First off, I love a novelty camera. Pink Hello Kitty camera? Yes please. Tazmanian Devil point-and-shoot? Obviously. It’s only because of the increase in price and age-related reliability decline that I’ve not got my hands on a Game Boy camera yet. But the camera I’ve been carrying around for the last couple of weeks is no novelty, despite its tiny size – the Pentax Auto 110.
The 110 film format was introduced in 1972 by Kodak. It’s cartridge-based, which means easy loading – a small window in the cartridge lines up with the lens to allow light in, and it’s almost impossible to mess up (even opening the back shouldn’t ruin your exposed film too much). Each frame is just 13mm x 17mm, compared to the 24mm x 36mm frames of the standard 35mm film stock this blog is named after.
In the good old days, there were many reversal colour stocks available in the 100 format, as well as monochrome and even a slide colour film. Now, however, only Lomography produce new batches of 110 film (unless you are happy with expired film), and it’s one of these – Metropolis – that I chose to test my new favourite camera.
I was given the Pentax Auto 110 with two lenses, by a friend who inherited it from a relative. I’ve had it for years, sitting in its pleather case. As often happens with hobbies of mine, I kept meaning to do something with it, but never got round to it – not helped by the last few years of photographic lethargy. Recently though, the fun and low-pressure project #ShittyCameraChallenge on Mastodon and Instagram has given me a bit of a kick to try something new. The challenge encourages you to make decent photos with crappy gear, in attempt at breaking out of the cycle of “must have the latest, greatest, most expensive gear!”. Luckily, 110 film is a firm favourite in this challenge, even if the camera itself is far from shitty.
The Pentax Auto 110 was introduced in 1978 with three lenses (18, 24 and 50mm), and three more were released in 1981 (18mm pan focus, 70mm and 20-40mm zoom). There was also a winder and a flash brick, both of which add considerably to the size of the camera.
Despite being roughly palm-size, the Auto 110 feels well-made – the double-throw winder feels precise, and focusing the lenses is smooth, despite the plastic construction. The viewfinder is tiny, but bright, although finding focus can be tricky in low light, especially without a split prism. There’s no control over shutter speed or aperture, which is set automatically via TTL metering. ISO is either “fast” or “slow”, according to the ridges on the cartridge itself – this translates to either 320 or 80 ISO. It’s the perfect size to slip into a small bag or pocket, which is exactly what I did on a work trip back to my old stomping grounds in London.
Going back to London is always a mix of the very familiar and totally new, due to the speed at which new buildings go up in London. Before I moved to Bristol, I always worked in central London, in the Shoreditch – Islington area mostly. I would often walk from London Bridge station, north up past Bank and Old Street, through the mix of very old and very new buildings.
This time, I was staying in a small but perfectly-formed hotel near Bank station, which gave me the chance to have a mooch around in search of breakfast. When I commuted through London, I didn’t often have a chance to wander and admire the sights – I was too busy either coming or going. I had a late start on my second day, so picked up a muesli pot and a breakfast baguette from Pret, and went in search of somewhere nice to eat, and to test out my new toy.
I found a gem in amongst the hustle and bustle – a ruined churchyard, called St Dunstan in the East. The church was oringally built in around 1100 (coincidence?!), and damaged in the Great Fire of London, and mostly destryed in the Second World War. It’s now a public garden, home to birds and squirrels – both of which were eagerly eyeing my breakfast as I found a bench to sit on.
The walls are covered in greenery, and old graves line the outer walls. Trees grow from the middle courtyard, muffling the sounds of the frantic city outside. A few tourists milled about, taking photos on their phones, while I mingled and snuck a few shots on the Auto 110.
I was using the 24mm lens (equivalent to a 50mm on 135 film), which is longer than I’d usually take on a walk like this. I often suffer with nerves around shooting in public (which is silly, I know), but I found using such a tiny, almost novelty camera, alleviated some of that. No-one would be looking at me, I was just a person with a silly little camera taking silly little photos.
The only hiccup came from the very last shot, of the Gherkin building – a giant black dot sits right in the middle of the frame. I can only assume there is a spot of missing light-sensitive coating there, or a number, or something. Nevertheless, I enjoy the random weirdness of it – why else do we do this overly-complicated hobby that is film photography, if not for happy accidents?
Lomography’s Metropolis film is interesting, too – desaturated colours with a blue cast. I don’t hate it, but I don’t think I’d use it again, outside of a city setting. I bought a batch of expired no-brand colour film from eBay, which I’m looking forward to trying out next – along with the 18mm lens. Watch this space for more from the Pentax Auto 110!