Pentax K1000 [1978]

In praise of the humble K1000

Asahi Pentax K1000

If the K1000 were a car it would be a Volvo. I'm not talking about one of those sleek, modern, BMW-wannabe Volvos. I'm talking an 80's, blue, boxy, station-wagon Volvo. I'm talking about a Volvo you inherited from your mom in your last year of high-school; that you drove all through college and that you only sold once you were working and getting paid enough to buy something newer, flashier, more complicated and more delicate. I'm talking about a Volvo you regretted selling the moment you gave up the keys even though it had 350,000 miles on the clock and was well past its sell-by-date.

Look around the web and you're not going to find a whole load of fan and collector's pages devoted to the K1000. It's just not sexy like that. It doesn't have the 'pro'-cache of an old Nikon-F. It doesn't have the technical allure of some feature packed modern DSLR. It doesn't have the the glamor of a German rangefinder. It's a camera that was directly aimed at photography students and enthusiastic amateur photographers. It's a camera that many photography instructors insisted that their students buy and use for their classes. A camera that was relegated to the back of the closet shelf after you'd finished photography 101 and you moved on to something better.

This isn't a camera that was carried by professionals or professional wannabes but it is the camera that professionals of a certain vintage probably started out on. It's the camera by which they have judged every single camera they have used since. If you carry a K1000 in public it's unlikely that any camera geek will rush you to talk about it's amazing features but they will recognize it from half a block away. This is not a camera you feel self-conscious carrying; it's old school without being trendy retro.

If the K1000 was ice cream it would be vanilla.  If it were a watch, it would be an plain, analogue Timex. If it were a toy it would be Lego bricks from the 70's. If it were a fountain pen, it would be a stainless steel parker. It would also be a Zippo, a swiss army knife, Cheddar cheese, Levi jeans, a NAD amplifier, the house red, a Honda scooter, a Japanese Stratocaster, a plain white coffee mug.

It is un-charismatic yet, solid, competent and dependable. I don't think I've every encountered a camera that epitomized the label 'tool' (in the good sense of the word, not the insult) so well as the K1000. Its plain looks and functions will not get in the way of your style or vision. It has everything you need and nothing extra or flashy. There's no facility for a motor-wind; that's a professional feature a student doesn't need yet. There's no battery check switch or off-switch for the meter; that's what the lens cap is for. It doesn't have a self-timer or mirror lock-up; features every photographer thinks that they need but few rarely use.

The K1000 is the poster child for MMM (metal, mechanical & manual) cameras. There's no automatic mode to use as a crutch, after all you bought the K1000 to learn about photography, light and exposure not to take snapshots. There's no clutter in the bright viewfinder, just a swing-needle meter and a central focusing microprism (not even a split-prism). Set the shutter speed, put it to your eye and focus; set the aperture and take the shot.

Asahi Pentax K1000

With all that said I had never even held a K1000 until recently. My learning was all done on a Zenit EM, as I have previous described. By the time I was aware of the K1000 I already felt that I had out-grown it. I was wrong.

As I trolled CraigsList, through the common place ads of people abandoning film for digital, I saw a K1000 for sale complete with standard zoom and a Vivitar 283 flash for $50. To be honest, as I was more a fan of the 283 and interested in picking up the flash gun and then dumping the camera to recoup my costs. When I picked up the camera from the resident of some trendy downtown apartment who was cleaning out their closets I could see that they'd either been anal about looking after this students rig or it had never seen more than a few films past the gate.

The K1000 was released in 1976 intended to have a model life of only a couple of years as a stop-gap between the K-series bodies and the new, miniaturized M-series. Almost immediately it was adopted as the perfect photography student's camera and whenever Pentax subsequently threatened to pull the K1000 from their line they were met with loud disapproving noises from their public. In 1997 they finally managed to retire the K1000 - that's 21 years of production. Will we ever see another mainstream camera in our life times with that kind of longevity? Can you imagine what a first generation Digital Rebel will look like in 2024?

There are actually three versions of the K1000:

  • the original 'Made in Japan' model with a manufacturing run of 1975 through 1978
  • the little changed 'Assembled in Hong Kong' model (1978 through 1990)
  • the cheapened, plastic top and bottom housing, no 'Asahi' label, 'Assembled in China' model (1990 through 1997)

Obviously, metal is better than plastic to be true to the MMM camera form but any working model is likely to serve you well. My 'Assembled in Hong Kong' example feels solid as a brick. It feels solid enough that, should you take it camping, it could be used to pound in tent pegs without suffering much damage, but, as the previous owner kept this example in such good condition, I feel obliged to avoid using it as a improvised mallet. My camera came with all the original documentation including its receipt so I know it was bought during the holidays in 1986.

In use the K1000 rewards a deliberate approach. It's not as cumbersome and as idiosyncratic as anything Russian or old, but not quite as fast to use or ergonomic as some of its contemporaries. You might think that you've out grown this camera but the reality is that the K1000 is as capable as any manual SLR and, therefore, capable in most photographic situations. I used to think that carrying a K1000 was tantamount to wearing a badge declaring to anyone who could read it, that you were a student; on the road to photographic knowledge but not there yet in the your studies. As I get older I realize that we're all still students if we want to continue to improve and be challenged and so I'm proud to carry the K1000 once in a while. I know that this camera has a few things to teach me yet.

Elsewhere:


Comments

I never knew the K1000 was so popular. I've recently bought the original 'Made in Japan' version, but it hasn't got very good zoom and other than this I think there's something wrong with it. And despite my own trouble with loading and winding back the film (I haven't quite got the hang of it yet) I think it's a great camera and it feels almost professional when you're holding it.

Posted by: Matt at August 24, 2006 2:41 AM

I cut my photographic teeth on a Canon T50 which died a grizzly death on a mountain bike trip. I was always looking for another SLR afterwards, but most of the time the prices were well out of my range. A neighbor was selling a friend's K1000 at a rummage sale. It had 3 lenses, the manual and a bag. I snagged it for $70. There has to be something said about its beautiful simplicity. In an age where anyone with enough money or credit can buy a camera that will practically do everything except line up the shot and press the shutter, I am proud to carry my K1000. It has travelled the US and Asia with me and I consistantly get great photos. Granted, there are things I wish were better (as outlined in this article) and I have outgrown it to an extent. But after everything is said and done, it is not how much you spent on the camera or all of the fancy features that are important. All that matters are the photos you get.

Posted by: Ronnie at August 27, 2006 7:30 PM

This is so funny. I am selling one of these that my fiance used for his high school photography class on craigslist. any price suggestions? haha!

Posted by: toni at August 28, 2006 5:11 PM

The Pentax K-1000. I learned photography in high school with that camera. I took photography up as a hobby with a $30 point and shoot, that was a giant step down. A few years into college I did all I could with the simple point and shoot and I finally ordered a Pentax K-1000 from the net for about $150.
Since I've gotten it, I've used it on nearly every vacation, most portraits, and a handful of weddings. I would eventually start up my own business, order a Hasselblad and occasionaly use a Canon Rebel XT Digital. In fact all of the photos on my website with the exception of maybe two were taken with a Pentax K-1000.
But there's just something so simple and beautiful about old faitful. Even though it's all manual, and quite frankly falling apart, I still use it to this day. I know all of its quirks all of its shortcomings, and I still love using it.
When you put it in your hands, it's metal. Solid. When you focus the 50mm lens, it's metal and glass, none of this light-weight polymer alloy crap. Metal and Glass. When you push the trigger on that baby, you hear the mirror drop down and back up again and the shutter slide back and forth at a 60th of a second. In fact aside from hearing it you feel the jarring vibrations as you push the trigger.
I don't know that I'll ever be able to part with it.

Posted by: The Dave at August 29, 2006 7:50 PM

I've had the K1000 SE since I was a teenager. I'm in my 40's now, and would never part with it. The SE does have the split-prism that the regular K1000's don't, as well as a brown body instead of black.

I've used this camera to photograph everything from cats to concerts. Though it doesn't have features you might need in other situations, its simplicity makes it more intuituve to use most of the time. You don't have to override any automatic settings to take your shot--YOU are in control.

I just tried a digital camera, and between the expenses for memory cards and the batteries it devours, I don't like it. Just because I used flash a few times, this camera devoured 6 batteries overnight! Sure, it's small and cute, but when I want small and cute, I'll get a kitten. :)

I'm going back to my Pentax K1000 and scanning the prints to digitize them. Some things never go out of style!

Posted by: Wild Irish at October 17, 2006 2:52 AM

Nice K1000! I was looking into getting one of these until I saw a KM for sale, which I am still working on getting (I wanted a self-timer). I was wondering what lense is on the K1000 in that first picture. How does it perform?

Thanks, Hopefully I'll get a Pentax soon.

Posted by: Panda at October 31, 2006 6:07 PM

I used a K1000 in high school photography about 19-years ago. I just purchased a nice used one about 3-days ago. They are great cameras.

I have a nice "new" car, but every now an then I like driving an "old reliable" 1976, three speed, Ford. It's the same with the K1000. If you want sexy then get something else, if you want good, reliable and tough, then get a K1000

Posted by: Pedro at November 12, 2006 12:14 AM

the k1000 was the first camera i ever owned i was 15 years old, it died a horrible death in the grand canyon a few years later, and then just the other day i found one for 40$ at goodwill, i'm in love once again..

Posted by: miliken at December 24, 2006 3:36 PM

I have had a K 1000 since my wife ( fiance at time) bought it for me in 1980. Still using it and its GREAT. Perfect photos. NO new Digital camera can come close if done right with the SLR. Digital always DARK OR LIGHT!!!! IF K 1000 Can bracket down or up and take three photos and ONE will be perfect!

Posted by: Rich B at January 15, 2007 12:39 PM

Rich,
You are right that film still has an advantage over digital in the area of exposure latitude, however, exposure bracketting isn't a feature unique to film cameras. Some digital guys even take several different exposures of the same scene and then merge them in a process called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. It's not exactly my cup of tea but the results can be impressive. Admittedly, it's very unlikely that anyone will still be using the same DSLR as they are now in 20 years time :)
Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin Taylor at January 16, 2007 5:34 PM

My Pentax K 1000 has been camping in Tennessee, taking pictures in the Everglades, done a wedding for friends who were too broke to afford a professional photographer, photographs on a New York City trip in icey cold weather, and so on.

I have been able to take good pictures when the battery has died, and I've banged it around more than any other camera could ever take.

It was recently stolen when my house was burglarized, so I'll have to get another. I had it for about fifteen years, and have no doubt that it could have gone on for another fifteen years.

Don't get this camera if you're hooked on fancy electronics . . . but consider it if you're going down the Amazon or climbing the Rockies.

All the best,

---Kevin

Posted by: Kevin Levites at May 8, 2007 5:00 PM

I'm glad to see that there is still such an enthusiasm for the K1000!

I dare say, anyone who has used one has become part of a tribe, because we recognize the virtue of it, and it achieves some innate sense of the ideal within us.

The Pentax K1000 is that rare piece of simplicity that is a near-perfect balance of both form and function.

It has mojo, it's real. To use one today is damn near a political statement. Taking it everywhere you go, on bicycle, seems like an act of insurrection sure to get you beheaded.

Cheers,
Alejandro

Posted by: Alejandro at July 21, 2007 10:36 AM

Thanks for you words Kevin and Alejandro. Alejandro, I think you're band on about carrying the K1000 being a political statement.

Posted by: Martin Taylor at July 31, 2007 10:47 AM

What is the value of this camera in the SE series (perfect condition) with strap, flash, bag, original manual, AND a 28-200mm Tamron zoom lens?

Thanks for any info to eagleland2@yahoo.com

Posted by: John at August 22, 2007 8:37 PM

John,
I don't know the 28-200mm Tamron - I have an autofocus version of this lens for a Minolta which I really don't like - I've never seen this lens in manual focus. The camera is probably worth $50-100 and the lens about $75. The best place to look is in completed auctions via the advanced search in ebay - that will show you what people are actually paying for these things.
Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin Taylor at August 27, 2007 10:40 AM

The way you talk about the old Volvo reminds me of my first car: a FIAT 500 :-)

Posted by: Daniele Muscetta at October 14, 2007 9:11 AM

The way you talk about the old Volvo reminds me of my first car: a FIAT 500 :-)

Posted by: Daniele Muscetta at October 14, 2007 9:13 AM

The exposure needle of my K1000 was stuck horizontally - battry was good and a repair cost me 41.00 two years ago.

Again , this year same thing has happened and again the repair estimate about the same 42.00.

I wondered what to do now about keeping the K1000 it is such a good camera.

I don't use the camera very often and wondered if this is the reason I have my probolem? Can you comment please.Albert

Posted by: albert hill at October 31, 2007 12:37 PM

My dad gave me a brand new K1000 in 1985 and I still use it occasionally. Maybe more important, I've since acquired a KX (K1000 with a couple of extra features) and it is my everyday camera- and not been beheaded yet.
My K1000 is an SE model, so has a split prism rangefinder and black leather. I don't think this is all that uncommon. It also is too new to have the ASAHI logo on the prism housing, and was made in Hong Kong.

Posted by: Bryce at December 29, 2007 6:05 PM

I BOUGHT MY K-1000 IN 1979 AS A "LIGHT-WEIGHTER," COMPARED TO LUGGING AROUND MY CANON F1 AND NIKON FTN---THE TWO TOP AND MOST EXPENSIVE SLRS OF THAT ERA, WHICH WERE BOTH ENORMOUSLY HEAVY LUMPS OF METAL, DEMANDING CONSIDERABLE PHYSICAL CONTROL WHEN YOU WERE "QUICK" ADJUSTING THE KNOBS AND RINGS, AS THESE WERE PURELY MANUALS, AS OLDIES LIKE ME CAN REMEMBER! THE WEIGHT----OH, THE WEIGHT! WHAT A PAIN TO LUG ALONG!
SO, OH YES, BACK TO MISS "K!" SHE LOOKED SO SWEET AND UNASSUMING IN HER BOX AT THE STORE, I JUST HAD TO LIFT HER---AND I WAS HOOKED! SO, HOME WE WENT WITH A NEW ROLE OF FUJI 400 WITH 36 FRAMES! NOW, KONICA (A TRULY GREAT PRODUCER OF INNOVATIVE CAMERAS OF THE 50'S AND 60'S) HAD A SLOGAN THAT THEY RAN ON ALL OF THEIR CAMERA ADS----AND IT WENT LIKE THIS: "BUY A KONICA ---THE LENS ALONE IS WORTH THE PRICE!" WELL, THAT MAY HAVE BEEN TRUE OF THOSE FABLED "HEXANONS," BUT IT PROVED TO BE INDISPUTABLE FOR THE NORMAL LENS SUPPLIED STANDARD ON THE "K"---NAMELY THE PENTAX SMC, OR SUPER MULTI-COATED F2.0, 50MM!
MY VOLUPTUOUS GIRLFRIEND, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS "TOP-HEAVY, WIDE-HIPPED MARIE," POSED AND WRITHED FOR ME, AS I SHOT MID-DAY LIVING ROOM PHOTOS WITH FULL APERATURE AT A 60TH, WITHOUT FLASH, AS I HADN'T GOT ONE YET!
WHEN I GOT BACK THE PRINTS I WAS FLABBERGASTED! THE WONDERFUL K-1000 HAD DONE JUST WHAT I WANTED IT TOO, AND THE PICTURES WERE SHARP AND CLEAR BEYOUND BELIEF! THE COLOR RESOLUTION AND CORRECTION WAS AMAZING! IT PUT THE HIGH-END CANONS AND NIKONS TO SHAME! BESIDES HAVING THE MOST UNIQUELY USABLE SLR BODY, "K" HAS THE FINEST NORMAL LENS EVER PRODUCED--AT LEAST IN THE LATE 1970'S! MY HEAVIES WERE SOON SOLD OR GIVEN AWAY, BUT MISSY K-1000 IS STILL AT MY SIDE-----NOW 30 YEARS OLD AND 6 OR 7 A-76 BATTERIES LATER!
AND GUESS WHAT----WHAT GIVES YOU BETTER RESOLUTION AND COLOR DEFINITION---AN 8 MEGAPIXEL CANON DIRECTLY DOWNLOADED TO THE PRINTER, OR A SHOP DEVELOPED 10X15 PRINT FROM AN OLD K-1000, LAID DOWN "SECOND-HAND-TRANSFER," TO THE SCANNER!
WELL, YOU GUESSED RIGHT!

Posted by: ALEXANDER at September 16, 2008 8:45 PM

I just bought a Pental K1000 this morning at a community sale...paid $2.00 for it. It seems built like a tank. Now I just have to remember my old photagraphy class lessons on how to work a camera manually. Fortunatly, I was able to download some information on the internet which seems to be substantial on this fine old workhorse of a camera.

Posted by: Don at November 8, 2008 1:09 PM

I bought my K1000 when I was 20, and I'm now 50 and it's been the only camera I've ever used, and people always complimented me on my pictures. I was worried that a totally manual camera would be difficult to get great shots (w/out any photography knowledge), but the K1000 is so simple to figure out - that's all I can say. I thought for such a simple camera to take such great shots was amazing. I am thinking of going digital; however, I can't seem to give this camera up. I've been all over this country, and Europe, and don't think I could have gotten any better pictures with any other camera. I can't believe I've been shooting with it for 30yrs...And it's still looks, feels and shoots great. However, the original leather case was "in use" so much it pretty much turned white and fell apart... and I've not been able to replace that... :(

Posted by: Michael at January 22, 2009 2:25 PM

Interesting thing here. We call the K1000 a "beginners camera". But in the same era we had the Pentax 6x7 medium format camera. And if you shot that you'd be called a "professional"?

Yet apart from film format, these were basically the same kind of camera, lol.

And, btw, I shoot both of them still. 8-)

Posted by: tuco at April 16, 2009 12:13 PM

I'm a high school senior and I received the Pentax K1000 as a gift from my Grandpa this March along with 4 lenses: 50mm, 28mm, 135mm, and 70-200mm zoom. I love the manual controls and the rock-solid build.

My generation (the under-21 crowd) has missed out on 35mm film, and it's a shame. I know digital is so convenient, but my dad's Nikon D50 doesn't have the timeless appeal of my K1000.

I intend to keep and use this camera for years to come.

Posted by: Nathan at May 13, 2009 4:33 PM