Seven

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Since my first taste of film photography in June 2012 I’ve used maybe 80+ different cameras, and probably 30+ SLRs.

I finally feel like I’ve honed down to my essential SLR collection.

I wouldn’t rule out any slight variations in the future, but these core seven are all firm favourites, for various reasons.

Pentax cameras dominate, as quite simply, they’re the cameras that feel most “right” in my hands.

I’ve tried a number of Olympus, Canon, Konica, Praktica, Zenit and Chinon SLRs, but none feel like a Pentax.

The only other brand to make an appearance in this top seven is Minolta. 

The MC and MD Rokkor, and even the later plain and far more plasticky MD lenses are fantastic, and the best of them feel at least as good as the best from Pentax. Because with an SLR, half of what you’re holding in your hands when shooting is the lens, the fact that I enjoy the Minolta lenses so much means maybe the cameras don’t need to be quite so spectacular themselves.

Here are the Seven.

Top Row (l-r)

Asahi Pentax S1a – For me the ultimate all manual meterless camera I’ve owned. Just beautiful to look at to hold, and to use, and surprisingly compact. I came to these (I had a black one too) after I’d already had a Spotmatic F and ES, and was surprised to find the S1a smaller, and significantly lighter. They’re barely any bigger in width or depth than the renowned for being tiny MX, and for me the extra few millimetres in height actually make them more comfortable to handle. I don’t think I’ve used or held a camera that fits better in my hands.

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Pentax S1a with Super-Takumar 55/2 plus Ferrania Solaris 200 expired film

The M42 mount means a huge range of lenses, but most of the time it feels sacrilege to use anything but a Takumar. My example at the very latest was made in 1971, maybe as early as 1962, and for a 45+ year old machine its deliciously smooth to use. Which makes the aforementioned Takumars the obvious lens choice.

The only reason I wouldn’t maybe choose this as my sole SLR is that more often than not I like to shoot aperture priority, or at least with an in built meter. But for the purest, most stripped down yet somehow still luxurious experience, the S1a for me is unrivalled. Just, see below.

Asahi Pentax Spotmatic F – Arguably even smoother than the S1a (though bulkier and heavier), and with a very simple yet very reliable needle meter, for when I don’t want to meter in my head or with my iPhone.

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Pentax Spotmatic F with Super-Multi-Coated Takumar 50/1.4 plus Fuji Superia X-Tra 400 expired film

Because of the simplicity of the meter – just a needle, with no numbers or lights – it makes the experience only barely more cluttered than using the S1a. Though such is the beautiful balance of the S1a, the F can’t help but feel a little over sized and weighty in comparison.

Again the mount is M42, and again 95% of the time I shoot with a Super- or Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens attached, with which using the F is a near flawless experience. Although I have other excellent lenses, like a Pentacon 50/1.8, Yashinon DS 50/2 and of course the amazing Helios 44, for some reason I very rarely use them on the F, so my lens decision usually comes to down to a 50/1.4 or 55/2 Takumar.

Middle Row (l-r)

Asahi Pentax KM – Essentially the Spotmatic F in K mount, and equally reassuring to handle and use. This rarely sees any other lens than the fantastic SMC Pentax 55/1.8, itself a K mount version of the classic 55/1.8 Takumar, as it’s the lens that just feels most right on the KM, and always delivers in the final photograph.

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Pentax KM with SMC Pentax 55/1.8 plus Ferranis Solaris 200 expired film

It’s not quite as pretty as the Spotmatic F, and the same downsides are relevant here – it can feel a touch bulky and weighty at times.

This isn’t a camera I can ever sit and swoon over, but it is super reliable, functional and works flawlessly.

Pentax MX – Very compact, robust, and with more intricate metering than the KM. Also has the shutter speed and aperture visible in the viewfinder, as well as depth of field preview. There’s nothing this camera lacks, for me.

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Pentax MX with Auto Chinon 50/1.7 plus Kodak ColorPlus 200 expired film

Except maybe aperture priority mode. Though it’s great to use, and even with its meter, for me it takes more thinking and is less instinctive than the other K mounts I have, and combined with the slightly stiff and awkward to alter shutter dial (especially compared with the S1a, Spotmatic F and KM) this seems to slow me down – and not in the good way that shooting with film cameras slows you down.

In truth I haven’t quite bonded with the MX (yet), and the handling in my view is also compromised by it being a little too short in height. For my (fairly small hands), the S1a is more comfortable to hold, and feels better balanced, as do the ME, ME Super, MV, MG et al.

I think it’s an essential, but somehow my KM is the K mount camera I use far more.

Pentax MZ-6 – Very new to me, and one of the last 35mm film SLRs Pentax made, it’s small, light, brilliant to handle, has excellent metering and everything you could want in an SLR.

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Pentax MZ-6 with Auto Chinon 50/1.7 lens plus Fuji Superia 100 expired film

Though many will scorn its plasticky look and “champagne” finish, ergonomically and technically, the MZ-6 is a fantastic camera, especially given the range of K mount lenses available.

Though it can support an AF lens, and offers various Auto/ Program modes, I much prefer using my older all manual K mount lenses. A particularly impressive feature is the clever audible focus confirm when focusing with manual lenses that works very well. It also simultaneously lights up an icon in the VF to confirm focus.

The disappointment of the inevitably slightly smaller and lacking viewfinder (compared with all of the older Pentax models above), is tempered greatly by this function. It means in practice I can look through the VF with a far more relaxed eyes and concentrate on the composition (more like as with a compact/ point and shoot camera), rather than trying to squint and concentrate to focus.

Unassuming, brilliant fun, tremendously competent (as well as very small and light), I’ve been amazed at how this camera has impressed me.

Bottom Row (l-r)

Minolta SR-1s – Similar to the S1a in that it’s a beautifully built old school fully manual meterless classic. The Rokkor glass performs wonderfully, and the older two MC Rokkor-PF lenses I have (55/1.7 and 58/1.4) are simply the two most handsome lenses I’ve ever had in any mount.

The VF is surprisingly larger and spacious and with the lack of any needles, lights or anything else, it’s a very pure and immersive experience.

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Minolta SR-1s with MC Rokkor-PF 55/1.7 plus Kodak ColorPlus 200 expired film

The controls of the SR-1s – of which of course there are few, just the wind on lever, shutter button, shutter speed dial and rewind crank – are beautifully smooth and weighted, especially the wind on lever. The shutter speed dial probably has the best feel and is therefore my favourite of any camera of these seven.

Between this and the Pentax S1a, I lean towards the Pentax really only on brand loyalty. The Minolta is every bit as pleasurable to use, in the same way the best Minolta lenses compare very favourably with the Takumars. It’s just not a Pentax.

Minolta X-700 – A compact semi-automated companion to the SR-1s, for when I want the camera to expose so I can concentrate on just the composition, focus and depth of field. A camera that just gets out of the way and lets you shoot. Again, this choice is as much for the MC/ MD/ Rokkor lenses, which are a delight to use.

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Minolta X-700 with Minolta MD 50/1.7 plus Truprint 200 FG+ expired film

The SR-1s was my first Minolta and likely still my favourite. None of the other handful I’ve tried have impressed me much, save for the X-700. Yes it’s all electronic and battery dependent, but features like the huge bright VF (as good as most Pentax cameras are, the X-700’s VF has the edge on them all) and the short eager throw of the wind on lever put a smile on my face with every shot.

Heresy it might be to the ears of a diehard Pentaxian like myself, but if I only shot with this Minolta and two or three Rokkors for the rest of my life, I know I’d be smiling.

What’s missing?

As I began with above, despite dabbling with the SLRs of giants like Olympus, Canon and Konica in the past, and getting decent results with all, none have the same appeal as Minolta and certainly not Pentax. They just don’t feel as “right” to me. So I can’t see myself exploring any different lens mount in the future outside of my favoured trilogy of M42, Pentax K and Minolta SR.

In M42 mount somehow it only seems right to use Takumar lenses on the S1a and Spotmatic F. I have a couple of Helios 44s, a Pentacon Auto and a Yashinon which are all fantastic and I’d like to use more on film, so maybe someday I’ll pick up another old Zenit with the selenium meter to play with these lenses on.

In K mount I’ve tried most Pentax bodies now, and am mostly happy with the three pictured above.

Having said that, there’s something about the MX I just haven’t quite connected with, and at this point still prefer using something like an ME, ME Super or MG. Yes I know the MX is fully mechanically manual, has a bigger VF, depth of field preview etc. But the almost too small size and the generally fiddliness to use still stand in the way, for me, of as seamless an experience as I have with the ME etc. So maybe the MX will be replaced with one of its more humble siblings.

Minolta wise, I’ve tried a number of other bodies and not much liked them.

(Another reason I love Pentax is that pretty much every body I’ve tried I’ve liked.)

The X-700 is likely to remain unsurpassed in my Minolta stable as it was the last of the SR mount cameras before the AF lenses with their different mount dominated from the mid 80s onwards. And I have little interest in either AF SLRs, or starting to collect lenses of a different mount.

I may explore one of the predecessors at the high end of the range someday like an XD7 or XE, but with the SR-1s and X-700 really I have no need for anything else…

To be updated at some point, no doubt…

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Last Three Standing

Feeling somewhat overwhelmed recently by the extent of the cameras I’ve amassed, I’ve been thinking about the “rip it up and start again” approach.

If I lost all my cameras in a fire or flood, which three would I seek to replace first?

After surprisingly little thought (approximately 30 seconds) the candidates were obvious.

Here they are, and why –

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Pentax KM with Pentax SMC 50mm f/1.8 lens

Though I still have a couple of SLRs each from Konica and Minolta, after using a number of cameras in the last few years, Pentax have risen as my clear favourite for this type of camera.

I have eight Pentax SLRs, but if I had to choose one to use ahead of all the others, it would be the KM, with SMC Pentax 55mm f/1.8 lens.

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The KM is the pure essence of what an SLR (and indeed any camera) should be.

It has all you need, and nothing more, and despite its creative capabilities, every time I go back to use it, it feels a stripped down and refreshing experience.

The KM has an excellent lightmeter, with a simple needle on the right of the viewfinder.

When your exposure is good it rests horizontally in the middle. As it goes up, you’re overexposing, as it goes down, underexposing. No lights or numbers, just that needle. After a while you don’t even look at it, it’s just there, and you know when your exposure is on point.

Being a fully manual camera, you can of course ignore the lightmeter (or take the battery out) and meter with an external device, Sunny 16 or your own instinct.

The VF is a very good size, clear and clear, again with no frills. I love focusing with this camera.

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Essentially the KM for me is superb because it just gets out of the way and lets you focus and take pictures without any complications or fuss.

Whilst I have older cameras, without lightmeters at all (like the Pentax S1a for example), somehow the KM still wins with its reassuring and reliable presence.

Also, being a Pentax K mount, I can not only use K mount lenses like the excellent SMC Pentax 55/1.8 (optically identical to a Takumar 55/1.8 I’m informed), but with a simple adapter I also have access to a plethora of M42 lenses, like the Takumars, Helios, Pentacons and so on, if I want to.

In reality I’d be more than happy with the SMC 55/1.8, and have found it produces beautiful results as well as being super smooth to focus and having a beautifully weight aperture ring.

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In short, I’ve never had a more rewarding SLR experience than with the KM.

The MX is also fantastic, but sometimes I find it a bit overly fiddly with its LED metering instead of the needle, and a more tricky to adjust shutter speed dial. And sometimes too, bizarrely, it feels almost too short in height, whereas the KM feels just the right weight and size.

I also have a K1000, which I got before the KM, and they are almost identical, bar the KM having a depth of field preview lever (which I use a lot) and a self timer (which I never use). Otherwise the K1000 is just as brilliant.

I also have a Spotmatic F, which pretty much what the KM was when it was M42 mount, not K mount, and that camera is equally wonderful to use. It’s only the K mount and M42 mount option with the KM that noses it into the lead.

If I only had one SLR, the Pentax KM is all I ever need.

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Olympus XA (pictured right, above)

One of my first handful of 35mm film cameras was an Olympus XA2. To this day it remains one of the cameras I’ve taken and uploaded most photographs with, even though I sold the original one over two years ago.

The compact size, ingenious closing clamshell cover, and competent lens performance makes it a winner.

But then, I sold it.

Some time later (about two years!) I started looking at something with all the great features of the XA2, but with more creative control, and an even better lens.

Enter the XA.

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It has all the positive points of the XA2,  plus rangefinder focus (which after using the black square of tape trick becomes very usable), and aperture priority.

And an ingenious 35mm f/2.8 lens with six elements compared with the XA2’s 35/3.5 with four elements.

In many ways, although nothing like the Pentax KM, it is similar in that it has all you need, very intuitively arranged.

The aperture adjustment is a sliding switch on the front, and in the viewfinder you have a needle with the shutter speed scale, to give an indication.

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The focus is done via a tiny lever that protrudes below the lens. At first glance you think it’s far too small and fiddly to work.

But it does work, and its placed exactly where the tip of your forefinger can focus from less than 0.85m up to infinity whilst barely moving a centimetre.

If you’re feeling you crave the point and shoot simplicity of the XA2, just set the XA’s focus to the 3m mark (conveniently coloured orange on the scale above the lens), your aperture to f/5.6 (also coloured orange), or even f/8 or f/11 on a sunnier day, and you’ll get the vast majority of shots in focus and with a decent depth of field.

You also of course still have the shutter speed scale/needle to glance at if you want to make sure you’re not shooting too slow – though with the hair trigger shutter and minimal internal parts, you can shoot at a stop or two slower with the XA than with an SLR, and still have crisp shots.

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I love that the needle is horizontal at around 1/30s, ie the speed at which most people can still shoot handheld without any camera shake, so you don’t even need to look at the numbers, just the needle’s position.

Fantastic design in a camera that’s packed with it.

And that, aside from the almost unbelievably compact size (this is an aperture priority rangefinder camera too remember), is what makes the XA such a joy to use.

It feels like every last detail was designed by someone passionate about cameras, someone who wanted the end user, ie the photographer, to be delighted to use the XA.

For a size to features to lens performance ratio, I don’t think I’ve used anything better. An essential.

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Konica C35 EF

Another of my first half dozen cameras was a bright blue Konica Pop, a camera that was great fun and very simple with its fixed focus, fixed shutter speed and fixed aperture lens. You just set the ISO – 100, 200 or 400 (which actually changed the aperture size) – then pointed and shot.

I got some surprisingly good results with it, and it’s one of the cameras that once you get to know its parameters (for example its focus was fixed at 2.8m I believe), was really rather capable with its little Hexanon lens.

It was in seeking out a replacement a couple of years later, I stumbled across what at first glance I thought was a black Konica Pop.

It was instead the C35 EF3, its more sophisticated sibling, with autoexposure, shutter speeds between 1/60s and 1/500s and a 5 element 35mm f/2.8 Hexanon lens.

The focus options were greater than the Pop too, with four zone focus settings – 1m, 1.5m, 3m and infinity.

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Whilst the simple Konica Pop’s lens impressed me, the EF3’s left me gobsmacked.

When you got the focus right (which is much easier than some people tend to think with zone focus), the results were really special, especially for a cute little plastic compact that cost me less than £10.

Much like the other two cameras I’ve raved about above, the C35 EF3 does all you need and nothing more.

Everything is simple – you don’t need a rangefinder to focus, or the ability to set the aperture when the camera performs so well.

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I’ve used more compact cameras than any other kind by far (maybe 50, compared with say 15 SLRs, and a mere half dozen rangefinders), and the EF3 is the one that rises above them all.

I think it offers that sweet cocktail of tactile and sensory satisfaction with its manual ISO dial, wind on lever and zone focus around the lens.

Combined with the simplicity of the viewfinder, the charming, almost toy like design, and that delightful and unexpected gem of a Hexanon lens, the EF3 makes me grin every time I look at it, let alone use it.

Konica have made some very special cameras, and Hexanons have never disappointed, and this compact king is one of the best, in my book.

It’s so good I bought another (red) one as a back up in case the black one fails.

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Any one of these three cameras could be my sole shooting machine for years and bring a great deal of happiness.

The three combined as a super streamlined (for me!) collection offer even more potential delights…

So, that just leaves about 30 other cameras I need to sell…