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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…