Tick Tick Tick Tick Zoom?

After very promising results recently with an SMC Pentax-A 35-105mm, the next step in my explorations of zoom lenses was to try something that would embrace the wider end.

It was time try the lens I got this with the 35-105mm, a 24-50mm, also Pentax-A series.

Now I’ve realised (duh!) that I can use a zoom as a set of primes, use one focal length at a time and ignore all the others, they’ve become vastly more appealing. At least a select few have.

The aforementioned SMC Pentax-A 35-105/3.5 appears to offer a wonderful range of primes – 35, 50, 80 and 105mm if you stick to the focal lengths marked on the barrel (which I do).

On paper this lens offers everything I need, bar maybe a 120 and/or 135mm prime at the tele end plus a 24 and/or 28mm at the wide. 

Turns out it’s not just promising on paper but actually a bit special in practice too.

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So let’s say this lens WAS the only one I needed between 35 and 105mm. What about that wider end? I have my Super-Takumar 28mm f/3.5 – pretty special in its own right too. But nothing wider.

Enter the 35-105’s little sibling, the SMC Pentax-A 24-50mm. 

Following its barrel markings, it offers 24, 28 and 35mm, as well as 40 and 50mm.

At 35 and 50mm it duplicates focal lengths of the 35-105 (and my surprisingly impressive 35-70mm f/4, also a Pentax-A zoom), and though the 24-50mm is significantly smaller and lighter, its close focus of 0.4m across all focal lengths puts it way behind the 35-105’s intimacy potential up close and personal at 35 and 50mm.

So my consideration of the 24-50 is almost exclusively as a twinset of 24 and 28mm primes.

With that in mind I took it for a spin at 24mm.

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In short, it’s pleasant enough to use, pretty compact for a zoom, but still with a wide enough focus ring to be very comfortable. The focusing is pretty smooth too.

The all metal aperture ring has a good feel, very similar to the M series lenses, and better than many A series with their reliance on plastic.

In practice I use A series lenses on their A setting, then have the camera on Manual (M) mode, adjusting both the aperture and shutter speed via the dial wheel(s), but the build of the aperture ring is reassuring nonetheless.

Overall the lens performed well enough.

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It’s sharp is enough for my needs, and the colours are similar to my other A series – natural yet quite vibrant (more so than my Takumars), and the combination with the CCD sensors of my Pentax DLSRs gives results I really like with minimal post processing.

But I have two main issues.

First, the close focus of 0.4m, whilst respectable at 50mm, and just about passable at 35mm, is just nowhere near close enough for me at 28mm or 24mm. A bit of a let down in all honesty, compared with the 35-105’s excellent “macro” shift focus action that works across the entire zoom range.

As I mentioned, this feature alone would make me reach for the 35-105 for a 35 or 50mm lens over the 24-50mm every time, again making it in practical use just a 24 or 28mm lens.

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The second issue is not really the lens’s fault but more just my unfamiliarity with 24mm. And this is a major reason I bought it – to get more familiar with 28 and especially 24mm.

I struggled not so much with finding compositions that suited 24mm, but the focusing, and the (deep) depth of field (DOF).

Even at my usual starting point of f/5.6, there’s a fairly extensive DOF (and remember the lens only goes down to 0.4m – obviously at half this distance the DOF would be significantly more shallow) so I didn’t have my usual comfort blanket/ crutch/ excuse for not intelligently making every single element in the frame work together and blurring it out with shallow DOF.

With the 24mm field of view I wanted to get really close. But the lens wouldn’t let me.

At least not unless maybe I used a tiny aperture and relied on the DOF at this aperture to bring everything in focus. Which I didn’t want to do.

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In a way this is all good, and challenging for me as a photographer. It was just different to get used to.

In time once I am more used to 24mm I’ve no doubt it will have a positive effect on me using longer focal lengths too, and being less reliant on wide apertures to magically disappear backgrounds.

So to sum up, the lens  mostly ticked the boxes I wanted it to – providing an affordable option at a 24mm focal length, to allow me to experience and start to embrace that focal length for wider, more distant scenes at least.

The fact is, it’s unlikely to be used at 35 and 50mm (maybe I’ll dabble at 40mm a little) and maybe not even at 28mm (that Super-Tak 28/3.5 is arguably the loveliest and most balanced handling Tak I’ve ever had).

Which makes it essentially a 24mm prime in a more chunky package that only focuses down to 0.4m. Hmmm.

So whilst it does give me a taste of 24mm, the prime alternatives I might consider are the 24/3.5 Takumar which goes down to 0.25m, and a DA 21mm which focus as close as 0.2m. A whole other world of intimacy compared with 0.4m.

I’ve also got decent enough results a couple of years ago with a Sigma Super Wide II 24/2.8, which are far more affordable than either of the Pentax options mention above and also focus close.

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I’m all for embracing the versatility of zooms, but with this one I’m still undecided. 

A zoom that offers four focal lengths, but I’ll only realistically use for one of them, 24mm, doesn’t seem such good value.

It deserves another couple of outings, but my hopes of it being as big a surprise as my other two A series zooms are somewhat dashed.

Which 24mm (or wider) lenses have you tried, whether as a prime, or within a zoom? 

Let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Five Way 50mm PK Showdown

Some weeks back I experimented with four M42 50mm lenses to see how they compared shooting the same scene at a range of apertures.

The results were, at least in part, quite unexpected, and the all round victor was the wonderful Asahi Super-Takumar 55/1.8.

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Sony NEX 3N, Asahi Super-Takumar 55mm f/1.8 M42 lens

With that in mind, and with my 50mm lenses in Pentax K Mount multiplying like rabbits is springtime, I thought a similar showdown might be interesting, and helped me to thin the herd, or the, er “fluffle” if you’re reading in North Canada.

The Lenses

Auto Chinon 50mm f/.7. Very affordable, small, smooth, an overlooked genuine rival to the Pentax-M 50/1.7. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m.

SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.4. Far more expensive (2-3x) than the A or M 50/1.7. The most expensive PK 50mm I’ve ever bought. Eight aperture blades, min focus 0.45m. Smooth enough focus but plasticky aperture.

SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7. Cheaper than the 50/1.4, generally a bit more than the M version, due to its additional program modes on compatible bodies. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m. Like its 50/1.4 sibling, a cheap feeling aperture ring (my example doesn’t go past f/8 either), but pretty smooth to focus.

SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7. Optically like the A version, but more metal and as a result it feels much smoother in the aperture ring especially. Very classy. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.45m.

Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2Small, very light, simple full stop plastic aperture ring, very affordable and plentiful. Six aperture blades, min focus 0.6m

The Experiment

Simple, as before, one scene that I might typically photograph anyway (rather than a brick wall or newspaper taped to a wall!) at close focus with enough light in the background to create bokeh highlights.

Because the Rikenon only focuses to 0.6m, I chose that distance for all of the lenses, not measured, just going by the scale on the lenses.

I shot wide open, then full stops to f/8, as I hardly ever shoot beyond this. Oh and I used my ever reliable Sony NEX 3N plus PK > NEX adapter, shooting RAW at ISO400 then converting to JPEG in LightRoom, my usual set up.

The Results

The simplest conclusion is obvious – any of these are an excellent option for a 50mm prime lens, not just in Pentax K mount.

Trying to differentiate between the images, at my level of analysis and requirements, was very difficult.

In terms of colours and contrast and sharpness, there’s so little between all the lenses, they’re close to identical.

Where I did notice differences was in the bokeh. 

The Pentax-A 50/1.4, to my eyes creates prettier images at nearly all apertures than all of the others, because it has extra aperture blades that make the bokeh highlights rounder, less aggressive.

The Pentax-M 50/1.7, A 50/1.7 and Auto Chinon 50/1.7 were virtually identical in every way, at all apertures tested.

If I mixed up the results I wouldn’t be able to tell you which lens took which picture. From this point on, there’s little point separating them in terms of optical performance.

At f/5.6 and f/8, the Rikenon 50/2 also was close to indistinguishable to the three above.

At wider apertures though, the Rikenon impressed more than the three 50/1.7s.

Though it also has six aperture blades, because its “only” f/2, at f/2 the bokeh highlights are perfectly circular whereas the others are starting to become hexagonal.

At f/4 this is becoming far more obvious, and in fact at this aperture the bokeh from the Rikenon is more appealing than the Pentax-A 50/1.4 too.

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Pentax-A 50/1.7 @ f/4
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Pentax-A 50/1.4 @ f/4
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Ricoh Rikenon 50/2 @ f/4

So how do I rate five lenses that performed so equally? 

It simply comes down to the fine detail, of the lenses themselves, and of the image.

Images first.

Wider than f/4 there’s so little between them all there’s nothing to discuss. At f/4 though, where I probably shoot more than at any other aperture, the Pentax-A 50/1.4 and Rikenon 50/2 I like most, because of the much smoother and less invasive bokeh.

At f/5.6 and f/8, the Rikenon becomes as hexagonal as the three f/1.7s. At these apertures, the 50/1.4 gives the most pleasing results, and the most subtle bokeh.

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Pentax-A 50/1.4 @ f/8
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Pentax-M 50/1.7 @ f/8

So on the image front, overall it’s the Pentax-A 50/1.4 first, Rikenon 50/2 second, the three 50/1.7s joint third.

Let’s turn to the spec and feel of the lenses. 

All five are a pleasure to use, to an extent. In terms of luxury and smoothness of feel, the Pentax-M 50/1.7 is the winner. Joint second are the Auto Chinon and Rikenon, and joint last the two Pentax-As, with their disappointingly flaky plastic aperture rings.

Spec wise, there’s very little difference, again.

The obvious standout (or rather fall down) is the Rikenon with only 0.6m close focus compared to all of the others going down to 0.45m. If Ricoh had made this lens focus down to 0.45m it could be the overall winner here, amongst illustrious company.

(Ricoh do make a 50/1.7 that focuses down to 0.45m, but whilst competent, I haven’t found it to be as good as the 50/2.)

The Pentax-A lenses of course have added electrical contacts so that compatible cameras can shoot Shutter Priority and Program modes.

If you use an A series or later Pentax film body and/or a Pentax DLSR this is legitimately a serious advantage to consider.

On my Sony NEX, with the same adapter and the same process of manually stopping down the aperture, the difference in using all five lenses is non existent.

The slower max aperture of f/2 on the Rikenon, plus the fact that it performs very well at this aperture, actually give it an edge over the f/1.7s, as explained in the bokeh quality above. 

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Sony NEX 3N, Ricoh Rikenon 50mm f/2 lens @f/2

The extra speed of the Pentax-A 50/1.4 in itself is redundant for my needs, and as I spoke about recently, we probably don’t need an expensive f/1.4 over an f/1.7 or f/2 on any level.

But what it does have that genuinely makes it stand out here are the extra aperture blades.

And for someone like me who shots up close very often, with a relatively shallow depth of field, this is a very important distinction. I wouldn’t care if it’s max aperture was f/2 (or even f/2.8), it’s those extra blades (and the shape they form) that make a difference.

Summary

If I was going to recommend just one of these lenses, I would advise you to use whichever you already have, or next come across. They’re all excellent.

For my needs and style, I can clearly see that I don’t need three 50/1.7s that are near identical.

If I used just M series Pentax film bodies, I’d pick the Pentax-M. It has the best feel of all the lenses here. 

If I used A series film bodies, and needed those extra exposure modes, I’d go with a Pentax-A lens. Same story with a Pentax DSLR – the A lens gives more exposure options, if you need that.

But coming back to my own requirements, this test has highlighted that against what I first thought – that the extra speed alone of the A 50/1.4 was not worth the extra expense – it’s this lens that appears to have triumphed.

I can live with that plastic aperture ring for the bokeh advantages.

For times when I want to be lazier and shoot an SLR (or DSLR) like a point and shoot with Program modes, it makes the most sense too.

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Sony NEX 3N, SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.4 lens

The Rikenon is a little wonder, and I doubt I’ll let it go because it is so small, light, cheap and so good wide open. 

My first Pentax 50mm lens was a Pentax-M 50/1.7 and for a long time I’ve considered them the benchmark. Maybe for slightly nostalgic reasons I’ll be holding on this example, plus its undoubtable quality of build and feel.

The Chinon and Pentax-A 50/1.7s – as great as they are – offer simply too much duplication in my current collection, so will soon be sold on, leaving the A 50/1.4, Rikenon, and for now the M 50/1.7, to join my Pentax-M Macro 50/4 in PK mount at 50mm.

I considered including the Macro 50/4 this test, but with its much closer focus and max aperture of f/4 it’s too different to be a fair comparison, plus I love it so much it’s a no brainer keeper anyway.

No doubt that lens, plus the A 50/1.4 that’s triumphed here, will have their own Lens Love posts in the near future, and in all honesty are the only two lenses I need – or will ever need – in Pentax K mount.

Which is your favourite image of those above? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

Three Precious Things

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Pentax MG, Pentacon Auto 50/1.8, FujiFilm Superia 100 

As my photography has evolved, it’s gradually become apparent to me what I value most about it as a pursuit, as well as what I best appreciate in the cameras I use.

Whilst I’m still growing and learning, I’m far more knowledgable now about the “magic formula” I need to enjoy film photography as much as possible.

Three precious things come to mind –

1. A beautiful viewfinder. 

For me the essential joy of photography is being able to see a tiny snapshot of the world, in a specific moment, and for that moment it be the entire world.

When I’m focused on a single composition through the viewfinder (VF), as I squeeze the shutter button (and for a second or so after), my entire relationship and connection with the world is simply what’s captured in that little rectangle.

It’s meditative, spiritual and visceral all at once, and one of the greatest experiences of life.

So, it follows that for these vital moments, one has a viewfinder that heightens the experience to the full.

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Minolta X-700, MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, a gorgeous lens/ viewfinder combination

Pretty much all of the SLRs I use have very good viewfinders. The combination that is king of the mountain is my Minolta X-700 paired with my Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 lens.

The huge front surface of the glass allows a great amount of light into the also huge viewfinder of the X-700 and the result is wonderful, and often literally breathtaking.

Recently I got an AutoFocus (AF) Minolta Dynax 7000i, which has a surprisingly great VF too. Not as vast as the X-700, but not that far off, and the view I get with my latest lens, a Minolta AF 50mm f/1.7, is very enjoyable. I’m become quite attached too, to how the lens snaps into focus, and the VF view changes accordingly.

Presently, I can’t see myself returning to compacts or rangefinders any time soon, because the VF experience of an SLR is just too intoxicatingly joyful.

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Minolta X-700, Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4, FujiFilm Superia 100

2. How a camera feels.

This is a far more subjective one, and has a few component parts. It begins when you pick up a camera, before you even raise it to your eye. How your hand moulds around the camera’s body, the texture and temperature of the materials, the width, the weight, the girth.

This has to combine with the lens the camera has attached. Staying with SLRs, the lens you use can make quite a difference to the overall feel and balance and pleasure of a camera.

As one hand is almost constantly around the lens, that tactile experience is very important.

Again for me, Minolta come to mind, with both the aforementioned X-700 and 7000i. The latter especially is very well shaped for my hands and has a reassuring weight. With a zoom lens it can feel a bit too much, but with the little 50/1.7 AF it feels far more compact and balanced.

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Minolta Dynax 7000i, Minolta AF 50/1.7, very satisfying to hold and use

All of my Pentax cameras feel great, well balanced and bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I prefer the weight and size of the older Spotmatic F or K2, and others the compact lightness of the little MG is just what I’m craving.

Bottom line is if a camera doesn’t feel good in my hands, even if it’s the most capable and expensive lens/body in the world, I’m not going to enjoy it much.

Which brings us to…

3. The photographs.

I have commented in the past that even the few times I’ve shot a roll of film only to find the film hasn’t wound on and I’ve shot 24 or 36 blanks, I’ve not enjoyed the experience any the less. And those 24/36 shots I took, I still captured with my eyes, mind and memory, even if they weren’t recorded on film.

Elements 1 and 2 above are the most crucial, and 3 is the chocolate sauce on top.

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Pentax MZ-5N, Pentax-M 50/1.7, AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200

I’ve learnt, via a series of revelations, not least of all realising that when you put a len-less SLR on B mode, open the back, press the shutter release button and look through, there’s nothing but fresh air, that cameras are really just boxes.

In other words, and at the moment of exposure, it’s the lens only that dictates the characteristics of how the light lands on the film.

Then there’s film of course. Again via endless experiments, I’ve found the films I enjoy most – the super cheap, readily available and surprisingly capable AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200, the rich and colourful Ferrania Solaris 200 and, my most recent discovery, the fantastic FujiFilm Superia 100, which even ten years expired produces a beautiful balance of sharpness and grain.

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Pentax K1000, Pentax-M 50/1.4, Ferrania Solaris 200

Two out of three isn’t bad, and a camera with a wonderful viewfinder and lens will give a rewarding experience out in the field. But combined with poor film it’ll disappoint in the final image.

So to have the optimum experience of the delight that is film photography, I need all three elements – a camera with an excellent viewfinder, and that feels wonderful to hold, plus a lens and film that I know will give pleasing results.

What are the three most precious things for you in the magic formula for rewarding film photography? 

Last M Standing

MG vs MX

After using a Pentax ME, ME Super, MV, MX and most recently an MG, the humble MG has become my favourite.

The only two M cameras I currently have are the MG and MX, originally aimed at very different users and with different budgets. Here are some thoughts on how the MX and MG compare, and why in my eyes, the MG is king of the Ms –

Size/ Handling

The MX is tiny, but for me too tiny. Width is good, but the short height means with my forefinger on the shutter button, I can only fit one other finger on the body to hold it, which makes it feel heavier than it is, and a little unbalanced. With the MG, the extra few millimetres in height makes a bit difference, and means two fingers comfortably grip the body, and balance feels much better.

Winner – MG, it just feels right in my hands, the MX feels awkward.

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Viewfinder

The MX has a slightly larger viewfinder (VF), but to my eyes it’s no brighter than the MG (and both feel inferior to my Minolta X-700 with MC Rokkor-PF 58/1.4!). Both are very good, and easy to focus. My MX has quite a bit of dust inside, whereas the MG is very clean, which does make a difference in use also, though this is obviously specific to these two examples I own.

The MX has shutter speeds on a dial in the VF to the right, which shows the current speed plus one either side, then the LEDs next to that to indicate when you’re properly exposed. Quite a neat system for a manual shutter camera. But I’ve come to realise that with fully manual and mechanical cameras, I enjoy a very simple, uncluttered VF (as with a Pentax S1a or Minolta SR-1s), then I meter externally and set the shutter speed and aperture before I put my eye to the VF to compose and focus.

With the cameras I use that have their own lightmeters, I prefer using an aperture priority (Av) system. The MG is Av, and shows the shutter speed the camera will choose up the left side of the VF. Even in poor light, the LEDs are cleverly colour coded – red at the very top or bottom to indicate over or underexposure beyond the camera’s capabilities, green for speeds from 1/60s – 1/1000s (ie fine for hand held shots) and orange for 1/30s down to 1s, indicating a warning of camera shake. It’s all just more intuitive and simple to use than the MX.

(Plus although the MG warns of underexposure with a red light, it will still open the shutter for far longer than 1s marked on the Auto dial on the top of the camera. I just put the lens on f/11 at ISO200 in a very lowly lit room, and the shutter stayed open for 45s! Which give scope for some interesting metered long exposures… )

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Pentax MG

The MX does also indicate the chosen aperture of the lens via a little window, which is a useful feature, but not essential. Again, with my style of shooting I know I’m using f/4 or f/5.6 or f/8 90% of the time so I don’t need to always be reminded of the aperture, so it’s a bit redundant for me.

Winner – MG, the VF is great, the shutter speed display near perfectly designed.

Creative Control

The MX is all mechanical, and only the meter is battery dependent, making it still an appealing option for someone seeking a small all mechanical camera and metering externally or using Sunny 16.

But if I want to use an all mechanical, meterless camera, I would choose my S1a or Minolta Sr-1s, because of their pure stripped down simplicity. For my uses, the MX falls between two stools – neither simple and pure enough an experience as a fully mechanical camera, nor automated enough as a electronic one.

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Pentax MX

The MG is battery dependent for the meter and all automatically selected shutter speeds. But it does have a mechanical back up speed of 1/100s, so if your batteries fail you still have a very usable camera with Sunny 16 or an external meter.

Most of my creative control with a camera comes from how I manipulate depth of field, via changing the lens aperture. With the MG I can focus on this and let the camera choose the shutter speed. The MX does have a depth of field (DOF) preview button which the MG doesn’t, which is a bonus.

However, as my shooting has evolved, I don’t rely on DOF preview like I used to – I now have a good idea of what DOF I’ll get close up at f/4, 5.6, or 8. Plus if I do need to see, I use the simple trick of unmounting the lens a few millimetres until the blades close down, adjusting aperture  if necessary, then clicking the lens back into its locked position, composing and shooting.

Also, much of the time I use M42 lenses on the M cameras, like the Takumars, Pentacon Auto, Helios 44s etc. Here the DOF preview becomes redundant as the lenses become manual aperture and you get a constant view through of how the DOF looks.

Controlling shutter speed is something I rarely require. It’s more direct with the MX, but the shutter speed dial is a bit stiff and awkward, especially compared with the S1a, Spotmatic F or KM, which are all a joy to turn. With the MG if I want to shoot at a specific shutter speed I just look through the VF then turn the aperture ring until the required LED is lit up. Easy.

Winner – MG, it gives me all the creative control I need without ever getting in the way.

Other features

Both cameras are identical in the following aspects – Manual ISO dial running from 25-1600. Shutter speeds from 1s to 1/1000s (and both have Bulb mode). Small red indicator shows by wind on lever when shutter is cocked. Loading film is also identical.

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Pentax MX

The wind on lever is similar with both, though the MG is a little lighter and smoother to use, and has a shorter throw. Again, like the height difference, although this seems quite negligible, in practice it’s another aspect that just feels right with the MG, and somehow not quite right on the MX. However, for the quality of the feel of the wind on, neither come close to my S1a, Spotmatic F or KM.

Of course, the lenses the cameras are compatible with are the same too, ie any manual aperture Pentax K mount lens, or, with my adapter, any M42 mount lens.

The MX has a shutter button lock, which is useful as the button does protrude quite far up. The MG doesn’t, but as its button is virtually flush with the surrounding knob, it’s unlikely to get pushed accidentally anyway.

Winner – A draw, as they are near identical in these other features, though the MG again feels slightly more natural to use.

Overall

Obviously this comparison is specific to me, my likes,  and the way(s) I prefer to shoot.

Also, price is not a factor, as it would have been when the camera were new(er) – Both I bought with lenses – the one with the MX I sold, meaning the camera cost me less than £10, and the MG with the lovely SMC Pentax 55/2 lens it’s pictured with at the top of this post cost £13. If I had paid full price (new) for the MX I think I might have been more disappointed, especially compared with the MG which no doubt cost vastly less.

I’m sure there are people who adore the MX and it offers them a far more satisfying experience than the relatively simple MG.

But it’s this simplicity of the MG that makes it such a winner for me. It does all I need it to, and keeps it straightforward and easy.

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Pentax MG

If I’m shooting all manual, all mechanical, my Pentax S1a or Minolta SR-1s offer the kind of minimal, pure experience I enjoy. But for most of the time, when I favour shooting aperture priority, the MG ticks every box, plus handles very naturally, and again just feels “right”.

Plus it gives me access to my Pentax K mount lenses and with a very basic adapter all the M42s too, two of my three favourite lens mounts.

So, after nearly four years of dabbling in the M game, and trying virtually all variations available, my last M(an) standing it seems is unexpectedly the humble MG…

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…

The Thinking Man’s Compact

Pentax Espio 160

After having maybe ten Pentax Espio compacts, I can confidently say that they all perform pretty well and are enjoyable to us. Looking for a later era (’90s on) 35mm film compact, you wouldn’t go far wrong with any of this popular and almost endless range.

The latest I have been using is the Pentax Espio 160 (aka the IQZoom 160). 

In many ways it’s the best Espio I’ve used, and indeed one of the best compact film cameras I’ve used.

“Best” is of course always a subjective term. So to be less vague, here are some of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the 160.

23973459579_0689c77048_cFirst, and of course crucial with any camera, it takes decent photographs. 

Sharp enough (especially for a compact), with great detail, and without any obvious flaws, softness or vingetting, you can happily rely on the Espio 160 to take well exposed and accurately focused photographs time and time again.

I would suggest trying a few different films, as most cameras have certain films they just seem to fuse with a little better. I tested it with trusty AfgaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded Fuji C200), and I was more than happy.

The core specs of the camera are the 38-160mm zoom lens with a heady 11 elements in 7 groups, and minimum focusing of 0.8m at the wide end. Not the closest focus, but ok most of the time. 

The fastest aperture is f/4.5 at 38mm, not fast by any means when there are a wide range of 35 and 38mm f/2.8 compacts out there, but it’s not an issue at all when shooting. Whilst you’re never going to get any of the stunning depth of field or bokeh possible with an SLR, you can see from the sample images here that the camera does a fine job of softening the background to bring out the sharpness in the subject of focus.

24233033662_5fe59a4610_cTechnical specifications are important to a point, but ultimately to me mean little in relation to how a camera actually feels to use. 

The Espio 160 is a great pleasure to use, and this can be summed up by the feeling that it was designed by photography enthusiasts, people who had the end user (ie other photographers) at the forefront of their minds throughout the design and creation of the camera.

Looking through my absolute favourite cameras in my collection, this theme is common. I love cameras that feel thoughtfully and passionately designed, ones you can just pick up and use with confidence from the first time you touch them.

The Olympus XA and Pentax KM come to mind, two cameras that featured in my recent Last Three Standing post.

The Espio 160, whilst not quite deserving the same legendary status, certainly brings more than a few smiles in use though.

The overall size is pretty small in width and height, though chunky in depth – presumably housing that 160mm of collapsed lens. You’d never squeeze it in a trouser pocket and still be able to walk, but it’s fine for a coat pocket or bag, and holding it, it does feel quite compact, and pretty ergonomic.

23973459099_e4211f77ea_cOne of the best features (and unique amongst the Epsios I’ve used before) is the mode dial.

This eliminates the need for an on/off switch, and with a quick turn of the dial you’re in Auto and ready to shoot in an instant.

There are a number of flash modes, most crucial to me being the flash off mode, which I used for every shot of the test roll and likely will do for virtually every shot I ever take with the camera.

Once you get used to the position of this mode, in practice the three soft clicks to get there are as quick as one click to Auto mode.

Other features I like are a multiple exposure mode (something you’ll need to check with any Espio spec list if you’d like it, as only a few of them have this feature), and an infinity/landscape mode which locks focus at infinity.

There’s also a spot Auto Focus mode, which when chosen overrides the five point Multi AF. The focus also locks with a half press of the shutter button – a common feature and always good to have.

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The Espio 160’s viewfinder is not the largest or brightest, but works fine once you’ve used it a few times. There’s a diopter adjustment to fine tune the clarity of the VF.

What I really love is the intelligence of the VF. 

Firstly, when you’re in the standard MultiAF mode, you get square brackets in the centre of the frame showing which part of the image the camera will focus on. When you switch to Spot AF mode, these brackets become smaller and closer together. On infinity/landscape mode they disappear altogether giving a clear view to compose your photograph.

The AF confirm and flash lights are just below the bottom of the main composition frame, and the AF light flashes if the camera can’t focus (usually because you’re too close to subject).

I like the clarity of these lights – some cameras have them as lights on the outer body of the camera outside of the VF window, and in bright light they can be hard to see.

Something else the VF does very intelligently is change the frame for close shots, ie it provides parallax correction.

When you’re close up, a black bar pops down from the top, providing a new reduced composition area. It even does this in the Panoramic mode, where the view is already greatly reduced vertically with black bars top and bottom. Nearly all compacts have parallax correction markings with the main frame lines, but it’s easy to forget to use them. Not possible with the Espio 160!

This VF feedback, the fast and easy to use (and see!) mode dial, the range of modes, the quality feel (for a plastic compact) and the fact it takes good photographs make the 160 one of the very best Espios Pentax made.

It feels like it’s your companion, your friend, willing to do all it can to make the experience of making photographs as smooth and easy as possible for, whilst giving you a few creative options in the process.

No camera of course is perfect, and if I was being super picky, I would change two things about the 160, which are essentially the same thing. 

I don’t much like zooms, and rarely use them on anything but the widest setting. Past about 1985, nearly all manufacturers produced only zoom cameras, especially in the mainstream consumer market. So to get a 35/38/40mm lensed compact from this era, you usually end up with a 35/38/40-somethingsillybeyond100mm lens.

Having 160mm at the tele end is pretty impressive if you like that sort of thing. But I would far prefer having say 35-70mm in a camera that can then be far more compact depth wise as its not housing so much lens barrel.

Another Espio I have, and am currently running a film through, is one of the earliest models, the Espio AF Zoom from around 1992, with a 35-70mm lens, incidentally.

This camera also has flash off, multiple exposure and infinity/landscape modes, in a much smaller package. It focuses closer at 0.6m too. If it takes pictures as well as the Espio 160, then it will become the only one of the two I need to keep.

If you do come across the 160 (like all Espios, they’re usually very cheap), it genuinely is one of the best Epsios made and offers all you could want, if you don’t mind a bit more bulk.

If you’re seeking a zoom specifically, with a long telephoto lens. it makes even more sense.

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…