Pentax K1000 SE: Why is it so good?

Pentax K1000 SE front
A front view of the Pentax K1000 SE and a roll of Kodak Plus-X 125. The SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/2.0 isn’t the sharpest lens I’ve ever used, but it’s small and light, and overall quite competent. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Pentax K1000 is a fully mechanical, fully manual 35mm SLR with a solid pedigree, and access to a wide variety of excellent lenses and accessories. Millions were made.

The K1000’s biggest claim to fame may be its spectacular reputation as an excellent camera for beginners and students. How spectacular? It appears on nearly every list and in every forum thread about the best beginner film cameras that I could find. No, seriously — it’s on this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one.

Now, to be fair, it’s not listed at the top of all those lists — in fact, it’s not on the top of many. But it’s on them all, and ranks quite high on most. Only one other camera appears that frequently: the Canon AE-1. Given the choice between the two, I’d take the Pentax in a heartbeat.

Why? It’s completely manual, has access to as many or more lenses, and is more likely to have stood the test of time than a Canon A-body camera.

I’m on my third K1000. I had one and apparently misplaced it, and then I found two more in a single day earlier this year. I chose the K1000 SE model for my tests.

Objective Stuff

The K1000 was introduced in 1976 as a slightly-updated successor to the successful Spotmatic line. It added open-aperture metering and a bayonet mount. Production shifted from Japan to Hong Kong, and later to mainland China, in the years before the K1000 was finally discontinued in 1997.

Materials and workmanship changed during those years, and it seems widely agreed-upon that models built prior to the mainland China move in 1990, and particularly those earliest, Japanese-made editions, are more sturdy and reliable. A quick way to ensure you get one of the better-made models is to look for the “Asahi” marking on the name badge in front of the pentaprism housing — the company started leaving it off as the quality and attention to detail declined. For the best models, look for “Asahi Opt. Co.” or (best of all) “Asahi Opt. Co. Japan” engraved on the back of the top cover.

Pentax K1000 SE top panel
The top cover of the Pentax K1000 SE features the simple, straightforward controls. Rewind knob on the left, shutter- and film-speed knob, shutter release button, and film advance with frame counter on the right. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The K1000 was designed for mercury batteries, but features a bridge circuit, allowing the use of 1.55-volt silver oxide batteries.

The K1000 is compatible with Pentax K-mount bayonet lenses, of which there are literally hundreds. Pentax also made an adapter for using the earlier m42 lenses, though it required the use manual stop-down metering.

The cloth focal-plane shutter operates at speeds from 1 second down to 1/1000 second, and Bulb. The film advance automatically cocks the shutter, and there’s a shutter-ready indicator next to the shutter release button — a tiny orange marker appears in the window when the shutter is ready. The shutter button is threaded for a release cable.

Flash sync is at 1/60 second — though the user manual indicates 1/30 or slower should be used with flash bulbs. There’s a PC sync socket on the front of the body, and the camera features a hot shoe mounted on top of the pentaprism.

The viewfinder features 0.88x magnification with a 50mm lens, and the focusing screen has a microprism spot in the center like the Spotmatic did. The deluxe “SE” model upgrades to a split-image in the center with a microprism ring around it.

The light meter uses two CdS cells and is fully coupled to the aperture. It also turns on automatically when there is light to meter — so a lens cap should be kept on the camera when it’s not in use to preserve the batteries.

Pentax K1000 viewfinder
Through the viewfinder of the Pentax K1000 SE. It’s big and bright, and super simple. Note the light meter display on the right. Get the needle (visible along the horizon there) in the middle and you’re golden. (Daniel J. Schneider)

You can select film speed from ASA 20 to ASA 3200 by lifting and turning the outer ring of the shutter speed knob, located on the top cover to the right of the pentaprism.

The frame counter on the film advance lever resets automatically when the back is opened, and will count up to 37 frames. The advance lever is ratcheting, which means it can safely be operated in a single stroke, or in multiple shorter strokes.

The bottom cover features the take-up spool release button, the battery cover and a standard tripod socket. Loading and unloading are as basic as can be.

If this feature list seems short, that’s because it is. The K1000 is a no-frills camera of the highest caliber. There is no self-timer, no mirror lock-up, no exposure compensation, and no depth-of-field preview.

Subjective stuff

I think part of what makes the K1000 so popular as a camera to recommend to beginners is the very simplicity that turns some people off.

Paramount Theater
Denver’s historic Paramount Theater. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I wrote above that I thought the K1000 stood the test of time better than the AE-1. This is largely because I’ve never seen a K1000 that wasn’t working. The AE-1 is almost as solid, but has a couple notable flaws: the shutter squeal issue, and the broken battery door issue. I’ve seen both more than once, and fixed them, too. So I’m not saying don’t get an AE-1, but if it’s between that and a K1000 … don’t get an AE-1.

The K1000 isn’t all that different from the Spotmatic, even physically. It is neither exceptionally large nor exceptionally small, and fits comfortably in the hand. It’s a little on the chunky side, but it’s definitely no Argus C3.

The sound of the K1000 in operation — the mirror flying up and returning, and the shutter opening and closing in between — is solid and satisfying, without being overly loud. It’s just exactly what a camera shutter firing ought to sound like.

Wiggly ladder
A strangely wiggly ladder on the side of a building in a downtown Denver alley. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter release is smooth and easy. Maybe just a little too easy — but only just a little. It’s easy enough that, if it had a shutter lock, I might use it just to be sure I wasn’t wasting frames with the camera in the bag. On the other hand, I didn’t lose any frames this way during testing.

The film advance is smooth and easy, and the frame-spacing is even. In general, the controls are well-designed and comfortably placed. And it really has that classic “camera” look — it’s just as sure to draw looks as a Yashica-Mat.

The shutter speed dial is conveniently located, but it’s tight and the knurls around the edges are on the smooth side. It’s a little tough to grip and turn without dropping the camera from my eye, but I don’t know that the tightness applies to all K1000s.

I found that a little wiggling was sometimes necessary to get the rewind knob down the last eighth of an inch or so, but it’s entirely possible that, too, is just a foible of my particular K1000 SE. Other than that, loading, rewinding and unloading were all totally uneventful — which is exactly what you want.

Dead leaves on the trees
In late winter, dead leaves still cling to these browned leaves. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Sidebar: As great as it is to have the latest and greatest features, and as much as manufacturers like to pack in the bells and whistles, anything you don’t need is just as likely to be in your way as it is to actually come in handy.

You shouldn’t have to fight with your camera. It’s a tool, not a toy. And the thing it should excel at is enabling you to make pictures. By getting out of your way and focusing on nothing but the most essential bits for doing that, the K1000 recommends itself as a top camera for beginners — and a competent camera for all photographers.

Personally, I enjoyed my tests so much I simply couldn’t stop. I went through at least twice as many rolls of film as I intended to. Don’t hesitate to pick up a K1000 if you get the chance — it really is that good.

My test photos were made with a variety of films, including expired Tri-X, expired Kodak Gold 200, fresh Pan F Plus, fresh AgfaPhoto APX 100, and, I’m pretty sure, a roll of slightly expired Kodak Ultra Max 400. All exposures were made using the built-in light meter with no exposure compensation.

Water valves
The broken symmetry of some water valves in a Denver alleyway. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Caution Vehicles Entering Alley
Caution Vehicles Entering Alley. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Pikes Peak or Bust sculpture
This sculpture of a miner’s pick is called “Pikes Peak or Bust,” and it is currently displayed outside of Republic Plaza in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Junk in Civic Center
Junk on the ground under the colonnade of the Greek Amphitheater in Civic Center Park, Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Parking garage entrance
The entrance to a Denver parking garage. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Former Barnes and Noble
Former Barnes and Noble on 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Alleyway shadows
Shadows begin to stretch in the evening in a downtown Denver alleyway. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Denver Porsche
A Porsche parked in the first space at a Denver garage. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Baker mailman
A postal carrier delivers the mail in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Snow in Observatory Park
Snow builds up in Denver’s Observatory Park. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Baker porch
A front porch in Denver’s historic Baker neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Little Free Library on 16th
A Little Free Library sponsored by the Denver Public Library on the 16th Street Mall. For some reason, there never seem to be more than couple books inside. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Very long shadows
Pedestrians on Denver’s 16th Street Mall cast long shadows in a shaft of late afternoon sun streaming from an alleyway. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Parking garage sign
A vintage, neon parking garage sign in downtown Denver, with the ornate art deco-era building facade stretching up behind it. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
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Reviewed Item
Pentax K1000 SE 35mm SLR camera
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