Brand loyalty can be a beautiful thing. Take an old friend of mine for example – she was head-over-heels in love with her Pentax K-5. She loved taking photos, even if she wasn’t in love with photography. You wouldn’t call her a photographer, but while her friends all used their phones on road trips, she brandished her K-5. Something about that camera made her love the name Pentax.
Pentax has been creating loyal customers for decades by producing exemplary cameras and lenses that often have basic operation with price points lower than those of their bigger competitors. Conversely to those other companies, Pentax’s primary focus was more often on the amateur or beginner and secondarily on the professional. The Pentax K1000 is as ubiquitous on lists of best cameras for 35mm beginners as it is in junk shops and flea markets. Even in the medium format arena, Pentax’s 645 would serve as a more automatic entry point to larger negatives, while professionals were still content with the Pentax 67.
The company’s history in the digital market speaks even more to its dedication to consumers. They’ve released thirty-two different models in their K-Mount DSLR line, but only one full-frame model. It took them until 2016 to release the K1, and true to form, it boasted a feature-saturated spec sheet that belied its modest price point.
What’s a Pentax UC-1?
We could assume that a company so dedicated to providing the average customer with a simple but top-notch camera would be the ultimate player in the point-and-shoot boom of the 1980s and ‘90s. But that’s not exactly what happened.
Companies like Olympus pioneered the compact movement in the late 1970s and continued to lead the pack for decades. Their formula for success was to produce tiny cameras fitted with outstanding prime lenses.
Pentax took a different route – their PC and Espio camera lines were alternatively barren of features or focused on zoom technology while willingly sacrificing image quality. Sure, you could buy one of the countless IQ-Zoom cameras for the price of a six pack, but you’d wish you’d went for the six-pack when you got your images developed.
Pentax did eventually release a camera to cut through the din of its many loud and slow compact zooms. Released in 1994, the Pentax UC-1 (or Espio Mini outside the U.S.) seemed to follow the same path as the Olympus Mju and Yashica T-series cameras. It’s compact, lightweight, easy to use and boasts an impressive prime lens.
Those four features have catapulted the Yashica and Olympus cameras to hype beast status that’s seen their prices skyrocket in a manner reminiscent of the last decade’s housing market. The price of the UC-1 lags slightly behind an Mju II or T4, but it’s easy to imagine it catching up. The skeptic in me has long thought these types of cameras are extremely overvalued, and receiving a Pentax UC-1 for review gave me the opportunity to put that notion to the test.
As a point-and-shoot, the Pentax UC-1 is a strict fundamentalist. Its spec sheet is spartan and its creative controls almost non-existent. Everything about the camera seems designed for ease of use and speedy snapping. Just pop in a roll of film, close the back and it advances to the first frame. ISO is set by the camera automatically through the magic of DX coding, and all the photographer has to do is push the shutter button.
If you’re someone in 1996 not worried about the finer points of creative photography (which is most people in any year) then the UC-1 would have been an excellent choice. Taking it out to parties? Don’t forget to push the red eye reduction button. On a vacation with the kids at the Grand Canyon? Slide the “panorama” lever and you’ll get a dramatic landscape portrait. It’s this market Pentax sought for this camera, and anyone buying it for such a purpose wouldn’t have been disappointed.
But what about someone who identifies as a photographer – or who at least wants more than just snapshots from their camera? After putting the UC-1 through its paces, I can report that the camera would give such photographers mixed feelings.
The UC-1’s 32mm f/3.5 lens (3 elements in 3 groups) is truly outstanding. Everything that compact shooters love about their favorite cameras is here as well; tack sharpness, low distortion, strong contrast and just the right amount of vignetting. There’s some softness wide open, but I found the vignetting actually helped mitigate it nicely. While it doesn’t have the SMC badge that adorns Pentax’s top lenses, the coating on this lens is no slouch. I saw resolution from the lens that could hang with the Yashica and Olympus cameras, while not reaching the level of a Contax T3 or Minolta TC-1.
Two things that worried me, autofocus and the light meter, turned out to be worry-free. The UC-1’s phase-matching autofocus system was remarkably fast. The camera uses the center brackets as its focus zone. A green light in the viewfinder lets the photographer know focus has been achieved and blinks when the camera can’t find the subject. Even though I was trying to fool it, the green light only blinked when it was extremely dark or when I was using the sky to meter.
I’m used to shooting with questionable autofocus systems and even seem to gravitate toward them. So I was less worried about that as I was the camera’s metering. ISO is set using the camera’s automatic and unchangeable DX code reader with a range from 25-3200 (cartridges without coding are automatically set to ISO 25.)
In the camera’s daylight-synchro metering mode, the light meter ranges from EV 9-17 at ISO 100, which is hilariously bad compared to the Mju II’s range of 1-17. But the UC-1 also has a “slow shutter” mode, which expands the range to EV 2.6-17. Despite the weirdness of the two exposure modes, I was generally happy with all of my exposures. The roll of Kodak Tri-X specifically was shot at sunset and in challenging lighting situations. I wanted to see how the camera would handle the challenge, and it exceeded my expectations.
You can’t talk about the UC-1’s advantages without mentioning its size and weight. At only 5.4 ounces, it’s one of the lightest cameras I’ve ever used. Even with its CR123 battery and a loaded roll of film, it’s hard to imagine something so light and toy-like would produce memorable images. That and the camera’s pocket ability make it an easy choice as a daily carry camera.
But it’s not without its faults, many of them typical to this kind of camera.
I understand that simplicity of use is a core tenet of point-and-shoot photography. But would it have killed Pentax (or other manufacturers) to have included an adjustable ISO feature on the camera? With the exception of some black-and-white films I almost never shoot film at its box speed, so that inflexibility is a real negative for me.
The camera’s shutter is also a point of concern, as well as a bit of an oddity. The shutter is electro-magnetically released and has a range of 1/400th of a second to 2 seconds. But it also has a bulb setting that can last from 1/2 of a second to 5 minutes. I would gladly sacrifice the bulb setting I will never use for a faster maximum shutter speed. With 1/400th being the fastest speed and without ISO control, film selection can be important to avoid under-exposure.
The location of the viewfinder was a common annoyance while shooting the camera. While the inside of the viewfinder is rather nice, with lights for focus and flash confirmation and LCD central brackets and close-focusing cropping, its location in the center of the camera took a while to get used to. That’s a subjective and aesthetic complaint, but I complain nonetheless.
The camera’s weight is a distinct advantage for the Pentax UC-1, but its build quality is not. Especially at its lightest, without battery or film, the camera feels brittle to hold. I know that it wouldn’t take much to break the Pentax UC-1, evidenced further by the paint on the body. The UC-1 came in black, silver and champagne. Mine is of the champagne variety, which unfortunately is the type most prone to wear and tear. The previous owner obviously liked to hold the camera in the bottom left corner while shooting, because the paint in that area has all worn off in a thumb-sized smear. Because of this, the slightly tougher black variation sells for a higher price. But if you think the lens is what really matters, save a few bucks and toast to the champagne version. At least no one will steal it.
Lastly – and most trivially – the panorama setting. This is a dumb gimmick that many makers of the times used to sell cameras. I’m legitimately curious whether it ever served a useful purpose before Photoshop put it in the ground for good.
The Consumer Report
If the final image is the only measuring stick for a camera, then the Pentax UC-1 is a good camera. I really enjoyed the images I got from this camera. I think the lens is great and it makes shooting photographs as easy as that can be.
But we can’t escape the tired question – what is the real value of a point-and-shoot film camera in 2018? Is the Pentax UC-1 worth buying?
According to the current market, UC-1’s can be bought anywhere from $120 to $220, more if it’s the black-coated version. Weirdly, the Espio Mini badging will make the price go up another hundred dollars, even though it’s the same camera.
Would I pay $200 for one? Would I pay that much for a camera without any ISO control, with a relatively slow shutter, and with a nervous build quality? Probably not. This type of camera, despite its lens, doesn’t make me want to shell out that much money. But for shooters who value compactness and image style more than longevity and creative control, the UC-1 may be a good choice.