May 22, 2014

Pentax Spotmatic SP

The Pentax Spotmatic is a milestone in the history of photography.

Manufactured in Japan by Asahi Optical Corporation from 1964 to 1967, the Spotmatic was a relatively compact 35mm SLR for its time, sturdy and rather handy to use, so many professional photographers soon adopted it.

At that time, Nikon was offering (for the double of the price) the bulky F Photomic, 200 grams heavier and not yet with through-the-lens (TTL) metering .

You may read that it has been the world's first reflex camera with TTL metering, but this record belongs to the (probably less known) Topcon RE Super (1963). The Spotmatic was just the first TTL reflex to obtain a great commercial success. Actually, a Spotmatic prototype with TTL metering was produced in 1960, but it never went to market.

I've been looking for a Spotmatic a long while and eventually I found it on ebay. It costed me about 30 UK pounds, with the Super Takumar 55mm f1.8. When it was launched on the marked it was rather expensive, costing the equivalent of $1300 to $1700 in today's dollars.

I expected to receive something heavy and big, but when I opened the parcel and took the camera in hand, I was surprised at its light weight and beauty.

Several models of Spotmatic have been produced, so the first issue has been to identify it.
At first (it was sent to me the wrong manual), I thought my camera was the SP1000. However, after some easy investigation (the SP1000 has no self timer) I realized it was the SP, the first model which hit the market in 1964.

The lens mount is the nostalgic M42 screw mount, introduced by Pentax and progressively adopted by many other brands until it became obsolete, replaced by the quicker bajonet mount.

Technical specifications are quite respectable:
  • camera type: single-lens reflex (SLR)
  • film type: 35mm
  • lens mount: M42 screw mount
  • shutter speeds: from 1s to 1/1000s
  • synchro flash: 1/60s
  • weight: 620 grams (body only) 
  • light meter: CdS with TTL metering (it's not a spotmeter, though its name may suggest this!)
  • light meter sensitivity: 1.7 to 18 at 100 ISO
  • ISO range: 20 to 1600
  • self timer
  • battery: 1.35V mercury PX-400 (no longer available today, but there are adapters for 1,5V batteries)
  • removable hot-shoe to accomodate flash.
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Using the Spotmatic today is a plunge in the past. It can be a great learning experience too, which would help many digital natives to familiarize with the three basic controls of a camera: aperture, shutter speed and focus.

Almost all M42 lenses have automatic aperture. That means that the diaphragm is closed to the effective aperture only during exposure, allowing the viewfinder to remain bright. 
This seems quite obvious nowadays, but at that time it was an appreciated feature, requiring the aperture to be controlled from the body through a lever in the lens mount.

The drawback was that measuring light was a bit tricky, requiring to manually close the aperture to its effective value using a dedicated button. This procedure is called "Stop-down metering" and is a consequence of the fact that M42 screw-mount lenses do not pass to the body the information about the actual aperture.

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