100 Years of Pentax: Revisiting Medium Format Classics

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Pentax, we put the spotlight on its enduring medium format SLR cameras, which remain top choices for film photographers.

If you want to get serious with medium format film photography, among your top options would certainly be a Pentax medium format SLR camera. Built like tanks and made to last for generations, these classic cameras are rivaled only by a handful of competitors and have become medium format icons. Since this year marks a century of Pentax, there can’t be a more apt time to pay tribute to the brand’s enduring cameras, including the medium format line.

Pentax took a unique position as one of the few Japanese camera brands that competed with each other for the medium format SLR market in its heydays, alongside Mamiya and Bronica. In turn, these companies competed with other global medium format manufacturers such as the German companies Rollei and Contax, and the Swedish company Hasselblad.

Ricoh has been at the helm of keeping the Pentax brand and legacy alive since 2011. They actually have a beautiful timeline celebrating 100 years of Pentax — definitely worth a look both for fans and photography history lovers alike. Likewise, Ricoh is hosting an ongoing photography competition (open to North America residents only) that will run until December 29th.

A Century of Optical Excellence

In 1919, the company that would later become known as Pentax was founded by Kumao Kajiwara as Asahi Optical Joint Stock Co. It began as a manufacturer of lenses for eyeglasses, and later developed lens polishing and coating technologies for the first locally produced projection lenses, binoculars, and camera lenses. Within its first decade, the company produced AOCO, the first projection lens for movies produced in Japan (1923), and completed the design of the first camera lens produced in the country (1931). Later, the company also supplied lenses for the Pearlette folding camera by Rokuoh-sha and the Promar lens of Chiyoda Kogaku Seiko — companies that would eventually become Konica Minolta.

By the 1950s, Pentax already had a reputation for outstanding lens coating technologies. In 1971, the company developed “Super-Multi-Coating,” the world’s first multi-layer lens coating. They eventually rolled out other coating types, such as the latest Aero Bright Coating, HD Coating, and SP Coating.

Pentax came to be known for having the widest range of lenses available for a medium format camera, the first generation being the “Super Takumar” with a standard multi-coating. Following the improved 7-layer coating, the lenses were called “Takumar Super-Multi-Coated.” Newer lenses with upgrades to optics, cosmetics, and functionality eventually dropped the “Takumar” branding and were simply known as “SMC Pentax 67.”

The Birth of Pentax

Of course, we can’t talk about the Pentax brand without mentioning the camera that started it all. It was born when the Asahi Optical Company released its first Asahi Pentax SLR camera in 1957. The name “Pentax” was originally registered to Zeiss Ikon (a portmanteau of “Pentaprism” and “Contax”), until it was acquired by Asahi in 1957.

The Asahi Pentax followed the company’s first series of cameras, the Asahiflex of 1952, which was regarded as the first SLR camera built in Japan. The original Pentax was such a landmark camera that it became the model for the design of 35mm SLRs across the world following its release. The success of the Pentax cameras, in turn, eventually prompted Asahi to change its name to Pentax Corporation in 2002. Camera Quest reminds us of some features that were either a first or unique to either the Asahiflex cameras or the Asahi Pentax:

  • Eye-level pentaprism focusing, with a focusing screen that was bright for its time.
  • Instant return mirror, which was exclusive to Asahi and was previously developed for the Asahiflex IIb.
  • Quiet shutter, even with the instant return mirror.
  • Rapid-wind lever advance mounted on the far right top, and rewind crank mounted at the far left top. These were both firsts in 35mm SLR camera design. Prior to the Pentax, cameras used knob rewind and advance, except for the Exakta, which sported a left-handed advance lever.
  • An ASA reminder dial around the rewind lever, even if it didn’t have a built-in meter; it became a standard once built-in meters were added to camera designs.
  • A bottom rewind button, which became a popular component of 35mm SLR camera design

Starting from this landmark camera, generations have come to remember Pentax for its iconic 35mm SLR cameras that followed, such the Pentax Spotmatic (1964), Pentax K1000 (1975), and Pentax ME F (1981). Pentax cameras were also marketed in the US as Honeywell Pentax, so if you spot a camera with that name, it’s essentially the same.

Pentax 6×7: The Birth of a Medium Format Beast

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year is the Pentax 6×7, launched in 1969 following a prototype called Pentax 220, which was introduced during the 1966 Photokina. As the prototype name suggests, it was originally made for 220 roll film. But the final version in all-black finish was made to produce 10 or 20 6×7 images on 120 or 220 film respectively. The option provided by a small knob on the right side and by sliding the film pressure plate inside.

The Pentax 67 is made of a whole lot of metal and absolutely nothing about this camera feels cheap. Instead, it feels like a serious camera meant to do work.

Our Pentax 67 Review

The most striking feature of the Pentax 6×7 is oversized 35mm SLR camera design, aptly referred to by some as a “Super SLR.” That alone has made this medium format camera a fascinating choice for film photographers today. As the big cousin of the Pentax Electro Spotmatic, the 6×7 made it easy for users of the smaller camera to shoot medium format in SLR style, as the layout was familiar.

The Pentax 6×7 has a dual Pentax bayonet mount: an inner mount for 35mm to 300mm lenses, and an outer mount for 400mm to 1000mm. The cloth-based focal plane shutter has speeds of 1 to 1/1000 sec, and Bulb mode. It was typically paired with a Super-Multi-Coated Takumar/6×7 f2.4 105mm lens. Other basic equipment for this mammoth camera include the removable true coverage pentaprism finder, as well as the separately sold left-hand grip with an accessory shoe. The 6×7 is totally dependent on PX28/4LR44 batteries, doesn’t have a built-in exposure meter, and won’t fire the shutter without film.

In 1976, Asahi lessened the vibration problem of the 6×7 by introducing a mirror lock-up feature. The company also offered to retrofit older units with this new feature. Film photographers who are keen on getting a 6×7 are often particular about getting a unit with this feature. To check for the MLU, look for a button that slides up on the left side of the front of the camera, near the lens.

Successful Successors: 67 and 67II

Not to be confused with the Pentax 6×7, the Pentax 67 was an improved version introduced in 1990. It only had “Pentax” on the front of the prism instead of the “Asahi Pentax,” and “67” on the model plate instead of “6×7.” However, since the prisms are interchangeable between the different versions and are often swapped out, Jeff Armstrong recommends in his guide to check for the inscription on the model plate to identify the version.

While the knobs and buttons had only minor changes in appearance due to design materials, they are still in the same locations and are still compatible with accessories of the previous models. However, the shutter was changed and the bulb mode already consumed power. No modification service was offered to fix this. The TTL-metered prism was also revised to have a silicon photodiode instead of a CdS metering cell.

The Pentax 67II was released in 1998, again with very minor changes. The standout improvement is the addition of a built-in right-hand grip that made handling a lot easier. It was also still possible to add a left-hand grip for those who were used to the previous handling. A dedicated time mode switch was also added below the mirror up dial; using the time mode during long exposures did not consume as much battery power compared to the bulb mode. The Pentax speedlight 5P connector also replaced the PC terminal for FP flash sync. An LCD panel was also added near the film advance lever, showing the frame counter, ISO, film load status, battery status, shutter cocking, and flash status.

The film back of the Pentax 67II still had the film format window but also had an emulsion memo holde. The 220 film format also yielded 21 exposures instead of 20 exposures. Other notable improvements include multiple exposure mode, exposure compensation dial with a range of 3EV, exposure lock feature, and an expanded film sensitivity range of up to ISO 6400.

Modern Classics: 645, 645N, 645NII

The Pentax 645 was introduced during the Photo Marketing Association trade show in 1984 as a professional 645 format camera. It yielded 15 exposures measuring 6×4.5 cm on 120 roll film, and 30 exposures on 220 film. It could also accommodate 70mm film and produce around 90 exposures per roll. It came with a built-in motor drive and a less prominent prism viewfinder with built-in dioptric correction. The 645 was also released together with seven lenses:

The film is loaded onto a holder, which is essentially a couple of spool holders and a pressure plate attached to a removable camera backplate. Once it’s loaded, the holder is placed into the camera back and secured by turning the key on the holder. The camera holders cannot be swapped mid-roll. It featured several automatic exposure modes, with most of the exposure controls accessible through the menus of the LCD display on the top of the camera, next to the eyepiece. The menu buttons for operation are also on top, on the other side of the eyepiece.

The Pentax 645N was introduced in 1997, significantly redesigned to have an auto-focus system, with its own line of upgraded lenses to match. Other noteworthy features include matrix metering, film edge data imprinting, a revamped LCD and controls on the top plate, and a faster 2 fps motor drive. Pentax 645NII, the last and the most advanced of the film-based Pentax medium format cameras, was introduced in 2001. Aside from the addition of a mirror lock-up, this version also featured 10 Pentax Functions (PF) which allowed the user to set the camera according to their preferences.

Pentax was among the last to still produce medium format film cameras in the recent decade. In 2012, they were reportedly still manufacturing the Pentax 67 II and the Pentax 645NII. The company may have moved its medium format line to digital, but its film origins remain revered and iconic classics today.