Every now than then I find myself thinking about camera designs. This may not be an unusual thing for a professional photographer to do but I like to share my thoughts on the blog here every so often. You can see a previous contemplation here.
The other morning I decided it might be fun to dig out some of my old cameras and shoot some film for change. I have a bunch of film stored in my old dark room fridge along with the beer that has replaced the dark room paper and chemistry that used to occupy all that space. I have many cameras to choose from in my collection. In addition to the Nikon F100 and FE that I used to shoot professionally I have Canon’s, Minolta’s, Olympus, Pentax’s and even a Praktica communist camera stored away.
Before I went digital I used to have a small bag complete with two Pentax bodies, lenses, light meter, and a flash. I could just grab that bag and toss it in the car, or just keep it in the car so I’d be ready to shoot if the opportunity presented itself. It was nice to have a small ready-to-go bag on hand on a moment’s notice. It only seemed natural to turn to my trusty old ready-to-go bag for a morning of film photography.
SLR cameras have gone through three revolutionary eras in the last four decades. The first was a transition from mechanical architecture to electronic architecture between 1975 and 1985. The second was a transition from manual to automatic focus between 1985 and 1995. And the third was of course the transition to digital in the last decade or so.
These K’s hail from the 1st revolutionary era of SLRs. Pentax stayed with the all or mostly mechanical camera model longer than any of the other major manufacturers. While the Nikons of that era are technically nicer cameras, these Pentax’s are fun to shoot for a variety of reasons. These cameras were known for their solid architecture and durable build. Pentax wasn’t big on bells and whistles, they produced practical cameras, mostly for serious amateurs and people who wanted better than point-and-shoots of the time.
The late 1970’s was a decisive age for camera manufacturers. In 1978 Canon introduced the A-1 and it was a game changer on a variety of levels, more than anyone realized at the time. Most of the core features you find on any DSLR today are derived from that A-1 design. I won’t go into great detail about the A-1 here but the full multi-mode (i.e. full program, manual, shutter, and aperture priority modes all in one camera selected by a dial) features that you find on all DSLRs today was first introduced in the A-1. Likewise anytime you look through a view finder you will see LED’s providing all your information from shutter speed to frame count. That LED view finder was introduced in the A-1. It’s kind of funny actually, at the time one of the criticisms of the A-1 was a “cluttered” viewfinder with all that information. It seems silly now but at the time Canon took that concern so seriously that they actually built in a button to turn those LEDs off.
The A-1 was the first camera to be introduced as a complete “system” camera. Not only did Canon roll out a new “FD” lens assortment but there was a full range of accessories ranging from motor drives (souped-up auto-winders) to dedicated flashes that would automatically set your shutter speed and aperture. There was almost no gadget for a camera that anyone could want that wasn’t rolled out with the A-1 system. Olympus had a similar “system” for its OM series but in the end the A-1 ended up being more influential than any other camera.
While not actually marketed to professionals the A-1 greatly expanded a heretofore small consumer class, that would come to be called the “pro-sumer”. Nikon and Olympus had always marketed to serious photographers who weren’t professionals, but the A-1 knocked it out of the park. While the Olympus OM’s were probably the most elegant SLRs in history and the Nikons were sturdy and well-engineered, the A-1 was packed with features that no other camera had at the time. The A-1′s features were so attractive that a number of pros ended up using them (myself included) and the popularity of those features pretty much overwhelmed the market. By the mid-90s any manufacturer that wasn’t offering all those features on new designs was in serious trouble and many off them went under.
Here’s what’s interesting: at more or less the same time Canon was introducing its A-1, which was a radical departure for SLRs, Pentax was introducing its “K” series cameras that I’ve got in my ready-to-go bag. The “K” series is kind of weird because in many ways it’s an orphan series, with the exception of the ubiquitous K-1000 these cameras were discontinued within five or six years.
At the time Nikon and to a lesser extent Olympus and Canon had a lock the professional market. Pentax offered a pro camera, the LX, but not very many pro’s ever used them. Pentax wisely decided to focus on a different segment of the market. The K series cameras were designed for serious amateurs who wanted to take really nice photos but had no professional aspirations. While the A-1 was as electronic as a camera could possibly be at the time, these cameras provided as many features as they could in a mechanical camera. The A-1 required a hefty 6 volt battery to run practically everything but the K series got by on 1.5 to 3 volts that ran the light meter and very little else. In fact you could take the batteries out of mechanical cameras like these and still take pictures. The A-1 is little more than an interesting paperweight without a battery.
All of the K series cameras were introduced at the same time. The designs ran from the absolutely no-frills not even a self-timer K-1000 to the bells and whistle laden K2. These cameras are orphans because despite being really nice cameras, only the K-1000 was a really successful design. All of these cameras had sturdy and reliable designs but the k-1000’s lack of features makes it very simple to use which made it appealing to all kinds of photographers at all levels. The K-1000 also became an absolute favorite for introductory photography classes all over the world. One thing you want to teach aspiring photographers is that you don’t need fancy cameras to make incredible images and the k-1000 has taught that lesson to millions. Were it not for the switch to digital, the K-1000 would probably still be the camera of choice, Pentax manufactured it right up 1997 or 98.
The KX and K2 took the mechanical designs as far as they could go. Unlike the K-1000 they had fancy needle meters pointing to your shutter speed. The KX had an additional window that would reveal the aperture ring on your lens so you had both aperture and shutter speed info in your viewfinder. For some reason this feature is missing on the K2 which was supposed to be the more advanced camera. The KX and K2 had other more advanced features like mirror lock-up buttons,* depth of field previews, and battery strength indicators.
The K2 had an aperture priority auto-mode and an exposure compensation dial. One weird feature of the K2, possibly inspired by the Olympus OM’s is an ASA dial that’s located around the lens mount. These take some getting used to and were not a popular feature. If you get one of these cameras today that dial will likely be very stiff or even impossible to move, but that is easily fixed.
These cameras are solid, reliable, and a pleasure to shoot. They had many of the same feature sets as the Nikon, Canon, and Olympus equivalents of the era (The FE, AE-1 program, and OM-1 or 2 respectively) but couldn’t quite reach the emerging pro-sumer’s consciousness because they all lacked auto-winder capability, and the mechanical shutters made long exposure cable release affairs. While you could get 8 seconds out of the K2 semi electronic shutter, you got 30 seconds from Pentax’s electronic shutter competitors. The K-series price range at the time went from $75.00 for a K-1000 with a lens to $250.00 for a K2. The Canon, Nikon, and Olympus equivalents were all starting at around $300.
In many ways Pentax itself rendered the K series obsolete because at more or less the same time they released the K series they released the ME series. The ME’s were more electronic, compact, and could mount auto-winders. They had electronic shutters which gave them better dedicated flash capabilities as well. Whereas the K2 comes as close to a Nikon FE as a mechanical camera can get, the ME is downright comparable. You’re left wondering why Pentax bothered to release the K series at all?
Its good thing Pentax did release the K’s because without them we never would have had the K-1000 and I wouldn’t have these sweet little cameras to play with today.
You can see some of the photos I took that day by visiting my Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.715282105156058.1073741842.670113279672941&type=3
*Mirror lock up eliminates the vibrations you can get if you’re shooting a long time exposure. You can lock up the mirror on a K-1000 if you know the little trick.