The Littlest SLR Camera!

Posted 2011.08.19 22.30 in Hobbies, Photography by Stephanie

During some recent internet roaming, I stumbled across some information about this camera and it was an instant had-to-have response. The smallest SLR camera system ever? Who could resist that?

Back in 1978/1979 when the Pocket Instamatic format was already losing popularity, Pentax came out with their first (and only) 110-format camera. They only made one, but they made it count! This is no simple one-speed one-aperture point-and-click plastic job. No way. This is a complete camera system.

Single Lens Reflex body, interchangable lenses, filters, dedicated electronic flash units, and motorized power winders… the Pentax Auto 110 was a full-fledged system camera, for a sub-miniature plastic cartridge format.

How small is it? In the image above, you can see the camera along with two spare lenses, a film cartridge, and for a sense of scale, a quarter. The camera and a couple lenses can fit in a jacket pocket. The camera and a couple lenses are smaller than most 35mm SLR bodies. Amazing.

Of course, with extreme miniaturization, there are some tradeoffs. The camera is called Auto because it’s fully auto exposure, and there’s no option for manual override. Auto aperture, auto shutter. The focus is manual, but that’s it. The bigger tradeoff is in the negatives though.

Smaller film, smaller negatives. Not as much image to work with. The 110 format is about 17mm x 13mm – about a quarter the area of a standard 35mm negative. They were ok for standard 4×6 prints, but enlarging beyond that would result in a lot of visible grain.

Of course, I didn’t just get this little cutie to stick it on a shelf. When I get a camera, I want to run film through it! Unfortunately, the 110 format is another mostly-dead film size. There are still some stockpiles of expired film out there, so I scooped up a handful of cartridges – some Agfa-made store-brand ISO 200 colour film.¬†Below are a couple results of my first test-roll.

So I am sure that nobody is going to run out and grab a Pentax Auto 110 based on these pics! However, let’s don’t blame the camera just yet. Problem one: I was shooting from the hip, as they say. In retrospect, this doesn’t work with SLR cameras using auto exposure with TTL metering. Huh?

The problem is, light comes in through the eyepiece and confuses the sensor – it thinks there is more light than there really is, so it underexposes the images. And I can tell from looking at the negatives, they are underexposed. The scanner pushes them to correct, which makes the grain much more noticable.

Problem two: soft focus. Again, shooting from the hip, I probably didn’t have the focus right. Although these tiny lenses have great depth-of-field, maybe that wasn’t enough to compensate for user error.

Problem three: that last frame (it was a self-portrait, by the way) was light-struck. I don’t think that was the camera’s fault. In fact the last 4 or 5 frames were light-struck, and that was either my fault for cracking the cartridge open in a (dimly) lit room, or there may be a problem with my developing tank. I had to get a special tank to run the 110 film, and the only one still available that fits this format comes with a rather questionable reputation.

One final thing, my C-41 chemistry (good for 2 weeks / 12 rolls) is now about 7 weeks old and this was the 22nd roll I’ve put through it. I do compensate by adding extra time to the processing, but the chemicals have gotta be getting weak.

So, first test roll, not exactly a blazing stunning success. But not a catastrophe either. I know the shutter works, the auto-exposure system can tell the difference between night and day, the film advance works, and that my new reel and tank work (more or less). So, time to shoot another roll. And this time, no more from-the-hip shooting.

And remember: Tiny camera! Tiny SLR system camera! Cute!


  1. Kim Link says:

    A huge drawback to the cartridge film formats, 110 and 126, was that the film couldn’t be held FLAT. This actually compromised image quality even more than the small negative size.

    1. Stephanie says:

      See I’ve heard this mentioned a lot, but I haven’t found any actual evidence to support it. Forgetting 110 for the moment as I’ve limited experience with that, everything I’ve seen / read / observed through empirical examination of the 126 format tells me that there’s no film flatness problem.

      I suspect, and I’ve read a number of others who share the same opinion, that the real problem is for every good 126 camera made, there’s at least 100 that were cheap plastic crap, with fixed-focus plastic singlet lenses and no exposure control. Having a roll after roll of poorly focused over- and under-exposed images is certainly going to result in low-quality prints.

      As I play more with the 110 format, I’ll be paying close attention to the film guides in the cartridge and the film gate in the camera, to see if I can detect any flatness issues there.


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