My Grandfather’s Pentax P3: Reflections on a Budget SLR

My Grandfather's Pentax P3: Reflections on a Budget SLR

My grandfather bought a Pentax P3 the week I was born. A year of tenuous exposures later, he replaced it with a more automated Pentax SF1. And so, the camera used to take the photos in this article spent the next three and a half decades in a shoebox in Pittsburgh.

During my last visit back home, my grandfather pulled me into his kitchen. “Whaduya think I can get for these?” He dropped a stack of dusty magazines, a half-evaporated snow globe, and the well-worn P3 on his kitchen table. After breaking the disappointing news that none of his treasures had exactly kept pace with inflation, he asked if I wanted to take the camera back with me to New York. I obliged.

Earlier this year my passion for film photography was rekindled during a trip to Paris, a city far better remembered in silver grains than pixels. I had taken my Nikon F100 on that trip, an excellent camera but clunky travel companion. The comparably slender frame of the P3 seduced me at once.

There is something uncanny about holding an object that has been on the earth as long as you. Time expands and contracts each time I pick up my grandfather’s camera. Throughout the peaks and valleys of my life, this little camera waited patiently for the infant it once documented to pick it up and capture a changed world.

Staying true to my goal of building a 35mm travel companion, I paired the P3 with the smallest lens I could find: an SMC Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8. Together they take up about as little space as you could ask from a film SLR. I take them everywhere.

Neither my camera nor lens stand out as exceptional achievements in Pentax’s storied history. But this admission only increases their appeal for me. As someone whose job includes identifying shortcomings in the newest camera equipment on the market, the P3 offers a welcome escape from the cold and clinical appraisals of what makes a camera good. In the end, it always comes down to what a photographer needs. For me, that meant slowing down and reimagining how to picture the world. This humble duo made that possible.

The attributes of the P3 that frustrated my grandfather are what make it so appealing to me. It is a camera that forces you to stop and think about what you are doing. While the P3 offers an auto-exposure mode with certain lenses, the 40mm f/2.8 is not one of them. Exposures are balanced using the P3’s byzantine LED metering system on the side of the viewfinder. Once you crack its code, the process becomes second nature.

The first roll of film I used with the P3 was Kodak Portra 800. Exposure after exposure, I was certain its decades-old metering technology was leading me astray. When I dropped off the first roll of film, I mentally prepared myself for blank frames and wasted money. To my surprise, the exposures were nearly all on point—thanks, at least in part, to the forgiving nature of Portra film and the skilled workers at The Color House NY.

Focusing with the 40mm f/2.8 is as tactile of an experience as it is visual. Liberated from the neuroticism of digital zoom assistance or surrender to autofocusing algorithms, focus depends on your eye, hand, and a split-prism viewfinder. Accordingly, sharpness can be unpredictable. Below f/8 I have no expectations—and consequently, I am never disappointed.

Film rewinding is also a manual affair. I accidentally opened the back of the camera by mistake when I “rewound” my first roll, adding a light leak effect the old-fashioned way. Some users complain that the P3 defaults to ISO 100 if there is no DX code on your film. The simple solution is to just use film in cartridges that the camera will recognize.

The most valuable lesson I have taken from my grandfather’s camera is as old as photography itself: You don’t need the most expensive camera and lens on the market to make pictures worth looking at. There are plenty of similar cameras and lenses sitting in attics waiting for an adventurous photographer to bring them back to life. Forget about digital—at least for a minute. Grab a 35mm SLR and make some pictures from scratch. You won’t regret it.

Perhaps you have had an experience like mine. Share your favorite non-iconic camera in the Comments section, below.