Where I work now, I have budget to take my team somewhere fun every few months. This isn’t uncommon in the software industry. It’s supposed to be a time for team bonding. After 30 years I could live without any more outings. But the young people who report to me are still enthusiastic about it. Fortunately, I have a delightful team and we know how to have fun together.
The weather was good, so we went to the zoo. I brought my Pentax ME with my big 80-200mm f/4.5 SMC Pentax-M zoom lens attached. Kodak Portra 400 was inside. This lens was made for trips to the zoo.
The ME isn’t enough body for this long, heavy lens. My fingers had to grip it hard. My larger Pentax KM would have been a better choice from a handling perspective. But it can’t do aperture priority, as my ME can, which would have slowed me down and perhaps made me miss some photos. But also, I still haven’t had the KM repaired after I dropped it on its Operation Thin the Herd outing. The ME is my only working K-mount body right now.
This is only my second experience with Kodak Portra 400 (first here). I like it a lot better this time than last. These colors are terrific. I’m leading with some birds because they’re so colorful, but the Portra beautifully handled the muted, neutral colors that are so prevalent there, too.
How is it that I’ve been back into film photography for 13 years but have never shot Kodak’s Portra 400? My 2018 EMULSIVE Secret Santa gave me the nudge I needed by dropping two rolls into the gift box she sent.
As I’ve seen others shoot Portra 400, some use it as a general-purpose color film and others find it most useful for photos that involve people. I don’t often shoot people. I tend to shoot things that don’t move. Like cemeteries. And flowers. In cemeteries.
I had been shooting my Nikomat FTn and decided to keep at it for this roll. I had my 50mm f/2 Nikkor H-C lens mounted. Portra gave me just enough exposure room to shoot inside, albeit with shallow depth of field.
I can’t decide whether I think the colors are muted or not. So many people have said Portra’s colors are muted that I don’t trust my judgment. I see muted colors in these books, but that might be because the books’ colors are genuinely muted. The magnolia flowers and the American flag above don’t look muted to me. Are the greens below muted? I want to say no, but I also can’t recall how vivid the scene was in real life.
I don’t notice grain in these photos at this size, but I do when I look at them at full scan size. It’s neither pleasing nor disruptive. It’s workmanlike grain, faint and unobtrusive. However, I scanned these on my flatbed scanner. Lab scans might have made the grain even harder to detect.
The Portra was at its best at early evening, the sun in that golden-hour sweet spot.
Portra 400 is a very good film. I haven’t pixel-peeped to be sure, but it might have the least obtrusive grain of all the fast color films I’ve shot.
But the film I use most, Fujicolor 200, suits me fine and costs a lot less.
My EMULSIVE Secret Santa sent me two rolls of Portra 400, so sooner or later I’ll put the other one through a camera. I shot it at box speed this time, so next time perhaps I’ll shoot it at EI 200. Several photo bloggers I follow get really nice results when they do that.
Who knows exactly why a person takes to one camera over another? There are certainly more fully featured and flexible SLRs than this. I own a few of them, and they’re wonderful. Yet I reach for the Pentax ME more than any other SLR I’ve ever owned.
The Pentax ME is small, light, and easy to use. It’s even smaller than the Olympus OM-1, the world’s first compact SLR. The ME is an aperture-priority camera, meaning you choose an aperture and the camera measures exposure through the lens and sets shutter speed for you. It even displays the shutter speed inside the viewfinder. This ease of use comes at the expense of full control, however; the ME offers no manual mode.
If you simply must have manual exposure, you might try the Pentax ME Super, which offers it on the same body. But I love aperture-priority shooting and have never seen the need to upgrade.
You’re not entirely at autoexposure’s mercy anyway – a dial around the rewind crank lets you adjust exposure up to two stops in either direction. And the ME is reasonably flexible, working with films up to 1600 ASA and allowing exposures from 8 seconds to 1/1000 second through its electronic shutter. Its hot shoe syncs at 1/100 sec. All of this convenience relies on two LR44 button batteries. Without them, the shutter operates only at 1/100 sec and at bulb.
This is not a luxury camera. The winder is a little ratchety. The finishes are good but not great. The shutter button has a short throw and is easy to press, but isn’t silky smooth. This all remained true even after I sent it to Eric Hendrickson, the premier Pentax repairman, for a CLA. This is how these worked when new.
The only thing the ME doesn’t have that I sometimes want is depth-of-field preview. Also, I’ve shot the ME a few times with a long zoom lens and I always wish I shot my KM or K1000 instead, as those bodies are larger and would be easier to grip with all that front-loaded lens weight.
But the ME handles so easily with one of Pentax’s great prime lenses. I use my 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M and 35mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-A lenses on this camera most often, both compact enough that the ME feels well balanced in my hands.
If you like compact SLRs, also see my review of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Nikon FA (here). If you like Pentax SLRs, see my review of the K1000 (here), the KM (here), the Spotmatic SP (here), the Spotmatic F (here), the ES II (here), and the H3 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
I’ve put so much film through my Pentax ME and gotten such satisfying results that it’s hard to choose which images to share with you here. Here’s one from my very first roll, which was Fujicolor 200, through my 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M.
Here’s another shot from that roll, of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. It was during this first roll that I knew I’d found a real winner. I liked how easily it handled, I knew I’d get great results through my Pentax glass, and they were inexpensively replaced if lost, damaged, or stolen.
Here’s my dog, Gracie, on Kodak T-Max 400 through my 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax. I often load film in my ME and just leave it on the desk for impromptu shots like this one.
Here’s the Orange County Courthouse in Paoli, Indiana, on Kodak Ektar 100 via my 28mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-M. The ME is such an easy body to take along on a road trip.
On another road trip I visited Columbus, Ohio, where I came upon this great old market. Kodak Tri-X 400 through my 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M.
I’ve yet to meet a Pentax 50mm lens that I didn’t love. Here’s my uncle Rick’s dog, on Fujicolor 200 via my 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M.
Fast film, a fast lens, and aperture-priority autoexposure let me keep up with the action in available indoor light. These young girls are in line at a church lunch. Fujifilm Superia X-tra 800 and my 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M lens.
If someone holds still, even medium-speed film works indoors. Here’s my wife, on Kodak Gold 200 via the 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M.
Even the workaday 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M is a wonderful performer. Especially on extra-colorful Fujicolor 100.
You can walk all day with the ME slung over your shoulder — its light weight makes it an easy companion. Here I was shooting Agfa APX 100 through my 35mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-A.
Here’s one of the times I used a long zoom lens on the little ME body. It was awfully front-heavy. Kodak Portra 400 and 80-200mm f/4.5 SMC Pentax-M.
Finally, a Packard hood ornament on Kodak Tri-X 400 through my 50mm f/1.4 SMC Pentax-M.
The Pentax ME is one of the great bargains of 35mm SLR photography. I’ve owned four over the years, and I’ve never paid more than $30 for one. The one I kept, had CLA’d, and use regularly cost me just $16! If this review intrigued you at all, don’t hesitate, go get a Pentax ME.
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.