The Spotmatic

There really aren't a lot of advantages to getting older. The "with age comes wisdom" thing is overrated. Your hair thins or turns gray or both. You put weight on more easily. Your knees hurt, your joints ache. You find yourself saying the same things that made you cringe when your father said them..."Things were certainly a lot better, simpler, quieter, easier back in my day."

I suppose one advantage to being around this long and living during the five decades that the world transitioned from analog to digital, is that the expensive cameras that I looked at as a kid through the window of the local camera store or stared for hours at in the pages of photography magazines are now readily available, inexpensive and serviceable. Better yet, the affordability of analog cameras has given me the opportunity to try some that I never would have if they weren't dirt cheap. And several of these have pleasantly surprised me.

One such camera was the Olympus OM-2n that I wrote about a while back. More recently, it's been the Pentax Spotmatic. This is a camera that I have mostly always ignored for its quirky stop down metering and reliance on Mercury batteries. Recently though, I've been reading up on the Spotmatic years at Pentax and the incredible Takumar lenses that they were making for these cameras. I was surprised to learn that Asahi Optical Company (Pentax) was the first camera manufacturer to put through-the-lens (TTL) metering in a 35mm SLR. Now back in 1963, TTL metering was space age stuff! This new method of metering made it simple for photographers to take better pictures more consistently. The Spotmatics sold like hotcakes!

This was also a time when Japanese camera and lens manufacturers were striving for high quality. Asahi Pentax was set on outdoing Leica and the story goes that the 50 and 55mm Super Takumars cost more to make than the company could competitively sell them for. The more I read, the more I wanted to try some of this great Pentax glass. And what better platform to shoot them on than the cameras they were designed for.

It took me a while to find a decent Spotmatic. While there are lots and lots of them for sale on eBay, many of them have been used hard and not stored properly. The first one I bought for $24 arrived with corrosion around the lens mount which was not evident on the photos and not disclosed by the seller. The second one I bought seemed to work ok at first, then the mirror locked up. Once I got it unstuck, oodles and oodles of black specks of mirror foam and other nasties came pouring out of the camera. In addition, upon close inspection, the battery chamber had some corrosion which had crept deep into the camera body. I'm only $32 out of pocket at this point, so I decide to try another route. 

Sometimes, the best place to buy an old camera is from the few people left out there who are servicing them. I found Eric Hendrickson on the Web. Eric specializes in restoring Pentax film cameras and I wrote and asked him if he had any Spotmatics for sale that have been CLAd. A few emails back and forth and a freshly restored Spotmatic SP was waiting for me at the Post Office! 

The camera I received from Eric worked as designed. I also picked up a 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar on eBay. The Super Tak I bought is one of the "radioactive" Pentax lenses. Lens manufacturers were using the radioactive element Thorium on lens elements in those days. It's what causes the yellowing you see on lots of old Takumars. I don't know what effect the yellowing has on photographs. I imagine it acts as a mild yellow filter in black and white photography and perhaps adds a yellowish cast to color photos. I'm not sure. I haven't shot any color film in my Spotmatic yet, only some expired Kodak Plus-X. Here's a shot of a really expensive bottle of wine I decided to open one night. The Pentax lens gave this a buttery, dreamy feeling.

One of the issues I have with lots of cameras is the ability to focus correctly with my eyesight. I wear +1.75 readers and on my Nikon cameras I use a +0.5 diopter. Some of my cameras, like the Nikon F4, Contax RX and Olympus OM-4 have built in adjustable diopters. The Spotmatics don't and without having a split-image focusing aid in the viewfinder, I had some difficulty knowing if my shots were in focus. I've since picked up a little +1.00 diopter lens that slides over the Pentax viewfinder and presto--clear focusing! Out on my deck, I snapped a shot of a fishing buoy that I found on the beach. I hung the buoy up and I like looking at it, wondering where it's been. I think the old metering cell in the Spotmatic did a good job here.

The Spotmatic arrived a few days before a planned trip to Yosemite. I tossed it into my bag along with the Nikon FM2n (loaded with Portra 400) and the Olympus OM-2n (loaded with Tmax 100). I thought it might be fun to shoot some vintage Plus-X in the park.

The porch light outside my room at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

And one of a million shots I took of Half Dome.

I found the Spotmatic to be a pleasant camera to use. I liked it a lot more than I expected. The stop down metering is a bit awkward at first, but after a while it becomes second nature. This is a camera that can teach beginners quite a bit about the fundamentals of photography: exposure and depth-of-field. It also turns out that the 1.35v Mercury battery thing is a non-issue. The Spotmatic has metering circuitry that works just fine with 1.5v button cell batteries. The Mercury cells were a little larger than the 1.5v versions, but Batteries+ sells one with a rubber grommet attached and it works just great! Once I got my hands on a Spotmatic that was working properly, I found myself wanting to shoot it more and more. I have quite a few rolls of film yet to develop. 

I went looking for another Super Takumar lens that didn't have the yellowish tint and that lens came attached to a Spotmatic SPII. I also picked up the last in the Spotmatic line, the ESII. ES stands for Electro-Spotmatic. This final camera in the series features aperture-priority automation and open-aperture metering. I also bought a 28mm Super Tak on eBay and that lens came with the H3v body, which is the father of the Spotmatic series. This entire Pentax adventure has cost me less than one of my Nikon F2 bodies.

The Spotmatic is a well made, minimalist camera that mates with very a impressive arsenal of fine optics. There are also lots of M42 Pentax screw mount lenses from other manufacturers that work on the Spotmatic. I'm looking forward to trying some of those as well.

I need to get to know this camera system better, but for right's a keeper!