Pentax Program-A


This camera dates from 1984. This camera is clearly a development of the Pentax ME Super of 1979. Indeed, the ME Super was discontinued the year that this model was released.

  • lens: n/a
  • focal length: n/a
  • apertures: n/a
  • focus range: n/a
  • lens fitting: Pentax KA mount
  • shutter: Seiko MFC-E5 vertical metal electronic
  • speeds: 15 to 1/1000 seconds
  • flash: hot shoe for dedicated Pentax flash guns plus PC socket
  • film: 35 mm

The Program-A has a fully automatic exposure system which is dependent on using ‘A’ series lenses. Other K mount lenses can be used but doing so will not allow the automatic exposure system to work – automatic aperture priority exposure is still possible.

As mentioned above, this camera is a development of the ME Super which is reflected in the top plate. This camera is made from metal. There is some plastic used but it is not used structurally. The body is die-cast aluminium and the top and bottom plates are black painted brass. The body measures 131 by 87 by 48 mm and weighs 490 g with no lens attached.

This camera is entirely electronic and will not do anything at all without batteries. The instruction booklet (which was nicely supplied with this second-hand camera) says that the camera takes two 1.5 volt batteries – no indication as to which style batteries. I have fitted two LR44 alkaline batteries which fit in the battery compartment nicely and the camera works well with them.

The top plate closely resembles that of the ME Super. On the right is the film advance lever. This has a stand-off position at 30º from the body. This is intended to make film advancing easier but if the photographer wishes, the lever can be kept flush with the body. To advance the film one frame the lever must be moved through 135º from the stand-off position. There is no ratchet so the lever must be moved in one movement.

In front of the film advance lever is the window to the frame counter. As is usual, this is reset when the camera back is opened. The automatic exposure system does not kick-in until the frame counter reaches 1. Before that, the shutter speed defaults to 1/1000 seconds. Even frame numbers are in white – odd numbers are dots. 0, 20, 34 and 36 are in red (34 is in red to indicate that the film is very nearly at an end.

Next along is a selector wheel. This has the options of LOCK, AUTO, MAN, 100⚡︎ and B. When this wheel is in either the LOCK or AUTO positions, it is locked in place and you need to press a grey portion of the wheel in order to turn it. In either MAN, 100⚡︎ or B positions, the wheel can be turned freely.

The lock position locks the shutter and turns off the electronics. AUTO sets the automatic exposure system. MAN allows the user to set both aperture and shutter speed – camera control of the aperture is disabled and the aperture ring on the lens must be moved from “A”. 100⚡︎ forces the shutter too 1/100 seconds for flash synchronisation. B allows the shutter to remain open while the shutter release button is depressed.

In the centre of the selector wheel is the shutter release button. This is chromed metal and is threaded for a standard cable release. This shutter release button is electrical and sends a signal to the electronic shutter.

Left of this selector wheel, hard by the pentaprism hump, are two buttons, 5 by 3 mm each. These are to adjust the shutter speed in manual mode – the front button increases shutter speed and the rear button reduces speed.

The pentaprism hump is in the middle of the top plate as usual. On top of the hump is a hot-shoe accessory shoe. This is synchronised for electronic flash as designated by the red X. As well as the ISO standard central contact, there are two smaller auxiliary contacts. These are for Canon’s dedicated flash guns and allow the camera to automatically set the shutter speed and lens aperture to the required values. For non-dedicated flash guns, the user must set the selector wheel to 100⚡︎ and manually calculate the required lens aperture.

On the front of the pentaprism hump is an oblong translucent panel that illuminates the meter display in the viewfinder. The rear of the pentaprism hump has the viewfinder eyepiece. This measures 15 by 10 mm. Inside the viewfinder is the focus screen. This is plain ground glass with a central micro-prism spot and a split-image spot in the middle of that. These are focus aids.

Below the focus screen is the light meter readout. On the left is a window for the shutter speed. When in AUTO mode with the lens aperture set to ‘A’, the shutter speed is preceded by a ‘P’ to indicate Program mode. On the right is the window for the aperture value. This only displays in program mode (aperture set to ‘A’, wheel to AUTO). Otherwise, it gives values from -3 to +3 to indicate how far out the exposure setting is.

To the left of the pentaprism hump is the film rewind crank. This is the usual fold-out crank. When pulled upwards, this crank acts as the catch for the hinged back. Around the rewind crank is a wheel to set exposure compensation. Normally, this will be set to 1x but the exposure can be adjusted from 1/4 to 4 times the value set by the exposure system. On the left of this wheel is a small button. if you press this while rotating the exposure compensation wheel, you adjust the film speed setting instead. This is in ASA (functionally the same as modern ISO speeds) and runs from 6 ASA to 3200 ASA. 3200 ISO film is still readily available (in 2020) but I think you would struggle to find 6 ISO film!

Moving to the front of the camera, the front is dominated by the lens mount. This is Pentax’s K bayonet mount introduced in 1975 (it was originally a joint development between the German Carl Zeiss and the Japanese Asahi Optical Co, but Carl Zeiss pulled out of the arrangement and development was completed by Asahi alone). Previously, Pentax cameras used the M42 screw lens mount and to make things as simple as possible the new K mount used the same flange distance (distance from the outside of the lens mount to the film) as the M42 mount. This made using adapters for older Pentax lenses much simpler.

Originally, in 1975, the K mount was entirely mechanical. There is a ring just inside the mount that connects to a lever on the lens to tell the exposure system what the set aperture is and a lever on then other side of the mount which closes the lens’ aperture when the shutter release is pressed.

lens showing the ‘A’ setting (white dot)

The version of the K mount on this camera is known as the KA mount. The difference between the vanilla K mount and the KA mount is the presence of six electrical contacts on the surface of the KA mount, on the lower left. Five of these contacts protrude slightly and are spring loaded so they can push in as a lens is being mounted/demounted. The sixth contact (the third one down) is flush with the mount and not sprung. This is the opposite on the lens portion of the mount – five contacts on the lens are flush and one is protruding and sprung. On the lens, this protruding contact is connected to the ‘A’ position on the aperture scale. If ‘A’ is set, this contact protrudes and if an actual aperture value is set then this contact is retracted – this signals to the camera’s AE system that the camera is to control the lens’ aperture.

The lens release button is on the left of the mount (or on the right when using the camera). This is the opposite way to most SLR cameras that I have . Just above the lens release button is a second lever. This is a depth of field preview lever and needs to be pressed towards the camera body. Slightly above and behind this is switch marked ‘SELF’. pushing this switch up sets the self-timer. This gives a delay of around 12 seconds between pressing the shutter release button and the shutter opening. A red LED flashes once the shutter release button is pressed and this flashes faster during the final two seconds of the delay.

On the other side of the lens mount is a PC socket for use with an off-camera flash gun.

The base plate of the camera has the usual items. There is a standard 1/4 inch tripod socket. The ISO standard for tripod threads was set in 1973. Previous to this, the threads were 1/4 inch Whitworth but the ISO states they should be 1/4 inch UNC. As this camera dates from 12 years after the introduction of the ISO we can be sure that this is a UNC thread. This tripod socket is in line with the centre of the lens. Next to this is the battery compartment which takes two LR44 cells. The third usual item is the release button to allow the film to be rewound. Once this button has been pressed in, there is no need to hold it in, making rewinding easier.

Also on the base plate are the paraphernalia for connecting a motor drive, two models of which were available. These consist of two locating holes, a set of four electrical contacts, a set of two electrical contacts and a clutch connected to the film advance system. Also on the base is the camera’s serial number.

As mentioned earlier, the back is released by pulling up on the rewind crank. The back can be completely removed and can then be replaced with the optional Data Back which would print the date and time on each negative. This data back uses another set of two electrical contacts on the back of the base plate.

The inside of the camera is quite normal. The chamber for the film cassette is on the left. Strangely, inside this chamber is a second serial number which is close to but not the same as there serial number on the base of the camera. The shutter is a vertically running metal focal plane shutter made by Seiko. This is the model MFC-ES shutter (detail curtesy of the printed instruction booklet) and it is entirely electronic – it does not work at all without battery power. Centrally is the film gate – this is absolutely standard. On the right is the take-up spool. This has what Pentax call Magic Needles. These are a series of loosely fitting plastic needles around the take-up spool. When you fit a new film, you just push the film leader between any two of these needles and wind the film advance.

Being a Japanese camera, the joint between the camera back and the camera body is rendered light tight by a groove with a foam light seal in it. As is also usual, these foam seals have deteriorated and will need replacing before the camera is used. One last thing that a is worth mentioning is the presence of a memo holder on the back of the camera. This is intended to hold the end of the cardboard carton the film comes in to serve as reminder as to which film type is in use. These should be on every camera to my mind but they are not so frequent, unfortunately.

A scanned copy of the instruction booklet can be found here.

Test Film.

I have now run a test film through this camera and the results are mixed. The film I used was Agfa Vista, 200 ISO – a couple of years past its best-before date so basically fine. On a positive, there are no light leaks and the shutter is moving smoothly. On the negative, quite a few of the negatives are very thin, indicating significant underexposure – I still have images from these as scanning is very forgiving but they are not really useable.

The images:

One of the thin, underexposed negatives, This was a bright but cloudy day – plenty of light around.
Well exposed, as are the next three.

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