Why I Love the Pentax Spotmatic

Back in Spring 2010 I didn’t have any notion of what the good camera brands were, I couldn’t even name but one or two.  I’d grown up using my mom’s Minolta XG-A, but it had been years since I’d used it, and I came out to Colorado with my grandfather’s TKC Kalimar which had seen better days, but since it was manual I ended up learning some things with it.  The first SLR I ever bought though was the Pentax Spotmatic SPII, at a garage sale for a whole $5.00.  What a deal.  It came with the 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens which, besides being a superb example of mechanical precision, takes more beautiful pictures than anything else I’ve ever seen on this Earth.  When I bought this camera, I knew nothing of Pentax or their pedigree of fine optics; I was just thrilled that it had a built-in light meter.  I used that camera exclusively from 2010 to 2012, and while I did have a brief affair with Minolta during my Intro to Photography class (and Canon as well), Pentax is still my first love.


Since acquiring a taste for Pentax screw-mount glass, I decided I’d make this my main camera system.  To that effect, I picked up both an ESII and ES bodies, and have added the 135mm f/2.5 Super-Takumar, the 28mm f/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar, the 50mm f/4 Super-Multi-Coated Macro-Takumar, and the 135mm f/2.8 Auto-Chinon lenses.  Just a couple days ago I picked up two more Super-Takumars, the 50mm f/1.4 and 200mm f/4, plus an original Spotmatic body.  Adding everything up, I’ve paid just a little over $150.00 for my system so far.  Not bad.

01AA020aAn outdated family portrait

The novelty for me when I bought the Spotmatic was the light meter.  It was fun to learn how to use it; Pentax was actually the first company to put a through-the-lens light meter on an SLR camera if I recall.  A manual camera with a light meter is probably the best tool for learning how to expose film properly, and is probably why just about every photography course recommends just this type of camera.  The Spotmatic line was exceptionally well-engineered in this area (not that it wasn’t in others!) because the meter has a bridge circuit that takes only the needed power from the battery, which means that voltage isn’t an issue.  It was designed originally for 1.33v mercury batteries, but works perfectly with the new 1.55v silver-oxide S400PX battery that is available for it today.  Other cameras (like Minolta) didn’t have this bridge circuit, and the different voltage causes their light meters to give faulty readings, which Wein Cell was able to address with their zinc air batteries.  I love that they do what they do and their battery has saved me before, but it’s very short-lived, only 3-4 months.  I’ve had this same Exell silver-oxide battery in my Spotmatic for 4 years now and it still works perfectly.  Score one for Pentax.

I hear so many gripes about stop-down metering, but honestly I don’t find it as annoying as others have.  Perhaps it was just that I didn’t have any other choice or anything to compare it to back in the day, but it hasn’t been much of a problem for me.  Things started getting complicated when all the camera makers went for open-aperture metering, because the M42 mount went from being the Universal Mount to being proprietary for each manufacturer.  All the last-generation lenses from Mamiya, Pentax, Yashica, Ricoh, etc. only work with their own cameras, and God help you if you try to mix and match your brands, you’re likely to have trouble removing a lens.  They require some permanent modifications to be able to fit, with the effect that they no longer allow open-aperture metering afterwards.  I suppose for those that really want open-aperture metering, they pick one brand and stick with that for all their bodies and lenses.  I’d rather be able to pick up just about any M42 lens and use it, which is why the stop-down metering Spotmatic and SPII come in handy.

The ES/ESII bodies offer this capability as well but are just a bit annoying in that way because I have to remember to flip this switch on the side to use stop-down metering or it won’t give the correct shutter speed, and it’s so easy to forget sometimes.

135mm lens taken at 1/60 or below (forgot to stop down the lens on the ESII, and when you don't it doesn't give you the right shutter speed as well as shooting at full aperture)

which is where things like this happen

I’d like to stick with the SMC lenses as much as possible when it comes to those bodies, but I keep finding more non-SMC lenses.  The ES/ESII is quite usable in manual mode as well, for which no stopping down is required to shoot, but metering is a bit more complicated.

One thing I would really have liked to see on one of the Spotmatics is a mirror-lock-up function, but sadly it was never added.  Supposedly there is a way on the ES/ESII which involves pushing the shutter release halfway, but I’ve never gotten it to work on mine.  Something like that might make it just that much better for landscape and macro work, but sadly it was never to be.  I know there are M42-to-Pentax-K adapters, but it would have been nice if Pentax had offered their LX professional camera in M42-mount as well, let us have just one more camera with open-aperture metering and aperture priority…hmmm, I wonder how hard it would be to modify one…

All those little gripes aside, what it really comes down to is that the lenses are nothing short of spectacular, and that’s the reason to use a Spotmatic.  It’s a look I love more than any other, and I’ve had quite a bit of good luck using these lenses and cameras over the years:

Most of my favorite work (and the majority of the above) has been done on one lens: the SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8.  If I had to shoot with just one lens (and many times I did back in the old days) it would be that one.  I talked in an earlier post about the alchemy between the Takumar and Fuji Superia.  I’m happy to say it also works just as well with Tri-X.  There’s just something magical about those kind of combinations.

Prices on Takumar lenses aren’t exactly cheap at the moment, in fact a lot of manual-focus lenses are being snatched up by people who shoot digital video, so I understand.  On one hand, it’s nice that people are appreciating the quality of old lenses, especially those made by Pentax, but what it really gets down to is that all these people are trying to reconcile themselves to shooting digital any way they can, doing everything except the one thing that will improve their work the most: going back to film.  Not only that, but the prices on these lenses are stupidly overinflated now.  The saddest part for me is going on the Bay and seeing all these wonderful screw-mount camera bodies being sold without lenses; those cameras should be taking pictures, not separated from their lenses and sold as scrap.  I look, but I don’t compete in the rat race myself, I just practice patience, and as the saying goes, “Good things come to he who waits.”  Thankfully, fair prices are still out there, for the moment, if one knows where to look.

While I do prefer the look of the screw-mount Takumars, I’m also a fan of Pentax’s later K-mount lenses, especially the SMC Pentax-A series and so even though they’re not Spotmatics, here’s a recap of pictures I’ve taken with Pentax’s later K-mount cameras and lenses:

Anytime in the 1970s was an awesome time to own a Pentax.

OK Goodwill, you’re forgiven…

…at least for now.

I just stopped in this morning while I was in town and picked up another Spotmatic, this time with the 1.4/50 Super-Takumar, and it cost me $15.  And they had a 4/200 Super-Takumar for another $15, so I picked that up too.  The 200mm lens in particular is stone mint: it looks like someone took it out of the box and then sent it through time from 1970 to me.  I guess you’re still giving out good deals every now and then, though it still seems to be hit or miss.  $120 for a Minolta Maxxum 7000?  That’s never gonna happen…

Canon T50, expired film and negative density

I’ve put off writing this post for a while now, partly because I’m not partial to this camera and partly because the scans were a bit flawed.  This camera was gifted to me by a friend along with a whole lot of Canon FD lenses, most of which were off-brand zooms, but also a pretty nice 35mm f/2.8 wide angle that has gotten a lot of use in the last year, as well as two (!) 50mm f/1.8 lenses (bringing my total up to three).  So, that equipment along with the Canon AE-1 body, 100mm lens and now more zooms than you can shake a browncoat at, I’d say my Canon system is actually pretty far towards completion.

I’m not a fan of the T50 because there isn’t a whole lot of control a photographer can have over it.  It only works in Program mode, which I’m not a huge fan of.  In fact, its one saving grace is that it doesn’t read DX encoding, meaning I have some control over the exposure using the ASA setting (as long as you’re not going outside of ASA25-1600).  In that at least, it has an edge over the Nikon N60.  Using a roll of expired Fujicolor 200 of unknown age that I picked up at a thrift store for 50 cents, I knew I wanted the colors to come out as warm as possible (or at least have the film exposed properly) so I shot this entire roll at ASA25-50.  Sometimes it worked out, sometimes not as much.  (OK, it has more than just Program mode, if you take your lenses off “A” it gives you 1/60, but I didn’t try that too much, as a lot of the roll was taken with the 100mm lens)

One big problem I’m learning with shooting expired film is that even when exposing several stops over box speed, the negative density might be a bit on the thin side.  Talking to my camera store, it seems that’s a pretty big contributing factor in causing scanning lines.  Without my own scanner and a more personalized scan and attention to detail, I think it’s just going to be something I’ll have to live with.  This day, my mom asked me if I wanted to go take pictures of fall leaves with all her peeper friends so I came along, but I made her take her Minolta XG-A and a roll of Ektar.  That roll was pretty fresh and didn’t suffer from any scanning lines.

With all the complaining out of the way, I’ll say that those Canon FD lenses are quite wonderful, nice-looking and very sharp.  The only reason that I don’t use them more often is because I prefer the character of the Pentax Takumar lenses, even with the eccentricities of using the screw-mount system (Canon lenses look much more neutral to me).  I knew I’d end up getting some pretty nice images, and scanning lines aside, I did.  I’ll rescan this roll myself once I have that capability, but for now, I was stuck in Photoshop using the Healing Brush whenever I had the time and got pretty tired of trying to fix the problems.  Here are a few that I’ve got done and I think turned out pretty nicely.

Here’s an example before Photoshop:

I don’t think I talk enough about how nice and how sharp those FD lenses are, but I’d say they do very well indeed.  One of these days I’d like to run a roll or two of Cinestill 50D through my AE-1 and see how that looks, but the T50 I got tired of dealing with and to use up the roll fast I took pictures of several of my other cameras.  Strangely enough, there are no scanning lines on those shots.  Hmmm…

An old-fashioned man

…and proud of it.

It doesn’t stop at just using film and old cameras.  I suppose it stems from a passion for history, but it makes itself felt in many areas of my life.  I appreciate old things.  There’s an innate level of craftsmanship and quality in something that has been around for a long time but still works as well as it did when it was new.  And there’s not much made these days that holds up like things from even 3-4 decades ago.

My grandfather was 70 when I was born, and I didn’t know him as well as I’d have liked to, but I have some mementos of his to remember him by, and that probably helped forge a connection to the past as well.  I have several of his cameras, some of his Army clothing and paraphernalia, and his favorite fedora:
0001AA015Photo by Jonathon Davidson, from the fake trailer “The Lights of Seven Falls.”
It’s just a bit too big for me actually, and for him as well, I believe.  I remember he used to line that hat with old church programs.  My solution is a rolled-up bandana.

My brother paved the way for me in taking up wet shaving over a year ago, and I picked up the torch back in September.  When in Ohio I raided my grandparents’ house looking for any old shaving accessories and came up with gold (well, brass).  Now I have discovered the joy of the badger hair brush, shaving soap, and using Personna double-edged blades in a 1930 Gillette Ball End safety razor.  It’s possible that this was the razor that ol’ Grandpa learned to shave with, though I don’t know one way or the other.

My dad has a pretty good stereo and he’s always kept it set up and ready to play.  He never got rid of or packed away his records, so I was able to rediscover The Difference relatively early.  I’ve assembled a pretty sizable collection of my own over the last seven years.

55mm lens taken at 1/30.  200 speed film

More important than owning records though is the concept of owning music, something we’re losing.  I believe true value is expressed by what we’re willing to pay for, and the current trend is a sense of entitlement to get everything for free, including music, at the expense of the people who actually work hard to create something new and interesting.  Ownership is going out the window these days in favor of access, which should scare a whole lot more people than it currently does.  With that said however, I also find it hard to give real money in exchange for a download.  There’s too much of the “I need it now” attitude where so much is sacrificed in the name of expedience (this also relates to photography).  If I’m paying for music, I expect to get something I can hold in my hand, and if nothing else, it makes for a good backup (and having lost hard drives before, having backups is important).

There’s not much that can beat the sound of a well-engineered/mastered and good clean copy of AAA vinyl, and my research in that direction led me back to true analog recording with open reel tape.  Being a composer/songwriter, I do record music, and tape is my recording medium of choice.

Most people make an analogy between vinyl and film, but this is wrong.  Vinyl is the end product, more like a print.  Both can be made from digital sources, in fact these days most are, in both cases.  Many more are made with analog at the front end, but perhaps digitized at some step in the process.  By the same analogy, AAA vinyl relates to an optical print, black and white or RA-4 color, both fully analog.  And to carry the analogy to its full conclusion, film is equal to tape, because they are both capture mediums, and represent the creative side of their respective mediums.  I suppose that also means that albums released on tape would be analogous to a 35mm motion picture film print.

What’s strange is that taking a picture on film can be so much easier creating a good recording on tape.  I’d know: when I made my first album it came out sounding like the musical equivalent of Lomography.  Actually, there’s a whole sub-genre of music called “lo-fi folk” that describes what I did, and I understand if it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I learned a lot merely by getting out there and doing it.  Here’s some more shameless self-promotion:

In fact, I can’t really think of any area of my life where I’d consider myself up-to-date, even in the tech world.  I’m writing this from a Windows XP computer I bought from a thrift store.  My most recent computer game purchases were the first two Fallout games, and while I just updated my video game system from original Xbox to Playstation 3, my heart still belongs to the 16-bit era.

It sometimes feels like the world has passed me by, like the values of earlier generations have been swept aside in favor of something new and of-the-moment.  It’s a sad sometimes, seeing what the world is becoming, and knowing that I don’t want to be a part of it.  Let other people have their safety in numbers; I am who I am.  Or, “That which we are, we are.

I love books, hate Kindle.  I strive for proper grammar.  I support brick & mortar establishments as much as possible.  I use old cameras.

And I hold doors open for ladies.

An update on the Alternative Processes photography class

We had our first class today, just going over the syllabus mainly, and looking at a few examples.  It seems we are going to do an overview of every photographic process invented in the 1800s.  In order:
Lumen Printing
Homemade pinhole cameras
Wet Plate/Collodion (this one I’m really excited about)

What a list!  Actually, the first thing we’re doing is Solargrams: we’re going to make tiny pinhole cameras, stick a small piece of photo paper in them and then pick a spot outside to leave them for a few months and see what appears in terms of star trails.  I probably won’t get to shoot much film for this class, but I definitely plan on breaking out my cameras when I make in my film scoring class, and making full use of the darkroom as much as possible.  It’s nice to be surrounded by like-minded film shooters for once.  In the Intro class the only other person who’d ever shot film did it in a high school photo class, she graduated in the late ’90s.  This semester, fully half the class are dedicated film users, including the instructor.  I’m so excited right now, can’t wait for Thursday.

In other news, I’ve been talking about wanting to try Velvia 100 for a while now, well I just bought a roll.  I took my Spotmatic in to the camera store for a CLA because I wanted to have accurate shutter speeds in preparation for my shipment of film from Ferrania, and they told me that it was just outside of tolerances and while they could make it better, it wouldn’t be by much.  In fact, they suggested that I just set the light meter 1/3 stop faster and that that would compensate enough.  Hmmmm.  Well, I suppose if they say so, it’s just strange that all this time I’ve been worried about this and maybe I shouldn’t have been.  It’s nice that they were honest enough to tell me that it would be a waste of money.

Shooting people with Velvia 50

I found an old post of mine that I never finished, just forgot.  These pictures were taken on Easter Sunday 2014From what I’ve heard, Velvia 50 isn’t supposed to be good for people.  Supposedly it turns their skin too reddish.  I think they’re right, but it didn’t stop me from trying, and I took a chance on our overcast Easter Sunday.

Unfortunately, like a fool, I used too low a shutter speed and ended up botching some of my better shots.  Let that be a lesson to you:

100mm f/8 1/60  This man gave me a whole bunch of Canon FD lenses (used in the landscape pictures above) and a T-50 body.  As you can see, he’s now joined the enemy, but at least his old stuff won’t be going to waste.

100mm f/8 1/60  So maybe a bit unnaturally reddish, but not overly so?  These two guys actually work outside for a living, so without having them right in front of me they may look like this in real life, if they had just had a really bad sunburn.



I assume that the day being overcast helped rein the colors in a bit.  Now that I know better, I’ll stick to shooting landscapes with Velvia 50, but still, it was worth a try.

Honestly, I don’t know if I’d consider color reversal film to be “affordable” in the sense that color negative film is.  For starters, rolls of film cost $15-20.  On top of that, processing on that one roll cost me $20 (a package deal that also included scanning, slide mounting, and a set of 4×6 proofs).  And I had to wait the better part of a week, too (the camera store had to send it to their main location in Boulder).  Add that to the fact that you really have to know what you’re doing…so not for beginners, then.  However, if the results justify the means (and that is one of the main reasons to use film), then it’ll be a good thing to use.

I kind of liken shooting Velvia 50 to making a bet double-or-nothing: get your exposure off and you miss the shot, but nail it and you’ll have a beautiful-looking image the like of nothing you’ve seen before.  Still, I’d keep this more for landscape work given the choice.  I’ve shot two rolls of Provia 100F which has a much more forgiving latitude (for a slide film) which looks great for people, and not too bad for landscape.  I really want to try Velvia 100 as well, from what I’ve read it’s like Velvia 50 but with less wild reds, much better for people but still more vivid than Provia.  Still, I’ve got 6 rolls of Ferrania Chrome that should be arriving sometime in Spring, so that’s the slide film I’ll be using for a while.

To make this as affordable as possible, I used (refrigerated) expired film that was half off; I think it looks great, nothing wrong with the film.  Except for the 100mm lens that I bought from the camera store, all my Canon equipment has been gifted to me.  Here are other posts that are from this same roll:

Slide Film: Bracket Your Shots
UCCS Going Green
Shooting Daylight Film inside (without a Filter) Pt. II