When you know, you know.
The moment your fingers first close around the body and it feels like they were meant to be here from birth.
The instant your eyes meet the viewfinder and the view seems even more big and bright and colourful than if the glass wasn’t even there.
And then, when you click the shutter button and it sounds reassuring, sensual, indestructible and exultant all at once.
That’s when you know you’ve found the camera you’ve been looking for your whole (photographic) life.
Unfortunately, whilst finding just one of the above experiences isn’t especially tricky, finding them all simultaneously in the same camera is very much harder.
Here are a few of the near misses in my experience, followed by the one that’s come closest of all to being a Cinderella for my prints. Sorry, prince.
Minolta Dynax 7000i
After sampling this Dynax, plus its more chunky and crude (but still charming) predecessor the 7000, and its more refined and feature laded successor the 700i, it was this, the 7000i, that ticked most boxes.
The handling is fantastic, thanks almost entirely to the contours of that right hand grip and how it subtly curves back away from the lens. I don’t think any film camera has felt better in my right hand.
The viewfinder is also very good, especially for an AF camera. This shouldn’t be a great shock really, as the X-700 and X-500 from the last line of manual focus Minoltas had class leading viewfinders, and remain the best I’ve used in any camera before or since.
The sounds it emits are, well, whiny and electronic mostly.
There’s loads to love about this Dynax, and the Minolta AF lenses I’ve had have been outstanding, especially the 35-70 “Baby Beercan” and 50/2.8 Macro.
So why do I not still have it?
I’m just not an AF kind of guy, nor do I much like auto wind film. The Dynax, through no fault of its own, felt a kind of halfway house between film (it uses 35mm film with all its delights) and digital (auto focus, auto wind, program modes) I just didn’t enjoy shooting with it that much. Despite its tactile joys, when I want to shoot film, I prefer it to be a far more manual experience.
I’ve been a Pentax lover from very early on in my film photography adventure, the ME Super being the first I tried. Since then I’ve had a couple of dozen Pentax bodies and enjoyed all of them in some way or other.
The MZ-5N is one of the last film bodies Pentax made, and as such it makes use of the technological advances of the time, and Pentax’s decades of experience.
It’s very light, and probably as compact as an SLR can be before it starts to feel uncomfortable and cramped.
It of course has access to a vast range of Pentax K mount lenses from 1975, both manual and auto focus. And all the program and shooting modes you might need.
With that glorious glass available to me, I’ve actually made a handful of my favourite photographs made with ANY Pentax with the MZ-5N.
So where did it fall down for me?
Partly, the same overly automated issues I had with the Minolta. You don’t really have to do much with your hands to use it, making it more point and shoot than SLR.
But a much bigger flaw for me was the viewfinder – usable, just, but incredibly disappointing with manual focus lenses compared with its late 70s and early 80s siblings like the ME Super through the A series (Super A, Program A) to even the P30 and P50 line, which still have great viewfinders.
Plus all that plastic may be light, but it makes it feel, well, plasticky. Again I prefer more heft and metal between my fingers.
After shooting a substantial amount of photographs via almost as substantial amount of different lenses with my mirrorless Sony NEX 3N, I realised it just didn’t compare with using a camera that felt like a camera, not a device, and had a proper viewfinder.
Enter my explorations into Sony Alpha mount, and the highly promising a350.
At this point I’d decided that the majority of my favourite lenses I owned were M42 mount. This was a crucial decision in purchasing the Sony – a simple M42 to Alpha mount adapter was widely and cheaply available.
A little further down the line I discovered the delights of Minolta’s AF lenses from the mid 80s. When Sony bought the camera arm of Minolta (then Konica Minolta) in the mid 2000s, they kept the AF mount Minolta had invented over 20 years previously. So these lenses fit straight on Sony Alpha mount digital bodies. And perform excellently.
The Sony was in some ways like the Dynax, but digital. Same lenses, plus the option to use M42 manually. But the convenience and immediacy of digital compared with film.
Why didn’t the affair last this time?
Again though, despite its appeal, ultimately the Sony (and it’s even more usable predecessor the a100) fell by the wayside when I realised I didn’t much like using AF lenses – however capable – and the viewfinder was, like the Pentax MZ-5N, miles away from my favourites I’d experienced with film cameras.
Plus, again, the plasticky feel put me off. It wasn’t exactly flimsy, it just didn’t feel robust or well made enough to inspire much confidence or affection.
Would Cinderella ever appear?
After the Sonys failed to tick enough boxes for my fickle prince, I went back to what I knew best. Pentax.
I’d had a K-x DSLR some years back, but had been disappointed in it for much the same reasons as the Sony Alpha DLSRs. But I couldn’t help wondering if if Pentax had made something I’d like more.
Surely the same company that had made at least a dozen different film cameras I’ve used and loved was capable of making something as appealing to me on the digital front?
After some research, I somehow stumbled across much talk about the K10D, the flagship semi-pro Pentax at the time of its release in 2006.
There was much talk of its CCD sensor rendering images with a “film-like” quality, and so many happy owners, not least of all on the epic PentaxForums thread devoted to the K10D and still going strong 11 years after the camera’s release. After reading a few hundred comments and seeing as many photographs made with a K10D, I decided I needed to try one.
When it arrived, the first touch was just like I wrote about right at the start of this post. It felt like the camera I’d been searching for for years.
Added to the contours and comfort, the weight and heft of the body, whilst maybe a turn off for some, just made it feel even better, and more confidence inspiring.
The K10D is weather sealed, and this further enhances its robustness of feel.
Though it’s largely plastic on the outside, it’s very well made and just from picking one up, you can see why there are still so many happy K10D shooters eleven years after the camera debuted.
The viewfinder is far superior to the Sonys, with 0.95x magnification and a 95% view. It’s not up there with the very best film cameras, but highly usable, especially with any lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 or faster. Plus it has a visible (and if you wish, audible) focus confirm, which works just as well with manual focus lenses, and has proved to be very accurate when lighting is challenging.
Of course I can also use all my M42 lenses with a simple adapter, as well as that vast range of K mount glass that began in 1975 and, yep, is still being made today. The K10D can use any of that 42 years’ worth of fine Pentax K glass.
No, it isn’t a film camera, but as many have raved about, that 10MP CCD sensor does have a charm and ability to render colour and to some extent texture that is reminiscent of film, and generally much more appealing to my eyes than newer, cooler, more clinical CMOS sensors.
It helps to keep the K10D’s sensor at its native ISO100 to optimise this look, which suits me just fine – it reminds me of shooting my very favourite film – FujiFilm Superia 100.
There’s little about the K10D to complain about.
Yes it could be smaller and lighter, as many subsequent Pentax DLSRs were. But when something feels right in your hands, the weight becomes a non-issue. And if you’re like me, you want to know the camera is there, your reliable partner in photographic adventures. You want the reassurance of that heft.
I love it so much I recently bought a back up – a Samsung GX10 that is almost identical, and a product of the Pentax/Samsung collaboration at the time. Aside from slightly different software, and fractionally different shaped buttons on the rear, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. The viewfinder and sensor are identical.
So is the K10D the last camera I’ll ever buy?
No, I’m sure there’ll come a time when I’m curious about what Pentax made a few years later.
But until both my K10D and GX10 break down beyond repair, and all other examples out there follow, I can’t see myself not continuing to use them to make photograph after photograph, for many months and years to come.
Have you found your Cinderella camera, be it film or digital? Let us know in the comments below.
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