role of the Exakta Varex. As a result Kamerawerke obviously produced that Praktina in form of a stockpile. Although Zeiss Jena just had presented a complete range of new fully automatic objectives on Leipzig Spring Fair 1960, Kamerawerke ceased production of the Praktina IIa in May of the same year. This must be seen as a clear sign for an irritated and unsettled situation of the Dresden camera manufacturing industry by 1960.
But a few years later when all that competences hidden in the formerly fragmented plants were concentrated in a large-scale concern, this situation had changed and an interest in a professional system reflex camera became revitalised. Parallel to the modernisation of the Praktica line (leading to the Praktica mat with TTL-metering in 1964/65) KKW/Pentacon worked on such a new high end single lens reflex camera. The first sign of that process was a patent from May 1961 on a metal leaf focal plane shutter (No. DD27,434). This prototype worked with only two leaves resulting in quite a large dimension of the whole shutter unit. Later that year the upper/lower leaf was replaced by a piece of rubberized cloth making the whole moving parts much lighter (Patent No. DE1,145,474). The cloth material was just bent or stretched when the metal part moved. This still required quite a lot of space but made the curtains very light so that this shutter construction reached a shortest shutter time of 500µs and a shortest open-time of 8ms. The shutter is astonishingly quiet (when mounted into the camera) and very robust.
The second feature of this camera was the TTL metering at open aperture. The way how a certain amount of light was extracted from the viewfinder image was generally the same already used in the Praktica mat. The principle of that TTL meter was concieved by Horst Strehle (patented on 30th of May 1964 as DD41,373; 5th of June 1964 DE1,215,506). It worked with two wedges of glass beneath the viewfinder prism that reflected a part of the light onto a large surface light dependent resistor.
An important feature of this metering system was the aperture value transmission. While the Praktica mat was working with a stop down metering, the Pentacon Super measured the light at fully open aperture. First patents on that topic date back to 1962 (e.g. No. DD43,102; DD54,185). But the most interesting patent I have found was protected in Britain in April 1964 (No. GB1,067,584). Here you can explore an overview of the general conception of the Pentacon Super. The basic part is the summation gear (part 22) which integrates the time value (incl. film-sensitivity) and aperture value into the metering device. For that purpose the metering instrument is mounted revolvably. The amount of degrees the instrument is rotated directly corresponds to the exposure steps from one shutter time to another respectively from one aperture value to the next. Both movements stem from the time cam (pt. 26) and aperture cam (pt. 54) and are integrated by the summation gear which turns the metering instrument via lever 43. Although in the actual Pentacon Super the transmission of the time value was realized in a different way (with a chain instead of the shown levers) the general principle remained the same. The basic claim of this patent was that this open aperture metering could be realized with an M42 thread mount, which is incapable of delivering an exact 12 o’clock position. At first sight (and from the today’s point of view) this adherence to the M42 mount might seem as a disadvantage, but in 1964 this mount was one of the two most widespread standards. Remember that the Topcon RE super, which had a TTL metering at open aperture as well, was conceived around the other widespread standard of that era: The Exakta mount.
Cable winch for transmission of the time values to the summation gear.
On the right side you can see the metering instrument (with the red and blue cable) and the cam plate which rotates the instrument according to the time and aparture values used. The camera only contains the metering instrument and the summation gear. The current for the instrument which directly corresponds to the luminance of the viewfinder image (TTL metering) is provided by the prism finder which contains the light dependent resistor and the battery (below). The battery has to be a mercuric oxide zinc cell, because the whole "metering-electronics" just consist of the battery in series with the LDR and the amperemeter. Therefore the highly stable reference voltage of the mercury cell is indispensable for correct metering. Although very simply designed, the TTL meter of the Pentacon Super works extremely precisely over a very wide range of motive-illuminances.
The rest of the camera is mechanically very well built. The chassis is made of one rigid piece of die-cast aluminium.
The Pentacon Super was designed as a camera with an electrical motor drive. But motors just make sense when the camera can be triggered by electrical means as well. If you look at the picture above showing the motorized Praktina, you'll see an arm pushing the usual trigger knob of the camera. This arm had to be adjusted carefully and needed quite a large magnet to get enough force. When the Pentacon Super was concieved, the responsible constructor Horst Strehle (together with Manfred Wießner) invented a simple mechanism to offer a second trigger on the bottom of the camera that was directly connected to the motor drive and needed a much smaller electromagnet. This invention was patented on 25th of March 1963 in the West German patent No. 1,218,284.
The large shutter and the mechanical solution of the TTL meter leads to a very bulky camera, as the direct comparison to a compact Pentax ME shows. This was acceptable for a professional camera, but for the amateur Praktica L-series Pentacon had to develop a more compact shutter with three leaves per curtain.
The Pentacon Super was very modern in its construction. It consisted of separated components that could be pre-produced and adjusted and just had to be assembled into the chassis. The main components are the shutter and mirror mechanism (left), the transport gear, two escapements for the "short" shutter times (right) and for the long times/self timer and finally the metering system.
The above Pentacon Super outfit was bought directly at Leipzig Spring Fair 1969 including the electric motor and the 17m cassette (shown on top of the site). It was the most expensive camera ever made by Pentacon. The price with the Pancolar 1,4/55 was 2287.- Mark; so minus the price of the Pancolar the camera itself with prism cost 1740.- Mark. The 17m back cost 320.- Mark with optical confirmation of the exact film transport and 288.- Mark without that feature. The motor drive cost 547.- Mark plus 83.50 M for the trigger and 91.- M for the accumulator. So this setup was very expensive – too expensive. The demand of the domestic market was saturated very quickly and for the international market the Pentacon Super came much too late. Considering the fact that the first patents date back to 1961 (shutter) and 1962 (TTL meter) it took much too long until the finished camera entered the market. Although first shown at Leipzig Autumn Fair 1966, the Pentacon Super did not enter production until 1968. By that time professional photographers had long switched over to Japanese professional cameras like the Nikon F although the Pentacon Super with the internal coupling between the objective and the TTL meter was the more modern and easier to handle solution. The Pentacon Super was comparable to the West German Contarex Super – and it shared its destiny: They both were not successful.
In conclusion of this topic here is a video of a restoration of a Pentacon Super showing the great and precise shutter.
Marco Kröger, April 2016