The Mighty K

From time to time, many have made lists of the most important 35mm cameras, citing key features that made them popular, or groundbreaking for their day. Usually, the Leica M3 makes the list, along with the Nikon F, and the Canon AE-1. If I’m throwing in my two cents, I’d definitely want to include the Pentax K-1000. Not only does it belong on the list, but it deserves to be somewhere near the top.
“But, but, but …” I can hear all the technophiles chirping, already. Sure, the K-1000 was a low-tech camera for its day. In fact, it was the entry-level model for many a year, usually found near the back of the product brochures behind all the newer models with fancier shutters, meters, and accessories.
If you aren’t familiar with the K-1000, it deserves a proper description to put it in its proper place in photographic history. Basically, in 1976 Pentax brought it out as the lowliest member of its product lineup, which had all been converted over to the then-new K bayonet mount. Before that, Pentax had been hugely successful as a 35mm SLR maker in the 1960s with its series of M-42 screw-mount cameras. Many called the screw threaded lens mount a “universal” mount, since so many companies were using it. That most basic of lens attachment systems worked quite well for amateurs who weren’t switching lenses ten times a day. Pentax adopted the mount from the East-German Contax S (which later morphed into the Pentacon – Praktica line of cameras), and so did many others. M-42 mounts were found on Ricohs, Yashicas, Fujicas, Mamiyas, and many budget models coming from the Cosina factory.
But Pentax had the most desirable lineup of “universal mount” cameras, which really kicked off in 1962 when they showed off the Spotmatic – boasting a through-the -lens exposure meter – very cutting edge for the day. But aside from the built-in meter, the Spotmatic was a totally manual, mechanical SLR – which was to be expected in 1962, of course. Prototype cameras had a spot meter, hence the “Spotmatic” moniker, but production cameras had a more sensible center-weighted pattern. But they kept the cool name just the same.

There were a few Spotmatic models over the years, stretching into the mid-1970s, but they were still basic, solid, mechanical cameras. There was the “Electro Spotmatic”, the ES, which added aperture priority automation, but Pentax was getting backed into a corner by the screw mount lens. Having a lens that rotates on threads made it difficult to add all those little pins and levers that more sophisticated, more automatic, cameras would require.
So Pentax bit the bullet in 1973 and brought out a line of cameras with a new “K” bayonet mount. It must have been a tough road for awhile, having abandoned the most popular lens mount around. It didn’t help that Pentax’s adapter for screw mount was rather fiddly to install and remove (and still is, because it’s still available for the digital SLRs).
In the early K series line, there was the flagship K-2 (kind of an updated ES), the K-X, and eventually, the K-1000.
What sets the K-1000 apart is not what features it has, but what it doesn’t have. Seriously, there is no self-timer, no place to put an accessory winder. There’s no automatic mode. There’s no readouts in the finder to indicate shutter speed or aperture – just a simple needle to show exposure. There no depth-of-field preview, no multiple-exposure provision, no LEDs or beepers. There’s not even an on-off switch.
35mm SLRs don’t get more bare bones than this. Some, myself included, call the K-1000 the Volkswagen Beetle of the 35mm world. It was the perfect student camera for two decades – and still is to this day, if you can find one in good shape. Its raw simplicity is its best feature, and I have known many serious photographers who swore they never needed more than a K-1000 to take their best shots.
With a good battery in the camera base, all you had to do to get the light meter working was to take off the lens cap, wind the shutter, compose, focus, and adjust the shutter speed and aperture to your liking – and shoot. That’s all there was.
Photography instructors definitely liked to see students in their classes with the K-1000, or something just like it, because they knew there was so little to muddy the waters. No confusing exposure modes, or digital readouts, or anything else to get in the way. It was pure manual, manual, manual – and the instructor knew the student was learning photography the right way. After all, automatic modes are really only useful when you know what they’re up to. I just wish more people understood that.
What made a K-1000? Basically, Pentax took their old-tech 1960s Spotmatic design, and stripped it down to the bare bones, then added a K-mount. Many internal parts are interchangeable between the last Spotmatics and the K-1000. The basic shutter system (cloth, horizontal), meter system, and mirror box layout are all pure Spotmatic. The camera even inherits the somewhat old-fashioned frame counter mounted on top of the main wind lever, like a 1930s rangefinder. The K-1000 must have been the last camera around to still have that setup.
Deleting the self-timer, adjustable flash sync (bulbs really were dead by the 1970s, except for flashcubes), and on/off switch (the meter is always on, so keep the cap on to stop the batteries dying), all worked to keep the camera simple and the price down.
Even so, with its basic 50mm f2.0 lens, the price of the K-1000 crept up over the years. Originally made in Japan, Pentax moved production to Taiwan, then to Hong Kong, and then finally mainland China. The last cameras had plastic top covers, plastic rewind shafts, and less refined internal parts. I saw the last ones being advertised at $499 in the late ‘90s – which seemed an awful lot for what had been a $200 camera in 1980. Certainly the cost of producing a mechanically-timed camera had risen over the years. At the same time, electronically timed components had become almost dirt cheap.
Then again, I think some retailers charged as much as they dared for the K-1000, simply because they could. Many photo instructors sent their students out with a picture of a K-1000 as an example of the ideal 35mm SLR they needed for their course – and many students simply said “I need one of these”, and demanded their camera match that photo exactly.
I don’t know if Pentax was entirely happy with the home run they had hit with the K-1000. There comes a problem with being tied to a successful entry-level product. Sometimes customers want to believe they have “outgrown” their first SLR camera and look elsewhere for the next one. Personally, when I see a K-1000 come in on trade, it usually comes alone, with just a 50mm lens – meaning the photographer never even tried other optics. And if there are additional lenses, they are seldom Pentax branded. So while Pentax may have sold tons of K-1000s, they didn’t benefit much from spin-off sales.
I know my Pentax rep didn’t want to talk much about the K1000 when the DSLRs started coming out. He complained that all the retailers said the company should bring back something like the K-1000 for the digital era. At the time, Pentax was struggling with the poorly chosen *ist branding of their SLRs. Then, all of a sudden, came the K-100D, a real break-through product for the company, since it combined a good sensor, with a good price, built in stabilization – and a name that was not only pronounceable, but it looked almost like “K-1000” if you squinted.
Of course, no one has yet made a digital camera, or SLR, with the simplicity of a K-1000, even if so many claim they want one. As I’ve said before, it probably isn’t possible, since digital cameras require so much adjustment and setup. And we mustn’t forget that someone’s useless add-on feature is someone else’s must-have custom function. Programming and firmware is relatively cheap, and heaven help you these days if your camera lacks a feature the other guys have (even if no one really uses it).
So we salute the K-1000, one of the last of its kind. There’s no way any camera introduced these days will be so influential to a generation or two of photographers – if for no other reason than none could possibly stay in production for two decades!


~ by windsorphotooutfitters on April 30, 2013.

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