Pentax's new half-frame film camera is perfect for curious photographers

  • Pentax's new 17 is the first truly new film camera in decades.
  • It can shoot half a frame, making your videos last twice as long.
  • The fantastic combination of automatic and manual controls makes it the perfect choice for mobile photographers.

Pentax delivered on its promise to make a new film camera, and it performed surprisingly well.

It may look like one of those knockoff plastic SLR cameras you used to get for free with a magazine subscription, but the Pentax 17 might just be the most important camera of the year. It's a brand new film camera that performs well and doesn't cost $10,000. What's more, Pentax didn't just reinvent a classic camera design, but took a typically left-field approach and made a product that's perfect for people who grew up taking photos with their phones.

“I think Pentax’s new 17 camera is a brilliant idea, especially for photographers transitioning from cell phone cameras and point-and-shoots to film. This camera allows users to maximize their use of film, considering a roll of film [Kodak's Portra film] is about $20," professional photographer Charles Moll told Lifewire via email.

Until now, your options for a new film camera have been to spend big bucks on a Leica, or opt for one of the many cheap plastic point-and-shoot cameras that are essentially disposable cameras that have been modified for you to replace film. The 17 sells for $500 and is definitely a decent camera.

The camera's standout feature is that it is a half-frame model, which means it can capture 72 smaller frames on film that would normally capture 36 images. This also results in vertical framing, which is unusual for camera standards but is the default for phones, which should make iPhone photographers feel right at home.

The decision to use half-frame was a bold one because while it essentially cut film and processing costs in half, it also reduced image quality. In digital terms, this is like halving the size of the sensor. But in 2024, no one will be using film for ultimate fidelity, which is what digital technology is for. Instead, we value things like image grain.

Another relief is that these photos will almost certainly be scanned and viewed on a small phone screen. This means that the softness inherent in enlarging small film negatives to print size is less noticeable. The image quality shortcomings of half frames, then, might be seen as features.

One of the great features of half-frame cameras is the ease with which you can create diptychs. Most photo labs will develop the film and the photo of the back of your hand as two side-by-side images that you can use for creative purposes.

According to early reviews, this camera is great. It's solidly built, although it's not the prettiest camera ever made. It also has a great, sharp lens. But then things got weird again.

For example, the lens's maximum focal length is only 3.5, which means it's difficult to capture those out-of-focus backgrounds associated with film. The situation is made worse by the smaller "sensor" size of half-frame film. 17 also uses "zone focusing," using pictograms to represent focal lengths—a knife and fork symbol for a medium close-up, two people for a portrait, and so on. Still, it'll beat your phone.

"The lens looks great, looks really high quality with all the modern processing, and combined with the half-frame sensor offers a greater depth of field than the native sensor and aperture of an iPhone or consumer point-and-shoot camera. Can't afford the full Bokeh from a frame or medium format camera, but as an introduction to film photography it's good," Berlin-based architectural photographer Erwin-Sever David told Lifewire via email.

We then move into exposure mode, which is so important with film that you don't see the results until long after the photo is taken. You can choose from fully automatic or a variety of semi-automatic modes that let you combine the built-in flash with ambient light. Interestingly, one of the modes is called "Bokeh," a term that refers to the quality of the out-of-focus parts of a photo. Most importantly, this suggests that the 17 is aimed at phone camera users accustomed to adding features like "bokeh filters" to their photos.

The lack of manual controls may seem strange to long-time film photographers, but is it really so?

"Regarding the lack of manual mode, I don't think it's a significant hindrance, especially with the exposure compensation dial," professional photographer Jodi Blodgett told Lifewire via email. "Photography isn't always about manual settings; it's about understanding light and telling stories. With automation, users can focus more on capturing the moment rather than fiddling with settings."

Even more exciting is the fact that the 17 is the first in a new line of film cameras from Pentax. Next will be DSLRs, then "fully manual DSLRs." We can't wait.