By Stephen Dowling
In the early 1980s, compact camera designers suddenly had a fresh set of challenges to deal with.
Camera technology was showing the accepted school of design a clean set of heels – metal was being ditched for plastic, motors were replacing wind-on levers, and autofocus was fast becoming a physical reality rather than a camera designer’s pipe dream.
Most camera producers saw their compact range as fertile territory to test out new ideas and materials, and Asahi Pentax was just one of them.
Pentax had never been one of the big names in the world of compact cameras. It had left the rangefinder market pretty much alone as everyone from Ricoh to Yashica made models aimed at the casual photographer. In the 1960s, it had ignored the half-frame craze in order to concentrate on its burgeoning line of Spotmatic SLRs. The Pentax name seemed to be something that you grew into once you had cut your teeth on someone else’s products.
Change was coming. Improving technology, manufacturing efficiencies and a growing population with disposable income made the compact camera market too big too ignore.
Pentax’s first autofocus compact appeared in 1982 – the Pentax PC35AF. The camera was almost completely different to anything Pentax had ever released; a vision of 1980s futurism in shiny black plastic. As the name suggested, the PC35AF was indeed an autofocus camera, though in reality this autofocus was limited to one of three approximate zones – one at 0.7m (2.3ft), 1.5m (5ft) and infinity, all indicated by an appropriate cartoon symbol in the viewfinder.
The PC35AF wasn’t quite the full shape-of-things-to-come package, however. The motorised film transport and rewinding that would become de rigeur for compact cameras in only a few short years was perhaps one task too many for Pentax’s designers; just like the Olympus XA and the Lomo LC-A, the PC35AF had a thumb wind to advance the film.
The camera’s chassis was built around a metal frame, and a clamshell cover just like that on Olympus’s innovative XA kept the 35mm 2.8 lens nice and safe when it wasn’t in use. The PC35AF wasn’t exactly compact for a compact camera; pick one up and you’ll be impressed as much by its sheer weight as much as its forward-thinking design.
Things would only get chunkier with the model that would replace it a few years later – the PC35AF-M.
The “M” in this camera’s name stands for motorised. Pentax had offered an accessory battery-operated motor wind with the original PC35AF-M which covered the thumb-winder. It wasn’t exactly an elegant solution; the motor-winder ran off a different battery supply and had to be turned on separately. An easy thing to forget “out in the field”.
Released from 1984, the PC35AF-M added motorised advance and rewind to the model’s already outsized frame. Alongside the autofocus and all the other useful electronics, they were run off just a pair of AA batteries.
The PC35-AF-M was a bit of a mystery to me until British photographer Anil Mistry and I appeared on an episode of the film photography podcast Sunny 16. He singled it out as an excellent camera still available for next to nothing: the film camera hype cycle had so far ignored it, possibly because of its chunky 1980s styling. Sure enough, a few months later, I spied one for sale at London’s Photographica camera fair for only £15. £15! Indeed, the compact camera cult had overlooked this one.
The PC35AF-M is indeed at the chunky end of compact cameras. Thanks to its metal frame it weighs in at more than 320g, considerably more than its early 1980s contemporaries such as the Olympus Trip AF. To those of us old enough to remember cameras like this in the first place its nothing too out of the ordinary., but to recent film shooters who might use the Olympus Mju-II as a yardstick, it might come as something of a shock.
The Pentax PC35AF-M is about half a foot (15cm) wide and 7cm tall – a little bit larger than the compact rangefinders of the 1970s like the Konica C35, but appreciably deeper. It’s the weight that’s the most surprising. With a pair of batteries loaded, the cameras weighs in at 365g. The size and weight is partly because of the 80s-style film advance and rewind motors. These are neither svelte, nor quiet (we’ll say more about this later). As someone who has spent a lot of time shooting all-metal SLRs, the weight isn’t a problem, but it’s worth mentioning. The lack of “pocketability” might be a more pressing issue for those wanting a take-anywhere compact camera.
While the PC35AF-M won’t fit in your jeans pocket, there’s plenty of plus points. Aside from the battery door, the entire shell of the camera is made from tough plastic. The heft is somewhat reassuring. The PC35AF-M feels like a camera, not a delicate piece of consumer electronics just waiting for a good opportunity to fry its circuits.
Behind the clamshell cover sits the lens, a fixed 35/2.8 lens with five elements in five groups. This baby is tack sharp, and one of the reasons those in the know have been scooping up this black plastic brick when they can find them. The clamshell cover protects the lens when the camera’s idle, and is opened with the bright red button to its left – the cover springs open with a satisfying “CLACK”.
The red of the shutter and lens cover buttons contrast beautifully with the shiny black of the camera body. The two-tone colour scheme extends to the camera’s strap aswell, longer than most to keep the camera’s bulk properly balanced.
The lens sits flush with the front of the camera and moves further back into the camera body when the shutter is fired. It does so with a wheezing squeak accompanied by graunch the 80s-era film advance. Whisper quiet the PC35AF-M is not.
The Pentax has a few interesting features that raise it above the rest of its early AF compact camera brethren. Like its clamshell-clad influence, the Olympus XA, the camera has a backlit mode which will overexpose by 1.5 stops if the subject is strongly backlit and you don’t want to use flash.
Speaking of flash, the PC35AF-M’s has to be manually activated to be switched on; no having to stab a mode button repeatedly to disable it. If a compact camera is to give you any semblance of creative control, this is – in my humble opinion – a must-have. If the flash can’t be turned off, you’ve got a glorified disposable, firing its flash whenever its blunt electronic brain decides the light’s too low. On the PC35AF-M, looking at the camera from the back, the flash is activated by flicking a switch on the left-hand side of the camera. It pushes up a small flash unit, about the size of a stock cube. On the back of the camera, a small light next to the viewfinder lights up when the flash has charged and is ready to shoot again.
Like most compact cameras above bargain-basement level, the PC35AF-M offers a self-timer; this is located on the right side of the top-plate, next to the bright red shutter button.
The PC35AF-M is DX coded but also has another useful feature – an ISO switch which allows you to set the film speed for rolls which don’t have a DX code. These range from 100 all the way up to ISO 1000, which means you can push process 400-ISO films without a DX code (such as Fomapan 400). Otherwise, the camera will read film DX codes up to 1600.
This being a camera from the earliest days of AF, the autofocus itself is somewhat rudimentary. When you press the shutter button, a needle on the bottom of the viewfinder moves to one of its three focusing zones, marked with cartoons of people and a mountain for infinity. The squeak of the shutter is drowned out by the not exactly inconsequential sound of the motor drive roaring into action. Make no bones about it – it’s loud. But it’s not the only noise that make the PC35AF-M a little indiscreet.
Pentax’s design team included exposure system lights in the top of the viewfinder – green means the camera is able to expose. If there’s not enough light, a red light in the left of the viewfinder will also light up. That, it appeared, might have been just a little too subtle. If the camera thinks the lights too low, it emits a sustained, high-pitched electronic beep. It’s loud enough to warn both the photographer and anyone else in the same postcode (I exaggerate, but you get the idea). The PC35AF-M is, therefore, perhaps not the first choice for street photography in less than brilliant sunshine.
A few blogs, including 35mmc, have listed hacks to de-bleep the camera, which require taking off the top plate and fiddling with the electronic innards. It’s not a hack I’ve felt I’ve needed to carry out, if only for the fact that the PC35AF-M is a camera I’ve pretty much only taken out in brighter weather. Electronic compacts aren’t my usual weapon of choice at night-time, anyway.
The PC35AF-Ms drawbacks are, largely, products of the time it was built in. Quiet motor drives were another decade away, and autofocus would take a few more years to leap past the constraints of focusing zones. But there’s plenty of other features which mean this camera will be hanging around in my pile of compacts, for a very long while.
Most importantly? The lens. Pentax’s reputation was at least partly built on the quality of Takumar lenses for its SLRs, and the 35/2.8 built into the PC35AF-M’s chunky frame is no slouch. Pictures are crisp and contrasty, with no vignetting and very little distortion at the edges. Every one of the three PC35AF-Ms I’ve tested over the last few years has also exposed film perfectly – the robust construction has probably helped.
There’s a temptation with every compact film camera that’s still affordable to ask the rhetorical question “is this the next cult compact”. That probably doesn’t help keep things affordable, but also risks lumping the real overlooked gems with some deservedly swerved models – the hype mill always need new material. But with the PC35AF-M, I do wonder if a reappraisal is around the corner.
Don’t get me wrong: the fact they’re still affordable is a good thing. I can only guess that the camera’s relative size and weight is what’s holding some people back from trying it. Lighter cameras like the Mju series and the Yashica T4 may have you thinking this was what a compact camera should look (and feel like). The PC35AF-M, from a generation before, shows that was something that took a while to achieve.
Will the PC35AF-M please everyone? Nope – the size, low-light bleep, noisy motor and sheer weight will rule it out for some. That’s a shame, because its faultless metering, crisp lens and solid construction make this a much more pleasing camera to shoot with than some other more celebrated designs. (If you’re someone with larger hands, you’ll find the PC35AF-M much easier to handle than the likes of the Konica A4, for instance.
The PC35AF-M’s size shouldn’t get in the way of its undeniable qualities. Neither should it underline the other “issues” it has compared to the likes of the Mju-II. It’s true the PC35AF-M’s three autofocus zones pale in comparison to the 100 found on the Olympus model, but this isn’t an issue when you’re actually shooting it. The PC35AF-M’s old-school autofocus does the job.
Pentax would later make more of a splash with their well-received Espio range in the 1990s, while the PC family gradually turned into a family of cheaper, less sophisticated cameras. But this 1980s black plastic brick with flashes of red really is the diamond hidden amid the also-rans.
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