First Impressions: Shooting The Pentax ME

I really need to start setting aside my preconceived notions about certain classic cameras. I had always dismissed the Pentax ME as being a simple, entry-level and even cheaply made 1970s SLR. When I got the itch to try the M series bodies, I stepped right over the ME and bought the ME Super. The Super is a great little camera with aperture priority automation and manual modes. I chose the Super over the ME because I thought it was a better camera. Super = Superior...or so I thought.

A couple of months ago, the electronics in my Super started sputtering. The meter would only work in fits and sometimes not wake up at all. I checked the batteries and contacts. Even put a little piece of tin foil between the battery cap and battery--something I read might correct the problem I was having. One day, my little ME Super just rolled over and died. I was sad. I liked my Super. It almost always had film in it and I used it often. Repairing this camera would cost more than buying another, so I went browsing on eBay.

There, among all the chrome Supers, was a nice black body ME. You don't see many black body M series Pentax cameras. It looked nice and the "buy it now" price was very right. But I didn't want an ME. Too basic, too pedestrian. Amateur. Entry-level. I put it in my watch list and went to bed. 

When you're shooting Nikon F2s and Leica rangefinders, it's easy to become a photo snob and look down your nose at consumer grade cameras like the ME, but that little black body Pentax kept popping into my head. I checked eBay the next day. It was still there. I clicked the "buy it now" button.

Pentax ME with SMC Pentax 85mm f/1.8

Pentax ME with SMC Pentax 85mm f/1.8

When the ME hit camera store shelves in 1976, it was priced at $189.95. That's around $800 in today's dollars.  That's a lot for an entry-level SLR and you'd have to be pretty committed to taking good photos to plunk down that kind of cash. It's also a testament to the fact that Pentax was building really fine cameras. The ME might be basic, but it is not cheaply made.

The ME just feels really good in your hand. Like the little Olympus OM and Minolta XD it was competing with, the ME is small and balanced with thoughtfully placed controls. With one of the tiny Pentax 28 or 35mm lenses, or even the kit supplied 50/1.7, this is a camera you can wear on your shoulder all day long and almost not know it's there.

Loading film is a snap with the strange little Pentax finger things on the take-up spool. Set the button on top to AUTO and click away! Big, bright viewfinders are trademarks of the entire Pentax M series and the no-nonsense analog display tells you everything you need to know. Aperture-priority autoexposure, the only mode available on the ME, is about as close as you can get to point-and-shoot. I saw that as a deficiency when I bought the Super over the ME originally, but now I realize that this single shooting mode quickly reveals itself as the ME's allure. Mount your favorite Pentax lens to this camera, spool up some film and go out and shoot. The ME gets out of your way and lets you concentrate on making good pictures.

In the first ten days I owned this camera, it gobbled up two 36-exposure rolls of Portra 400. That means I liked shooting it a lot! I'll be dropping the film off at the lab next week and will share the results here soon. If you like aperture-priority shooting, you really can't want for more in a camera body. And with an amazing selection of readily available and very affordable Pentax K-mount lenses, you could build yourself a fine system that could handle about any photographic task you could throw at it.

I feel a bit foolish at my camera snobbery. This little ME put me in my place.