My current 35mm bodies are a Minolta X-700 that my dad gifted me, and a Minolta 7000 that my grandpa gave me. I do love those cameras, especially with the attached sentimental value. However, the convenience of being able to shoot digital and 35mm film through the same great Pentax lenses was too much of a temptation to resist. Enter the Pentax SF1n.
Finding the Pentax SF1n and Why I Chose it
After a good amount of research on the Pentax Forums, I had narrowed down my search criterion to a few bodies and began the hunt in earnest. I checked eBay, B&H, KEH, Adorama, and all the usual suspects when shopping for used camera gear. For a few weeks nothing quite fit the bill for me. I came close with a Pentax Super Program, but it wasn't quite everything I was looking for. I decided to take it easy on the browsing and just happened to hit the KEH website one evening. Lo and behold, they had a bargain condition SF1n for $16.00 plus shipping. I had found my film body!
The Pentax SF1n offered everything that I was looking for in a 35mm film body. It allowed me to shoot my modern DFA glass. It will shoot my older fully manual K-mount glass. It will shoot my Pentax-A lenses. The SF1n will even autofocus my SMCP 80-320mm lens and any other Pentax K-mount lens that has a screw-driven autofocus capability. This is exactly what I was looking for. The fact that I was able to pick it up for a meager 20 bucks was just icing on the cake.
Pentax SF1n Features
The Pentax SF1n is a camera that is surprisingly well featured for it's day and age. This camera was introduced in 1989 as an upgrade to the Pentax SF1/SFX. It features a faster maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 and a backlit LCD screen over the older SF1. Having that fast maximum shutter speed is a blessing when shooting during the day with 400 speed film and a wide aperture.
This camera features two sliders on the left side of the camera. One for ISO and EV compensation, and one for mode and drive functions. On the right-hand side of the camera is the shutter release, an up/down toggle slider, and the power switch. This camera looked like it would take ages to adjust to when it arrived, but after testing it out for around 30 minutes before I loaded my first roll of film, I felt completely comfortable with its operation.
To select your ISO manually, you merely pull towards the ISO mark on the slider switch, hold it there, and toggle the selector on the right side of the camera to the appropriate ISO (or let the DX coding do its thing). To dial in your EV compensation, you simply push the selector towards the EF marking and do the same. The story is the same for the exposure modes and drive modes as well.
When shooting with the modern digital era lenses without aperture rings, the camera can only function in program and shutter priority modes. While this may sound like a big downer, I've found it to still allow me a lot of control. Between careful metering and the three different program modes, I'm able to expose my photographs exactly how I want to.
The three program modes offered on the Pentax SF1n are Action, Normal, and Depth. When set to action mode, the SF1n will prioritize a fast shutter speed and an open aperture. In normal mode, it will adjust priority based on focal length with compatible KA and KAF lenses. It will take into account whether your lens is wide, normal, or telephoto in focal length. Depth mode is exactly what it sounds like: it prioritizes a small aperture for a greater depth of field.
Having these three program modes and an exposure lock has left me feeling entirely satisfied when using my DFA 28-105mm lens on the Pentax SF1n. As you can see in the portrait above, I was able to properly expose a difficult lighting situation, get a wider aperture for that nice portrait depth of field, and also nail focus. Focusing brings us to the next caveat for using modern lenses on the SF1n. If your lens is a DC motor AF or SDM AF only, the SF1n has no provisions for focusing it other than manual. Your lens must have screw drive AF capability in order to autofocus on the SF1n.
That said, manual focus on this Pentax is a breeze. The large, bright viewfinder is easy to use once you dial in the diopter. It also features an LED focus confirmation on the bottom of the screen that lights up red on either side if you're focused behind or ahead of the subject and green in the middle for good focus. This does only work with the single AF point in the center of the frame, however. After shooting my first 36-exposure roll of film seen in this article, I didn't have a single out of focus shot. I think that is testament enough for me.
The First Roll: Kodak Ultramax 400
After giving the Pentax SF1n a quick inspection and familiarizing myself with it, it was time to load the first roll of film. Never having shot this camera, or one like it, I wanted to choose a inexpensive film. I didn't know how accurate the meter was yet. I didn't know with 100% certainty the camera was light tight. I also didn't have any planned shoots or photo-walks and I typically like an ISO 400 film when subjects and conditions are unknown. I had a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400 in the fridge and it suited those needs perfectly. Inexpensive, 400 ISO, and relatively generic looking color palette. This film would give me a good idea of what to expect moving forward.
After developing my film and getting it scanned in I've been able to make several observations about the camera and the film. The meter on the Pentax SF1n seems to be superb for an in-camera meter of this type. There were a few backlit situations that I underestimated the severity of the light, but all-in-all, the camera did a great job helping me to get good exposures on the overwhelming majority of my 36 frames. I shot this roll using my Pentax SMC-A 50mm f/1.7 and my Pentax DFA 28-105mm lenses, and the camera was a breeze to operate using both of these lenses.
The Kodak Ultramax 400 was a great choice for a first test roll in the camera. It delivers nicely saturated colors, good contrast, and good exposure latitude for a $3-$4 roll of film. This film doesn't appear to deal with underexposure well, however, overexposure is no problem. I usually tend to lean towards overexposure with color negative film anyway, so this wasn't much of an issue other than the heavily backlit situations referred to earlier. The grain is well managed for a 400 speed film, and delivers satisfactory sharpness with the lenses I used. Overall, I'm pleased with the results I got from this combination.
I'm Pentax Pleased
The Pentax SF1n surprised me quite a lot. I thought it would be clunky to operate, but functional for the purposes I wanted to use it for. It turned out to be a breeze to get along with. I was able to adjust to its mode of operation quite easily. It is well featured and even makes me wish my DSLR's had the same focus confirmation visuals for manual focus. I was able to shoot film with my modern DFA 28-105mm lens, and that was extremely cool to me. I've always wondered how 35mm would look with modern glass and now I know!
The camera performed with aplomb, and I couldn't be happier with my $16 purchase. I've already started a second roll of film, Kodak ColorPlus 200. I've shot a few frames with the Pentax DFA 28-105mm, the Pentax 50mm f/1.7, and then it dawned on me that I should try the Autochinon 50mm f/1.9 on it as well. Operating the Pentax SF1n still feels great, and I'm excited to see what we do together in the future. Keep an eye out, as there will definitely be more blog posts and perhaps a YouTube video or two on this camera!