The Pentax P30 – the last mass market manual focus SLR

With 3 million units sold between 1985 and 1997, the Pentax P30 (known as the P3 in the “rest of the world”) is the last mass market manual focus SLR to come from a major manufacturer (*). Originally designed as a simple entry level tool for amateurs, it was rapidly upgraded to support more auto-exposure modes, and became the go-to camera for a generation of learners and enthusiasts, who wanted to grow their skills but were not ready to purchase an expensive and overly complex auto-focus camera.

In this blog entry, I’ll use indifferently the names P3 and P30 – even if in theory the American models were P3s, Pentax also sold P30s in the US.

On the P3, film winding and rewind are manual, but the winding lever and the rewind crank are recessed and from a distance one could believe the camera is motorized. Note the very large on-off switch (left).

In parallel, Pentax was still selling another manual focus SLR, the K1000, whose technical roots went as far back as 1964 (the first Spotmatic camera), and the production of both cameras was stopped in 1997 to make room for a much more modern model, the ZX-M.


Contrarily to many previous entry level SLRs from Canon, Fujica or Nikon which were excessively simplified, even the first version of the P30 was a well specified model, at the same time easy to use for casual photography (it had a reliable Program Mode and a good viewfinder), and capable enough for the enthusiast or the motivated learner (it could also be operated in semi-auto mode, and had easy to use exposure lock and depth of field preview commands). It was also pleasantly designed, and better built than many cheap entry level SLRs from lesser brands.

Pentax P3 – all controls are well positioned and large enough, even for photographers with big hands

The original P30 had two big weaknesses:

  • even if it did its best to hide the film rewind crank and the shutter lever, it was still a non-motorized camera, when some of its direct competitors (other entry level cameras operating primarily in Program mode like Canon’s T50) were relieving the photographer from the chore of loading and unloading the film.  Even though the film loading process was greatly simplified (you align the end of the film with a red marker and the camera takes care of the rest), you still have to rewind the exposed film (press the rewind button, pull the rewind crank, and turn and turn until all the film is safely back into the cartridge). I assume it was a trade-off (non motorized cameras are smaller, lighter, quieter and cheaper, and they don’t need expensive and short lived lithium batteries)  but cameras with motorized film loading and rewind are much easier to use for a true amateur.
  • It only worked in the Program mode with the (by then) relatively new Pentax KA lenses (manual focus with electrical contacts to control the aperture), and Pentax users upgrading from a K1000, KM, KX, MX, ME, MG, MV who had bought Pentax K lenses a few years earlier were condemned to the Manuel (semi-auto) exposure mode.

The first weakness was inherent to the base design of the camera and not much could be done – but that second weakness was easier to fix: in 1988 Pentax added an aperture priority auto-exposure mode to the P30n. The camera would remain virtually unchanged from thereon, except for the color of the body and the orientation of the split screen telemeter when it became the P30t in 1990.

A few months ago, I bought a P30 (a first generation model, still made in Japan) for the lens that came with it (on auction sites, it’s often cheaper to buy a lens with a camera attached to it, than the lens alone). I needed the lens for a Pentax Super-Program I had just bought. But I ended liking this P3 more than the Super-Program, and those cameras are so cheap that I rapidly purchased a P30n and a P30t – the aperture priority automatic exposure versions of the camera. In retrospect, that was a bad idea. But more about this later…

The P30 is a bit larger than the Super-Program, which leaves enough room for a conventional shutter speed dial, it is also easier to load with film, and it’s one of the first SLRs to have adopted DX coding. There is no exposure compensation dial, (just a very useful exposure lock button, which I tend to prefer), the shutter is a bit slower (1/1000 sec only), and the viewfinder is not as informative (only the shutter speed is indicated, there is no way to know the aperture selected by the camera in program mode) – but the column of bright LEDs at the left of the viewfinder is easier to read than the two small and dark LCD displays at the bottom of the Super-Program’s focusing screen .

Pentax P3 (first generation)

Where was it made?

The P30 proudly shows it’s made by Asahi Pentax in Japan. The P30n shows it’s manufactured by Asahi Pentax Co in an undisclosed country (some copies have an “assembled in China” sticker, so there’s no real doubt about its provenance), while the P30t is simply “assembled in China, under license and supervision of Asahi Pentax” – which means that manufacturing had been outsourced to a local Chinese partner.

P30, P30n, P30t – the differences

On the outside, not much. There’s more metal in the P30 – the film door, the bottom plate, which are replaced with good quality plastic molded components on the P30n and P30t. There may have been variations during the long production run of the P30n/t, bu they all share the same plastic bottom plate with its new and improved battery compartment door.

Technically, the major difference is that the P30n and P30t have an extra position on the shutter speed dial: a big green “A” for aperture – the cameras offer Aperture Priority Auto-exposure – with any Pentax K lens: the photographer selects the aperture, and the camera picks the right shutter speed, which is indicated by a LED on a scale at the left of the viewfinder. The other modes (Programmed auto-exposure and semi-auto) are still available.

Reliability?

Pentax P30 – the part in the background in the yellow circle acts as a sort of ratchet when the photographer pulls the winding lever to advance the film and cock the shutter. On broken cameras, it takes multiple actions on the winding lever to fully lock the ratchet in place.

It’s a light camera designed for amateurs – it’s not a tank guaranteed for 250,000 exposures. But, normally, a well preserved copy gently used by amateurs should be expected to work. It’s not exactly the case here.

I had no problem initially with the P30, but the P30n and the P30t I bought afterwards have the same issue: a single action on the winding lever is not enough to cock the shutter: the P30n generally requires two very slow actions (which means every other frame is wasted), and the P30t only cocks the shutter after multiple and extremely slow actions on the winding lever, when it does at all.

  • it makes the cameras unusable in the real life.
  • it’s not uncommon for the P30 – there are multiple messages in Pentax forums about this issue
  • I removed the bottom plate of both cameras, and could very distinctly see the culprit – a lever in the shutter mechanism that doesn’t engage completely (too much friction in the assembly or a spring too weak to pull the lever to the “cocked” position). Two suggestions on the forums: lubricate the assembly with silicon, or cock the shutter a few hundreds times to loosen the assembly – I’ve tried the hundred times method (as well as my tried and tested “hair dryer” method) with no success so far. And buying $20.00 worth of specialized lubricant to fix a $10.00 camera looks pretty much like throwing good money after bad.
  • The P30 that I considered immune to the quirks of the P30n/t has also started misbehaving – it did not let me rewind the film to the end, I had to wait for my return home to open the film door of the camera in a dark room, and push the last 10 inches of film in the cartridge manually. And my dark room being what it is, I probably lost 15 shots in the process, if not more.
  • Three cameras, three issues, all related to the shutter cocking and film advance and rewind mechanisms – that’s too much for bad luck – there is something intrinsically flawed with this line of cameras – they don’t age gracefully and can’t be relied upon.

How much?

There is little love for the P30 – postage often costs more than the camera itself – and I’m talking standard domestic US Postal Service rates here. The reliability issues mentioned above probably play their part here.

As a conclusion

Two non functioning cameras out of three, and a third that misbehaved while I was trying to rewind the film – that’s a major disappointment – I’ve never experienced such a thing with any camera maker before, even with the Fujica AX series which have a pretty bad reputation.

When it works, it’s a very pleasant camera. But the risk that is does not is simply too high. My verdict: avoid.


(*) – After the P30 was retired from the market in 1997, a few manual focus SLRs kept on being released and manufactured by other major camera makers (the Nikon FM3a, the Contax Aria and the Leica R9 come to mind) but they were more expensive niche products made in small quantities (a total of 112,000 copies for the FM3a, and 8,000 for the R9, for instance); they did not address the “mass market”.


Out of the three P30s I recently purchased, only one was usable. It made the trip to Savannah in my photo equipment bag. But after it refused to fully rewind the roll of film I had just exposed, it also found itself out of commission, leaving me with no choice but to finish the week-end with the excellent (and so far, reliable) Fujifilm X-100t.

Savannah, GA – Wormsloe Plantation – Fujifilm X-100t – the gate was built in 1913, the live oak trees were planted in the late 1800s, but the plantation itself has been occupied by the British colonists and their remote descendants since 1733.
Wormsloe Plantation – the oldest remaining structure built by British colonists in Georgia (1736)
Wormsloe Plantation – the Salt Marsh – one of the functions of the plantation was to control the access to the city of Savannah through the Marsh – an English military outpost was located nearby.
Live Oak – Spanish Moss – Savannah as you’ve always imagined it…

5 thoughts on “The Pentax P30 – the last mass market manual focus SLR

  1. I’ve had my P3 since I purchased for a photography course in my sophomore year of college (1987). Except for a loose film door, I have never had any issues using the camera. I use a rubber band to hold the film door close. My P3 sat in a box on a shelf until last year when I “re-discovered” film photography after 30 years.

    In February of this year, while visiting some friends in a nearby town, I shot a roll of Ilford HP5 Plus. The 30-year-old P3 performed flawlessly.

    I think you bought three duds.

    1. Hi Khürt – three duds, yes for sure – I bought two of them on Shopgoodwill.com (untested, for less than $10.00 each – so I can’t complain too much) and one on eBay (the P30, and it was sold as “working”, which it did until the film got stuck while I was rewinding it). I’ve bought other cameras for $10.00 on Shopgoodwill, some of them were bad, some worked with fresh batteries and after minimal tender and loving care, and some were really nice and perfectly working (I’d say 20%, 50%, 30% respectively).

      I’m not anti-Pentax or anti-P3 at all – I’m glad that your P3 works, and honestly, I still really like those little cameras. I’m going to try and fix my three duds (clean and lubricate). I’d be happy if I could make at least one of those three cameras to work reliably. More about it in another post.

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