Pentax K1000 – Camera Review

A plump, chunky camera stares at me from across the room. I avert my eyes and glance back at the computer screen, my stomach growing queasy with anxiety. Writing about this camera is proving tiresome, and I start to question whether I’m up to the task. I glance back nervously at it for inspiration, its awkward figure and vacant lens offering none. Again and again I hear the quick clickity-clack of the keyboard under my fingers, but the sound is immediately followed by the furious tik-tik-tik of the backspace key. Nothing’s working.

I tear myself away in frustration and pace around the house. Cameras usually hold endless inspiration, and on some days articles seem to write themselves. Today is no such day. Today I have met my match, and its name is the Pentax K1000.

The K1000 is, confusingly enough, Pentax’s crown jewel. Why is this confusing? The camera was never intended to be the brand’s flagship model, nor was it heavily advertised or promoted by the company. It was designed as a low-spec body for amateurs, relegated to play second fiddle to the more full-featured KM. But even though it was intended as a second-rate camera, the K1000 became far and away their most popular and long-lived machine, selling millions of copies spanning its introduction in 1976 to its culmination in 1997. This impressive twenty-one year production run is rivaled by few cameras, most notably by the professional Nikon F3, a camera seemingly more deserving of this unusual success.

Further research into the popularity of the K1000 shows even more unlikely success. This humble camera somehow became one of the most well-known and well-loved cameras in the world, so much so that TIME magazine gave it a spot on their All-TIME 100 Gadgets list. Forum warriors proclaim its prowess as the perfect beginner’s camera, and our own James even marks it as the perfect machine for photography students. In the field, ears perk up at the mention of its name, and rosy nostalgia blushes the faces of former photography students at its sight. But after months of trying to love the K1000, I simply can’t share in the collective fawning over this chunky, simplistic machine.

But I try to remain objective. What has made this camera so popular? Is it the spec sheet? Is it the size and weight? I need to know. So start at the beginning; the user’s manual. It doesn’t help.

When I read the K1000’s sparse feature list I become even more puzzled. The best-sellers of the era were often cameras with some kind of automation, new technological innovation, or a straight-up gimmick, yet somehow this camera outsold these competitors without so much as a self-timer. It sports a same-as-the-rest mechanical, horizontally-traveling, cloth focal plane shutter with speeds from one second to 1/1000th of a second plus bulb, a shutter button, manual rewind, an average scene light meter, a simple pentaprism with the most basic focusing aids, a swing needle light meter display (that’s hard to see in the dark)… and, uh, some other things offered by every other basic camera.

The spartan design philosophy normally doesn’t bother me. In fact, as a fan of minimalist mechanical cameras I expected to really fall for the K1000. But as I hold it and stare at its blocky Asahi Pentax logo, I can’t help but compare it to another Pentax, the SV. Though more than a decade apart, the SV and the K1000 are essentially the same camera. The difference being that the older SV is a much better camera overall, even without a light meter. Many praise the K1000 for breaking photography down into its essentials, but the SV does the very same with a sleeker look and a smoother feel. In fact, many other cameras like the Pentax Spotmatic, the Minolta SRT, the Nikkormat FTn, and the Canon FTb can play the stripped down amateur SLR role much better than the K1000 can. With this realization, the sound of my keystrokes become more frenetic, even annoyed.

Why is this camera considered one of the greatest cameras of all time?

I think back and relive the past few weeks of shooting the hefty Pentax. Perhaps my answer lies there.

Out in the field, things aren’t jelling. The body feels annoyingly lengthy, and from back to front it’s uncomfortably thin. This makes for an awkward feeling camera. It’s also heavy, being mostly made out of metal, and the absence of any kind of ergonomic handgrip makes the weight harder to manage. The shutter release button is too far from center, curling my digits into a malformed claw every time I want to take a photo, and the shutter speed selector is too small and too obstructed by the release button and advance lever.

Any elegance found in Pentax’s earlier Spotmatic and SV cameras is conspicuously absent on the K1000. It lags behind these better cameras in one important category – execution. The shutter is uncomfortably loud, mirror slap reverberates throughout the body and into your hand, and the film advance lever ratchets with a stiff, disappointing stroke. In function, the K1000 is obstinate; its pleasures will not be found in the tactile.

As I shoot through another roll of film, the answer to the question of its popularity still eludes me. The K1000 offers no encouragement. Like a Catholic school nun, it guilts me into doing my duty. I reach the end of the roll and wind it back up, almost glad that the ordeal has passed.

A few days later I’m seeing the scans from the rolls passed through the K1000. Thankfully, the light meter guided my exposures well enough, and all my shots come back properly exposed. They’re sharp and precise, nicely composed, and look… pretty good, actually. I’m impressed, if not with the K1000 then certainly with its nondescript sidekick, the camera’s SMC Pentax-M 50mm F/2 kit lens. It isn’t a stellar performer wide open, but it makes up for it with a rich, dense color profile offered by Pentax’s SMC glass. And it begins to dawn on me that perhaps the popularity of the K1000 stems not from the camera itself, but from its ability to mount Pentax’s amazing lenses. Interesting.

Further examining my photos, I start to feel an odd satisfaction with the K1000 and its basic kit lens. The images created by the humble combination possess a depth uncommon in the digital age, and the look is addicting. I find myself wanting to shoot more film through this camera that had, until now, been entirely uninspiring. My eyes fall on a spare roll of Superia and I load it in.

Just then, it hits me. Today, the K1000 is a special camera for one simple and essential reason.

Imagine a young photo geek taking their first photography class, a class that requires students to use film. Slightly miffed that they can’t use their fancy DSLR, they instead receive a chunky, overworked camera from their school’s photography department. They shoot a roll through it expecting nothing, and sure enough, many images are mis-exposed, out of focus, and poorly composed. But our student comes to the final print, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The photo has depth and beauty that our young photo geek has never made with a digital camera. The exposure is perfect, colors pop, details are rendered with painterly subtlety, and there’s a certain magic in the print. The new shooter realizes that though film is an old medium, it possesses a beauty that can’t be replicated. They look back at the humble K1000 with newfound awe and reverence, finally appreciating the camera’s potential. They load up another roll with anticipation and burst out the door, hoping for the miracle to happen once more.

This is the typical story in which, for many new photographers, the K1000 is a central figure. After using one for a couple of months, I’ve begun to understand the allure. I realize that the K1000’s greatest strength is its ability to fulfill the role that it was designed for. It wasn’t made to get people to fall in love with cameras, it was made to help people fall in love with photography. Forget technical ability, a massive spec sheet, and expensive design; it’s the very absence of these things that makes the photographic process with the K1000 so rewarding. Stripped of any and all distractions, we find ourselves taking shots with our wits as our only weapon.

The K1000 isn’t the perfect camera, it may not even be a great camera. Personally, I’d choose several other machines before settling for this Pentax. But even so, the K1000 managed to do what few cameras seldom do; it helped me relive the magic moment in which I fell deeply in love with the art of photography. And I suspect it’s done the same for millions of other photo geeks. Any camera capable of that is worthy of a place among the best, no matter how chunky or under-specced it may be.

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25 Comments

  • Reply
    Stu Williams
    November 7, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Hah, brilliant. I really felt your journey every step of the way in this piece. Amazing when the joy comes unexpectedly like this. Thanks for sharing it so effectively

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 8, 2016 at 1:28 am

      Thanks Stu! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Reply
    Samuel Tang
    November 7, 2016 at 1:23 pm

    The advent of the K-series, consisting of the K2, KX and KM, was soon followed by the M-series, and the mechanical KX and KM were phased out, while an upgraded K2, the K2DMD was introduced. Pentax had the habit of using up surplus parts, which happened with the original Spotmatic where the surplus parts were assembled as the SP1000 and SP500, in that sense, surplus KX and KM parts were used to build the K1000 as a way to use them up. But of course, the K1000 became such a success and out-lived the K2 models, production was transferred to facilities in Hong Kong, and then China, and lenses were built in Taiwan. Even with its demise, the basic camera – with modifications – carried on being made in China under the subcontractor’s brand Mingca and others.

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 8, 2016 at 1:31 am

      Thanks for the info Samuel! Interesting to learn about Pentax’s usage of spare parts for consumer cameras.

  • Reply
    PETER WENDES
    November 7, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    Agree with all the above. The Spotmatic wins on elegance.

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 8, 2016 at 1:32 am

      Thanks for reading Peter! The Spotmatic’s a gem of a camera.

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    November 7, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    So you still don’t like the K1000, but nice article.

  • Reply
    Huss
    November 7, 2016 at 3:51 pm

    Nice write up. I get why the K1000 was a popular camera in its day as at its price point it was affordable to students.
    Much better built cameras, aimed at the pro/semi pro market, like the Nikkormat series were much more expensive.
    Crazy thing is nowadays the K1000 on the (obviously) used market can be more expensive than the far superior Nikkormat. And the only reason I can figure out why is that because the K1000 was recommended for students back when it was new, people are recommending it again now. Inflating the prices. Pro/ Semi pro cameras like the Nikkormats, Nikon FMs etc never were recommended for students back then because they were too expensive. Now they can be cheaper than the K1000.

    • Reply
      Stu Williams
      November 7, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Dead right. My FTN and both my SRT bodies in total cost me less than one K1000 would here in the UK.

      • Reply
        Samuel Tang
        November 8, 2016 at 1:37 am

        Stu, the K1000 stand to be newer than both the FTN and SRT, and can take modern batteries rather than the now-defunct mercury 625. Sure you could say there are workrounds but that would just make the K1000 more attractive.

        • Reply
          Huss
          November 8, 2016 at 3:02 am

          The Nikkormat FT2 and FT3 take regular modern SR44 1.5V batteries . No work around needed. I recently bought a perfect silver FT2 for $17! Gave it to my nephew as I already had one.
          Use a Nikkormat. Use a K1000. Difference in quality is very obvious, which makes sense since the Nikon was about 4 times the cost new.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 8, 2016 at 12:50 am

      I think you’re right.

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 8, 2016 at 1:38 am

      This is true! Collective nostalgia has been extremely kind to the K1000. I find it particularly funny that the K1000’s big brother, the K2, consistently sells for less than the K1000. Thanks for reading, Huss!

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    November 8, 2016 at 3:37 am

    In my somewhat simplistic opinion, Pentax is pretty, Canon is clever, Nikon is reliable.

    • Reply
      Stu Williams
      November 8, 2016 at 9:13 am

      That’s fun, what do you have for the M word? I always thought their ads should have said ‘From the MindS of Minolta’

      • Reply
        Merlin Marquardt
        November 8, 2016 at 5:58 pm

        Don’t really know. I have only one Minolta, X700. Haven’t used it much. Seems pretty nice. Probably put it somewhere between Canon and Nikon. Maybe mental for Minolta.

  • Reply
    Stu Williams
    November 8, 2016 at 9:08 am

    i just get such a kick out of being able to have and use cameras I longed for in my teens, twenties, thirties etc, and couldn’t imagine ever being able to afford. Love ’em all

  • Reply
    dan james
    November 8, 2016 at 11:01 am

    I had a KM, and a K1000, and I preferred the KM because of the depth of field preview button. Both cameras didn’t quite look or feel right with M series lenses, so I got one of the original SMC Pentax 55/1.8s. Beautiful lens, and the weight and feel make a lot more sense.

    But…

    Then I realised the KM and K1000 were essentially a Spotmatic F with K mount. Furthermore, the 55/1.8 SMC lens was the M42 Takumar 55/1.8 but with K mount.

    My Spotmatic F with a Super-Takumar 55/1.8 just looks and feels better than the K1000 or KM with the SMC lens, and the final images are going to be identical. So I didn’t need the KM or K1000 and sold both.

    These days the K1000 seems kind of redundant. If you want a K mount camera, get one of the much smaller M series like the ME, ME Super, MG etc, and use the excellent Pentax-M series lenses.

    If you want something the size of the K1000 and that’s all mechanical, with a vast range of lenses (Takumar, Zeiss, Pentacon, Helios, Yashinon etc), get a Spotmatic F, or one of the other Spotmatics. Or, like your post said, the older but prettier and significantly smaller SV or S1a.

    The K1000 is one of those film cameras (in which I’d include the Olympus Mju II / Stylus Epic and Nikon L35AF) where internet hype has led to over inflated reputations and prices, and the price point these days compared with their rivals is vastly above the consumer level they were originally intended for.

    They have their plus points, but I expect most people who buy any of these group of hype cameras will feel a bit disappointed.

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 19, 2016 at 4:30 am

      Thanks for the input Dan! I agree; the K1000 has become a bit redundant. I feel that way about a few cameras, but perhaps that’s a topic for another day…

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    November 8, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    My first wife was a pro photographer, and kept her first SLR, a K1000, for everyday personal use. It became the first SLR I ever used. And so it set kind of a standard for me. So perhaps I fall into the same camp of nostalgia that you so accurately call out. But I’ve got probably two dozen SLRs hanging around the house now and it’s remarkable how seldom I get out the K1000. When I want to use my K-mount lenses, I’m more likely to grab my Pentax ME. It feels better in my hands.

    • Reply
      Josh
      November 19, 2016 at 4:33 am

      Funny you mention that; I feel the exact same way about my Nikon FG. It set the standard for me as my first camera, but it rarely sees much action these days. The ME’s such a sweet camera! I just wish James didn’t beat me to the review on that one!

  • Reply
    Adam
    November 10, 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Nicely shared!

    Having used a K1000 longer ago than I care to admit (it was after all THE overwhelming choice for photography classes as well as school yearbook cameras), I recall its advantages as being 1) the cheapest SLR available new, 2) a camera that did offer metering, and 3) a mechanical camera that still worked even if the batteries crapped out. The third attribute has certainly helped this already prevalent model persist in the decades since, when its more electronic siblings may fail. Add in the nostalgia element, and its not too hard to see why the camera remains well liked, even in the presence of so many better equipped cameras in the very same price range.

    All told, I do share your admiration for this model for what it did to spread interest in photography, and also agree that I can think of a number of alternatives I’d rather have with me in my film photography travels today than the venerable “K-grand.”

  • Reply
    James Wolcott
    November 12, 2016 at 10:36 pm

    Just checked the used section at BH photovideo and it’s selling three K1000 cameras with 50mm lenses at prices ranging from $229 to $289. By comparison, a Minolta X700 w/ 50mm lens is going for $199.

    Guess I lucked out getting a working K1000 with a 50 2.0 lens for $45 last winter at a thrift shop in NJ. It’s not my go-to camera–I’m more inclined to pick up my Olympus OM2–but still quite a bargain.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      November 13, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      Thrift stores are certainly less expensive. I think when you buy from dedicated shops you pay for guarantees about functionality and clear indications of cosmetic condition. In any case, you got a great deal! Enjoy it.

  • Reply
    Simon Peterson
    December 3, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    I picked up a spotmatic and was generally pretty pleased with the ergonomics and build quality. Then I got back my first roll of XP2 and was sold. That pentax glass is spectacular. It simply makes a nicer picture then any of my expensive Nikkor glass does. The meter died in mine after a few weeks, but it’s so nice I keep shooting with it.

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