Pentax H3

23 comments on Pentax H3
4 minutes

A few years ago, my brother bought me a book published in the early 1960s about photography with Pentax SLRs. Ever since, I’ve wanted a Pentax from the same era to display with it. It took me a while, but I finally found one: this Pentax H3.

I got this H3 for about 30 bucks from the used section at my local camera shop. I should do this more often: they offer a short warranty in case something’s wrong with the camera!

Known as the S3 everywhere but the United States upon its 1960 introduction, it was the fifth iteration of the original 1957 Asahi Pentax. It’s all metal, all mechanical, and offers no focusing or exposure help to you. This is 35mm SLR photography at its most elemental.

Pentax H3

That 1957 Pentax is historically significant. 35mm SLRs have existed since the 1930s, but you’d hardly recognize the early ones. They usually had waist-level viewfinders that you peered down into. The pentaprism viewfinder wasn’t introduced on a production camera until 1949. The Asahi Optical Co. waded into the SLR waters in 1952 with the Asahiflex, which had a waist-level finder. But when they fitted a pentaprism viewfinder and a right-hand single-stroke film advance lever to it and called it the Pentax, they pretty much defined the 35mm SLR idiom.

Pentax H3

The original Asahi Pentax still had a couple quirks, such as a front-mounted dial for slower shutter speeds. Asahi kept refining its Pentax cameras over the next few years to work out these quirks, issuing the Pentax S, Pentax K, and finally the Pentax S2 (H2 in the United States).

Pentax H3

The S3/H3 differs from the S2/H2 primarily in its 1/1000 sec. top shutter speed; the S2/H2 went only to 1/500 sec. The S3/H3 offers a Fresnel focusing screen with a microprism spot in the center. Anything out of focus in the microprism shimmers; you twist the focusing ring until the shimmering stops, and then you’ve got good focus. The S3/H3 has a couple minor usage quirks: to open the camera back, don’t pull up on the rewind knob; instead, pull down the tab on the unhinged side. And turn the film counter dial clockwise to zero after loading the film — the S3/H3 counts up from there.

If you like Pentax SLRs, I’ve reviewed a bunch of ’em: the Spotmatic SP (here), the Spotmatic F (here), the ES II (here), the K1000 (here), the KM (here), and the ME (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

While I’m an enormous fan of onboard metering, shooting my bare-bones H3 was refreshing. My H3 came with no lens, so I screwed on a 55mm f/2 Super-Takumar lens I already owned. Pretty much any M42 screw-mount lens would do, actually. I loaded some Kodak Gold 200 and got to shooting. Typically, my first shots were around the house, just to get a basic feel for the camera. We’d gotten a little snow.


I took the H3 along when I took my son back to Purdue after Christmas break. I really wasn’t thinking: it was a few degrees below freezing, and old cameras usually don’t like the cold. The mirror stuck up after this shot. I got one more quick shot hoping the mirror would come down, and then it dawned on me I probably ought to put the H3 back into my warm car and then wait for more favorable temperatures before continuing.

Cary Quadrangle

We got those favorable temperatures in late January, to my surprise. Margaret and I took advantage of them to drive along the old Lafayette Road. Here’s Margaret looking lovely on the square in Lebanon.


Well north on the Lafayette Road we came upon this old diner, a 1950s Mountainview. It looks like it hasn’t served a customer in a while.


I put another roll through the Pentax H3, this time Agfa Vista 200, a couple years later in the autumn. This time I screwed on my 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens.


I tried a little up-close photography; this little ceramic owl sits on a table on my mom’s patio.


Except for stopping to meter, the H3 is lovely to use. The controls all feel good under use, but not quite to luxury levels. Even after nearly 60 years, mine still works like a jewel. And that SMC Takumar is a peach.

Reflecting in the retention pond

I stepped right out my back door to capture this beautiful sunset.

Sunset over the Toyota dealer

You can see my entire Pentax H3 gallery here.

The H3 felt right in my hands. I’m sure it’s because I have experience with this basic body, which my Spotmatic SP and my ES II share. And I didn’t even mind too much having to use an external light meter or guess exposure. I was sure, actually, that I’d bollixed the exposure on a handful of shots where I absentmindedly metered at ISO 400, but the consumer-grade films I used accommodated my mistakes just fine.

I bought this camera because I wanted to display it, but it turns out to be a great user. Win!

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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23 responses to “Pentax H3”

  1. chris Avatar

    ‘Heiland’ is not a name I’ve ever seen here in the UK: even Honeywell only rarely crops up :0)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Honeywell Heiland imported Pentaxes into the US for years, and co-branded the cameras. In the US, an Asahi Pentax was brought in from out of country!

  2. davidvanilla Avatar

    More than 50 years ago I lived in Lebanon for a time. Downtown still looking good. I have eaten at that diner and I was saddened a few weeks ago to see it vacant.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Downtown appears to have gotten some good attention of late. I remember a time when it didn’t look as good.

  3. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    Stop reviewing cameras I haven’t tried yet. It has a negative effect on my PayPal account.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Dude, if I can pick one up for 30 bucks, you should be able to as well — that’s not very much hurt! :-)

  4. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    Nice review and great photo’s Jim. I picked mine up from eBay last year for about £11($15) not put a film through it but deffo will do, they are a nice camera mine has the S3 designation. I always enjoy your reviews of camera’s I own and cameras I would like to own.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Christopher! This is as basic as an SLR can get, but it is still a charming camera and I hope you’ll shoot yours soon.

  5. karlsulac Avatar

    It looks a great camera and I really like the photos, especially the buildings with the diner!
    I have fond memories of the later Pentax circa late 1970s/ It was a beautiful little camera and a winner in the right hands. It was kept in a drawer at my place of work and I used it to make work-related slides. Others were better photographers than me but it got me started. Then I got a Practika MTL3 which I still have.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wonder what percentage of photographers started with at 35mm Pentax! I know many, many who did.

  6. Lignum Draco Avatar

    I have my father’s original Pentax S2 with a serial number ending in …00. Had it serviced about 3 years ago. I love pressing that shutter.

    Nice series of photos.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nice! I’ve used other cameras of similar vintage but none as pleasant as this one.

  7. Sam Avatar

    Excellent post and review of this classic!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sam!

  8. pesoto74 Avatar

    Nice photos. I especially like the diner. I think that is a subject that always looks best on film. I remember we had one like that here up until the 90’s. Then it went on a trip and now I think it is somewhere in upstate New York. I bought one of these at an estate sale from an old engineer. The camera had been well-taken care of and I was surprised by how nice it was to use.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! Another Mountain View on US 40 east of Plainfield was rescued and moved to the other side of Plainfield and is again operating, so that’s a solid win. And yes, it is surprising how nice the H3 is to use! I almost didn’t miss an onboard meter. Almost.

  9. Dan James Avatar

    I’m not quite sure how the range of models sat, but I has a couple of S1a cameras, which look almost identical to your H3.

    I bought them after I’d already had a few Spotmatics (including an F and ES), and was pleasantly surprised that the S1a felt smaller and lighter.

    If you don’t mind the lack of automation and meter (and Sunny 16 is usually good enough with the latitude of C41 film), there’s no 35mm film camera I’d recommend higher. Especially as they’re M42 with all that wonderful Takumar glass, plus a few gems like Zeiss Flektogons, Pancolars and Sonnars, and Helios 44s at your disposal.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m not sure about the differences among the early models but I think they were slight; e.g., one had 1/500 sec and another had 1/1000. They were making incremental improvements model to model as they dialed in what became the SLR idiom.

      I do want to try some of those other great M42 lenses!!

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Really, it’s the only lens mount we need…

  10. Marc Beebe Avatar

    I had an H2 myself. There’s not a thing to say against these cameras! Solid, dependable, and excellent workhorses. I’d have kept it but .. couldn’t keep everything. Could hardly keep anything.
    And I love that art deco diner!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I sold my H3 not long ago for the same reason — lovely camera, but I’d use it once every 4-5 years and so it had to go.

  11. Jay Peterson Avatar
    Jay Peterson

    I came across one of these earlier this year. It was on-line and about 40 dollars. The photos of it were so good I knew it was in excellent condition. Boy was I shocked when it arrived, it’s like it was never used. Amazing! Beautiful Camera! Honeywell Heiland Pentax H3, No. 346491 – Auto Takuma 1:1.8 55mm Lens No. 427197 – Original brown case, strap & even has the metal lens cap. Also came with the manual, actually, two manuals. Exquisite Japanese 35mm SLR Camera, Just beautiful.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Congratulations! Sounds like you got a very nice one. Mine was a peach. Just a pleasure to shoot.

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