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.

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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01AA020aAn outdated family portrait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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Countryside

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Was this taken with my Sigma zoom lens?  I can’t remember exactly, it was 3 1/2 years ago now, but back in those days I think the only things I carried with me were the SMC Pentax-A 70-210mm and the Sigma 35-135mm zooms (they were also practically the only ones I owned).  It’s hard to favor the look of this lens over a real Pentax-made one and I doubt I’d use it these days but I didn’t let my equipment (or lack of it?) prevent me from taking a chance in the early days; I hope I can keep that spirit alive.  The objective is to make good images, and the important thing I try to remember is that one doesn’t need the fanciest equipment, or even hardly any equipment at all.  It’s something I really need to try to learn myself, to be happy with what I already have.

Leaf

I’ve always been more of an album listener myself, and when posting it mostly seems to be a roll or two at a time.  However, I’ve decided to post more, so I’m going to start digging into my back catalog.  Time to release singles as well.

Leaf

It’s from a Pentax A-3000 thrift-store special with a 50mm lens that only stops down halfway.

Family Gathering

This is all from one roll of Tri-X, except the color shot which is Fuji Superia 800.  Along with 8 rolls of film, I took 2 cameras with me to Ohio, and one of them absolutely had to be the Spotmatic SPII.

While I could have wished for more interesting pictures on the Superia I shot, I’m really happy with the look of Tri-X through my 1.8 Takumar lens.  So happy in fact, that I went on a bit of a buying spree, getting 10 more rolls of Tri-X, along with 2 rolls of Fomapan 100, 2 rolls of Cinestill/Eastman Double-X, and 2 rolls of Cinestill/Vision3 800T.  I think I’ll be set for a while.

Due to limited space, I’m sending my black & white film out for processing, etc.  The scans are pretty spot-on, as well, for which I am extremely happy.  If all my results will look like this, I won’t be feeling the absence of a darkroom for quite a while…

How much is a fungusy Minolta Autocord worth?

Evidently it’s worth about $180, according to Goodwill.

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Or if you wait three weeks, it’ll be half that.  Of course, I was in Ohio at the time, so I never found out what happened to it.  I really should stop going into Goodwill, it just too depressing to see people who have no idea how to check out a camera think it’s worth whatever the latest idiot on ebay is asking, and even more depressing to think that there are people out there who are willing to spend that kind of money on it.  I don’t know why I keep going in there…

In other news:

Got my film back yesterday, eight rolls.  That’s more than I’ve ever shot at one time.  I spent yesterday at school rescanning a roll of pushed Tri-X that didn’t come out too well.  I pushed it 2 stops and I guess it just wasn’t enough for a couple of the shots, quite underexposed.  What it did do is give me a chance to try out the same place that I send my 120 and slide film to, but I really wasn’t impressed with the scans at all.  They use too high contrast on regularly-processed Tri-X, I wanted to see if they had any control over their scanner settings and requested that they watch the contrast.  So much for that…while I was happy with a couple images, most looked just wrong.  The images yielded up much more detail in rescanning.

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If Cameraworks (my favorite camera store) had been able to handle push-processing, I definitely would have let them handle it all, and I’m seriously considering just having Mike’s process the film and return it to me uncut so I can have it scanned at Cameraworks.  As long as I stay away from expired film, they’ve never disappointed me.

I tried out two new (to me) cameras this summer that I should be able to write some thoughts on, as well as try out different films. That picture at the top?  A $6 Petri 2.8 Color-corrected Super.

Now that I’m back in school I probably won’t be shooting as much.  Remember that Plastic Camera class I was going to take?  I had to switch last-minute to take a class required for my major, which is also a prerequisite for other classes required for my major, and it’s time to stop putting those kind of things off.  So much for more photography classes; maybe next semester.

Epson V600 revisited

Back to work on ol’ school scanner.  I had lots of problems last time, which I seem to have gotten around now, it just took a little brainpower.  It seems I’m only allowed to save a maximum of 1.5GB on a school computer, and after that things just don’t save.  It’s good I know that now, instead of taking things out on the equipment, I’m the one who’s to blame.  Well, actually the school is; their greedy ways kept me from scanning medium format images to TIFF.

Then again, I’d only use TIFF if I were planning to work on a picture in Photoshop, and it would be pretty annoying having to get one finished and either uploaded to Cloud or saved on a flash drive, then deleted from the hard drive before I could scan the next.  Anyway, I prefer to get all I need from the scan rather than endlessly alter things in Photoshop.

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Standard scan – it looked more interesting on the road, I guess…Irvin001
Epson scan

One gripe about the Epson software: zooming in on any previewed image resets the scan settings!  If you have some settings that work well, but you want to fine-tune things, even where the edges of the image are, and all the settings reset.  I wrote down some standard settings on a piece of paper.

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Standard scan                                 Epson scan – my friend’s son

Having the power to do adjustments is somewhat annoying I’ve found, and depending on how particular one is about their images, can take a long time.  At least with slides, if I do my job right with the camera, everything looks the way it should automatically.  I used expired film this time, a roll of Fujicolor 200 that I picked up at a thrift store for 50c, overexposed 1 stop.  Perhaps it wasn’t enough, I’m not sure.  The scans from the camera store came out somewhat bland, I thought, and makes me wonder just how expired this film is.  I bumped up the saturation a bit when scanning in some cases, played around with the color shifts, but I’m no wizard with the scanner (yet).  It’s good to have the camera store scans as a baseline, to tell me when I’m losing too much information due to incompetence.

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Standard scan – Katy playing at the Pike’s Peak or Bust RodeoIrvin002
Epson scan

One day I will master tone curves.

Probably not today.

I think I’ll have to search around for a good book on digital scanning.  I’m always ready to learn new things, now that I have some (free!) equipment with which to play around.

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Standard scan – the dog hiding from the evil thunder.
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Epson Scan

This is the only picture that came out looking like it should.  This is the Superia Look that was missing for most of the album.  Maybe it just got more light than the others, I’m not sure, but I tried to get it as close as possible to the first image.

You know, honestly, I’m not altogether happy with the results of the scans.  I had lots of trouble scanning some of the images without little annoying dots all over the picture, something to do with changing the colors too drastically, I believe.  It’s great for correcting colors when things don’t turn out the way you want them to, but if you’re using fresh film properly exposed, I think you’d be better off with just the standard scans.  Also, I thought that scanning at 4800 dpi would give me more detailed images.  Then I decided to see just how sharp those 4800 dpi images actually were:

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Standard scan (at ~400%)Fullsize-Epson
Epson scan (at 100%)

What’s with that???  I certainly wasn’t expecting the camera store’s scanner to be so much sharper than the Epson!  This really negates the reason for scanning at such a high resolution in the first place.  I’m no expert on doing these kind of tests, maybe I got something wrong, but I mean, how do you argue with that?  I’d be more disappointed if it had cost me money, but believe me, I don’t think I’ll ever buy one.

Katy Graves EP release party, 02/28/14

Finally, a post about pictures.  I don’t know how everyone usually does copyright notices, I just kind of stuck mine on with Microsoft Paint, quick and dirty.  I doubt I actually need it, but then again, who knows.  All rights reserved, so there.  Anyway, it was nice to pull out the old Spotmatic and have some fun.

One of the (quite legitimate) cracks against digital that I hear a lot is how people shoot it, namely taking lots of pictures in quick succession, then looking at the screen on the back of the camera to make sure they got something usable (and in the process probably missing the best shots due to distraction).  I saw a couple people there that night who are at least semi-pro photographers, with Canon 5Ds (I guess that’s the current go-to camera for digital photographers/videographers?) and they shot all night.  I wonder how many pictures they ended up taking, considering that from all those that were posted on Katy’s facebook page, there were no more than 16 from any one photographer.  My main job was doing sound, not taking pictures, so I’m sure I missed a lot of good shots myself while I was pulling my hair out over the board, but I used 2 1/2 rolls of film and came up with 44 interesting (or at least usable) images (not all included here), a much better percentage of keepers.  Usually, when you’ve taken a really good shot, you know immediately, and then you spend the rest of the time thinking about that one picture, how it will turn out.  I had maybe two of those this time, no more.

I used my Pentax Spotmatic camera that I bought at a garage sale for $5.00, it came with a 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens, and that was my main camera for years.  I used two rolls of Fuji Superia 800 and one roll of Kodak, either Max or Ultramax 400, expired since 2002 (the last 6 pictures, it’s kind of evident).  I shot without a filter – you can read all about it in this post, if interested – some of the shots I didn’t bother to color-correct because they look good the way they are.  During the 2nd set they turned off all the lights except on stage, made it kind of hard to get usable shots, especially with 400 film instead of 800; some of those later pictures are taken at 1/15 handheld.  I think they turned out alright, though I wish I’d had a roll of Tri-X with me, it would have solved numerous problems.

Speaking of the Spotmatic, there were a few times I really wished I had a wide-angle lens, but I didn’t, until I got my film developed down at the real camera store in Colorado Springs.  They also happen to sell used cameras, lenses, and accessories so I came back with a 28mm f/3.5 lens.  Probably not the kind that will help me indoors, but hey, it was affordable.