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.