It would have been interesting to watch the early SLR wars in the 1960s. One of the main contenders of this war was Pentax, and one of the main weapons they brought to the fight was the Pentax Spotmatic SP. It is built tough to withstand punishment, but beautifully crafted to bring joy. This is a solid piece of kit.
In my quest to try outside the Nikon system, this camera was always going to be in the first few. It kind of calls you out, saying “use me, don’t just let me sit on a shelf”. I have been careful to not go across too many systems, which is why it has taken a while to select which SLRs are worthy of deviating from my chosen tools. They have to be of some significance, and this does tick those boxes.
Using the Spotmatic SP for a few months I really started to get a sense on why it was so popular then and is still now. A Spotmatic was even used by Ringo Starr in the movie A Hard Day’s Night.
For me, I like to have a camera which just performs. The controls need to be in the right place and every time I press the shutter release, it just does what I expect it to. I think that is the ethos behind this camera. It just works, and well. No fuss, no complications.
The key to a good SLR, or any camera really, is to be supported by quality lenses. Pentax themselves are well known for the Takumar range of lenses, which are capable of excellent results. But here is the bonus shot, the Spotmatic series have the M42 thread mount, otherwise known as the Praktica/Pentax/Universal mount.
The M42 mount became a de facto open source mount during the early days of SLRs, drawing camera and lens manufacturers from all over the world. This led to some of the most innovative lens designs being adapted for this mount, with a plethora of choices for a Pentax user. That is with the exception of some of the earlier East German and Soviet lenses where the back protrudes too far.
Therein lies the magic, a quality built, straightforward functional camera, with a lens selection for all budgets and artistic tastes. That’s a winning formula I could not resist. I got interested in collecting a mixture of lenses, especially some of the East German ones, so the M42 mount was a very logical way into that.
This brought up some excitement to use the Spotmatic SP, in being really keen to try some of them out. That also includes the Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 it came with, which has the yellowing effect from the radioactive thorium oxide used as a component of the glass. I will not have that removed, as this adds a unique character to the results. I also will avoid licking that lens for health reasons.
The Pentax Spotmatic SP became a companion for me over a period of months, as my usual approach is to try and get to know a camera well. I did not feel this was much of a burden, it was a real joy in fact.
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Asahi Optical Corporation (later to become Pentax) built its first 35mm single lens reflex (SLR) camera in 1952. It was a conscious decision to not create yet another rangefinder, but to base the new camera on the 1939 Praktiflex. The camera, the Asahiflex I, was also the first ever Japanese SLR.
Nobuyuki Yoshida and Ryohei Suzuki, the Asahi designers, recognised the benefits of the SLR system over rangefinders for professional purposes, and sent the company into that direction from the beginning. While their design of the Asahiflex did use a screw mount design, it was 37mm at that point. The camera was also based on a waist level finder and the mirror did not automatically return after an exposure. The latter came in the Asahiflex IIB, the camera that followed.
The name Pentax came in 1957. Asahi planned to use it as a reflection to the pentaprism used in SLR cameras. The name was already being used by Zeiss Ikon, who sold the name to Asahi. In the USA market, cameras were also stamped with Honeywell, the local importer and distributor of the cameras.
The first Spotmatic to be introduced by Pentax was in fact the Spotmatic SP, in 1964. It was one of the very earliest SLRs to include through-the-lens metering. The Spotmatic SL was also introduced then, which was exactly like the SP, but without the metering. The name Spotmatic was aimed at the original design of the camera, which was to use a spot metering system. But even though the design changed, the name remained due to the already produced marketing materials.
Like many manufacturers it was incorporated into the M42 lens mount system, for maximum compatibility.
Other Spotmatic cameras followed, especially in the 1970s. This includes the SPII, SPIIa, SP F and even auto exposure models the ES and ES II. The SP though, in a nine year production cycle established Pentax as a serious maker in the SLR market and won over many fans.
To this day, there are groups dedicated to the Pentax camera brand. Pentax to their credit enforced this with the quality continued well into the K mount era. All this was initially really established with the Spotmatic.
The Pentax Spotmatic SP is a 35mm SLR camera made in Japan from 1964 until 1973. It incorporates an M42 screw mount, giving access to most M42 mount lenses from multiple manufacturers. Some lenses from early East German or Soviet companies will not work though, due to the depth of the mount and they may interfere with the mirror operation.
The Spotmatic SP has through-the-lens (TTL) average scene metering using a cadmium sulphide meter on a focused image off the ground glass. Metering is also uncoupled and has to be manually activated. It is activated through a switch on the left side of the mount, which has to be pushed upwards. This is known as stop down metering, and it will darken the viewfinder appropriately.
Metering is powered by a now outlawed mercury PX400 cell battery, which would produce 1.35 volts. There is some debate on whether a 1.5v battery will do the trick, with a general consensus that the camera is designed to take the difference and still meter correctly. Alternatively, an MR-9 adapter can be used, which will adjust the voltage to 1.35v.
Some people even have the meter recalibrated to the 1.5 voltage. I had the camera serviced and while it was already in the shop, it was recalibrated. But I would have been just as happy to use a MR-9 adapter to update the voltage, as I do in other cameras. The rest of the camera is mechanical and does not need the battery to operate.
Other than the mount and metering switch, on the front of the camera is the self-timer and the flash sockets, as there is no hot-shoe on the SP.
On the top plate are the majority of the controls. The film advance is a moulded metal lever on the right side, with the frame counter built into it. Next to it is the shutter release button, which has a remote cable release thread in it. Further left is the shutter speed selection knob. Shutter speed options range from 1 second to 1/1000th second, plus Bulb. Flash speed is limited to 1/60th second.
Within the shutter speed selection knob, is the film speed selection, in ASA numbers. The camera is capable of metering between ASA 20 through 1600. Note, the arrow indicating the shutter speed next to this knob is a light, and if it turns red, it indicates the shutter speed is outside of the range for this meter for the current film speed that has been set.
On the right hand side is the film rewind lever which can be used when the rewind release button is depressed on the bottom of the camera. A film type reminder is also present on the same lever construction.
In the viewfinder, there is minimal information, but the essentials. When the exposure lever is moved into position, the metering kicks in and is shown in the form a metering needle on the right. The aim is to get it into the middle with combinations of the exposure triangle.
Focusing is aided with a central prism circle, which is projected through the ground glass.
Loading film is by opening the back, through pulling the rewind lever upwards. The film has to be threaded on the right side and canister loaded in the left.
Under the camera is a tripod screw thread, the rewind release button and the battery compartment which needs a small coin to unscrew.
I found my Pentax Spotmatic SP sitting in a Sunday market here in Sydney, with the Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens attached. It was quite dirty and looking a bit neglected. I tried it out, and though the muck on the viewfinder and mirror were quite thick, it seemed ok. I fired off a few times at different speeds and it seemed OK-ish. The meter was not working, but I was less concerned with that as it was a low price. The lens was also yellow from the radioactive material. It came home with us.
Closer inspection found that the lens had some fungus (radioactive fungus!) and the speeds were not quite right sounding. Cosmetically, once cleaned up, the camera looked great. The next time I was near my technician I dropped them both off and asked for a full service. They were concerned the meter might not work, and straight away were able to diagnose that the curtains were not synchronised.
A few weeks later I got the call and popped in to pick it up. Working in all its glory, meter and all, I was really impressed. The first time I used the film advance lever, I knew this was a really nice camera. It is so smooth!
Restrictions, luckily, in Sydney have not been too severe in 2020. When I was able to take a day to myself and head down the east coast, I knew which camera should come with me. It was also a very sunny day, which helped me decide on colour film. As such, I left the Super-Takumar 50mm it came with at home, due to the yellowing, and took a Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar 50mm f/1.8 I had been itching to try out.
Using the camera was really pleasing mainly because I prefer not to be bombarded with information that some cameras can do. I could tell pretty quickly this is a tough camera which can take a pretty good beating.
The viewfinder is really nice and bright, and the meter needle is quite easy to see when activated. Though, contradicting my comment above, I would have liked to be able to see the shutter speed in the viewfinder. The focus patch takes a bit of getting used to as I prefer the split prisms myself.
Using the metering switch on the side of the mount was also something I had to get used to. It worked wonderfully but being the first time using the camera properly I was a bit unsure of the sequence. That is until I sat down and had a coffee to think about it.
You should frame and focus initially. Focus is important as it uses a focused image to meter the scene. Then activate the meter, which will darken the viewfinder depending on which aperture you have chosen. Adjust your shutter speed accordingly, keeping in mind not to go too slow unless on a tripod. Readjust focus, as you likely have moved a bit, and shoot.
If you prefer to adjust your aperture to the speed, then reverse those specific steps. It did feel like a bit of faffing about, but you get used to the routine quite quickly, and to be fair, this was cutting edge in 1964.
On that trip I also hit an initial problem with the M42 mount. M42 is called the universal mount, as it has a lot of lenses which can be used, but there are some gotchas. I hit one, as the wider lens I had taken with me is a Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm lens. When I mounted that onto the camera, I found I could not screw it in fully and could not focus on infinity due to its depth. Lesson for me, check all this up front, don’t make assumptions.
I really enjoyed the photos when they where scanned in, but I won’t go into that too much, as that is more about the performance of the lenses rather than the camera. What I will say though, is that focusing is very accurate with the Spotmatic SP, even though I prefer a split prism, it was very accurate.
Next time around I was keen to try out the Super-Takumar 50mm, so loaded with Ilford film I headed out. I also took the Sigma Mini-Wide 28mm with me for wider shots. Again, I was foiled on wider shots though. I had cleaned this lens up myself a while back, and I suspect I got one of the elements in back to front, so focus was not even remotely possible. This lens does work though, when complete. Again, something I had not tested first! Head slap time.
I actually came across a really interesting problem with the Super-Takumar 50mm though. It has a couple of markings on the top, an “A” to put the lens in Auto mode for aperture control and a red diamond for the actual aperture setting. I use reading glasses and generally do not wear them when out and about. Low and behold, I kept mistaking the “A” for the aperture setting as an arrow and shot quite a few photos with the lens at f/1.4 instead of f/2.8. The same issue on the other aperture selections too.
Look at the photo of the dancers further up and see how it has a thin focus depth, of just one dancer. It works really well in this specific case, and proves how accurate the focus is, but that was not my intention. Not really a camera issue, or a lens issue to be fair, but an issue for me, as the white “A” will always look like a more prominent fuzzy arrow to me. I should wear my multi focal glasses more often.
Now, using the camera, apart from the niggle above, with the Super-Takumar lenses (I acquired a 35mm f/3.5 in the meantime) is a pleasure. Focusing is really smooth, and the camera just seems to sing with the native lenses.
The results, especially with the 50mm blew me away. The metering is just so precise, which surprised me considering the advancement of metering in the last decades. All the negatives came out very well exposed.
Using it was really good too, as I was also with my family on a couple of the occasions and the camera did not seem to get in the way. In fact, I got really fast with focusing with that patch, that it made it easier to get portraits sorted out.
In terms of ergonomics, the Spotmatic SP is pretty good. Not once did I feel I was going to drop it, and it does have strap lugs, so there is the safety of that. Holding it was natural and nothing in particular felt out of place. Just get rid of the initial strap it came with, it has gotten hard over the years and dug into the skin.
Would I recommend the Pentax Spotmatic SP? Yes, wholeheartedly. The K1000 is touted as the great student camera, but I would argue the Spotmatic SP would also make a great choice. Well-built and would teach a person a lot about the exposure triangle. The metering also seems to be very good. So, with it being one of the lower priced SLRs out there now, why would you not give it a go?
Simon Hawkett reviewed the Pentax Spotmatic SP in: Iconic Pentax Spotmatic SP 35mm SLR Review.
Peggy at Camera Go Camera reviewed the Spotmatic SP and did not get along with it so well in this review at Pentax Spotmatic SP (Asahi).
Alex Luyckx of Classic Camera Revival podcast fame reviewed the camera that followed the SP, the SPII, though we disagree on some recommendations in: CCR Review 51 – Asahi Pentax Spotmatic SPII.