Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Pentax H3

Reflecting in the retention pond

You might call the Pentax H3 a basic SLR, stripped of anything not strictly needed to make a photograph. But upon its 1960 introduction it was the state of the SLR art, about as good as you could get.

Pentax H3

I bought mine for a song at a used camera shop. It’s nearly in mint condition. For its first outing I screwed on my 55mm f/2 Super Takumar lens, loaded some Kodak Gold 200, and took it on a road trip.


For this outing I mounted my 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens and shot Agfa Vista 200. I feel fortunate that this camera functions so well and looks so new even though it is nearly 60 years old. All of the controls operate smoothly and surely.

In the vinyl village

The only bummer was having to meter separately. This is a fully mechanical camera with no onboard light meter. The metering app on my iPhone works great. But using an SLR requires two hands, and so on every shot I had to haul the phone out, meter, put the phone away, and then set exposure on the camera. I could have made these photos with my match-needle-metered Spotmatic F in a fraction of the time.

Call the police, hurry hurry

I did shoot some of the roll in full sun at f/16 and 1/250 sec. — good old Sunny 16. But in other conditions I’m not confident enough of my ability to read light not to use a meter.


For years I’ve wanted to learn how to accurately guess exposure based on my reading of the light. But I’ve wanted to do it in the same way I’ve always wanted to learn to play piano — without all that boring practicing. As I walked about with the H3 I thought that maybe this is the right camera for learning that skill. But I can use any of my metered but otherwise mechanical SLR bodies, like my Spotmatic F or even my Nikon F2, for that. I just need to leave the battery out.


But this H3 is such a jewel. It and that SMC Takumar lent real dignity and grace to the mundane subjects I chose.

It's a grand old flag

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Pentax H3 gallery.

I’ve now come to the cameras where it’s harder to decide whether to keep them. This H3 is just wonderful to use, despite lacking a meter. It feels good in the hand, and all of its controls operate with smooth precision. But my Spotmatic F meets my screw-mount needs completely. When I want to use one of my Takumar lenses, I know I will reach for the SPF 99 times for every one time I would reach for this H3.

Verdict: Goodbye

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Camera Reviews

Pentax H3

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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.

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 Leica-M3-style 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. All mechanical and all metal, the S3/H3 offered 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.

The S3/H3 offers no onboard light meter, although an uncoupled clip-on meter could be had. While I’m an enormous fan of onboard metering, shooting my H3 was refreshingly elemental. My H3 came with no lens, so I screwed on the 55mm f/2 from my Pentax Spotmatic. 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 often 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.


This is Lebanon’s Main Street, right across from the Boone County Courthouse.

Lebanon, IN

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 was surprised that, at maximum resolution, these shots aren’t all that sharp. I shot this lens on my Spotmatic SP and got plenty sharp results. So who knows what went wrong. 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 that Kodak Gold 200 film 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!

Do you like old cameras? Then check out all of my vintage camera reviews!