This Old Camera: Pentax *ist. Great camera. Jacked up name.

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I recently wrote about a film camera that I really liked.

SIGMA SA- 7N

In that post I said upfront that this camera has exactly two faults. After some blathering what were these downsides Welp:

  • Dials feel a bit plastic-y. But they work as advertised and overall the camera feels good in hand. Just do not compare it to some of the prized film cameras out there on feel alone.
  • Film era lens selection seems riddled with meh spec zoom lenses mostly. If they do exist fast, vintage film era SIGMA SA prime lenses elude me on the used market. Not an issue since I have a couple of fast, modern SA lenses to use with it but that is far from the norm.

Despite my saying these were minor issues in the end they were enough of a problem that I found myself not using this camera. I’ll get back to this. This is despite this camera turning out far better image results than it had any business doing.

SIGMA SA-7N - 30mm f/1.4
w/ SIGMA DC 30mm f/1.4 Art
SIGMA SA-7N - 105mm f/1.4 Art
w/ SIGMA DG 105mm f/1.4 Art

When reviewing images after developing and scanning the negatives I was left with, “… SIGMA, respectfully what the heck?”

But after pondering why I orphaned this camera so soon after lavishing it with such praise I had to come back to those initial shortcomings.

Plastic-y

A good looking, or good feeling camera in hand does not make for better images technically. But I must admit that it will impact whether I pick it up in the first place. What really did not help was the all black, humorless execution…

SIGMA SA-7N - 30mm f/1.4 Art

…that, while made infinitely times better, had little more flair than the laughable, but loveable also humorless, monochromatic plastic Zenit KM on the right below.

Zenit

Worlds apart in pedigree and potential, but neither yell (Metaphorically speaking. Cameras have not started talking to me yet.) pick me up when you lay eyes on them.

Lens Selection

Or more accurately a lack of era correct lenses as compared to more common mounts. They turned out few SA mount lenses themselves and third party manufacturers mostly chose not to join the… party. The Art lenses above absolutely killed it with this camera, but I could not make a decent case for purchasing anything else, even if I could find lens specs that I wanted. I will admit however that if you are going to be limited SIGMA Art lenses are hardly a penalty box. But no reasonable person would purchase these lenses solely for use on this camera so I graded on a curve that did not favor the SIGMA.

That is why in the end I landed on “I personally have a hard time recommending this camera” previously. A shame really. On paper the SIGMA SA-7N had everything.

Well, this last week while on a “Not looking for anything, but I’ll just innocently window shop on KEH” jag a potential solution was found. The SIGMA SA-7N was not on my mind at all when I saw it. It was more like:

  • Hm, I have a mess of old K mount lenses.
  • Shiny.
  • I have heard of those.
  • Excellent condition for Bargain grade prices you say?
  • That name is awful…
  • I must have it.

It was only while using it during a test roll and contemplating what to write about it did a comparison with the SA-7N come to mind.

But first why this Pentax since I have other 35mm SLR Pentax cameras?

Pentax ME Super

Nostalgia aside these have a tendency to pack it in unceremoniously, but the real reason is that I am pivoting towards AF 35mm film cameras recently. I like carrying film cameras with me to document proceedings and this usually involves my family. AF allows me to snap and move on more efficiently while not having my family on stand by as I frame and focus the shot.

Pentax SF10

X100S

A full featured and capable camera and I like it, but a few things hem it up for me.

  • This camera drives straight past bland and pulls right up next to ugly. Admittedly for this reason I am actually more apt to use it than the SA-7N.
  • Though nearly as full featured as the SA-7N its control layout is… interesting.
  • More than just feeling plastic-y bits of this camera, the glued on eye cup for instance, have come off in my hand. Still works perfectly mind. Just takes something away from the experience.

So I gladly welcomed the *ist into the fold.

Pentax *ist

What brought the SA-7N to mind is that it addressed my two issues with it in quick fashion.

Fashionably Plastic-y

While not everyone’s cup of tea this two tone silver with black scheme does it for me.

Pentax *ist

And the plastic materials involved do not feel quite as low rent as the SA-7N in hand.

Lens Selection

In this case this is a selling point. Pretty much every 35mm Pentax K mount lens in existence will work with this camera

  • Camera Motor AF. What this camera was built for and works just fine regardless of manufacturer.
  • Older MF Glass (K and M42). Also works just fine (adapter needed for M42 glass) and as an added bonus you get focus confirmation. Many great bargains can be had here if you are ok with driving the lens yourself.
  • Newer Lens Motor AF lenses. Tried this lens with the newer 28-105mm. AF is off the table, but you still get focus confirmation. As an added bonus lens aperture control is maintained. Would not make sense to purchase these newer lenses for this use, but I liked the fact that they worked.

So you can use a ton of lenses with this camera new and old.

The other thing that brought the SA-7N to mind was what they have in common. A broad feature set for not a lot of money. From here on out I will cut and paste the feature section from the SA-7N post with text and photo edits where needed.

This camera is also one of the most feature-filled, capable, no sacrifices, and dare I say… normal film cameras I have ever used. No sacrifices asked. No oddly placed on/off switches or odd ergonomics to speak of.

While not plentiful these cameras are very affordable when you do find them. This copy in Excellent condition at KEH did not hit three figures.

This camera is full-featured. More so than about any other film camera I own or have owned. To wit:

  • No dedicated shutter dial but it is easy enough to set with the all purpose back dial, and the *ist counters the the SA-7N by topping out at 1/4000s instead of 1/2000s.
Pentax *ist
  • Not only does it pack a full range of the modes one would expect (M, S, A, and P) in Pentax speak (M, Tv, Av, and Auto Pict). And as an added bonus Auto Pic uses prehistoric AI to select one of many modes depending on the scene. And after some quick tests it is eerily efficient. For example aiming far away lights up the Mountain/Landscape pictogram, aiming at a person lights up the Portrait/Torso pictogram, and aiming at a close object brings up the Macro/Flower pictogram, etc. Same dial also lets you manually override the ISO, turn sound on/off, and Custom… something… I have not bothered locating a manual.
Pentax *ist
Pentax *ist
  • Mulitiple exposure mode where you can set the number of exposures. Do not believe you can change the number of exposures… but I have not confirmed this. As far as I can tell you will get two exposures and like it.
  • Mirror up mode. Not sure, but I am going to say this is not a feature but I have not confirmed this.
  • AF-S and AF-C modes.
Pentax *ist
  • Multiple metering modes.
    • Matrix
    • Average
    • Center Weighted
Pentax *ist
  • Relatively quiet even with auto advance… And it has auto advance.
  • Bracketed shooting where you can set the exposure variance.
  • You can turn the AF acquisition confirmation beep off. Mentioned on dial bullet above.
  • Easily decipherable controls.
  • Informative display screen. This time larger, on the back of the camera, and with more information available.
Pentax *ist
  • Diopter.
  • While auto film speed reading is a common feature you can also manually set the ISO if you wish.
  • AEL button.
  • You can set exposure compensation.
  • Built-in flash.
Pentax *ist
Pentax *ist
  • Shutter button is surrounded by the on/off switch and exposure preview.
Pentax *ist
  • Dedicated shutter speed dial. Here you get an intuitive alternative where in manual mode the nearby AE +/- compensation button toggles the rear dial between shutter and aperture adjustments.
  • Both aperture and shutter speed show in viewfinder.
  • Full manual mode uses AE for +/- exposure metering.
  • When using P mode you can choose your shutter speed and aperture combinations to your liking. A nope here Give the SA-7N a gold star for this one.
  • Quick and accurate AF.
  • Exposure preview button. As mentioned above around the shutter button.
  • Sensor for remote.

Additions

  • Dedicated focus 4 way D pad (very Pentax of you *ist) to select the focus point placement in SEL mode.
Pentax *ist
  • Decicated flash mode and drive adjustment buttons.
Pentax *ist
  • Once again even with all of these features this is a small and light camera. Better looking to boot.
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K-1 dwarfs it.

So what of the downsides here…

So far I do not have any… other than the name. Have heard some complain that the camera is too small, but that is kind of the point for me. There is a grip available, but again… as much as I am tempted to get the grip merely because it exists… I like it because it is small. Subject to change. I will report back in this space if any downsides arise.

Now on to sample images from the first roll. Courtesy the K mount I was able to put a number of lenses to use here. Checked out a local garden I had not gone to before this time around for most of the roll to mix it up a bit. Made quick work of it since it was very hot yesterday evening. Lomography 400 was the film used…

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…and developed at home using Cinestill CS41

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…and scanned.

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Wilson
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Last time around with the SA-7N I ended with some crazy talk by comparing the SA-7N to some big hitters. But in retrospect that was the SIGMA Art glass talking. Still a valid argument here, but I will cool it off a bit this time around.

Strip away the vaunted brand names, Titanium and other unobtanium materials, and outlandish specs with the right lens affixed there is no film camera I have or have used that is capable of creating a better image. In addition, most of those cameras have some of the features that this camera has, but none have all of them.

Still true here. Even moreso because this camera askes even fewer compromises aesthetic and lens availability wise. Strictly subjective. But one could do worse than the Pentax-y-ist of Pentax cameras, the Pentax *ist, for a whole lot more money.

Happy capturing.

-ELW

Pentax *ist
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