The Nikon F3

(originally published in Sept 2009 – I did not change a word – just added a comment at the bottom of this post)

Nikon F3 – designed by Giorgetto Guigiaro from Bertone and Ital Design fame.

Nikon’s F3 was the “pro” camera of the early eighties, but it kept on selling until 2001. A dwarf compared to current mid-level digital SLRs, not to mention monsters like an EOS 1DS or a D3. Incredibly simple to use compared to anything digital sold these days. Aperture Priority Automatic or Semi-Auto exposure. Center weighted metering. That’s all. It worked. And it still works today.

Consider all the changes that took place in the SLR design between 1980 and 2001. Multi mode exposure, spot and matrix metering, integrated motors, autofocus, DX coding, the F3 had none of that, but it outlived two or three generations of newer-better-faster pro bodies from Nikon or Canon. The F3 had the elegance to hide its real technical advances under a classical skin, and to let the photographer communicate his instructions through smooth and oversized controls. Of all the pre-autofocus SLRs of Nikon, the F3 is the most pleasant to use, and probably the one which will yield the best results.

Olympus OM-1 / Nikon F3 – larger than the OM-1, but not by much – it’s significantly heavier, though.

The F3 is an exception in the Nikon F lineup. It’s compact, smaller than its predecessors, and way smaller than its successors, the F4 and F5. In fact, its size is very comparable to that of the FM, itself hardly bigger than the yard stick of compact SLRs, the Olympus OM-1. The F3 is also easy to use, without the idiosyncrasies of the F and F2s with their Photomic finders and manual aperture indexing, and without the myriads of commands of an F4 or the menus and submenus of an F5.

Nikon F3: a very simple interface

The F3 is much more modern and usable in everyday life than a semi auto camera like the FM: its commands are larger and smoother, and the automatic exposure system is faster to operate; thanks to the center-weighted metering and a memory lock button, it does not deprive the photograph of his control on the exposure . When a flash is needed, the FM still requires the user to concern himself with Guide Numbers. The F3’s flash system is modern: following the path opened by the Olympus OM2, the SPD (silicon) cell is housed under the main mirror, and provides On The Film flash metering. But the Nikon engineers avoided loading the F3 with complications like multi-mode auto-exposure or multiple metering patterns. The F3 has few commands, and they’re so easy to understand that no manual is needed.

Nikon F3 – the standard viewfinder can be replaced with the “High Point”.

All the commands are generously sized, and very smooth to operate (the film advance mechanism is mounted on ball bearings). The view finder is wide, bright and clear, making focusing easy. After a few years of production, Nikon replaced the viewfinder with a high eyepoint (HP) model, which could be used more easily by glass wearers. The viewfinder is the only part of the camera which is really larger than what you would find on contemporary advanced-amateur SLRs.

Nikon F3 in the CF-22 bag (Red)

Of course, the F3 is not perfect. It may be compact, but it’s heavy (approx. 750g). Its OTF flash system may have been advanced for its time, but the shutter only syncs at 1/60sec, and none of the viewfinders of the F3 system has a standard flash hot shoe: the F3 requires a specific flash adapter, to be inserted at the top of the rewind lever. But if I had to own and use only one film camera, that would be the F3, without any hesitation.

Cameras like this Nikon F3 have a removable prism. With the prism removed, one can see the image as formed on the ground glass (the focusing screen). At this stage, it is still inverted right/left you have to keep the camera at waist level to see the image of the subject.

My 2021 take on the Nikon F3 – over the last twelve years, I’ve had the opportunity to shoot with almost every Nikon SLR manufactured between 1970 and 1995, and I still hold the F3 in very high esteem. There are a few other Nikon bodies that would compete in the “desert island camera” category – I can only see the FE2. The FE2 is much lighter, it’s easier to read what shutter speed the auto-exposure system has selected, but its viewfinder is very narrow compared to what the F3 (even in its non-HP version) offers, and it’s probably not as solid as its “pro” sibling.

Nikon F3 – Nikkor 24mm AF – lunch break along the Seine – at that time Notre Dame cathedral still had its original roof.

Paris, Place de l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall) – Nikon F3 – 24mm Nikkor AF
Triel s/Seine - Dec 25th, 2010
Triel s/Seine – Dec 25th, 2010 – Nikon F3 – Nikkor 135mm F:3.5 – Kodak CN 400

Canonet GIII QL17 – better than the Leica CL?

Canon “Canonet” QL17 GIII

At the beginning of the seventies, every camera maker had to have a super-compact camera in its line-up. They were designed for the amateurs who did not want to carry a heavy, expensive and complex single lens reflex, but were still looking for good quality camera offering more control than a Kodak Instamatic.

The most successful camera of this category was Canon’s Canonet series (which sold in the millions), but German camera makers also tried their luck – in cooperation with Minolta in the case of Leitz.

Manufactured in Japan by Minolta, the Leica CL was a sort of mini-Leica M5, with a similar semi-automatic exposure system, the same M bayonet, and a large viewfinder equipped with a coupled rangefinder. The CL was much smaller than the rather bulky M5, the base of its rangefinder was much narrower than the M5’s, and it only accepted two specifically designed interchangeable lenses (a 40mm and a 90mm), as well as the standard 50mm Leica lenses. The CL had a short sales career, but its general design was refreshed by Minolta a few years later, when they launched the Minolta CLE, which supported a dedicated 28mm Minolta Rokkor lens (in addition to the 40mm and 90mm lenses), and offered Minolta’s first flash system with on the film (OTF) metering.

The Leica CL with its standard 40mm lens is a tad smaller than the Canon.

Apart from having interchangeable lenses and a Leica price tag, the CL’s characteristics were pretty much in line with what the other manufacturers of compact cameras were offering.

Canon  was the undisputed leader of the “super-compact” camera category, with its highly successful line of “Canonet” cameras. The GIII is the last iteration of the Canonet series, and the QL17 (named for its impressive 40mm f/1.7 lens) formed the top of the line. Let’s compare the Leica CL (from 1973) with the GIII QL17.

What they have in common :

  • rangefinder compact camera
  • focal length = 40mm
  • Fast Maximum aperture: F/1.7 (Canon); F/2 (Leica)
  • Size/Weight: Canon: 120 x 75 x 60 mm / 620g / Leica: 120x 76 x 32 (no lens)/400g without the  lens; 510g with the lens
  • Same PX625 battery (unfortunately)
  • CdS cell
  • both can work without a battery
Both cameras are rangefinders with very good 40mm lenses.

There are significant differences though:

  • the Leica has a curtain shutter and offers a range of interchangeable lenses. But the Leica only supports 3 focal lengths (40mm, 50mm, 90mm) – it does not have the viewfinder markings needed to support Minolta’s Rokkor 28mm.
  • The Canonet has a central shutter, and a fixed lens (40mm F/1.7 in our case, but cheaper versions of the cameras were equipped with a slower lens). A big plus of this super-compact is Canon’s exclusive Quick film Loading system (hence the “QL” acronym), which is so much better than Leica’s film loading process  – which at best can be described as acrobatic (it requires a table, a chair and 2 hands, at a minimum).
  • Canon is either auto (shutter speed preferred) or fully manual (the meter is off if the camera is set to manual); the Leica is a semi auto camera (the well known matching needle arrangement).
the viewfinder – in yellow – the frames, the rangefinder patch at the center, and the aperture scale on the right.


Both cameras use CdS sensors for metering, and because they were using Mercury batteries producing 1.35v (the PX625 model)  which are now absolutely unavailable, workarounds are necessary. The Leica only seems to work with Wein’s 625 Zinc-Air cell. The Canon seems to be a bit more tolerant, but I still recommend using a Zinc-Air battery, as they provide the same voltage as the original PX625 Mercury battery.

To tell the truth, I don’t really trust the exposure system of any of the cameras, and I use an app named Pocket Light Meter on an iPhone to determine the best exposure. With a tolerant film, the exposure will be OK.

QL stands for Quick Loading – the mechanism works extremely well.

Hands-on with the Canonet GIII QL17

I bought this camera at an antique market, from a specialist who used to own one of the two or three remaining photo equipment stores in Atlanta, and was dispersing what was left of his inventory – he said he had completely reconditioned the camera (the combo lens-shutter in particular) but that he could not guarantee that the metering and the auto-exposure system would work.

The camera was expensive (at the top of the range for such a model) – but when I received the scans, I was happy I had spent my money on it: the optical quality of the images was really impressive – it’s difficult to beat a well-designed 40mm prime lens. 

Being small, silent and graced with a good viewfinder, it’s a good camera for street photography, provided the subject is not too mobile and leaves you all the time you need to set the focus and the exposure.   

The QL17 seen from the top – it’s a “shutter speed” priority camera, that can also be operated in manual exposure mode. All the controls are on the lens.

I was very favorably impressed by the technical quality of the pictures I shot with the Canonet – obviously the film plays a role here (I like Kodak’s Ektar 100 for its color rendering and high definition) but this 40mm f/1.7 is definitely a great lens, and the mechanical shutter/iris combo is accurate enough for the shots to be correctly exposed (I was using an external light meter, though).

Would have the pictures been better if shot with the Leica CL? Probably not. The lens of this Canon camera is that good.   

The black ring controls the shutter speed, the silver ring the aperture (it can be set to A) and the guide number for the flash.


  • Leica CL : it sold well, aged well, and does not seem to be in high demand. In addition, even if the CL’s Summicron-C 40mm lens can be physically mounted on the full size M cameras (M5, M6 and the like), there is no corresponding frameline in their viewfinder, limiting the practical interest of the lens for the other Leica photographers. Therefore,  the CL and its 40mm lens form the most accessible combination to enter the Leica M system. Interestingly, the non-Leica alternatives supporting the 40mm lens  (Minolta CLE, Voigtlander Bessa R3) are all more expensive than the CL. Expect to spend at least $300.00 for a nice body and $400.00 for the lens.
  • Canon – the Canonet line was sold over almost 15 years, and specific models like the GIII QL f/1.7 are rather sought after. Most of the copies are either “untested”, or “cosmetically perfect”, but  few vendors promise that the metering system and the shutter are going to work, let alone be accurate. You can find a nice “untested” copy for $50.00. Fully functional cameras are more expensive (typically above $150.00).


I’ve never been much of a rangefinder guy – I like the clear view and the fact that the viewfinder shows more than what will be captured on the film, but I always tend to forget to set the focus – or if I set it right at the beginning of a series of pictures, I forget to adjust it if my subject moves or if I change the angle of view. My success rate at that exercise is abysmal.

The rangefinder of the Leica CL tends to be easier on the eyes than the Canon’s (the focus zone is significantly more luminous than the rest of the viewfinder and pops out, as opposed to the Canon where it’s simply a yellow patch). But the Summicron-C  lens on the Leica is smaller and its focusing ramp stiffer than the lens of the Canonet, so it’s more difficult to operate for the casual photographer.

The back of the Leica CL – loading the film is a cumbersome process

All in all, the Canon is definitely easier to use than the Leica, and the quality of the images roughly equivalent. But just a few years after those two cameras were released (in the second part of the seventies), automatic exposure SLRs had become so small and light (think Olympus OM-2, Pentax ME or Nikon EM) that provided you paired them with a tiny pancake 35 or 40mm lens, they were almost as compact as those two rangefinders, and so much easier to use. 

At least for me, SLRs will produce better results, with more consistency and a lower effort. Rangefinder cameras of the film era require a lot of practice and muscle memory to produce images of quality – and in the hands of a casual photographer who simply shoots a few rolls of film per year, I feel that they simply leave too much to chance.  Truth to be told, the only camera equipped with an optical finder that I can really live with is the Fujifilm X100t – it gives you the best of what the Canonet and the Leica CL offer (image quality, direct optical view, compactness, silence), but has enough automatic systems (reliable auto-focus, reliable auto-exposure, switchable digital viewfinder) to overcome the lack of practice of the occasional user.

Atlanta – Piedmont Park – Canonet GIII QL 17 – Kodak Ektar 100 – Piedmont Park is where all semi-pro photographers bring their clients for outdoors pictures, and where lovers spend quality time together.
Atlanta – Piedmont Park – Canonet GIII QL 17 – Kodak Ektar 100
Atlanta – Vinings Jubilee – Canonet G III QL 17 – Kodak Ektar 100 – you can see the limits of the lens – the signage of the shops is barely readable.

Things to look forward to in 2021

Atlanta – Sweet Auburn – Pentax Super-Program – Lens Pentax AF 35-105 f/4-5.6 – Kodak Ultra 400

You can’t say that 2021 started under the best auspices, but hopefully we’ll see the end of COVID related restrictions and will be able to return to a more normal life soon.

What do I have on my bucket list?

I’m still hesitant because of the time commitment it would require, but I may start processing film myself – having film processed by good labs is getting seriously expense – but if developing conventional Black and White film is relatively easy and does not require much in terms of equipment and time, scanning requires good hardware and is extremely time consuming. I may give it a try, though.

I still believe that Nikon cameras from the late-seventies/early eighties offer the best compromise between reliability, optical quality and usability, but I can’t help trying my luck with cameras from other brands – I’m still looking for a really good lens for my recently acquired Pentax Super-Program (I decided I like it after all), and for a good camera to pair with the great Contax Vario-Sonnar I bought last year: the Contax ST is so big it scares people, and the Yashica FX3 is simply too unreliable. I may finally buy a Contax Aria – if I can find one costing less than a mortgage payment.

Contax Aria – Ebay

Last but not least, I’m keeping an eye on the new Nikon mirrorless system (the Z6 in particular) – it would be a great way to use my favorite full frame lenses on a digital camera. Of course, I would have to sell a few of my cameras to pay for it, but the value of film cameras has risen dramatically recently, so it should not be too difficult to fund.

Atlanta – Sweet Auburn – Pentax Super-Program – Lens Pentax AF 35-105 f/4-5.6 – Kodak Ultra 400

2020 in the rearview mirror…

Let’s be social, from a distance…

I’m glad 2020 is over – and that, with vaccine starting to be available (not everywhere – Georgia is a laggard) – 2021 brings some hope of a return to normalcy.

I did not take many pictures last year, I did not travel much and tested my recently acquired cameras primarily in Atlanta neighborhoods – Piedmont Park – often – and Sweet Auburn – frequently.

It did not prevent the traffic on this site to explode – with 36,000 visitors and 52,000 pages viewed over the year – thank you.

CamerAgx – 2020 traffic

As in previous years, the Angenieux 28-70 f/2.8 zoom and its Tokina cousins were at the top of the list, followed by the Fujica 35mm reflex cameras and a newcomer to the top 5, the Nikon N90. Readers are predominantly coming from English speaking countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia), followed by the non-English speaking countries of Western Europe.

CamerAgx – Posts and pages – views in 2020

I finally had a couple of 35mm cartridges processed (and by the way, film processing is getting seriously expensive in those post COVID days) and I’m preparing a series of posts on some of your favorite subjects – the Tokina 28-70 zoom and the Pentax Super-Program, of course, while exploring new territories with a surprisingly good Canon QL17.

Thank you for following this blog, and sharing comments – now that the worst seems over, Happy Rest of the Year…

Hopefully soon an image from the past…Coffee and Octane – Feb. 2021 – Atlanta (Nikon FE2 – Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 – Kodak Ultra 400)

The Contax 35mm SLRs of the Yashica-Kyocera era

A prestigious sub-brand of the famous Carl Zeiss company, Contax had stopped manufacturing its own cameras when it licensed the use of its brand name to Yashica in 1975.

Contax’s unique selling proposition: the Carl-Zeiss lenses

Along the seventies and the eighties, Yashica developed two lines of Contax SLRs: a line of pro-models (the RTS followed by RTS II), and a line of more consumer oriented products (137, 139, 159, 167) for well heeled enthusiasts who did not want to pay for and carry around a large, heavy and very expensive pro camera. Without reaching the production volumes of Canon or Pentax, the Contax cameras of this era still sold in respectable numbers (200,000 units for the Contax 139, for instance).

The Contax SLRs of the nineties all follow the same design language, and the organization of the commands is almost identical.

The cameras were technically on par with the competition and benefited from a very attractive design, but their real differentiator was their access to a line of interchangeable lenses carrying the Carl Zeiss brand.

With the advent of autofocus systems (Minolta opened the fire in 1985 with the Maxxum, soon to be followed by all other major Japanese camera makers), manual focus cameras found themselves rapidly relegated to two niches: cheap entry level / learners cameras on the one hand, and high end products for traditionalist photographers who preferred a conventional user interface and a full metal construction, on the other hand.

Contax RTS from 1975 – the first fruit of the cooperation between Yashica, Carl-Zeiss, and Porsche Design – Photo Courtesy Jean-Louis Beek

Contax, having declined to adopt autofocus, did not have products for the heart of the  market anymore, and had no interest in selling entry-level models. They focused on the high-end of the market, trying to create cameras for each of the many small niches composing the “traditional, manual focus cameras” market.

Aside of the Contax ST already reviewed in those pages, what was Contax selling in the nineties?

  • RTS III – the “pro” camera of the Contax family – with more or less the same specs as the ST, but with a unique flash metering system, a faster motor, more “pro” features such as mirror lock-up and a unique vacuum back to keep the film flat during the exposure, but also more heft and much more weight,
  • S2 and S2b – semi-auto only, with spot meter only (S2) or average (S2b) metering only – two very spartan cameras at the polar opposite of the RTS III – for a totally different – and minimalist – experience,
  • RX – the successor of the ST, launched 2 years after. Most people posting in forums tend to prefer the RX to the ST, because of its focus assist and a lower weight. But it needs Lithium batteries (lighter than the AAA batteries of the ST, they are expensive and difficult to find nowadays) and its lower weight is due to a more liberal use of plastics in its construction, which is not to everybody’s taste. It was succeeded by the RX II, almost identical cosmetically but deprived of the focus assist system.
  • AX – its absolutely unique autofocus system (where the photographer sets the (manual focus) lens to the infinite, and the whole film chamber of the camera moves forward or backwards to adjust the focus) makes for a very large SLR (it looks more like a medium format camera, actually) – a curiosity.
  • Aria – the last of the Contax manual focus line – launched in 1998, with a set of specs similar to the ST’s, but in a smaller body, and with matrix metering. Some people like it for its reduced weight and size, other photographers hate that it’s built (at least in part) of painted polycarbonate (plastic). I still have to test one, but that’s the only one I would consider as a substitute to the ST.
Contax Aria – the last 35mm manual focus SLR from the brand – the design and the general disposition of the controls are almost identical to the ST’s, but the camera is lighter and smaller. (Source:

In addition to its line of 35mm SLRs, Contax also launched an autofocus, modular medium format camera, the 645 in 1999, a well received line of autofocus rangefinder cameras (G1, G2), and many “premium” compact cameras – which are highly sought after today.

The last years

Contax finally launched their first autofocus 35mm SLR, the Contax N1, in 2000, but it came far too late to make an impact on a market already moving to digital. To add insult to injury, the autofocus lens mount was not compatible with the C/Y mount of Yashica’s and Contax manual focus cameras, or with Yashica’s own autofocus lens mount – in fact, it had more in common with Contax’s own medium format camera system, and was technically very close to the mount designed by Canon for its EOS cameras.

Contax N1 – the autofocus SLR – apart from the industrial design and the general organization of the controls, very little in common with the manual focus SLRs of the brand. (Source: Contax)

The digital version of that camera, launched in 2002, was the first attempt by a major vendor at selling a full-frame 24x36mm dSLR, but the sensor they were using was simply not good enough and the camera made a flop.

Contax N Digital (Source: Contax UK). The first dSLR with a 24x36mm full frame sensor.

Kyocera (the Japanese ceramics giant that had bought Yashica in 1983) – finally pulled the plug on all its photographic activities in 2005, and the Contax brand has not been used since. At the time it left the photography market, Contax was still selling 35mm film SLRs (the Aria, the RX II and the RTS III, and the autofocus N1 and NX), a medium format film camera system (the 645), a line of expensive compact point and shoot cameras (film and digital) and its full frame 35mm digital SLR, the N Digital.

More about it:

The Web site of Contax-UK (frozen in 2005) – surprisingly it’s still up, 15 years after Contax withdrew from the photo equipment market:

A very detailed and well documented review of the Contax AX and its automatic back focusing:

A review of the Contax Aria in the Casual Photophile

MIR is not only about Nikon:

Atlanta – Centennial Park – Contax ST – Carl-Zeiss Vario Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar 100
Atlanta – Contax ST – Carl-Zeiss Vario Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar 100

Pentax 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 and Contax 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – a few pictures fresh from the lab

Today I received the scans of two series of pictures I had taken in the Atlanta area at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic (which explains that the parks and the streets look empty).

Over the last couple of months, I’ve used alternatively my most recent acquisitions, a Contax ST with its very (very) large Contax-Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 lens, and a Pentax P3 with its very (very) small Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 zoom.

Contax ST and Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar zoom – 28-85 f/3.3-4.0

First observation – almost all pictures are usable – correctly exposed, with the subject in focus. No major flaw with any of the cameras or zooms.

Second observation: I knew that this Contax ST had an issue with the transmission of the value of the aperture selected on the lens to the body, and I set it with a permanent correction of +1.3 EV to counterbalance it. It’s probably too much – I’ll reduce the correction to +0.5 EV in the future. I experienced difficulties with the film rewind on the P3 (I had to open the film door in a dark room and push maybe 6 inches of film back into the cartridge) but only one frame was lost in the process. I suspect the issue to be related to the film receiving spool. Both cameras are approximately 30 years old, they can be temperamental.

Third observation: both cameras have all the features I need (aperture priority auto mode, semi-auto mode, exposure memorization) and a good viewfinder (the Contax’s is fantastic, the Pentax’s is very good considering the original target audience of the camera). Both are really pleasant to use. The Contax is definitely a big and heavy camera, and the lens is even larger and more ponderous. When you use the Contax combo, you get noticed, and you make some people nervous (carry it in a bag, and don’t shoot with it in an area where people tend to be very concerned for their privacy – that would be asking for trouble). The Pentax set, on the other hand, is compact and light, and does not draw attention. But there is a trade off to compactness: image quality.

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

Which bring us to our fourth observation. My intent was not to perform a scientific comparison between the Zeiss and the Pentax zooms. I shot the pictures on different days at different locations, but since it was in the same type of urban settings, and with the same type of film (Kodak Ektar 100), we can somehow compare the pictures and draw some conclusions. Sorry Pentax fans, the difference is extremely visible. I may have bought a bad copy of the lens, the front element may be dirty (I did my best to clean it, though), but in any case there’s a world of difference between pictures shot with the Vario-Sonnar and the SMC-Pentax-A zoom, in particular when it comes to contrast and sharpness. Thirty years ago, I was using a Pentax KA 35-70 zoom on my Pentax MX (I don’t remember if it was the same f/3.5-4.5 version of the lens, or the constant F/4 model) and I was pleased with the results, so not all Pentax zooms are bad, and I’ll shoot with another Pentax lens as soon as I can.

After I imported the scans in Lightroom, I made adjustments to the exposure and the highlights (the sky was over exposed by both cameras), and I tried to increase (massively) the contrast on the images taken with the Pentax lens, but Lightroom sliders can only do so much if the original picture is too soft. See for yourself.

A word of caution: you won’t see much of a difference if you look at the pictures on a good smartphone – the screen is small and smartphones are very good at enhancing images – but it’s more visible on a tablet, and pretty obvious on the monitor of a full size personal computer. Also, remember that WordPress displays the images of this blog at a relatively low resolution (width: 1024 points) – to really visualize the difference in image quality, click on the images and you will see them full size (they were scanned at 3130 x 2075 points).

Atlanta – Krog Street – Contax ST with Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar.
Atlanta – Centennial Park – Contax ST with Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar.
Atlanta skyline from the Vinings Mountain – Contax ST with Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar.
Atlanta – Old Vinings Inn – Contax ST with Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 – Kodak Ektar.
Lely Freedom Horses – Naples, Florida – Pentax P3 – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 – Kodak Ektar
Lely Freedom Horses – Naples, Florida – Pentax P3 – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 – Kodak Ektar
Atlanta – Yellow Bronco Violet House – Pentax P3 – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 – Kodak Ektar
Atlanta – Pink house- Pentax P3 – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 – Kodak Ektar
Atlanta, Little Five Points – Pentax P3 – Pentax SMC-A 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 – Kodak Ektar

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.


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…

Yashica FX-3 Super 2000 – of the need of a hair dryer in a photographer’s repair kit

I know. It’s provocative. But don’t buy a Yashica FX-3 without ensuring first that you have a good hair dryer in one of your bathroom cabinets.

Google and a hair dryer to the rescue

When I received the FX-3, the camera seemed to work perfectly with no lens mounted, but as soon as a lens was in place, the reflex mirror was refusing to return into its normal position at the end of the shutter release cycle, making the camera unusable. But as soon as I was removing the lens, the mirror was returning back into its normal position.

Google is my best friend, and I rapidly learned that the Yashica FX-3s are renown for their sliding mirror problem. Over time, the mirror (which is glued to a part I’ll call the hinged mirror holder) tends to slide forward, and after some time (years? months? weeks?) it has moved so much that it hits the back of the lens, preventing the shutter release cycle from completing. The solution? Use a hair dryer to soften the glue, and gently push the mirror a few tens of a millimeter back, to the top of the mirror holder. I tried, and it worked. I can now use the camera – I just don’t know how long this fix will operate, and how often I’ll need to give the camera a hair do.

Yashica Super 2000 – a very compact (and very light) camera of very conventional design.
Olympus OM 2000 Spot Metering – very similar to the Yashica Super 2000.

Yashica’s FX-3 series

The FX-3 Super 2000 is the final declination of a line of simple semi-automatic, manual focus cameras, released by Yashica between 1979 and 1986. Before the FX-3, Yashica had launched two FX models, but they don’t belong to the same technical family – the early FXs were largely derived from cameras sold before Yashica adopted the Contax/Yashica bayonet mount: the FX-1 from 1975 (an aperture priority automatic camera), and the semi-automatic FX-2 from 1976 still incorporate CdS cells for metering and require mercury oxide batteries. The FX-3, like the FX-3 Super and the FX-3 Super 2000 that followed, incorporates a silicon cell and is powered by a pair of ubiquitous SR 44 silver oxide batteries.

FX-3, FX-7, FX-3 Super, FX-7 Super and FX-3 Super 2000: the differences

The black bodied FX-3 and its chrome finished sibling, the FX-7, are semi-automatic SLRs, with a silicon cell meter activated by a dedicated push button at the back of the body – in the Yashica tradition. Their fastest shutter speed is 1/1000s, and their meter is coupled from 12 to 1600 ISO. Exposure information is communicated to the photographer by 3 LEDs in the viewfinder. And thanks to their Contax Yashica bayonet lens mount, they accept any Yashica lens from the ML, MC, YUS and DSB series, as well as Contax Carl-Zeiss lenses. Older screw mount Yashica lenses can probably be used, provided you can locate a 42mm Universal to C/Y mount adapter.

On the “Super” versions, the meter is activated by a light press on the shutter release button, and a (very) small vertical grip has been added on the front right side of the body.

The Super 2000 is only available in black, its shutter speed now peaks at 1/2000 sec, and the meter is coupled from 25 to 3200 ISO.

Considering that old lenses tend to be more luminous than the zooms we use today (manual focus 50mm f/1.4 lenses are very affordable) and that 400 ISO film is often easier to find than 100 ISO stock, having a faster shutter speed is an important plus – I picked the Super 2000 for that reason.

Is it another derivative of the Cosina CT-1?

Check Wikipedia and similar sources – you’ll see the FX-3 is generally presented as a Cosina-designed and manufactured camera.

Before they bought and relaunched the Voigtlander brand, Cosina was selling is own line of compact cameras and SLRs, but was primarily known as a sub-contractor of the big camera makers – at some point, Canon, Nikon and Olympus were all selling, under their own brands, cameras that were manufactured (and to a large extent) designed by Cosina.

The fact is that Cosina was very good at deriving unique designs from a common base – the Cosina CT-1 semi-auto SLR is generally seen as the common basis for cameras as different as the Canon T-60, the Nikon FM10, the Olympus OM-2000, and Cosina’s own line of rangefinder products (the Voigtlander Bessa R series).

the bottom plate looks very similar to the OM-2000’s
Olympus OM 2000 – the fastest shutter on any Olympus SLR (1/2000sec, Flash X sync up to 1/125)

As far as Yashica is concerned, it is not absolutely certain that the cameras of the FX-3 series were made or designed by Cosina, and if they were, I doubt that were CT-1 derivatives: as we’ve seen, some of the quirks of the FX3 (the sliding mirror syndrome) seem to be unique to Yashica – I’ve never read of a Nikon FM-10 or an Olympus OM-2000 misbehaving in such a way.

The lenses

Contax Carl-Zeiss lenses share the same C/Y bayonet as Yashica’s own lenses, and they’re without a doubt the best lenses you can mount on the FX-3. They tend to be on the expensive side, though. Yashica ML (multi-coated) lenses generally have a good reputation – which reflects in their price on the second hand market. The Yashica DSB and YUS series were designed for “price conscious amateur” – a polite way to say they should be avoided if possible.

Lastly, the C/Y mount of the FX-3 is totally different from the Yashica AF lens mount (a screw drive autofocus mount similar to Minolta’s) and from the Contax N lens mount of the early 2000s (an all electric autofocus mount very similar to Canon’s EF).

Yashica Super 2000 – here with a Carl Zeiss Vario Sonnar – the main reason for buying this camera today

Shooting with the FX-3 Super 2000

The first thing you notice about the Super 2000 is its cheap construction – the lens mount and the back of the camera are made of metal, but all the other components that photographers will touch are made of plastic. As a result, the camera is light, but it does not feel reassuringly solid. The commands (wind lever, rewind crank, shutter release button) are obviously not mounted on ball or bronze bearings – you can feel the friction between the parts inside the camera.

The viewfinder is rather dim, with a short eye relief (roughly similar to the Nikon FM/FE series, which means not that great). I was disappointed not to find a depth of field preview lever, or a shutter release lock: the camera can’t be turned off.

Yashica Super 2000 – a conventional viewfinder – a split image telemeter, a ring of micro-prisms, and 3 LEDs for the exposure

All in all, it feels like a cheap (really cheap) camera, not quite as bad as the horrible Fuji AX Multi or STX-2, but still miles away from equivalent models from Canon (AT-1) or Nikon (FM, FM2), or from automatic SLRs designed for amateurs like the Pentax P30. Compared to other cameras attributed to Cosina, the FX-3 does not look as nice as the Olympus OM-2000 but the quality of the mechanics of the OM-2000 had not impressed me either. Interestingly, the FX-3’s reflex mirror does not seem to generate the same strong vibrations as the OM-2000’s at long shutter speeds – it’s probably usable hand-held down to 1/30s – a feat that the OM-2000 is incapable of.

Contax or FX-3 Super 2000?

The FX-3 Super 2000 is a very simple entry level camera, made out of plastic, and designed to a very low manufacturing cost point. It’s very light – that’s its saving grace – and that could somehow justify carrying an FX-3 in a photo-equipment bag next to a Contax SLR, as a backup. But buyers of Contax cameras or lenses were people of means, who had spent a serious amount of money for the privilege of mounting high quality lenses on a well thought and beautifully designed camera – it’s difficult to imagine them happy with a FX-3.

Next to a Contax ST – the Contax is larger, and probably twice has heavy.


Honestly, I’m not a fan of this camera, and it’s definitely not one of my keepers. To my taste, it’s too plasticky, technically too limited, and this sliding mirror issue is simply unacceptable. Even for a backup camera.

Place a FX-3 next to a Canon AT-1 or a Nikon FM, and you’ll immediately see and feel the difference. Place it next to a Contax camera, and you can’t believe they were designed and manufactured under the control of the same corporation.

Does it make sense to buy a FX-3?

  • As a backup camera? Maybe – compared to a high end Contax camera (RTS I, II or III, ST, RX, AX), the FX-3 Super 2000 is much smaller, lighter, and although it’s not as elaborate or pleasant to use (by a wide margin), it does the job when you still want to shoot with Zeiss glass, but can’t carry a very large and very heavy rig.
  • As a primary camera? Sorry, I don’t think so. Zeiss lenses have an undisputed appeal, but they’re expensive, and even Yashica ML lenses are not exactly cheap. So, if I started from scratch and wanted a good quality set to shoot film for not too much money, I would probably pick another system (Canon FD, Nikon F, Pentax K) with a wider and cheaper supply of great camera bodies and lenses. And if the lure of Zeiss lenses was too strong, and I was to spend serious money on lenses of the Contax/Yashica family, I would also spend a little more on the body, and pick Contax 139 Quartz, or a late Contax model such as the S2, the S2b or the Aria – they’re compact and hopefully devoid of too many technical issues.
You can see the mirror protruding from the hinged mirror holder. When it protrudes too much, the mirror can’t go back to its normal position and the camera becomes inoperable.

How much?

A semi auto camera from the mid-eighties, with a fast shutter and a lens mount accepting lenses known for their high quality, the FX-3 Super 2000 is not going to be cheap: its price is influenced by the current Contax-mania, and by the preference of film photographers for simple semi-automatic, manual focus cameras.

It’s obviously not in the same category (build quality, performance) as “high-end” semi-auto cameras such as the Contax S2, the Leica R6.2, the Nikon FM2, or the Olympus OM-3, but it often sells for more than Cosina CT-1 derivatives like the Olympus OM-2000 or the Canon T-60: a patient and lucky photographer can probably find a working FX-3 Super 2000 for less than $50.00, but I’ve seen ugly copies proposed for more than $100.00, with the nice ones approaching $200.00.

More about the FX-3:

Solving the mirror problem:

of the need of a hair dryer (courtesy of Jorgo Photography)

Woman with hair dryer Photograph by Jorgo Photography – Wall Art Gallery

The most elaborate manual focus Pentax SLR: the Super-Program

After the Super-Program, Pentax released a few other manual focus single lens reflex (SLRs), but targeting the beginners, learners  or  photographers who want to keep it cheap and simple: the P30 (P3 in the US) and very late in the game, the MZ-X (ZX-M in the US). But the Super-Program will remain known as the last manual focus Pentax camera aiming squarely at the “expert” or “enthusiast” photographer market.

Pentax Super-Program – the right of the top plate is pretty cramped. The small display next to the winding lever shows 1000 until the photographer has taken enough blank shots to reach the first frame on the film roll.

Launched in 1983, it was followed one year later by the Program-Plus, a marginally simplified version deprived of shutter priority mode, of TTL/OTF Flash and equipped with a cheaper shutter (1/1000 sec instead of 1/2000).

As was customary for Pentax at the time, the camera was sold under a different model name in Asia (Super-A), in Europe (Super-A “European Camera of the Year”), and in North America (Super-Program). The North American models had a silver body, while in the rest of the world the camera was sold in a nicer all black version.

Typical Pentax – the take up spool with its white “magic needles”.

The Super-Program came to life as Pentax’s competitors were accelerating the introduction of innovations in an attempt to re-animate a depressed SLR market. That year, Canon and Konica introduced SLRs with automatic film loading and motorized film advance (a real simplification for the occasional photographer), Nikon launched the FA with Matrix Metering (a major innovation), and almost everybody released an experimental auto-focus camera.

Canon A-1 vs Fujica AX-5 – two multi-automatic cameras, launched a few years before the Super-Program (1978, 1979 and 1983 respectively)

In this context, the Super-Program was a very conventional camera – its only “innovation” being the addition of a very small LCD display showing the selected shutter speed at the right of the top plate, almost under the winding lever. It was a well designed and pleasant to use camera (we’ll come to it), but not different on paper from many other multi-automatic cameras launched a few years before (Minolta XD-7, Canon A-1, Fujica AX-5, to name a few).

Typical Pentax – the orange-black signal is set in motion by the take up spool when the photographer cocks the shutter – it does not move if the film is not properly attached to the spool.

The Super-Program was apparently built around the chassis of the ME (same dimensions, same motor drive options, same absence of a shutter speed knob) and as a result was among the smallest and lightest 35mm SLRs ever made in the pre-polycarbonate era (it competed with the Olympus OM series and the Nikon EM/FG for that distinction).

For the camera to support the Program Auto-Exposure mode (and, for the Super-Program, the Shutter priority mode), it had to be fitted with one of the new Pentax-A lenses (the ones with electrical contacts). The camera was still compatible with the older K lenses, but only in aperture priority and semi-auto exposure modes.

Pentax Super-Program in Auto-exposure, shutter priority mode – the mode selector is on “M”, and the shutter speed selected by the photographer is 1/15 sec.
Pentax Super-Program in Auto Exposure – aperture priority mode – the photographer has selected an aperture of f/2.8 – the camera’s metering system has chosen a shutter speed of 1/15sec.
  • Weight, Size and ergonomics
    Derived from the successful Pentax ME series, the Super-A is a very compact and very light camera. There is probably more plastic used in its construction than in the first models of the ME series (the prism housing is clearly made out of polycarbonate), but the chassis is still made of metal and the camera feels pleasantly dense. As with cameras of the Pentax ME generation, there is no shutter speed dial on the Super-A, just two up and down buttons. On the ME Super, the only way to know what shutter speed had been selected (either by the auto exposure system or by the photographer in manual mode) was to look through the viewfinder. On the Super-A, the selected shutter speed is also shown on a very small LCD display next to the film wind lever, which is convenient (the Program-Plus is deprived of this small LCD), and makes the lack of a proper shutter speed knob more acceptable. Film loading is still a manual process, but Pentax has tried to make it as easy and reliable as possible, with multiple safeguards – for instance, the camera will not operate and will simply display 1000 on the shutter speed display until the film has been advanced to the first frame.

    The camera falls in the hands nicely, with a small removable grip and a thumb rest on the right side of the body, and an easy to access depth of field preview lever.  That being said, people with large hands would be better off with a larger camera: you really need small fingers and long nails to unlock and move the main mode selector from Lock to Auto or Manual, and the two push buttons that control the shutter speed are also tiny.

  • Viewfinder
    Derived from the M series, the Super-Program inherited some of their qualities – the viewfinder is large, wide, with a reasonably long eye-point (you can still see the whole frame if you wear glasses). The focusing screen is fine and luminous, with a split image telemeter surrounded by a ring of micro-prisms.
    The shutter speed and aperture information is displayed at the bottom of the viewfinder, on a grey LCD. The LCD is backlit – a window at the top of the prism collects the ambient light, and a push button on the left side of the lens mount flange turns on a rather faint light – so that the displays can be seen in when there is not enough ambient light.
    Honestly, this setup is far less legible than the green displays we’re used to if we shoot with dSLRs, or than the red LEDs used by the Canon A-1. But the camera only needs two small SR44 batteries (as opposed to the larger 6 volt battery of the A-1 or the large lithium batteries of modern cameras).
  • Metering system
    The Super-Program is very conventional: a center weighted average metering system, that’s all. No spot metering, no matrix metering (not invented yet…), and no DX coding (not invented yet).
    The camera obviously was designed for knowledgeable amateurs and enthusiasts, but surprisingly there is no exposure memory lock push button.
  • Battery:
    The Super-Program does not work – at all – without batteries. But it seems to manage them very carefully, and lets the photographer know in advance when the batteries will need to be changed. It simply needs a pair of the very easy to find Silver Oxide 1.5v batteries (SR44) that you can buy in any pharmacy or drugstore in the US.
  • Compatibility:
    Designed for the new KA mount (with electrical contacts to control the aperture), the Super-Program also works with any Pentax K compatible lens (SMC-Pentax, Pentax-M) as well as with the auto-focus FA lenses that followed. Considering the very long production run of the K mount family (available under one form or another since 1976), the wide adoption of the Pentax K bayonet mount amongst second tier camera makers, and the relative broad diffusion of Pentax branded lenses, finding a lens that fits the Super-Program is not an issue.Most of the accessories (winder, in particular) are shared with the previous ME generation.Pentax only released two manual focus cameras with TTL/OTF flash metering (Through The Lens, On The Film), the high end, modular LX and the Super A. Of course, specific flash units are needed to take advantage of the TTL mode, but at least the LX and the Super-A are using the same line of TTL flash guns. Other Pentax (or third party) flash units can be used, but won’t support TTL (*)
  • Reliability
    Electronic cameras from the mid-seventies-mid eighties have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability or battery management, in general. In certain cases, it’s totally justified (Fujica AX-3, AX-5, OM-2sp, Canon T90). I’ve not heard or read about any recurring horror story about the Super-A.
    That being said, if you shun electronics and want to use a relatively recent mechanical camera, there are not many alternatives in the Pentax family: the K1000 is about the only option – it was manufactured until 1997, and it’s possible to find fairly recent copies.
  • Scarcity and price – the Super-Program, and its little brother the Program-Plus were widely distributed (a total of 2 million cameras sold), and enough of them were treated with respect that good copies are easy to find on eBay,, and with resellers of second hand equipment. So, they’re not scarce, but not cheap either. The Super-Program is one of those cameras whose value is going up at the moment: it meets the criteria of a new-classic: it’s a manual focus, full featured and at the same time easy to use camera that will satisfy beginners and enthusiasts. You can find nice copies between $50.00 and $100.00 – and if you like your cameras all black, you’ll have to buy a Super-A from European or Japanese sellers, at roughly the same prices.
Pentax Super Program in… Program Mode (P). 1/30 sec; f/2
Pentax Super-Program – semi-auto exposure (the camera will operate at 1/8sec and the exposure is as determined by the metering system (at zero)

As a conclusion

It’s a nice little camera – for people who, in 1983, wanted “everything” – a relatively fast shutter (1/2000 sec), three automatic and a manual exposure mode, a good viewfinder with depth of field preview, exposure compensation, TTL Flash, and the ability to mount a winder.

It can draw from a very large range of Pentax K compatible lenses, and is still very affordable.

Doing “everything” in a non-motorized camera of such a small form factor leads to pretty cramped top plate, and difficult to operate controls for people with large hands or short nails.

Those who need “everything” and don’t mind shooting with a bigger/heavier camera can pick the Canon A-1, or the T90. The Nikon FA is also an option – although it shares some of its limitations with the Super-Program (no exposure memory lock, small and dark LCDs in the viewfinder). Those who love the small form factor and can live with a slower shutter and fewer auto exposure modes can pick the Olympus OM-2. (**)

In the Pentax family of cameras, the P3 of 1985 is an alternative to consider – a bit larger, it’s easier to use (with a large shutter speed knob and a large on-off switch, and easier to read information in the viewfinder). Sold as an entry level camera, it only has a 1/1000s shutter, can not be motorized, does not support TTL flash, and only offers a semi-auto mode in addition to the default Program mode. Its successors, the P3n and the P3t,  add an Aperture priority mode. All have a good viewfinder and the very useful (for me) exposure lock function. They’re cheaper and even easier to find than the Super-Program, have everything a film photographer may need today, and are good cameras to discover film photography.

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

(*) flash – I’m not sure that flash control is an issue now – considering 1/ the high fail rate when shooting with flash with old cameras and old flash units, 2/ how easy it is NOT to need a flash on a modern digital camera (you simply set the ISO at 12,000), and 3/ how quick it is to check the quality of the lighting if you shoot with a flash mounted on a digital camera, you would have to be more of a purist than I am to shoot with a flash on a film camera.

(**) I’ve never used Minolta’s manual focus SLRs and can’t really comment on them – but there are good cameras in Minolta’s line-up obviously.

Pentax Super-Program – a very compact camera.

Sorry, no picture taken with the Super-Program this time (I don’t travel much because of Covid – and the opportunities for interesting shots are pretty limited in my backyard…)

The three pictures below were taken with another member of the Pentax family, the *ist DS, twelve years ago, in Georgetown.

Georgetown – the original workshop where the company that would become IBM started was in a street like this one.
Right here…
Georgetown (DC) – the plaque at the place where IBM started…

The Praktica B100: “almost a Contax” camera?

Not really. Even if the Praktica B100 (and its lenses) may have been manufactured – at least in part – at locations where Zeiss used to assemble Contax cameras before WWII.

Praktica B100 (second series, 1982)

After having spent my hard earned cash on a Contax ST and its impressive Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 28-85 lens (both manufactured in Japan by Kyocera in the early nineties), I was curious to see what a camera proudly wearing (on the Eastern Block markets) the “Carl-Zeiss Jena” logo was really capable of. I found a very nice/very clean Praktica B100 on the site of Goodwill, and bought it for price of a few lattes at Starbucks.

So, back to Contax, Zeiss, Pentacon and Praktica….

But the truth is that apart from their geographical origin, those Prakticas had very little in common with pre-war Contax cameras, or with the Contax S sold just after the end of WWII – Praktica cameras owed more to designs created originally by another firm from Dresden, K.W (Kamera-Werkstätten Guthe & Thorsch), than to Carl Zeiss’ blueprints.

Although they did not have the right to use the Zeiss and Contax names on the export markets of the West, the East-Germans still tried to associate their line of 35mm SLRs with those prestigious brands: the Praktica cameras sold in the Eastern block wore Carl Zeiss-Jena logos at visible places (as did some of the lenses they were exporting to Western Europe).

The story of Zeiss is as complex and dramatic as Germany’s.

Founded in Jena, and located primarily in the Dresden area, the original Zeiss company suffered from massive aerial bombing during WWII, and from political circumstances in the aftermath of the war. First occupied by the US armed forces, but ultimately located in the Soviet occupation zone, it saw most of its leadership relocated to its Stuttgart offices by the Americans, while the Russians were literally disassembling what was left of its plants and moving them crate by crate to Kiev (Ukraine) as war reparations.

The Praktica brand has never been very strong in the US, and Praktica cameras were often sold under labels such as “Cavalier” or “Hanimex” – Here the STL-I (aka Praktica Super TL) – sold from 1968 to 1976. Note the size of the camera, compared to a Japanese Olympus OM-1n of the same vintage

Lengthy legal disputes with the newly formed West German Carl Zeiss AG led the East German Zeiss entity to lose the use of its own name and brands on the Western markets. Under communist management, the East German Zeiss was progressively diluted into a huge state owned conglomerate named Pentacon, which found itself – at least in the West – relegated to the market of simple and affordable SLRs. Sold under the brand “Praktica”, they were more elaborate than the very rustic Russian Zenit, but increasingly behind the Japanese competition.

In 1979, Praktica finally  launched a modern automatic SLR with a bayonet mount, the B200, whose derivatives would be manufactured and sold well after the fall of the Berlin wall.

When the communist regime finally fell and West Germany absorbed its East German counterpart, some divisions of the East German optical industry were reunited with Carl Zeiss AG, but not the Praktica line of business – it had been deemed non-competitive in a capitalist market economy. Production continued on a much smaller scale under the control of another German company, Schneider, until the film SLR activity was ultimately terminated in the early 2000s.

The Praktica B line

At least in the West, Praktica was primarily known for a line a semi-automatic SLRs using the Universal 42mm lens mount (such as the Cavalier shown above), but by the mid seventies, even in the entry-level/learners camera market, the screw mount was becoming a handicap.

Metallic bayonet mount, using electrical contacts to transmit the aperture value – a design still a few years from being adopted by the Japanese industry.

The B200 was the first model of a totally new line of cameras and lenses, and was followed by simplified and cheaper models such as this B100 manufactured in East Germany in 1981 or 1982. The lens (a 50mm f/1.8) was sold as a “Pentacon Prakticar” in the West, while models destined to markets of the Eastern block were labeled “Carl-Zeiss Jena”. Interestingly, my B100 makes no mention of its East German origin, or of the “Zeiss” brand. Not on the body, not on the lens.

What is it like?

With a new battery (a 6 volt 28A cell that you can find in every pharmacy or drugstore), the camera sprang to life immediately. Honestly, I did not expect it (considering previous experiences with Shopgoodwill, and the reputation for questionable reliability of the electronic components designed in the eighties, in particular on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain). The camera and the lens look solid and are well finished – the camera is still mostly made of metal, while the lens is made of a nice plastic (with a lens mount machined from a metal alloy).

Praktica B100 – the shutter speed selected by the camera is shown by a black needle over a scale engraved on the right side of the focusing screen (here somewhere between 1/15th and 1/30th sec)

On paper, the B100 is competing in the same category as the Nikon EM or the Canon AL-1 – namely a simplified Aperture Priority automatic exposure and manual focus camera, providing no direct control of the shutter speed to the photographer (no semi-auto or manual exposure modes). The shutter speed selected by the automatic exposure system is indicated by a needle in the viewfinder, but there is no auto exposure lock or even a simple exposure compensation mechanism (like the +2EV push button of many of those simplified Japanese cameras) – the photographer has to use exposure compensation dial (which equates to playing with the film sensitivity). There is no depth of field preview either.

Canon AV-1 – a camera targeting the same audience as the Praktica B100 – the photographer can only use the camera in auto-exposure/aperture priority mode.

The viewfinder is very decent – large enough, with a fine and relatively luminous focusing screen. Focusing aids include a split image telemeter, surrounded by a ring of microprisms. No reason to complain.

The bayonet lens mount is proprietary. Prime lenses were made in East Germany (a 28mm, a 35mm, a couple of 50mm lenses, a 80mm and a 135mm), and two zoom lenses were sourced from Japan (probably from Sigma): a sliding aperture 35-70, and a sliding aperture 70-210mm. As usual with brands targeting price conscious buyers, wide angle and tele lenses did not sell in large quantities. They tend to be difficult to find nowadays and are comparatively expensive.

How much…buying a Practice B series now…

I still have to shoot a few rolls of film with the camera, but upon a cursory inspection it looks fine (reasonably accurate exposure, light seals in good condition). It’s not the camera I would bring for a trip to the end of the world: it does not offer enough control over the exposure, and I remember that back in the eighties, the B series’ reputation was abysmal when it came to reliability. But the truth is that its perceived quality is much higher than some entry level cameras from the same era (Fuji AX Multi or STX-2 for instance). All in all a pleasant surprise.

Like the Canon AV-1 or the Pentax MV, an over-simplified camera: Automatic, Flash or B – no other option.

The Praktica B series were manufactured from 1979 to 1990, before being superseded by the BX series – which were sold until 2001. The BX were still manual focus cameras (of course) but their internals had been updated, and the industrial design refreshed with more curves and bulges, and much more polycarbonate. The BX cameras were sold in much smaller quantities than the B series (200,000 units before the German re-unification, and 33,000 in the 10 following years, as opposed to 1.1 million over 11 years for the B series).

a clean dark chamber – note some points of rust on the screws and under the winding lever – lots of iron in this camera

This relative scarcity could explain why some late BX series (in particular those with green colored bodies) are so expensive: they are sometimes proposed for more than $1,000 on auction sites. On the other hand, early B series (like the B100 or the B200) can still be found for less than $25.00, which is in line with the price of other amateur/entry-level SLRs from the same vintage.

If you’re really interested in one of those “almost a Contax” cameras, you don’t need to spend much – unless you’re willing to pay to the roof for the privilege of shooting film with the only “made in [re-unified, non-communist] Germany” single lens reflex which is not a Leica R.

Contax ST (with Contax Carl-Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 28-85 f/3.3-4.0 zoom) next to a Praktica B100. The Contax cameras from that era were developed and manufactured by Kyocera in Japan.

More about Praktica cameras

Sorry, no picture shot with the Praktica yet – but 2 pictures shot in Paris with another made in Japan (West) German camera , the Leica CL:

Paris – Canal St Martin – Leica CL, Summicron 40mm f/2
Paris – Canal St Martin – Leica CL – Summicron 40mm