Camera Reviews

Pentax ES II

The 1964 Pentax Spotmatic, the first 35mm SLR to offer through-the-lens light metering, set the template for pretty much every popular SLR that followed. But the Spotmatic required moving a little lever to activate the meter. And you had to set both aperture and shutter speed yourself. The horror.

Pentax’s engineers worked tirelessly to relieve photographers worldwide of their lever pushing and dial twisting. They triumphed in 1971 with the Electro Spotmatic, which added open-aperture metering and aperture-priority autoexposure. The celebrating ended quickly, however: the Electro Spotmatic proved to be unreliable. Pentax followed quickly with the improved ES, but even that camera had its problems. Pentax didn’t get it right until 1973 when they released the ES II.

Pentax ES II

To make open-aperture metering work, the well-regarded M42 screw-mount Takumar lenses received a slight modification: a tab that let the camera’s exposure system read the lens’s aperture. This coincided with the introduction of Super Multi Coating, Pentax’s advanced lens-coating technology. If you shoot one of these cameras with lenses not marked Super-Multi-Coated or SMC, you lose open-aperture metering and autoexposure. The camera then works like any other Spotmatic, with all that lever pushing and dial twisting.

Pentax ES II

With non-SMC lenses you also get a narrow range of shutter speeds: 1/50, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, and 1/1000 sec. Screw on an SMC Takumar and twist the aperture ring to A, and suddenly these cameras’ shutters fire from 8 sec to 1/1000 sec steplessly — if 1/382 sec gets the right exposure, that’s what the camera chooses.

Pentax ES II

This electro-wizardry needs four SR44 button batteries. Most other 1970s-80s aperture-priority SLRs need just one or two. And the ES II burns through those batteries fast. I forgot to turn off my ES II one time, and when I picked it up again two days later, all four batteries were dead, dead, dead.

By the way, if you like these screw-mount Pentaxes, also see my reviews of the Spotmatic SP (here), the Spotmatic F (here), and the H3 (here). You might also like the K-mount Pentaxes; see my reviews of the K1000 (here), the KM (here), and the ME (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

My ES II came with two lenses: a 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar and a 135mm f/3.5 SMC Takumar. I screwed on the 55mm lens, loaded a roll of Arista Premium 400, and took the ES II out onto the road. Here’s my favorite shot from that roll, which I took in Michigantown on the Michigan Road.


The 55mm f/1.8 Takumar is widely regarded as a great lens, pin sharp. So I was a little let down by how soft these photos turned out. To see what this lens is capable of, check out the photos on this page.

Ganders Visitors

That softness shows up best at larger resolutions, so if you’re curious, click any of these photos to open them on Flickr and enlarge them there.

Augusta Station

I had a fine time shooting the ES II, however. It handled great. It’s a little heavy in the hands, but then this camera is made entirely of metal.

White Lion Antiques

I took a couple photos with the 135mm f/3.5 SMC Takumar and was even more disappointed with how soft my photos turned out. See this page to see the sharpness this lens can deliver. But do enjoy my neighbor’s ’67 Chrysler.

'67 Chrysler

I wondered: did I have the lenses screwed on tight? Was there something wrong with my lenses or with the camera? I wanted to try to figure it out. So I loaded some Kodak Ektar 100 and kept shooting. Sharpness improved noticeably. I don’t know why.


I took the ES II downtown one evening for a photo walk along Massachusetts Avenue. The Old Point Tavern is an old Indianapolis bar. They make a great bowl of chili.

Old Point Tavern

Here’s another of those pedal-powered beer bars like the one I shared in this post. The fellow looking directly at the camera actually called out something unkind to me after I snapped this shot.

Pedaling for beer

You’ll find racks full of these yellow rental bikes all over downtown. I never see any of the bikes in use; the racks are always full.


I’ve shot this shrub in my next-door-neighbor’s yard six or seven times now with various cameras but have never been satisfied with the photos — until now. This is exactly what I have been trying to capture about this bush. Don’t ask me to describe what it is, though; I can’t.


To see more from this camera, check out my Pentax ES II gallery.

I’d like to put a roll of Kodak T-Max through my ES II to see how my Takumars like that low-grain film. That’s a good sign: I know I really like a camera when I imagine the next roll of film I’ll shoot in it. The speed with which the ES II burns through batteries bothers me a little, but not so much that I wouldn’t shoot this camera again.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.


34 thoughts on “Pentax ES II

  1. Bill Bussell says:

    I bought a Pentax H3V in 1966 while in high school, and a second H3V in the Summer of 1970 while working for the Indianapolis Star. I was convinced your Pentax was not soft focus. Good to see you established the truth. 😊

    • A Pentax S or H series is on my list of cameras to find.

      I may never know why that first test roll came out so soft. But I’m glad the roll of Ektar turned out so well. Coming up next Monday I’ll have another post of pics from the ES II, from a stroll I took in Lockerbie Square.

  2. Christopher Smith says:

    I’m shooting a film at the moment with the same lens on a Spotmatic F I’ll let you know how they come out when
    I’ve finished the film your colour shots came out fine and sharp. I still like your B&W shots.

  3. The Spotmatics are iconic cameras. If it didn’t require me going out and buying some Pentax screw mount lenses, I’d probably try one. Since you got me hooked on the Pentax MX, ME, ME Super series, I’ve been hunting a Pentax LX.

    • I have a spare 55/1.8 SMC Takumar I’d send you if you ever buy a screw-mount Pentax body.

      Good luck on the LX hunt. I’ve considered buying one myself. I can’t imagine how it would ever best the F2, however, so if I ever do buy one it will be because I stumbled upon one at a price I couldn’t pass up.

  4. ambaker49 says:

    I play with way too many old cameras. For the SR44/LR44 batteries, I get them 100 at a time off the auction site. For generic, you can find them 100 for 10 bucks shipped.

    My Holy Grails are a Pentax LX, and a real S-1 Ricoh rechargeable battery for my Ricoh XR-S. The SR44s work, but not rechargeable.

    I do have to ask, do you really get up to post at 4:00 AM?

    • Nice to know I’m not alone with too many old cameras. Thanks for the tip on the SR44s.

      Heh, I write all my posts in advance and schedule them to fire off at 5 am EDT.

  5. Pingback: Asahi Pentax ES II (1974) – Mike Eckman dot Com

  6. Jim S. says:

    Hi, just to note that the Topcon RE Super (Super D) was actually the first SLR on the market with TTL metering, in 1963.

    • Yes, that’s true. But the Spotmatic was the first introduced, as it was first shown in 1960. Don’t know why it took Pentax 4 years to bring it to market!

  7. Pingback: Pentax ES II — Down the Road – „Ingerii sunt spirite inaripate, prietene cu spiritul tau inaripat.“

  8. Michael Zweifel says:

    I just picked up a ESII and everything works great but it doesn’t like the cold. I’ve been a Pentax fan from 1979 with a Pentax Auto 110, and now I own 40 plus Pentax film cameras and love them. From Asahiflex to LX

      • I searched eBay and found exactly one unit for sale. All the rest were listed as “AS-IS” with various prism defects. Call me odd but I’d much prefer to have Asahi Optical branding. Where do you recommend I search?

        • I prefer the Asahi branding too. Sometimes one of these will show up on KEH or Used Photo Pro. They’re not exactly common, so you do have to just wait.

  9. Pingback: Asahi Optical Co. Pentax ES II by Khürt Williams

  10. Pingback: Isolation Photo Project, Day 44 by Khürt Williams

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.