A Plea to Pentax: Go Back to Making What You Were Great At

A Plea to Pentax: Go Back to Making What You Were Great At

Is Pentax even still around? Yes? Who would have known? They need to go back to making the cameras that made them great in the first place: the K1000, 645, and 67 models. 
Pentax has, perhaps more than any brand of camera manufactures, fallen from their standing as a major player in the camera industry.  Their first camera, the Asahiflex, made its debut in 1952. The model following it, the Asahi Pentax, was the first to use the “Pentax” name. In the decades following, Pentax developed the first through-the-lens camera with the Spotmatic — a camera I hold near and dear to my heart. When my father was in the service, stationed in Guam in the late 60s, he bought an Asahi Spotmatic, which still works (sans metering) to this day. In 1976, Pentax started selling the K1000 and continued selling it until 1997. Why fix what isn’t broken, right? Had they kept the same mount between those two cameras (shifting from a screw mount M42 to a bayonet-style mount, the K-mount), I think the Spotmatic would be a more popular camera choice for those looking to get into film today. 

In the early 2000s, however, Pentax started their shift away from their film camera dominance and started designing and manufacturing digital cameras. They would continue to make a few models of film cameras, but ultimately, they were all discontinued somewhat early into the 2000s. As laid out in a relatively recent article on Fstoppers, it was then that Pentax started making their way towards irrelevance. At the time of writing, there are only four camera models available new for purchase at B&H: the K-1 Mark II, K-70, KP, and the 645 Z medium format camera. Further, B&H lists 59 full-frame lenses available propped up heavily by Rokinon/Samyang and Tamron to supplement Pentax’s own lens lineup. What’s more, the Sigma Art lineup does not offer any of its lenses in the Pentax mount. 

Despite being seemingly irrelevant into today’s photography world, they maintain third place among manufacturers of DSLR cameras in Japan with about 3.1% of the market share. That being said, they are not even close to holding third place in total camera sales. Once mirrorless cameras are introduced into the conversation, Fuji and Sony trounce Pentax in annual camera sales. At the bottom of the recent article, Mike asked readers what they believe should be the next step for Pentax. With more than 1,300 responses, the most common response was to offer a compelling DSLR strategy with 41.6% of responses. Surprisingly to me, only 28.3% thought the best step forward would be to develop a mirrorless camera to compete with Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and even Leica. How does Pentax not feel left out? Perhaps as expected, 30.1% thought it was Pentax close up shop, either through slowly running down business (17.0%) or immediately closing (13.1%).

Moving Forward: The Path Less Traveled

So what, if anything, could possibly resuscitate Pentax from its current status of being on life support? I would argue film cameras. In a previous article, I wrote on the slow march of film photography towards extinction, I proposed that the only thing that would truly provide new life to film photography would be the new manufacturing of reliable and affordable film cameras. An Fstoppers reader named Owain chimed in and floated the idea of Pentax returning to manufacturing film cameras, namely the Pentax 67. It is a genius idea. 

Think about it. It would be a mutually beneficial relationship for film manufacturers and Pentax. I stand by what I wrote in my previous article. Without some signs of new life in film camera manufacturing, the current supply of film cameras, which is getting older and older by the day, will eventually break with fewer and fewer people and businesses to reliably fix them. In just the last couple of years, the increased popularity of the film has led to a decreased supply of cameras, resulting in higher prices and fewer options. Truth be told, I don’t know that I would own the cameras on my shelf if I had to pay today’s prices for them. I feel bad for those just now getting into it who didn’t even have the chance to get a camera at last year’s pricing much less the pricing of 2018 or before. 

Should Pentax consider resurrecting their film cameras from their graves, I hope they consider keeping them affordable. Speaking specifically to the K1000, when I say affordable, I don’t mean quite the level that you could buy a used K1000 now — that would be crazy. I do think they should remake the K1000, keep it well built, all manual (except for the meter), and at or below $300. Otherwise, it would defeat the point. There needs to be an option for photographers just looking to get into film that would like/prefer a new camera but don’t want to drop the thousands required to buy any other decent new camera on the market.

As for a 645, I would hope they would allow for a removable back. That way it could be outfit with different film backs and, for those that are interested, a digital back could be used. Should they keep the same amount, one could use Pentax’s previous autofocus lenses in addition to their manual lenses. When it comes to a possible 67 camera, offering a digital option would obviously be out of reach. As such, an exclusive film option would be necessary but still incredibly useful. The Pentax 67 system is widely regarded as one of the best 67 systems — at least in an SLR format — and the 67II is an amazing camera. I would hope that they would either go straight for a 67III, stepping up the quality of the 67II or at the very least offer something more manual and less expensive. 

Is There a Market for These Cameras?

I would argue yes. Of the very limited options for newly manufactured film cameras offered by the major manufacturers, none are affordable and of a similar quality to the vintage cameras most associate with film cameras. What’s more, the only newly manufactured medium format options that can be made and sold to scale are not serious photographic tools. Should Pentax decide to remake any film camera again, I could see myself buying one. What’s more, almost all of the film photographers I know would happily buy one if they were affordable. Even if the 645 or 67 options were closer to a couple thousand, I could still see a lot of film photographers jumping at the chance to buy one.

All images in this article were supplied by Taylor Cubbie and used with permission. 

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Owain Shaw's picture

I didn't see my comment ending up as an article, I must say - and I think you've done a really good job making the case for it. As a manufacturer struggling to find its place in the crowded digital space, Pentax has a ready made one in the resurgent (for now at least) film space. Naturally, I still fully support the idea, and would consider myself among the potential market for a New 67 were one to be forthcoming.

James Madison's picture

Ha! Well, needless to say, it left an impression. Since I that comment, I've had multiple conversations with friends about this. Everyone has agreed whole heartedly. Thus, this article. Fingers crossed that hey see it and decide to do something with it!

Owain Shaw's picture

All of which is very nice to hear - I'm glad I'm not the only one who could see a certain logic to it.

Shaun Whitson's picture

There used to be a few k-mount Sigma Art lenses but they were discontinued in the last year or so. Sigma used to offer a conversion service for changing out the mounts of different lenses as well but I don't think K-mount is included in that any longer. The APS-C lens lineup is much better than the full frame one and they offer a 16-50mm (24-70mm full frame equivalent) and a 50-135mm (70-200mm full frame equivalent) lens combination that I believe has only been matched by third parties in the past. Canon and Nikon have not offered this combination because they want to upsell customers to get full frame bodies/lenses instead. The HD 31mm, 43mm, and 77mm are also unique offerings. Pentax DSLR's also offer special features to use in combination with film lenses such as the "Catch in focus" feature which makes manual focusing a breeze. Pentax's true downfall is not due to lack of lenses or outdated features, its because of a lack of marketing and zero presence in most big box electronics stores outside of Adorama/B&H. If they were to remake film bodies such as the K1000, it would have to be $200 USD or less to really sell like hotcakes. If I recall correctly, the Nikon FM10 MSRP was about $200. I imagine with very little electronics in the body and ramped up manufacturing they could make it as low as $100 if they wanted.

James Madison's picture

I didn't know Sigma used to make K-mount lenses and just stopped. I admittedly thought they never made them. I agree with your assessment on Pentax's main problem. I've not seen a new one in person - none of the camera stores I visit carry them.

Peter House's picture

I think Pentax dropped the ball in 2 big ways. They were so far ahead of everyone in the affordable digital medium format market. Had they stuck with that and developed it further, they could have been in the dominant position. Instead Fuji eclipsed them despite Pentax having a digital medium format model around for years before Fuji. They didn't capitalize on that camera when medium format grew in popularity.

The second issue was their delayed entry into full frame. I started photography on an APSC Pentax. Great camera but I outgrew it and needed full frame to support my budding career. Pentax had nothing to offer. There were always hopeful rumors but nothing materialized. Myself and many Pentax shooters at the time migrated to Nikon or Canon. When Pentax did offer full frame, it was too little too late. Many had already invested in other systems, and Pentax always seemed a step behind.

Their trailing efforts in full frame + lack of support and development on the medium format front is what killed their brand.

Personally I think Pentax still has a huge opportunity with Medium Format. Its growing in popularity and is becoming more accessible. If they can put together a proper and compelling medium format camera to compete with Fuji, I think they can still draw in a lot of that crowd. They should ditch full frame at this point since it doesn't seem like they can get a leg up in that market anymore. Re-direct those resources to medium format, and support the APSC market on a small scale to capture a brand loyal early market that can later move to Medium Format. Similar to the Fuji approach.

That to me is the only logical approach left for Pentax.

James Madison's picture

I hear that. Very well thought out. I would hope that someone at Pentax is thinking through what could bring about their comeback. What you've laid out seems like a viable option.

Craig Bobchin's picture

Interesting, I agree that Pentax dropped the ball on the medium format allowing themselves to be eclipsed by Fuji. My digital journey was the opposite of yours. I started digital with the Canon 20d then the 70d. I never purchased any Canon FF lenses since they were too $$$ and thus stuck with EF-S lenses. When I out grew the APS-C format and wanted to go with a FF camera, I knew I'd need to invest in new lenses anyway so I looked at other manufacturers options and was dismayed by the cost and lack of movable LCDs on the available FF bodies.

Then I heard about Pentax's K-1, I looked into it and found it had all the features I was looking for in a camera. I do a lot of Astrophotography and the low noise, and adjustable rear LCD were godsends to me.

then I saw the Pixelshift and Astrotracer functionality and was sold. then I looked at the price roughly 2k for a Camera and lens and it was a no brainer. it was half the price of the Nikon D810 and Canon offerings. it was a no brainer. So consider me a Pentax fan for life.

Dan Seefeldt's picture

Spotmatic 3!

James Madison's picture

Fingers crossed!

Ben Coyte's picture

If Pentax still had the tooling for those cameras, then the economic viability might be there, but to tool up for a niche market sounds expensive. A shame because I still shoot a lot of film and have some Spotmatics and SP cameras, and getting a "new" reliable camera would be good.

James Madison's picture

True true. I doubt very seriously they have maintained the designs or that the way they were manufactured a couple decades ago would translate well to how they'd be manufactured today. Still though, I suspect that it wouldn't be impossible or even difficult to do.

Cool Cat's picture

The K1000 was my first serious camera in 1974. It was a custom built all black camera. Good memories. I'm sorry I don't have it anymore.

James Madison's picture

I've never seen an all black K1000 - sounds like a gorgeous camera. Perhaps if they rerelease the K1000, they'll make an all black one you can pick up!

Cool Cat's picture

At the time I was living in Montreal Canada. My next door neighbor worked for Pentax as a service technician. He collected parts and custom built it for my birthday. I really don't remember what happened to it because that was 46 years ago.

Harvey Steeves's picture

that would be worth a fair chunk of money on the collector market these days.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Are folks willing to pay $2500-4500 (wild guess) for a Pentax 6x7 body and then about the same for modern lenses? How many would they sell? 1000, 5000, 2000?
Maybe...but the film market is a rounding error compared to the digital market. If Pentax is like most big companies they sold off the dies for scrap and the spare parts to a broker who forgot about them years ago.
They could do commemorative special editions with gold trim and a certificate of authenticity but they would be expensive!

I think the best we could hope for is finding a forgotten warehouse full of lenses and cameras on shrink wrapped pallets.

(Edit to reflect the info from Harvey and James.)

Harvey Steeves's picture

people are already dropping close to $1000 for good used 67 bodies these days. And a good used 67II will do $1500 because of the possibility the electronics will go even if it does have more features than a 67.

James Madison's picture

A 67II would be $1500 on a good day or in not great condition. They're getting ridiculously expensive.

Jarrod McMatt's picture

I have many Pentax film cameras. I do not want them to start producing those. There is not enough market there. How many expensive film cameras are selling that are not Leicas? I can answer that for you: not many. I shoot mainly with my MX. To reproduce an MX would make it a $500+ camera. Not going to happen. Most people who shoot film (I shoot so much that I buy in 100' lengths and bulk load) appreciate a good camera but are not into paying a ton for one. Even Pentax knew that when they were making film cameras. Their most advanced film camera was the MZS. Ever seen one? Yeah, I have not either. Every really read anything about it? Yeah, I read that one thing as well. The rest of their film camera lines, while everyone else was cranking out cameras that kept moving forward, were cheap, plastic, and easily broken (I have a couple that are not broken...yet).

What Pentax needs is decent digital AF. I switched to Nikon a few years ago from a long existence of Pentax digital. They offer bodies and lenses that are tough. They offer features and a price point that many others cannot touch. I am getting back into Pentax digital with a KP (on its way to me) and a few small Limited primes. That body and its features are ones that cannot be matched by the mainstream manufacturers. It will be my walk around and family camera with a compact DSLR body and small, great, prime lenses. How is it that they cannot produce a body with a system that can match the D750 in performance? The K3 III, or whatever, could/ should be a Pentax D750. Bodies that are bomb proof, sensors that deliver, a full catalog of APS-C specific lenses, and AF that can focus on something that is moving faster than a brisk walk reliably. There is ZERO reason why they cannot be a DSLR Fuji. I do not like looking at a screen so mirrorless is not for me. I like OVF. There is more of a market available for feature laden, compact DSLRs than rebooting something like a 67II. Look at Nikon Df's for an example. They are still commanding a great price and people are still buying them when they come up. Compact, tactile DSLRs with good AF.

M M's picture

Slow and inconsistent AF (and maybe the lack of lenses) made me move away from Pentax. Otherwise my K-3 was a joy to use. Great ergonomics, great feature set. But doing anything other than landscape was just a frustrating experience do to slow focus. I always wonder how hard it can be to develop a decent focus system. There must be tons of engineers from other companies that know how it's done and could be hired.

And then I don't understand why the K-1 had too be so big. Pentax APS-C cameras were always on the small and lean side.

William Uzzell's picture

Fun to speculate (and wish) for a Pentax resurgence, as I too cut my teeth on a K1000, and then went through a couple of ist series DSLR’s, then to a K10d, then eventually to a K1 for a while (after I was already primarily invested in another brand). Unfortunately, I’m not sure there is enough margin in a niche like film bodies to keep a camera company in business today, especially at the prices discussed here. Perhaps if Ricoh is willing to run it as a loss leader, it’s possible - who knows?

I really think Ricoh/Pentax should take the Beloved GR line, and make a FF as well as a Medium Format version of the GR III. While the GR is not actually a legacy Pentax camera, Pentax is Ricoh anyway now, so profits are all going to the same place. I would buy a FF GR -F, and a Medium Format GR - M in a heartbeat (if I could afford it).

I hope the Pentax name can survive associated with quality cameras. I fear that Ricoh may sell off what’s left of Pentax (understandable from a business standpoint), and the name ends up on junk products like we see today with many proud old brand names.

John Swindle's picture

Art teachers worldwide could be interested. KMZ could be another possible manufacturer. They used to make respectable Pentax clones under the Zenit brand. Слушаете вы, Красногорский завод?

James Lane's picture

Hell yeah, I would definitely buy a newly produced Pentax 645 or 67 even if it costs 3.5k

Ken Yee's picture

You can dream but you have to consider what it costs to do this vs profit from selling them.
The biggest problem is the camera market is shrinking because smartphones are good enough and an old big camera is almost as good as a new one.
Even companies like canikon are having problems being profitable. Sony is most profitable because it sells the blades (chips)....
The best part about Pentax for me was bang for buck and ergos (TAv mode is awesome) and weathersealing and in-body IS/SR. The latter two are gone as is bang for buck 😔

Pedro Calado's picture

I think you are spot on! Nowadays in order to survive you need to sell to the masses or to the minorities (niche). I would buy one for that price also...

Jim Kast's picture

Note: Pentax is no longer a company. It is a brand of Ricoh. The Pentax camera business began its slow death in 2007 when acquired by Hoya. Over the next few years, the business continued its decline until purchased by Ricoh in 2011. The heart and soul of the company basically came to an end in 2007-2008. It is now merely a brand - not a company.

Cool Cat's picture

The same thing is going to happen to Olympus, Apple Computers and even people. Everything dies when the heart and soul is gone.

Adam Palmer's picture

Are any medium format film cameras still in production? There are just a handful of 35mm still being made. Nikon F6 shows out of stock on nikons website.

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