SLRs

The Middle Child: The Pentax P30t – By William Le

The best camera, they say, is the camera you get for free. I still don’t know who “they” are, but I do know that I found my camera in the back of a dusty closet when I was moving away for my first year of college. My father told me to take it if I was so inclined, as he must’ve figured giving his camera to his son was better than having it rot away, unused. Now, after roughly 8 months of using it, I think I can shed some light on what I inherited.

What the box says

The Pentax P30t is not a groundbreaking camera, by any means. It’s a weird 90’s in-between of the earlier, all-metal manual focusing film cameras of the 70s & 80s and the newer, plasticky auto-focus ones that started popping up in the early 2000s. The P30t is manual focusing with either aperture priority or fully manual modes. The viewfinder is bright, with an LED screen that displays your shutter speed on the left. Shutter speeds are displayed in 2 colors; 1/30th and below are tinted orange in contrast to the green of 1/60th-1/1000th. An unfortunate drawback to the camera’s viewfinder is that your chosen aperture isn’t displayed, requiring eyes off to peek at the barrel of the lens. My favorite feature by far of the P30t’s is the viewfinder’s diagonal split screen. I find it a lot easier to align my shots with it than the horizontal split. The camera runs on two 357 silver-oxide batteries as the shutter operates on electricity.

Lightly depressing the shutter button will display the shutter speed. In “program” mode, a ‘P’ displays in the top left-hand corner. to signify the camera will take care of shutter speed & aperture automatically, though the aperture is not displayed (weirdly, an A isn’t displayed in aperture priority). In manual mode, an “M” is shown with two shutter speeds; your selected one is a solid light, while the camera recommendation blinks. It’s up to you to either follow the camera’s guidance and match the two speeds or forge your own path. Aperture Priority mode simply just shows the shutter speed the camera will shoot at.

Maybe I’m just a moth at night?

The Pentax P30t has an odd choice of features it has and has not. Pentax K-mount lenses, a self-timer, hot shoe, depth of field preview lever, tripod mounting, and a thread on the side for a shutter release cable come standard here. I really do detest the fact that there is no manual ISO setting; instead, it reads DX codes. No DX code, the camera defaults at ISO 100. You don’t have a choice to over or underexpose film – at least without recoding the DX code.

It doesn’t have a lever for multiple exposures, nor exposure compensation dial, and the cable release shutter screws into a hole in the side of the lens mount, instead of the shutter button. But at the same time, it looks better somewhat then sticking straight out the shutter button. I think I’m nitpicking here.

If you roam the halls of your college dorm at a late enough hour, you find new friends.

The Pentax P30t shutter speed dial has enough resistance to make a gentle click every time you nudge it one way or another, and it’s not so stiff that you can’t turn it with your index finger. The film advance lever, similarly, moves smoothly enough to be content with, and with practice, I’ve been able to hit it with my thumb and advance in one clean, continuous motion. The shutter itself is louder than I’d like, and you’ll get noticed if your aim is to stay incognito. No praise here to Pentax engineers, but it’s something that doesn’t really break the camera, as much as it is getting used to the harshness of it.

The police asked me why I was standing outside a shop window intensely at 3AM. I said I had insomnia.

However, the Pentax P30t does have a handy window in the backplate to read the tiny font on your film cassette, a bulge of sorts acting as an action grip on the right, and the memory lock function certainly is appreciated, if not underused. One weird quirk I found (don’t know if it’s just my camera) was that if you screw in a tripod adapter plate just the tiniest bit too much, the shutter won’t fire.

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The only lens I’ve ever used with the Pentax P30t is the stock SMC Pentax-A 50mm f/1.7 lens. Though the automatic setting is there, I keep forgetting because I’m so used to the aperture-priority and manual modes. The lens is of plastic construction, and though it does kinda feel cheap, the clicks are satisfying enough, and the lens itself renders sharp. I’m not qualified to talk about the merits of lens sharpness; I’m just satisfied with the pictures I take, and though I do wish it was faster than f/1.7, I can get the job done most of the time with the right speed film.

What I say

I believe the gunmetal grey of the plastic compliments the camera’s looks well. It’s like I’m in Blade Runner or something carrying the thing around. Granted, I wouldn’t say it’s the most elegant thing to be hanging around your neck in the history of everything ever, but it certainly does take after an aesthetic. It’s not the silver and chrome of your AE-1s and K1000s, nor is it Giorgetto Giugiaro designed like the F3 is. But the camera invokes a low-profile workhorse, and I love it.

In my experience, the greatest strength of the Pentax P30t has been the weight. Despite my doubts about the plastic exterior, the camera holds up well enough, and I don’t feel like I have to baby it. I fancy myself something of a street and spur of the moment photographer and having something light to carry while I haul my laptop, notebooks and the occasional textbook is a blessing walking around campus. Its become something of a habit to carry the camera around for that one in a lifetime shot, but more often than not I shoot whatever catches my eye.

Perfect place to forget your surroundings and study

You line up a shot, make sure the shutter shown is green, fire, disengage your eye, throw the lever back, repeat. Certainly, it’s not flashy, but really, do I need flashy? The aperture-priority mode is where I’m comfortable with the Pentax P30t, with the perfect balance of speed and control. The meter’s accurate, and though the manual mode is finicky, I do find a use for it from time to time. People may dislike the LED in terms of the  needle system, but, I appreciate the LEDs when I’m shooting pictures in buildings or low light.

One of many brutalist buildings on my campus.

In conclusion

The Pentax P30t is a small, light, comfortable camera that’s a bit underrated. I can’t stress how misleading the plastic exterior is in regards to the build quality; it’s going to survive most of the rigors of everyday life. I’ve carried this camera daily to my classes and back as well as on my expeditions to cities, mountains, forests, and everywhere in between for a semester and a half, and it’s proven to be a worthwhile companion. Stripping down to the bare minimum,  I’ve used it as my main go-to camera and it does the job well. It’s compact and doesn’t get in the way when slung over your shoulder or around your neck, and the bodies and batteries for it go for real cheap. It’s perfect as a backup or primary camera, and the ease of use certainly lends itself to beginners as well as the more intermediate shooters out there. The Pentax P30t isn’t a pro-spec camera, but the camera doesn’t need to be to take gorgeous pictures.

If you really liked what I’ve said or what you’ve seen and you wanna see me more, I’m on instagram!

https://www.instagram.com/le.analog/

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12 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Lich
    May 22, 2019 at 10:53 am

    It’s good these cameras are “underrated”, you know. Otherwise you’d no longer be able to get them for free…

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    Reply
    Bluemark
    May 22, 2019 at 1:26 pm

    1988 when I first wanted to try more photography than my mums Halina 35AF would let me, my Uncle had a p30-I wanted one but could not afford it….. I started with a shop spoiled Miranda MS3 (Cosina/Vivitar) K mount. This takes me back.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Jim
    May 22, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    Awesome, thanks for this review. I’ve wanted to try one for years, you’ve emboldened me.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Scott Edwards
    May 22, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    Nice shooting, writing.

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    Reply
    Martin Connolly
    May 22, 2019 at 6:07 pm

    Hmm. I tried one of these and found it underwhelming. I thought it was surprisingly heavy, the shutter was very loud, and my copy had what turns out to be a common problem, where winding on the film doesn’t cock the shutter unless you move it really slowly. So I can’t give it high marks I’m afraid. But I am a big fan of that 50mm f1. 7 lens!

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Will
      May 23, 2019 at 10:25 pm

      I suppose people from different backgrounds will judge the camera accordingly. I’ve found the weight rather light (my personal opinion) while being reassuringly sturdy enough, and though I agree the shutter is loud, I don’t prioritize it as much as other things. I’m sorry to hear that yours had the cocking shutter problem; mine was practically mint. My father bought it and used it sparingly before switching to digital. Maybe you could try another copy sometime in the future?

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    Reply
    Nige
    May 23, 2019 at 9:13 am

    I like my P30t. It’s functional and gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. Mine has seen some hard times at some point before I got it (the rewind crank has been glued back together at some point) but it’s solidly reliable. With the 50mm f/2 Rikenon that I pair it with it feels really good to use, and produces great photographs.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Aivaras
    May 23, 2019 at 7:30 pm

    Those basic A 50mm f1.7 lenses are totaly awesome.

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Chris Routledge
    May 23, 2019 at 8:06 pm

    I bought one of these for my nephew, and put a test roll through it before handing it over. I was actually sad to see it go. This review pretty much sums up my experience. My one worry is the amount of electronics inside, but for £25, including a nice K-mount lens, it was a bargain.

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    Reply
    Dan Stevenson
    May 23, 2019 at 8:44 pm

    Nice overview. I like my P30n for many of the same reasons. Although I am not fond of being unable to change iso when I want the camera actually does pretty well. And it is certainly easy to pack.

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    Reply
    Alan Duncan
    May 25, 2019 at 10:35 pm

    Nice review of a good camera. The P30t is a good workman only hobbled by the lack of an ISO adjust and no EV compensation. Mines came for peanuts with a good Pentax KA zoom

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    Reply
    Taylor Ervin
    May 27, 2019 at 12:33 am

    I love this camera! The Blade Runner styling is what drew me to it initially, but it’s become my go-to camera. I love that it gives you the option to shoot in full program mode provided you you pair it with one of the ‘A’ series lenses. I shoot with a 50mm SMC-A f/2 often in full program mode and it always nails the exposure. I even prefer the Pentax P30t to my Canon AE-1 Program, which is a far more widely praised camera. The only time I really reach for the Canon is when I’m pushing to Tri-X 400 to 1600. The lack of a manual iso setting is the only draw back to this camera. Otherwise it’s a fantastic machine and I’m glad you’re enjoying it. Nice photos!

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