It’s a bit early to write Pentax’s obituary. But there’s no denying that the company (now a subsidiary of Ricoh) is a mere shadow of its former self.
From the mid fifties to the early seventies, the Asahi Optical Corporation was an innovator. They scored an impressive number of “first” :
- First Japanese single lens reflex camera to enter production (Asahiflex – 1952)
- First reflex camera with instant return mirror (Asahiflex II b – 1954)
- First modern single lens reflex (SLR) camera, with a pentaprism at the center of the top plate, a winder arm and shutter speed knob on the right side, and a folding rewind crank to the left (the “original” Pentax of 1957). This was to be the model for all other reflex cameras for the next 20 years. The camera was so important for Asahi that the whole corporation became later known as “Pentax Corp”.
- First SLR with Through the Lens (TTL) metering on the market (Pentax Spotmatic – 1964)
- First automatic exposure SLR with an electronic shutter (Pentax Electro Spotmatic – 1971)
- First multi layer coated lens (or at least the first manufacturer to communicate about multi-layer coated lenses to the public at large – 1971)
As a result, Asahi Pentax was a sales leader in the sixties and early seventies: for example, it was the first Japanese camera company to sell over one million SLRs.
Pentax lost its supremacy during the first half of the seventies
- they stuck to the Spotmatic form factor until 1975
- they stuck with stopped down metering on their line of bread and butter Spotmatic cameras until the launch of the Spotmatic F in 1973, and to the m42 screw mount until far too late. Because they had adopted a proprietary bayonet early on, Minolta and Nikon had been able to offer full aperture metering (a major comfort improvement for the photographer) since 1966, with Canon and Olympus following in 1971.
- As a result, Pentax was out-innovated by new entrants: Olympus OM-1 (the first ultra-compact SLR and camera system); Fujica ST-801 and ST-901 (first use of Silicon metering cells and of LED displays in the viewfinder); Olympus OM-2 (first implementation of On The Film (OTF) real time flash metering).
The second half of the seventies was not better: Pentax was in reactive mode and started progressively being pushed to the bottom of the market :
- Changes to their lens mount are always very risky for camera manufacturers. It may not bother the beginner or the amateur who are only going to shoot with the kit lens they bought with the camera, but it’s an invitation for enthusiasts and pros to reconsider their aleigence to the brand. Between 1971 and 1976, Pentax changed the lens mount of its cameras twice.
- Pentax could not compete with Canon and Nikon in the “pro” market because they did not have a modular camera to offer until they launched the LX in 1980, and after they did, they lacked some of the specialized lenses and the support network that the pros required,
- they were out-innovated in the heart of the enthusiast market: Canon with cheaper to manufacture and feature rich micro-processor driven cameras such as the AE-1 and the A-1, Minolta with multi-mode SLRs.
- they had to face new competitors in the “amateur” segment of the market with Nikon and Olympus successfully entering the broader consumer market with cameras such as the EM and the OM-10 in 1979.
By the end of the eighties, Pentax had been relegated to the 4th position on the photo-equipment market, behind Canon, Minolta and Nikon. They had completed the transition to auto-focus SLRs, but were primarily known for their two remaining manual focus SLRs (the K1000 and the P3) and their water-resistant point and shoot cameras.
They survived until the advent of digital photography. Konica-Minolta’s deep troubles gave them one last chance of resurgence in 2003-2004. They recovered the #3 position on the market for a while. But after early successes – their first dSLRs, the *ist D and *ist DS were good cameras, technically on par with contemporary Canon and Nikon offerings – they did not (or could not) keep up with the pace of their competitors, and let their market share decline to the point where their presence is hardly noticeable today.
More about Pentax’s last manual focus cameras in a few weeks with reviews of the Super-Program (Super-A), P3 (P30) and ZX-M.