‘80s Retrofuturism12 min read by
This review is based on my eight months with the Japanese Pentax PC35AF — one of the first autofocus consumer cameras of the day.
Manufactured in the 1980s, this fully automatic shooter features a futuristic design and comes with a few premium features. The gadget packs quality, fast optics, and a reasonably powerful flash into a pocketable, pleasing to hold and operate black plastic chassis.
This little gadget is relatively affordable if you can find one that works. The camera can be easily mistaken for a bargain point-and-shoot by an untrained eye and is usually undervalued.
☝︎ Further reading: “Compact Full-Frame 35mm Film Cameras Under $200.”
Its somewhat brittle black chassis often come apart at the seams, leaving the body in a weathered shape. Its battery compartment door is particularly flawed, as it relies on the flexibility of a plastic strip to hold two AAA batteries. The electronics are known to fail often.
It may take time to get used to this camera, but I found it to be a fantastic companion capable of producing beautiful images.
This Pentax comes with a variable-focus-setting computer, described in Mike Eckman’s article here, as a system capable of determining precise distance anywhere between .7m (2’3⅝”) and infinity. Mike further clarifies that most autofocus cameras of the time could only detect either close, medium, or far range zones, yielding to 35AF’s unlimited number of precise point measurements.
Obtaining a relatively consistent focus with the bright 0.8x unusually large viewfinder and clear, bright lines is confusing but not impossible. This is one of the few cameras that display a prominent computed distance estimate or prefocus value in the viewfinder via the moving needle.
Because 35AF isn’t an SLR, everything in the viewfinder window appears deceptively in focus. Knowing how unreliable old tech could be, the prefocus feature is a welcome aid. This is particularly true in situations like photographing through foliage or a fence — when it’s difficult to guess what the camera will decide to pick.
Though useful and seemingly simple, the prefocus indicator’s design is not particularly intuitive or reliable.
To get the prefocus distance estimate, you will need to half-press the red trigger button until the black needle zips from the far-right of the viewfinder past the middle of the bottom yellow bright line. If you are too close, the camera might warn you by moving the arrow towards the “mountains” icon; easily confusing for a first-time user. On my copy, the estimation needle often fails to tell, i.e. slide all the way towards the mountains icon when the camera is closer than .7m.
I find the fact that the distance scale is squished to the left-hand side of the screen somewhat confusing. I certainly would’ve preferred to have a larger scale with numeric values for feet or meters.
The little Pentax’ autofocus provides added control with its focus-lock feature. You can activate it by half-pressing the shutter button until the focus estimate needle moves. Holding the button in the same position will allow you to recompose and take the shot with the first distance measurement.
In operation, the lens does not move at all until you depress the button completely. Only once you squeeze it all the way down, the camera will buzz like a trapped bee for a fraction of a second, momentarily moving the glass into position, triggering the shutter, and retracting back into its original state.
Despite its quirks, bugs, and limitations, I found Pentax PC35AF’s autofocus to be reasonably reliable. It’s fast and infinitely more comfortable to work with than a rangefinder or an SLR in the dark. In daylight, it’s almost as reliable as a manual focus lens.
In certain situations, i.e. close-up shots, it may fail to guide you appropriately. I advise avoiding photographs taken at distances closer than one meter. The manufacturer also suggests being wary of highly reflective, transparent/translucent (including smoke and fire), fast-moving, or light-trapping objects in the instruction manual.
Reliable automatic exposures.
Of all the cameras with an auto-exposure feature I’ve had so far, PC35 has proven to be quite balanced and consistent.
Being a point-and-shoot, the camera takes away the ability to control precisely how much light goes onto the film plane, how wide the aperture stays, or how fast the shutter flicks. In turn, the system yields effortless, well-exposed images throughout the roll.
If the camera determines that it’s too dark, a light will glow red at the top of the viewfinder, and a high-pitched noise will alert you — more on that later. The camera takes film with ISO 25-400, which must be set at the bottom of the camera before taking your first picture.
Though troublesome at first, I find manual film speed settings a lot more practical. This way, it’s possible to push/pull and to use film without DX coding, like the new Lomochrome Metropolis.
Should you need to shoot a backlit scene, an +1.5EV button on the top panel will add more light — but you’ll need to hold it down while pressing the trigger button.
I prefer cameras with fewer features. An onboard flash is prone to adding strong shadows, stark highlights, and blue tints to exposures; it is an extra piece of gear to break and an additional distraction. Point-and-shoots are also known to make disabling flash an ordeal, even the digital ones.
Thankfully, PC35AF’s flash is disabled by default and is easy to turn off. To ready, the large red tab next to the ASA/ISO settings slider needs to be flicked. The 11m at ISO 100 bulb will pop and charge for about six seconds. Once done, it can be pushed down — and it will no longer be a bother.
I haven’t found myself using it very often, but in certain situations, it’s indispensable. Powerful enough for portraits, it can work well with monochrome film and may be used as fill in some cases. In fact, it works rather well together with autofocus and autoexposure, creating the freedom to take quick action shots in the dark.
I botched the colour balance while scanning the first roll from my PC35AF. If not for the camera’s cracked chassis and my desire to fix them, I would probably never have used it again. Thankfully, I discovered that while testing my repair job with another film, the fault was mine, not that of the camera.
There aren’t that many affordable full-auto pocketable point-and-shoots that come with a quality 𝒇2.8 lens. Though the glass may occasionally render frames that look a little soft, it generally comes with plenty of detail, minimal barrel distortion, no noticeable aberrations, minimal flare, and the freedom to shoot in low light without flash.
I’ve been taking this camera with me everywhere for the past eight months, without ever stopping to think whether the optics are good enough for the job. They are.
The retrofuturistic design of Pentax PC35AF in action.
At a glance, the camera’s stark, blocky design, with angled bevels and a few rounded corners, may seem dull. A big red trigger button and a small tab on the anterior’s left are the first controls to notice — the camera’s radiant invitation “to play.”
A gentle push on the tab flicks the lens cover with the large sans-serif PENTAX open. If you’ve ever seen The Matrix, chances are, this camera will remind you of it once again at this very moment. The future, according to the ‘90s.
The tiny lens cover lock tab is remarkably easy to feel and activate. If the film in the camera is wound in advance, 35AF can be taken out of the pocket, flicked open, and triggered in under a second. Provided that you are right-handed, are quick to frame, and don’t need a flash.
Closing the lens cover is a surprisingly pleasant experience. It feels controlled and smooth.
PC35AF’s film winding is done with a plastic thumbwheel. It can be very difficult to turn, depending on the film canister design. So far, I found that Fuji films are generally tougher than Kodak’s to unroll, with the last few frames feeling like a proper workout. This action isn’t something I enjoyed just before taking a picture, so I quickly learned to wind immediately after each exposure.
Though it would be nice to have a lever, the compact winder design has proved to be smaller and quieter in operation than that of my other tank-like cameras. Once the new film canister is loaded, the winder will force you to crank it an extra couple of turns until it stops in a ready position to ensure no half-cut frames at the beginning of the roll.
An accessory attachment could be fastened to enable motorized winding. Though it would require more batteries, add weight, and likely create another point of failure for this brittle plastic gadget.
A few folks have complained about the sounds that the camera makes. Its high-pitched noise signals are reminiscent of the cheap electronic toys, yet surprisingly fitting with the retrofuturistic design of this camera. This Pentax will beep when you set it on self-timer, make a continuous noise if it determines that the scene is too dark to expose properly and produce a soft, high-pitched sound when the trigger is half-pressed and it’s ready to take a shot. Unlike the prefocus, which you can only reset when completely releasing the trigger, the autoexposure measurements are taken continuously while the button is half-pressed, so the sound may change from “under-exposed warning” to “good” as you move around.
I found neither issues nor the desire to disable the noise signals. They haven’t prevented me from taking discrete photos. This camera is very quick to operate, and its sound profile is so distinct from both modern and antique cameras that few people, if any, get “triggered” by it.
Having finished shooting the roll, a neat-looking reverse winder at the bottom of the camera may be unfolded and turned. The small silver button unlocks the gears. Pulling the winder opens the cover.
The camera’s shell is constructed from plastic with a few metal components. While brass chassis is often regarded as superior, quality plastic yields a much lighter package.
PC35AF’s body is envisioned as a premium pocketable device. The jet-black polymer is well-moulded and cut. The camera seems very sturdy and comes with some heft.
Its top and bottom plates rely on tiny hinges to be held in place, which are easily cracked. Nothing a superglue and a steady hand won’t be able to fix.
The overall feel in-hand is comparable to that of Polaroid SX-70, which also sports plastic chassis — only smaller and lighter.
The worst-built component is the battery door, which is a single semi-flexible plastic flap that had cracked at the “hinge” on my copy. It looks almost like a part from another, much cheaper camera. On my copy, it required a duct-tape solution to work again.
But despite its trivial faults, I found Pentax PC35AF to be a very nice camera. Well worth the keep.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Pentax PC35AF camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!