With a major SLR slump under way, the early-to-mid-1980s were the golden age of the compact AF (auto focus) 35mm camera. Many snapshooting consumers, who had been sucked in by the snake-oil promise of SLRs that did everything for you, now turned to what they had really needed all along: relatively affordable compact AF models. Innovations were coming fast and furious, and widespread cost-cutting had yet to enter the picture. All of the major (and most of the smaller) manufacturers had at least one high-quality entrant in the hotly-contested 35mm f/2.8 category. By the late '80s, however, the bean-counters and the public's clamor for zoom lenses ensured the demise of the capable, yet economical, AF compact. But let's go back to the boom days of...
...Photokina 1982, when Pentax unveiled their first lens shutter 35mm compact camera, the petite, polycarbonate PC35AF (aka Sport 35). This wasn't just any cheap 35mm compact. It was packed with a sharp and fast five-element 35mm f/2.8 lens, auto focus (thus the AF moniker), shutter speeds from 1/8 - 1/430 sec., a handy pop-up flash that was only activated when the user wished it to be, and a very useful +1.5 EV back light compensation (BLC) button. It also sported a slick spring-loaded cover that not only served to protect the lens but also as the OFF/ON switch. In short, it was Pentax' take on the Olympus XA/XA2 formula (the 35/2.8 lens and thumb wheel film advance of the XA, with the program exposure of the XA2, all wrapped in a classy clamshell cover), but with the addition of AF and an integrated flash. Pentax also introduced an optional power winder attachment to allow for powered film advance (requiring two AAs, in addition to the two AAAs that powered the camera itself). But, even with this, loading and rewinding film was still a fully manual process, leaving some room for development. Which brings us to the...
...PC35AF-M (aka Super Sport 35), with the "M" designating the newly-internalized motor. The PC35AF-M debuted in October 1984, only a year after Kodak introduced the DX film-coding system. Not only was DX capability now included, but with the introduction of ISO 1000 & 1600 speed films, Pentax expanded the ISO range from 25 to 1600, instead of the previous top speed of 400. Because the PC35 AF-M came out during the transition to DX, it also included manual film speed settings of ISO 100, 200, 400, and 1000 for non-DX film canisters. This also meant that the user could override the DX setting by covering the contacts on the film canister with tape and then setting the speed to one of the four manual settings. The internal motor now enabled automatic film loading as well as winding with push-button powered rewinding (power was now supplied by two AAs instead of two AAAs, which also dropped the flash recycling time by 25%). There was also now a waffle-pattern grip over the new motor bulge and a thumb grip integrated on the film door, making the camera easier to hold. But this was not the only change. The manual rewind lever was eliminated from the bottom plate, and the flash pop-up release lever was moved to the left side of the camera from the bottom plate. Other refinements included: a window in the film door to reveal the film info printed on the canister, the BLC button was changed to a spring-loaded sliding lever; the self-timer lever was moved to the right of the shutter release button; the self-timer lamp was now square and sat directly below the redesigned lens cover release lever. the frame counter was now square too, and moved inboard from its original location. Another change was the reduction of the viewfinder magnification from 0.5x to 0.44x, probably necessitated by the inclusion of the motor while trying to keep the size increase of the camera to a minimum. 40 grams of weight were saved over the original PC35AF/Winder combination.
The final iteration of the PC35 series was the PC35AF-M SE (Pentax had an affinity for special editions ;-)), introduced in 1985. It was a minor update of its predecessor, with the biggest change being the elimination of the the manual ISO selector switch, with ISO 100 now being the default setting for any non-DX film, regardless of its actual rating. Cosmetically, there was a new grip and and the shutter release button was now black instead of red.
Image Quality - In a word...excellent. All versions of the PC35 shared the same sharp, contrasty, five-element lens (that focused down to 0.7 meters/28 inches, very good in this category). Color rendition is classic Pentax, leaning towards higher saturation over a more neutral look. As with almost all 35/2.8 compacts, there is some vignetting wide-open, which disappears at smaller apertures. The best solution for this (if you do not want to exploit it for lomographic purposes ;-)) is to use at least ISO 400 film.
Metering - All editions used the same CdS (cadmium disulfide) meter, which covers an EV range from 6 to 17. This was typical for the category and the Pentax meter is pretty decent. Exposing print film is a breeze. The +1.5 EV BLC lever comes in very handy and actually works.
Handling - Here is where we get into some definite differences, especially between the original PC35AF and its two descendants. The PC35AF has no right-hand grip to speak of (soap-bar styling). This allowed for the mounting of the optional power winder, which, frankly, feels tacked-on, although it does give more purchase for your fingers. The thumb-wheel film advance of the original camera engaged the drive gear of the power winder. This required it to be squared-off and toothed quite aggressively. For many users, this is not so comfortable for manual advance. The grip of the latter two models is much more ergonomic, allowing the user a more secure hold on the camera with less muscle fatigue.
The right hand controls of the internal motor versions are very well laid-out, with the shutter release button falling nicely under the index finger, and the middle finger resting on the horizontal-travel lens cover release lever that also serves as the OFF/ON switch. This is an improvement (at least for me :-)) over the push-down motion of the PC35AF release lever. The self-timer lever location on the PC35AF is a little more exposed, although I don't see much chance of accidentally activating it. It might be easier to leave it inadvertently activated, however, as there is not much of a tactile cue of it being so (visually, it's no problem). On the later models, the self-timer lever can only be set deliberately by pulling it out with your index fingernail; it has a positive detent and it sticks out enough to notify you of its activation when you grip the camera normally. It stays completely out of your way when not in use. As an aside on the shutter release button, none of the motorized versions have the greatest feel: the focus zone indicator in the viewfinder is mechanically activated by pressure on the button, making for a relatively long, mushy shutter button travel. This is not endemic to just these models...many point & shoots of this era had the same issue. You get used to it :-). The next generation of designs (PC-555 and PC-333) featured a lot of improvement in this area. The last right-side control on the motorized models is the film door lever, which is operated with the right thumb. It has a strong spring and is tucked out of the way when using the camera, but is easily accessed when needed. To open the film door of the original PC35AF, the user must pull out the film rewind crank on the bottom of the camera, which precludes any accidental opening of the door. It is a bit less convenient than the later system (but not much).
Moving to the left-side of the PC35s, we find two controls, one for BLC and the other for activating the pop-up flash. The location of the BLC button/lever was pretty much identical on all editions, it only differed in the means of operation. It is not easy to accidentally bump, and is best activated with your left middle finger. Be careful of your ring and pinkie fingers encroaching in the viewfinder when using BLC. As for the flash lever, on the PC35AF it is located on the bottom of the camera and can be activated with your thumb or index finger depending on your preferred hand position. On the succeeding models it was moved to the left side of the camera and again can be used with either the thumb or index finger, whichever suits you better. (Make sure you keep the flash retracted when not needed, as it will fire anytime it is in its raised position and shorten battery life.) Overall, handling improved with the newer generation models, as one would expect.
Noise - Let's face it, the '80s were not about quiet. The clothes, the colors, ghetto blasters...you get the picture. In this context, any of the motorized PC35s (including the power winder-equipped PC35AF) fit right in. So, if you fancy yourself a ninja (what would the '80s be without ninjas?) street shooter, you might want to pass. The bare PC35AF, with its thumb wheel advance, definitely accrues the advantage here (after all, what does comfort matter to a ninja?). One nice feature with the motorized models, however, is that the film doesn't advance until you release the shutter button. This allows the erstwhile street shooter time to stuff the camera in a coat or otherwise dampen the noise of winding after getting the shot. Another bonus, when it comes to rewinding, is that, unlike later cameras that automatically rewind at the end of a roll, the motorized PC35s require you to manually activate powered rewind, allowing for more discretion.
A second source of unwanted noise is that other lovely feature of the '80s...the annoying, undisarmable beeper (there's nothing worse for a ninja than a stupid beeper). On all of the PC35s, the beeper will sound when the camera feels that the shutter speed is too slow and it wants you to activate the flash (another thing ninjas don't need). However, if you are a somewhat-handy ninja, you can disable the beeper by nefarious means (snip, snip go the little wires, bwahahaha). The next most obvious source of noise is the focusing motor that moves the lens which, when combined with the shutter, sounds like a sneezing weasel. Another source of noise, which affects all of the PC35s, is the scratchy-sounding focus zone indicator. It's not a big deal as far as most subjects are concerned, but it does drive some ninja photographers a little around the bend (but ask yourself, aren't crazed ninjas even more fun?). Overall, the motorized PC35s were a bit louder than average when it came to compact AF 35s of the era.
Construction - These are, all things considered, pretty solid little cameras. Yes, they have a lot of plastic, but a surprising amount of metal inside, too. They feel like a quality piece of engineering, especially when you consider the price point they sold at (around $120 USD in the mid-80's or about $275 USD in 2017 dollars). A weak point (shared by many other compacts of this era) is the battery door. It uses a plastic hinge that will eventually fatigue and break if not treated with care. Particular to the PC35s is the fragile nature of the plastic shell on the outside edge of the battery compartment. The spring pressure exerted by the battery cover with batteries in the camera puts that edge under load, and if it takes an impact, it will often break. Inspect this area carefully when looking at purchasing one. A broken battery door is not the end of the world, either; a little tape makes for a simple fix :-). As far as the circuitry goes, the PC35s seem to be pretty rugged in my experience. YMMV :-).
Fun - This is one of the best things the PC35s have going for them. Yes, they are noisy, the shutter release is mushy...and yet...you always feel connected to the camera, with its little levers for the lens cover, flash, BLC...and the little focus zone needle that whings (or is it "whangs"?) across the bottom of the viewfinder. The bonus being that you can end up with some pretty sweet photos while enjoying the process! If that's not what photography is all about, well...maybe you need to look elsewhere for some laughs ;-).
Is the PC35 for everyone? Nope, but what ever is? If you find that it doesn't float your boat, no biggie. There are oodles of other 35mm compact cameras out there, and one or maybe more will have your name on it. Compact 35s are really about fun, first and foremost, and the PC35AF offers a lot of fun with very credible image quality. There are options within the PC35 family when it comes to manual or powered film advance/rewind and ergonomics. Personally, the PC35AF-M or SE are my favorites. The comfort of the grip clinches it for me. If your looking at vintage compact AF 35s, don't miss checking the PC35s out...Happy shooting!
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.