Is the Pentax K1000 Overrated?
"...this splendid Volkswagen Beetle of SLRs..."
-- Herbert Keppler, Oct. 1989 --
In a word...Possibly. Does that make it a terrible camera? Nope. Does it mean that you shouldn't buy one? Not necessarily ;-). But before getting sucked in by all of the Interweb-mongering of the K1000 as the best beginner SLR...of...all...time, it may be worth your while to investigate where it stacks up in relation to other vintage 35mm SLRs (many of which can be had nowadays for the same or considerably less in terms of monetary outlay) and how it came by its popularity among newbs in the first place. Let's start with the latter.
How Hagiography Happens
The K1000 has likely served as the introduction to 35mm SLR photography for more people than any other single model in history. If you took a photography course in high school or college in North America during the last two decades of the 20th century, chances were that you would find a K1000 loaded with Kodak Tri-X (or some rough equivalent) in your hands. It remained in production for over 20 years (3 million produced), surprising even Pentax with its sustained popularity. But what were the actual reasons for that popularity in the first place, and are they still pertinent today?
The number one reason the K1000 was the hottest beginner SLR in its day? Simply put, it was cheap. In fact, it was the least expensive SLR from any of the the Big 5 mainstream Japanese manufacturers. It was derived from a proven mid-'60s design (the Spotmatic) that Pentax had simplified and modernized (utilizing a modern SR44/357 battery for the light meter, along with the bayonet K-mount, added to a few previous cost-saving measures incorporated into the K's direct ancestor, the SP1000). This, coupled with its classic form, super-simple user interface, and entirely adequate technical capability, made it extremely appealing to schools and colleges that provided equipment for their photography courses or cash-$trapped students that had to supply their own.
The next step in the anointment of the K1000 as the Alpha and Omega of SLRs for tyros (one of longtime magazine editor Herbert Keppler's favorite terms for newcomers to photography), was the emotional connection that it forged with those first-time users. Put yourself in their shoes: this is your first experience with a "real" 35mm camera...you are shown how to load the film, set the ISO, and operate it...you point it at various subjects and scenes, remembering to "center the needle" in the viewfinder by adjusting the aperture ring and/or the shutter speed dial...once you have finished the roll you repair to the darkroom for developing and printing...as you swish the paper in the tray you start to see that image slowly appear, building contrast and clarity as if by magic...and there you have it. It doesn't matter if you only got a single decent shot from the roll...you now have D76 or Rodinal coursing through your veins and you can't wait for the next fix(er). The K1000 has become the ticket to ride on your photographic pilgrimage. And you will never forget it.
30 or 40-some-odd years later, and along comes a 21st-century tyro and they are asking ye old, grizzled film vet what they should embark upon their own 35mm film odyssey with. The old-timer's mind flashes back to that darkroom...that print...and the memory of that little chrome lighttight box that captured a sliver of time in silver...and the fix is in: The K1000...the "GOAT" (excuse me while I try to suppress the gag reflex ;-)) of beginner SLRs.
Which then leads to the next stage - gatekeeping. The K1000 must unquestionably be the GOAT, but what truly makes it so? The gatekeepers would have you believe that the GOATness of the K1K is rooted in the innate purity of its soul - all-metal construction (not entirely true, but that is of little consequence to the earnest hagiographer ;-)), all mechanical (aside from the battery-powered meter ;-)) and all manual in its operation. With no perfidious automation to tempt the user into mindless snapshotting, the K1000 forces you to slow down and THINK about the holy exposure trinity in oneness with the spirit of its exalted Spotmatic forefather. True photographic peace and fulfillment can result only from this acceptance of Asahian absolution. Automation is the broad road to perdition, paved with Program modes promising perfect exposures that only serve to effect sloth, not to mention the rest of the seven deadly sins ;-).
Don't get me wrong, this is not a "bash the K1000" rant. It could well be the best beginner SLR for...you. Or it may not. The camera has not lost a whit's worth of its capability over the years (9 times out of 10, the higher shutter speeds have gone out of calibration and require adjustment for proper exposures, although you can get away with the resulting overexposure with print film most of the time :-)), but there are plenty of mechanical (or, perish the thought, electronic) SLRs of higher quality and capability that can be had for the same or far less coinage, nowadays. 35 or 40 years ago, the cut-rate K definitely offered the best bang for your student buck for a camera of its type. But that is no longer the case. The mythos engulfing the K1000 has served to keep current prices for Excellent condition (80-89% of new) copies at about 80% of the price of the last new copies in 1996 of $285 USD at B&H Photo (inflation-corrected to 2022, as are all prices in this article). Contrast that with the current values of its better-equipped, physical near-twin, the KM, or the even higher-quality, but admittedly rarer, KX, and the value ratio is no longer in the K1000's favour. Both of those models can be had for less in equivalent condition if you must have a fully manual, mechanical Pentax SLR. A Spotmatic, Spotmatic II, Spotmatic F, or SP1000 is also worth careful consideration. If you would prefer a more petite mechanical Pentax also built to a higher quality standard, the MX can be had for about the same or just a touch more, but beware, it uses LEDs in the viewfinder that could well be your first step off of the photographic straight and narrow ;-).
Another reason to not blithely hand over your hard-earned cash for just any K1000 is that not all Special Ks are so special (even some of those with the Special Edition markings ;-)). To hold the selling price steady over a two-decade period, something had to give. As noted previously, the K1000 basically started out as a cut-rate Spotmatic, so there was already a mentality at Pentax to axe features and costs whenever necessary to maintain market position with this model. The next step in this process was to move assembly of the cameras to Hong Kong (cheaper labour) from Japan in the late-'70s. This had no effect on quality as all of the parts were still produced in Japan and Pentax' quality control standards for assembly remained exactly the same. Within a few years, Pentax moved the tooling to Hong Kong as well, again bringing K1000 production under one umbrella.
By the late-'80s, Pentax had tried several times to discontinue production of the evergreen K1000, as the rapidly-rising production cost for a mostly-metal ;-), fully mechanical SLR was eating into what little remained of its profitability. But market demand compelled them to continue, so they had to come up with another way to restore some margin. They did this in the time-honored traditions of modern manufacturing: use lower-cost materials where possible, simplify design, and find cheaper sources of labour. In the case of the K1000, Pentax first eliminated metal parts wherever possible including the top and bottom plates (not really as big of a deal as the "all-metal" gatekeepers would have you believe ;-)), and from almost all of the simplified film-advance assembly (much more important when it came to the overall reliability and durability of the camera). Weight of the camera was thus reduced 15% from 620 grams (21.9 oz) to 525 grams (18.5 oz). You can literally "feel" the difference in film winding from a Spotmatic...to a pre-1990 K1000...to a 1990-97 copy. Second, the de-contenting of the K1000 also coincided with movement of production to mainland China in 1990 to again cut labour costs. The reduction in quality of the 1990-97 bodies had everything to do with design choices by Pentax and not with the supposed "inferiority" of Chinese assembly. Pentax was not alone in offshoring at that time: Minolta moved X-370 production from Japan to Malaysia in the late '80s and later, China in the '90s in step with Pentax, with the other Japanese SLR makers also following suit with their entry-to-mid level SLRs throughout the remainder of the film era.
The reason for going in to the production-era-and-location weeds for the K1000? Most used equipment retailers will sell you the drastically-cheapened 1990-97 version for exactly the same price as the 1976-90 version. So, if you have your heart set on a K1000, please at least buy a better-quality pre-1990 copy :-). How do you tell the difference? Here are some simple visual cues:
Alternatives to the Mighty K
Now we ascend to the heights of Mt. Heresy and with Pentax' archenemy in the 1970s: Nikon. We begin with the contemporary FM (1977-82; again, we are sticking with all-manual, mechanical-shuttered models for the moment) currently coming in at at roughly 1/3 less than a K1000 in equivalent condition for a camera that was built to a higher standard of quality than any K1000 ever was (and waaayyy higher than the post-1990 versions). For some perspective, in 1977, the K1000 with its excellent 55/2 kit lens sold for $580 USD, whereas the FM with its equivalent 50/2 kit lens was $1,320 USD.
Or consider a model far removed from the K1000 as far as cachet is concerned: the Nikon F Photomic FTN. Prices are now identical from reputable dealers. The granddaddy (some would say gaaaggg...GOAT ;-)) of professional mechanical 35mm SLRs now costs the same as the GOAT of beginner SLRs?? Something doesn't add up here. ***NOTE*** Despite being a professional model, the likelihood of a 50+ year-old Nikon F (or almost any other mechanical SLR) requiring a CLA to calibrate its shutter speeds and ensure proper metering operation will be just as high as for the lowly K1K :-).
Moving on to other mechanical competitors: we have Canon FTb(N)s, Minolta SRTs, Nikkormat FT(n, -2, -3)s, Olympus OM-1(n)s, the aforementioned Spotmatics, and a raft of badge-engineered Cosinas and Mamiyas, bearing Sears or other department-store brand names, not to mention Yashica (Cosina-built) FX-3/-7s. To be sure, many of these models use now-obsolete battery types to power their internal meters, and that is one often-overlooked advantage that accrues to the K1000 with its still-ubiquitous, single 357/SR44 cell.
That doesn't even scratch the surface of less-costly but just-as-capable electronically-controlled SLRs available to the beginner today. If you can lower yourself to considering such "pseudo"-SLRs ;-), the possibilities are enormous: Canon AL-1, AT-1 & AV-1, Minolta XG-M, X-500/-570 & X-300/-370, Nikon FG-20 & N2000/F-301, Pentax ME, ME super, ME F, Super A/Program & Program A/Plus, Yashica FR-Series, FX-D, FX-70 & FX-103, to name a handful (just give me a minute to catch my breath ;-)). Any of these are, at least, half the cost of a K1000, with many coming in at one-third to one-quarter of the price. Closer in price, and having better quality or capability are the Canon EF, CONTAX 139, Minolta XE-series, XD-5, Nikon FE, Olympus OM-2, and the Pentax ES II, a by-no-means exhaustive list.
Overrated or Overpriced?
The K1000 is far from alone when it comes to ostensibly being overrated or at least overpriced for what it is today. The same situation applies for the other common nominees for "best beginner SLR", the Canon AE-1 & AE-1 Program and the Minolta X-700. The AE-1 and X-700 currently sell for $175 USD and the AE-1 Program for north of $200 USD in Excellent condition from reputable dealers. Is this the end of the world? Not really. I paid $300 CAD 25 years ago for an Excellent-condition used X-700 from my local dealer in the pre-DSLR era. Corrected for inflation that comes out to $420 USD in today's smaller dollars.
So in reality, none of these cameras are overpriced in absolute terms. It just feels that way to those diehard enthusiasts (often offering up longwinded blog posts or Youtube rants ;-)) who lived through the firesales for manual focus SLRs that occurred during the first ten years of the DSLR era before values began recovering slowly over the last decade-and-a-half. Comparatively, however, there is an argument to be made that these four models definitely offer less bang for your current buck than many of the alternatives mentioned above.
Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. Just check out the current prices of restored Volkswagen Beetles :-). So, is the K1000 overrated or overpriced today? In concrete terms, not really. It is just as good as it ever was: a simple, straightforward tool for learning and enjoying film photography. We can thank the Internet and the whole GOAT-obsession of modern pop-culture for supplying the echo-chamber that has facilitated the hagiography of the K1000, and the Canon AE-1, two of the most successful beginner-targeted SLRs ever produced. What is often lost or ignored is context. Forty years ago, the K1000 had no peer at its price point. Nowadays, there are literally dozens of alternatives, often featuring better quality and/or capability for considerably less cost. The value proposition has reversed. Want to buy a K1000 to begin your film journey? Go right ahead. It is a great way to go. But why not explore the alternatives first instead of just buying into the hype? The time you invest in researching and checking out a variety of SLRs will not be wasted. And it might just let you grab a few more rolls of film or another lens to play with, too :-).
Pentax Manual Focus Film SLR Reviews @ www.pentaxforums.com
Reference Library @ https://www.pacificrimcamera.com/rl/rlrindex.htm
Camera Manual Library @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/index.html
Popular Photography Magazine @ https://books.google.ca/books
1977-78 Competitive Camera Photographic Catalogue
7/31/2022 03:21:16 pm
I agree that the K1000 just doesn't make a lot of sense at the prices they sell at considering you could easily find much better made m/m/m (metal, mechanical, manual) cameras for the same or less: Pentax Spotmatics, Minolta SRT's, Canon FTb's, and the Nikkormats, to name a few.
7/31/2022 06:40:13 pm
Thanks for taking the time to share those salient points, Tom. Very interesting to hear about the de-silvering of the late-model pentaprisms, and it bears out just how deep the cost-cutting went. And thank you for mentioning the Ricoh/Sears connection which I had overlooked. That only serves to broaden the possibilities for bargain-hunters. Best regards.
8/2/2022 01:59:33 pm
Another great post. I definitely saw a lot of K1000 recommends when I sought out my first SLR a few years back. But the prices they command pushed me to look elsewhere. I found a Minolta SR-T 101 that came with case and two lenses (a Vivitar 28mm f/2.8 and a Rokkor-X PG 50mm f/1.4) for just $60 USD. It did need a CLA, but I am really happy overall with it. And because I had access to all the affordable and good SR/MC/MD lenses, it influenced my decision to buy a Minolta XD5 as my next SLR.
8/2/2022 10:48:11 pm
Glad you enjoyed it, Shawn. And thanks for sharing your experience about your Minoltas. It perfectly illustrates the benefits of taking the time to investigate options that may fit our personal needs just as well or even better than the standard "top" recommendations that are out there. And not having to break the bank in the process ;-). Take care.
Always read your blog, its always entertaining and so well researched.
8/19/2022 11:01:00 am
Nice to hear from you, Mel. And you make some excellent points about lesser-known alternatives, like the Chinon. There are still plenty of treasures to be found under those lesser-known brand names. I always appreciate your comments. Take care.
Amen! When I see AE-1 or K1000 prices well north of a Nikon FM (or F2/F4/F5) I just shake my head. Nostalgia is a powerful thing for sure, but jeez, how much of a premium do you want to pay for something objectively inferior? At least those paying a premium for an F3 are still getting a well made camera.
3/20/2023 08:41:30 pm
Thanks for the comment, Ben. Yep, from merely crazy...to insane when it comes to the P&S market, especially the posh ones. I can remember what I bought my T4 Super for brand spanking new back in 1999 or so. At least a K1000 can be CLA'd back to life if needed. All those titanium-encrusted P&S are a breath away from permanent brickage when (not if) the electronics cook ;-). Best regards.
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Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.