The blissful Pentax Auto 110. I can remember getting into sub-miniature photography as far back as 2006. I was dating a photographer back then, and we would get excited as we marveled at eBay listings for Olympus Pen F or Minolta Zoom SLR cameras, while double-checking every fact on the subclub website.
It’s easy to understand the appeal of these cameras as digital cameras were rising in importance: being small, they can fit in any pocket or bag, without having to switch to digital. “Digital cameras are smaller” is something many people assume is true, but no one really looks into these facts. Moreover, you feel like you’re James Bond when you use them.
But if you’re a true photographer, you should never get out of the house without a camera on you! And film cameras, whether TLRs, SLRs or any 35mm reflex camera - can be extremely bulky, heavy and bothersome to carry on a daily basis.
Not to mention that the bigger the camera, the easier it is for your subjects to notice it, and if you’re into candid or street photography, you don’t want your subjects noticing your presence.
The list of small cameras that I bought and tried out since then is a long one. Olympus Pen EE-3, Olympus Pen FT, Olympus Pen D2, Yashica Samurai, Olympus Pen EE-S, Minolta SLR Zoom 110, Minox 35 EL, Lomography Fisheye 110, Vivitar LF, Lomo LC-A, and if I include Super-8mm film cameras from which I would shoot single frames and later on enlarge them, Canon 310 XL.
To make a long story shorter, I believe I am a perfectionist, and none of these cameras really suited my needs. Sure, I could fit the Olympus Pen EE-3 in my jeans’ pocket, but forget about night or low-light photography. Sure, the Olympus Pen FT is a full-featured miniature reflex, but forget about putting it in your jeans or even jacket pocket. Sure, the Lomo Fisheye 110 is super cute and quite amazingly designed, but that thing on the front is not really what I call a lens. Sure, the Minox 35 EL is super small, but the pictures came out just “meh”, and focussing was quite a pain. Either the picture quality just wasn’t there for me, or the overall experience of using the camera was a little too uncomfortable.
And one day, when I thought I knew everything there was to know about subminiature photography, a friend of mine asked me to recommend a good and small film camera. I did the research with them in mind, and suggested they get a Pentax auto 110.
The minute my friend showed me their Pentax auto 110, I knew I was onto something that could solve a nearly ten-year search for the perfect pocketable film camera. Interchangeable lenses. Automatic exposure meter that works in low-light situations. Smaller than the Olympus Pen line. Beautifully and elegantly designed. Only change batteries every 4-7 months. Robust. And, erm, oh yeah. It’s a SLR. Meaning that focusing would be naturally done through the viewfinder. Take that, Minox 53 EL!
I shot my first rolls using Lomography Orca black and white, and they came out great. I loved the results. The grain was sometimes a bit too much, and in order to get the best scans out of the negatives, I sometimes bracket-scanned them to get a better dynamic range and more details out of them using my not-so awesome Wolverine scanner.
The second film I tried with the Pentax auto 110 was the Lomography Peacock film, cross- processed. Its vibrant colors and sometimes off-tones delighted me when I discovered the results.
I was delighted to not have to worry about batteries and manual settings, and found it extremely easy to use for street photography and urban exploration. I loaded the camera with even more black and white or peacock film, and brought the camera with me everywhere. Another great feeling is to be able to get so much closer to your subjects than you would with a Pen EE or a Minox 35, and capture just the detail that you saw and nothing else. I shot with no fear, and generally just carried the camera in the pocket of my jacket or vest, without even having to think about it whenever I didn’t need it.
I wanted to explore other types of film and try different pricing. I saw an online ad someone had posted, who was selling “no brand” color 110 film for 3€ a roll (Lomography rolls vary between 7-12€ for 24 exposures), we met and I bought 3 rolls from him.
The “no brand” film turned out to be expired and somewhat blue-ish, and kind of faded. It was better than nothing (a moment captured is better than nothing captured at all), but although I didn’t dislike the results, I decided to stick with more recently made film. The photos taken with the 110 were of a lower quality than the ones I usually take with my Minolta X-300, and the difference in grain was very noticeable on my Flickr photostream.
This is something I’m okay with, but since I had found a camera that I loved using and that I could carry anywhere, all I needed now was to be able to pull the best results from it. So far, the finest results I had gotten were with the black and white Orca film, so I sticked with it for a while.
I moved to California in January, and decided it would be good to try some color film on the Pentax. The Lomography Tiger film is the only 110 film currently produced that I am aware of, and I bought a few rolls on their websites. Only this time, I decided not to scan them myself but to have them scanned by the lab.
I felt there was a lot less grain on the recent pictures, but I couldn’t tell if this is because I had them scanned at the lab or if this is dues to the sunny weather in California, or both. Some pictures came out so sharp that I was really amazed. I double-checked a few times to make sure I hadn’t dropped off a medium-format roll as well, but no: the pictures produced by the Pentax 110 were some of the sharpest and lowest in grain I have ever shot.
Some of the last pictures were taken during a week-end trip to Santa Cruz, where I also had brought my Olympus Pen FT, loaded with Fuji film. The Olympus photos weren’t always as sharp as the Pentax 110 ones, and had often more grain, and also the colors were very “off” (but that’s Fuji).
To sum up, the Pentax 110 is probably the best sub miniature and easy to carry around SLR I’ve ever tested. It has a lot of advantages that many cameras, even digital, do not have:
- It’s small and fits anywhere
- It takes pictures that can be extremely sharp with very little grain
- It’s sturdy
- The batteries don’t need to be changed anymore than 2-3 times a year
- The lenses are interchangeable
- The exposure is automatic and the meter works extremely well
- There are many accessories that exist (that I haven’t tried out) such as an automatic film winder, or a flash
- The design of the camera is very agreeable and it is extremely simple to operate
- The focussing system is one of my favorites, a split-ring focussing which I’ve always thought is better than prism (or worse, no viewfinder help at all!), and winding operates by two winding strokes
- There’s a soft trigger screw on the trigger, and a tripod hole under it.
I strongly recommend this amazing little wonder!