We’ve discussed here a few times the qualitative differences in the photographs Pentax’s manual-focus 50mm lenses take. The general consensus is that all three lenses — f/2, f/1.7, and f/1.4 — are very good. But the f/1.7 is probably the best-liked of them for how it renders color and for its bokeh. Nobody would scoff at the f/2 if the f/1.7 wasn’t available; it imparts a wonderful warmth to color photographs and has all the sharpness anybody could ever want. While the f/1.4 is a fine lens, it tends toward clinical accuracy and so lacks the endearing character of the f/2 and f/1.7. It is also a lot more expensive than the f/1.7 for only a fractional increase in aperture.
While rummaging through my gear I found a little booklet from the 1970s SMC Pentax-M era that describes and shows the optical design of all the lenses Pentax sold then. It’s fascinating to see how these lenses are designed. All of them are some number of elements in two groups; all of them have similar front-group design. It’s the rear group that differs most among them. Check it out:
This book is about the SMC Pentax-M line of lenses, but I feel sure the corresponding SMC Pentax-A lenses are optically identical. The Pentax-As seem to be lighter, probably due to more plastic in the bodies, but they allow later bodies to control the aperture.
Here are three shots, one from each lens. Sure, film, lighting, processing, and scanning varied, all of which play into the final results. But really, can you tell which lens shot which? Probably not, and that’s the point: get any of these lenses and you should be quite happy.
I had so hoped to have self-published my second book by now. I have a couple ideas percolating in the back of my head. I’ve even written content for one of them, which I’ve shared here in several posts.
For those of you new to this blog, in April I self-published a book of photographs I’ve taken with my Pentax ME SLR. I bought it on eBay for a mere $16, showing that even the humblest SLR can produce great images.
Click here to see a preview. Click my book’s cover below to buy one on Blurb.com — a paper copy you can hold in your hands for $14.99, or a PDF for $7.99. If you like the photographs I share here every day, I think you’ll enjoy my book.
My Pentax ME had developed a light leak, so I sent it off to Eric Hendrickson for repair and CLA (clean, lube, adjustment). It came back looking and smelling like new. There really is a new-camera smell!
Naturally, I dropped film right into it. My son had given me some Kodak Gold 200 for Father’s Day, so that’s what I used. Here is said son photographed with said film.
My sons had come over for the weekend so I invited the rest of the family for a cookout. It was early July, and I was very close to having the house ready to list for sale. So we threw a little bash to say goodbye. Naturally, my dad had to tell his stories. Here he is in mid-story, with Margaret watching me take the photo.
My garden’s flowers were at peak, so I photographed them. I think half the exposures I’ve made all spring and summer have been of my flowers.
I didn’t know a Pentax ME could operate as smoothly as mine does now! I’ve owned three, you see. While all have worked well enough, it wasn’t until shooting this roll I understood how roughly they all operated. The controls are all supposed to feel silky smooth. Truly, this overhaul made my ME, a camera I’ve always enjoyed, twice as joyful to shoot.
I do need to double-check the meter, however. Eric’s service includes calibrating the meter, but to my surprise my daylight photos all looked a little overexposed. Thankfully, a half-stop down on Photoshop’s Exposure control is all they needed to look right. However, blazingly bright days have characterized this summer. Images I’ve taken with several other cameras have benefited from some fiddling with the Exposure control. My ME is probably fine. But if something isn’t quite right, the sooner I get it back to Eric the better.
Oh, here’s one more flower shot. I’m just so pleased with my gardens this year. They’re the best they’ve ever been. I hope the person who is buying my home loves these flowers at least as much as I have, and cares well for them.
Margaret and I walked Indianapolis’s Warfleigh neighborhood to see how we liked it, as we continue to consider where we might like to settle one day. The Meridian Street bridge over the White River borders this neighborhood. I love to shoot this bridge, even if this isn’t much of a photograph.
While making this walk, the metal cap that covers the winder unscrewed itself and disappeared. I noticed it while we walked, so we retraced our steps in hopes of finding it. No luck. So I emailed Eric to explain. A few days later a spare cap arrived in my mailbox. Very nice.
I bought very few old cameras last year as I focused on shooting my Nikon F2. But as 2014 ended, I kind of went a little nuts. Call it unslaked gear thirst. Last year’s Nikon adventures showed me that I really enjoy shooting SLRs, so that’s mostly what I’ve been buying.
I know I’ve said that I’m more a photographer than a camera collector now. But I still like trying out old gear and sharing my experience with you. So now, instead of keeping every camera I try, I’ll be selling all but the ones I like most and that I’ll shoot again.
Kodak 35. I’ve wanted one of these for a long time and I finally found one at a price I was willing to pay. It’s a 35mm viewfinder camera with a 51mm f/4.5 Kodak Anastigmat lens. I’ve got a roll of black-and-white film in it now. I’m more charmed by its pop-up viewfinder than I am annoyed by its odd and awkward shutter release.
Canon EOS 630. After shooting Nikon all last year, I’ve become Canon curious. Early EOS cameras are cheap and plentiful. I’ve got black-and-white film in it now. This one came with a 35-80mm zoom lens, but I’m shopping for a 50mm f/1.8 lens as I feel at home with 50mm primes. They’re a little pricey because they clip right onto all of Canon’s modern DSLRs.
Canon EOS 650. This is the first EOS camera. I really shouldn’t have bought it as it’s not that much different from the 630.
Canon AL-1. Canon edged toward autofocus with this 1982 camera. You twist the lens’s focusing ring, and a focusing aid reads contrast and lights an LED in the viewfinder when it thinks the subject is in focus. This camera came with a 28mm f/3.5 lens. The AL-1 takes FD-mount lenses, so the 50mm f/1.8 I have on my AE-1 will clip right onto this camera. The battery door latch is broken, but apparently that’s this camera’s Achilles heel and it’s hard to find an unbroken one. I’ll tape the door closed when I shoot it.
Sears KS Super II. Sears white-labeled Ricoh SLRs in the 80s. It is an aperture-priority-only camera with a Sears-branded Ricoh 50mm f/2 lens. This is a K-mount camera, so all of my SMC Pentax-M glass will clip right on. When I shoot this, I might alternate between this lens and my 50mm f/2 Pentax-M lens. Lens smackdown!
Pentax ES II. This is essentially the last Spotmatic, and it offered open-aperture metering with SMC Takumar lenses. A 42mm screw-mount camera, this one came with an f/3.5 135mm SMC Takumar lens. Super Takumar lenses (like the 50mm prime I have on my Spotmatic) require stopping down to meter. I bought this camera mostly to get that 135mm lens, but now that I have the body I’m shopping for a 50mm SMC Takumar too so I can shoot 50mm without stopping down.
Two cameras didn’t make this photo:
Canon T70. I’ve been curious about the plastic fantastic T series for a while and got a good bargain on this one. It came with an FD 50mm f/1.8 lens. I’ve already put a test roll through this camera; review forthcoming.
Minolta Maxxum 7000. It’s the first autofocus 35mm SLR ever. (Believe it or not, the Polaroid SX-70 was the first autofocus SLR.) A Maxxum AF 50mm f/1.7 lens came with it.
These cameras ought to keep me busy for months. Meanwhile, I still want to keep film in my Nikons, both F2 and F3, and use them as my primary cameras. Now if the weather would just warm up enough for me to want to get out and shoot.
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.