Pentax 110: The queen of a shitty system

My dear audience, your aging nerd is sometimes really baffled. Especially when it comes to totally unexpected results.
In this case, it’s the second smallest lens I own, a Pentax 110 lens. And by far the cheapest.
I just wanted to start a brutal but honest review of that thing, declaring it totally useless as it does not even work as a paperweight.
But then …

Let’s start from the beginning

As it seems to me, everybody is on the hunt today for old lenses. The prices even for mediocre consumer glass back from the 70ies is getting ridiculous. Lenses nobody with a little bit of change in the pocket would ever consider wasting valuable film too back then is hitting three digits now. To satisfy the desire for some new old shards on the high-end body, the way into obscure brands and makes seems to be the only way forward. Or, in this case, a weird model by a great brand.

Sometimes, someone, somewhere: why?

Sometimes in the late-seventies, someone at Asahi Pentax had the semi-brilliant idea to target a very underrated part of the entry-level and consumer market. Somewhere in between disposable film-with-lens crap and lowest end plastic boxes with a glass-covered hole in front of an ugly brick-like thing, there was the 110 film format. Roughly half the size of full-frame (and far away from the similar-sized micro-four thirds of today), this so-called pocket format promised nothing but kept even less. The films (I hardly remember if they were different ones available at all, and I owned one these audacities) came in a plastic cassette and were of terrible quality. So were the pictures. Blurry, weird colors, distorted, simply a waste of money and resources.
But they were small, cheap, very easy to handle. They fulfilled the job every mobile phone does today ten times better: a camera for the handbag or trouser pocket. In Germany, they were sold as a kind of predecessor of the dashcam in a box for the glove compartment to take some pictures as proof in case of a car accident.

Pentax 110: the goddess of a shitty format

Pentax auto 110
seventies goddess of the 110 format

Ok, that was the state of the system. Until Pentax stepped in and presented the 110. Ladies and gentlemen, clap your hands for the second and last 110 SLR ever built – right after Minolta presented their even weirder 110 Zoom SLR without interchangeable lenses. It looked like an early Sony digital cam after been hitten by a truck. As I don’t own it and honestly not intend to do so,  back to the famous Pentax 110:
The thing came with 3 lenses and an electronic flash in a nice box. It’s tiny, unbelievable. tiny. It really got a mirror, a viewfinder, batteries, even a rudimentary exposure control with LEDs. A miniature version of the trusty Pentax K mount on top. It is by far the best 110 camera, ingenious, sturdy, a gem.

And well, it swallows those 110 films which are still produced. By Lomo, who else?

So Pentax shoved that fantastic looking tiny little camera in the market. And the market burped.
Every technical aspect of it couldn’t prevent it from doing what it did: it produced the same shitty photos as every other 110, simply because the films were bad, the negative size too small and the whole system a complete failure.
So was the 110 and it was discontinued during the eighties.

End of the story? Nope!

Most fairytales of industrial misconceptions end here or a step further in some dump. But not the story of the Pentax 110. Somehow lots of it managed to avoid becoming a vital part of the recycling process. They survived in wardrobes, basements, boxes with old photos, and circled in a sad spiral around thrift shops, flea markets, and eBay.
They would have done that maybe until the end of time – but a few years ago, mirrorless cameras started to grow up and got ready to give the DSLRs the final blow. This leads us to the beginning of my little ranty review of the – ah, I didn’t even mention it before, did I – Pentax 110 1:2.8 18mm. It seems that for a while, every YouTuber who reviews vintage lenses fell in love with these tiny little things. So of course I needed to get my hands on some, simply to understand the hype. And I was gobsmacked as I saw the biddings on eBay. Honestly, people. 50 to 100 Euro, Dollar, Pound Sterling for something like that? Not to mention that an adapter for an m4/3 is around 30 Euro, at least on Amazon. Mine came from Shanghai for a fraction by the way. After I got the first 110 lense.

eBay wonderland

Sometimes, but really only sometimes, one can get lucky on eBay. So did I. I got a box full of old 49mm filters (most likely for a Pentax 50mm) and some Pentax lens hoods which I was after, for 3 Euro plus some change for shipping. I opened the box and the first thing I saw was an empty 110 lense box. These were made from transparent plastic, more or less like a cheese bell. And in midst of the chunk, there it was: the 18mm lens in all its fixed aperture greatness. With a flexible lens hood. I assume the seller simply thought it’s another weird filter and dropped into my order.
So I got the lense. A quick research led me to an adapter from Shanghai for under a tenner.
Some weeks later, here I am. With an adapter, another 110 lense and the camera itself. For 9 Euro, but that’s a story for another day.

Hyper, hyper, Pentax 110?

So I screwed adapter and lens on my old Olympus epl7 which I always use for tests.
The first impression: OMG, it looks hilarious.
The second impression; WTF?!?
The focus is a nightmare, infinity is somewhere in the middle of the scale.
The results? Well, if you’re into street photography and manage to sell your shots as “inspired by french expressionists” or a massive fan of lomo-looks, you will be happy.
If you look for something decent – look elsewhere. The colour rendering is very soft, the sharpness is a joke and black and white is more or less a symphony in undefined greys.

Overall not an impressive result Garden, Pentax 110 wide angle

Ok, I’m sounding harsh. but honestly: I don’t understand the cult. Don’t get me wrong: the results are not exceptionally bad, there are worse. And these tiny little glasses make a small mirrorless look gorgeous. But that’s it.

So I thought.

Film changes everything or at least a lot.

This afternoon when I just was to start this blog, I played around with some balance settings on my Lumix G7 which I use for my “home studio”. Somehow, I don’t know why I mounted this tiny abomination on my G7 and tried it.
I was very positively surprised. Really, I was.
My standard lens for my shots on my desk is a Panasonic 14-45. Nothing special, I know, but it does the job. I record with OBS in 1080, the light is balanced, YouTube compresses it even further… so no real big deal. The setup may be questionable but it’s mine and I like it.
Anyhow: the Pentax mini lens was a big surprise. It’s suddenly crisp and clear, the colour rendering works a treat for Cinelike D with reduced contrast.

A match made in heaven?
Maybe. Not sure yet, it will need some further tests.
But for now, it saves the Pentax 110 from being boxed again.
It deserves a closer look, that’s for sure.

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1 Comment

  1. […] You maybe have read my ode to “The queen of a shitty system”, the Pentax 110? If not, here is the chance to do […]

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