About a year ago, I had the idea of running film through a couple of borrowed 110 cameras and possibly writing up a review. This seems to have ended up as a mini odyssey around the world of subminiature photography, taking in such notable cameras as the Canon 110 ED, Minox 110S, Rollei A110 and a selection of 16 mm cameras. Recommendations from commenters on previous articles led me to the Pentax Auto 110. It isn’t a bad place to have ended up.
Pentax in the late 70s
Some context might be useful here. Back in 1978 Asahi’s Pentax brand was on a roll. Two year before they had released their original ‘M’ 35 mm SLR bodies: two cameras that covered a lot of ground. These were the genuinely affordable professional ‘MX‘ body and the rather revolutionary, consumer focused ‘ME‘. The ME was revolutionary in not having manual speeds – relying purely on aperture priority automatic exposure. On top of that, it pipped the Olympus OM1 to be the smallest 35mm SLR ever.
Old-timers, already unimpressed by auto exposure, scoffed some more at the ME. But the public loved it: it was small and pretty; capable yet simple in operation.
One by one, competitors brought out their versions of auto only SLRs, with even Nikon producing its first camera aimed at the consumer, the EM (surely a coincidence?)
Pentax K mount was dominating, it was almost a universal bayonet, being used by a host of camera manufacturers and supported by all the leading third party lens makers.
This was the age of the miniature camera. Small was big, and so was Asahi Pentax. Unusually for a camera company in such a strong position, they carried on innovating.
The Pentax 110 was based on a design brought in by Asahi.
The original idea seems to have originated in a company called Sugaya Optical, which specialised in subminiature cameras. A Mr Sugaya (who may have previously worked for Nikon) worked up a prototype for a 110 SLR, which he then sold to Asahi.
The Pentax was not the first 110 SLR to the market – that title goes to the Minolta 110 zoom. The advantages of the Pentax are its fast interchangeable lenses (the Minolta had a slower fixed zoom) and its size (the Minolta is not a small camera).
Asahi launched System 10 (as I had absolutely no recollection at all of it being called) in late 1978. It comprised the Pentax Auto 110 camera, an autowinder, two flashguns and three prime lenses, together with filters, close-up lenses and lens hoods. It was a whole system. I was a photography-mad teenager at the time and remember the Pentax Auto 110 causing quite a stir.
Exposure is metered through the lens by a silicon photodiode. The exposure program runs from f/2.8 at 1/30 to f/13.5 at 1/750. There is no manual option. It is possible to get some degree of differential focus with the 50mm f/2.8, but in the circumstances, program exposure works fine.
The Auto 110 has sensors in the camera body to detect high and low sensitivity film (although at time of writing only low sensitivity film is available). Pentax decided to go for ISO 80 as the low setting (well within the latitude of most 100 ISO film stocks).
The aperture and shutter are taken care of by a combined unit in the camera body. Two blades form a square-ish aperture immediately behind the lens mount. When the shutter is released, the blades close together to block out light. The mirror (which has been shielding the film from light until now) lifts and the shutter/aperture then opens until it reaches the programmed aperture, at which point is starts to close again. Once it has closed fully, the mirror can drop back down, protecting the film from light, and the shutter/aperture can reopen.
The shutter will not fire unless a lens is mounted on the camera.
The late 70s was a while before the photographic world became obsessed with bokeh. The shape of the aperture shouldn’t matter too much here, as:
- Wide open the aperture will be round.
- Unless you are using a telephoto, it is difficult to get a background too much out of focus.
The diaphragm moving during the exposure also makes hard edged bokeh less likely.
Viewing, shooting and winding on
Focus is via an SLR viewfinder which is a decent size for a 110 camera and features a big split-image rangefinder. It is probably the best viewfinder I’ve come across in a 110 camera. Exposure information is limited to an LED in the bottom right of the viewfinder, which lights up on a half-press. The LED shows green for higher shutter speeds (above 1/30) and amber for low ones (below 1/30). The shutter is only supposed to extend down to 1 second, but the camera seems capable of exposures up to 4 seconds.
The shutter release itself is broad and comfortable, and is threaded for a cable release.
Film wind-on (presuming you are not using the autowinder) is via a two stroke lever on the top-plate.
All the lenses are reasonably fast (f/2.8) which some say is mandated by the body-mounted diaphragm and exposure system. They fit onto the body via a two-winged bayonet. The wings are sized so that you cannot put the lens on the wrong way around. The twist to lock is about 90 degrees and a lens release is on the left side of the mount. The lenses contain a helicoid for focusing, but do not contain any other mechanisms. This is just as well, because there is no room for any. These tiny lenses are filled up with glass. They also focus surprisingly close.
18 mm is not very wide, but at 36 mm equivalent, it is about as wide as you will find in a mainstream 110 camera. The 24 is quite reasonable for a standard and the 50 (which looks huge on the camera, but is still very small) is a reasonable telephoto.
A fixed-focus version of the 18 mm lens was also produced, along with a focusing 70 mm and a 20-40 mm zoom. In addition to the Pentax lenses, Soligor produced a 1.7x tele-converter for the system.
In 1983 Asahi introduced a revised model called the Pentax Auto 110 Super. It featured a brighter viewfinder, a single-stroke film advance, a self-timer, a shutter lock, a tethered flash cover and a backlight compensation switch. Pentax reduced the top shutter speed to 1/400, but the aperture went down to f/18 to compensate. A new version of the autowinder, capable of continuous shooting, was also produced.
The Pentax Auto 110 In use
Size & Shape
Size-wise, it is difficult to see how a 110 camera with a reflex viewfinder and interchangeable lenses could be smaller. In comparison to the Rollei A110 the only bits that protrude beyond that camera for height are the wind-on lever and pentaprism hump, while the extra depth is entirely down to whichever lens you have fitted. With form following function, the Auto 110 itself is a bit of a blobby block: if anything confirms the non-Pentax origins of the design, it is this lack of elegant lines.
The Auto 110 does not have a hot shoe. Instead it has a couple of dedicated flashguns that bolt on to the top left of the camera. The process of fitting the flash is a little fiddly. Flash is direct and controlled by a sensor on the flashgun. The camera senses when the flash is turned on and sets itself up for 1/30 at f/2.8 for low speed film, or 1/30 at f/5.6 for high speed film.
The winder will advance film on a single shot basis at up to 1 frame per second. Mine sounds like a strangled cat in operation. In practical terms, it gives a bit more real estate to hang on to for those who find the Auto 110 too small for comfortable handling.
There are a couple of minor niggles. The cover for the flash contact on the top plate seems to go missing easily (mine is long gone), and the battery door on the autowinder is a weak point. Expect to see the door held closed with insulating tape.
The only extra control that would be really useful would be an exposure lock.
It takes readily available 1.55v silver oxide batteries. Finding film and processing are likely to be the only real problems in practice.
This is about as go-anywhere as an analogue camera gets. Forget the winder and the flash, just slip the camera into one pocket and a handful of lenses in the other. Your creative options are huge. The reflex viewfinder is a great compositional tool.
On the whole, the Pentax Auto 110 is very usable. I can’t quite work out why it has taken me over 40 years to try one out, but I’m glad I got there in the end.