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.

01AA002b

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01AA020aAn outdated family portrait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.

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6 thoughts on “Why I Love the Pentax Spotmatic

  1. I have a Spotmatic SP II with a dead meter and a Spotmatic SP with a meter that got wonky on me for a couple frames mid-test-roll but otherwise worked fine. I started out with open-aperture metering so going to stopping down seemed like a hassle step to me. But I’m confident that if I had to shoot with my SP for the rest of my life I’d get used to it fast enough and enjoy the great Takumar glass I have — a couple different 50mms and a 135mm.

    That said, I’m still ever so slightly more partial to the SMC Pentax-M glass I have for my K-mount bodies. They give a look that makes me super-dee-duper-dee happy.

  2. Hi there! I came across this post while doing some research on a Spotmatic that I’ve inherited from my father-in-law. Your post makes me look forward to playing with it and learning about the camera and how it works!

  3. Pingback: Week 9 – Intermediate Photography | The Resurrected Camera

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