Saturday, 30 March 2013

Pentax SP500

The Pentax Spotmatic is one of the most fondly-remembered SLRs of the 1960s. It was cheaper than a Nikon, smaller, and it had a built-in through-the-lens lightmeter, which was unusual at the time. The original Spotmatic was only on sale for a few years, and in practice when people nowadays talk about the Pentax Spotmatic they're probably referring to all of the various models that Pentax sold during the 1960s and early 1970s. They were physically and technically very similar. For example, the internet tells us that The Beatles owned Pentax Spotmatics, but on closer inspection it looks as if they have pre-Spotmatic Pentax S1s or SVs (the rewind knob and metal around the lens mount give it away). Ringo Starr has such kissable lips, doesn't he?
I say Pentax - the camera was, strictly speaking, an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic, because in those days Asahi was the company, and Pentax was the brand name, and Spotmatic was a kind of subtitle, because the camera had a light meter, and matic. Got that? The lightmeter was centre-weighted, and there was nothing automatic about the camera - you had to meter and set the controls by hand - and so it should have been called the Asahi Pentax Centremanual, but obviously the men at Asahi decided that poetry was more important than technical accuracy. Don't worry, the rest of the post is easier to read. Writing a blog post is very much like making love - it starts off with a flurry of technical details, and then you get into a groove, and at the end you think "is that it?", and you wonder if it was worth the expense. And then you spend a few minutes looking at old issues of Record Mirror with Johnny Rotten on the cover.

Still, in the US it was often called the Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic because it was imported by a company called Honeywell, a giant conglomerate that made or makes fridges, thermostats and cluster bombs, including the awesome Vietnam-era MK-20 Rockeye and the CBU-87 Combined Effect Munition, one of the stars of the first Gulf War.

Pentax followed the Spotmatic with a pair of budget models, the SP1000 and the SP500, which lopped off the self-timer but were otherwise much the same. The SP1000 had a top shutter speed of 1/1000, just like the original Spotmatic. The SP500 had a top speed of 1/500 but - as every article about the camera is obliged to point out - this was achieved by rubbing the 1/1000 mark from the shutter speed dial. You could still select 1/1000, although it wasn't tested by the factory to be accurate at that speed:

Pentax had pulled the same trick before, with the S1a. It comes across as simultaneously shrewd and a bit unfair; it's odd that the company didn't put a hotshoe or a film memo holder (for example) on the Spotmatic, and simply leave it off the SP1000 as a cost-saving measure. Still, I'm not an engineer.

Here's what the camera looks like. I have no emotional connection with Pentax and so I bought the cheapest working model I could find, which was £9:

That didn't include the lens, of course, although after using it for a few years it ain't pretty no more (a screw was loose, and so I had to take off the front bezel, which scratched it to botheration). The 50mm f/1.4 Super Takumar is lovely to use, look through, and hold, with pleasant bokeh and a good chunky focus ring. It's an M42 lens, which means that it has a 42mm screw mount. The M42 mount was shared by contemporary Prakticas, Zenits, OEM Cosinas, and even the very first full-frame Olympus SLR, the FTL.

Record Mirror, 11 December 1976: "like hit men they have come out of the night to shoot the legs off a tired music industry that has relied on crutches far too long". Barry Cain, I ask you - what's the point of shooting the legs off a person who already uses crutches? The metaphor doesn't make sense.

Seriously, "dah dah dah has come to pour petrol on the crutches of a tired music industry" or something along those lines would have made a lot more sense. Hitmen kill people with petrol; crutches are made of wood, it works. If only I could go back in time to 1976 and become editor of Record Mirror, I might have done some good. If only.

M42 lenses are cheaply available on eBay, although beyond the Takumars there weren't very many stand-outs, and the range is generally limited to 28mm at the wide end and 200mm at the long end. And they're mostly half a century old by now. Nonetheless the Russian 16mm Zenitar fisheye is available in M42, and there were several long M42 mirror lenses. Very few zooms. M42 was briefly revived in 2003 with the one-off, limited-edition Voigtlander Bessaflex TM, which came with what must be the last new-production M42 lens ever, a Topcor 58mm f/1.4. This was discontinued in the mid-2000s although a rebranded version for other lens mounts is still sold as the Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton.

The Takumar has a 49mm filter thread, and because I have some old filters lying around I decided to have a go with a Hoya Star-Six. This has lines engraved in the glass that make point light sources look like the opening credits of John Nathan-Turner's early-80s Dr Who opening sequence. With Peter Howell's reworking of the classic Dr Who theme, performed with a mixture of Yamaha CS-80 and vocoder. Fifteen years later, when the kids were old enough to afford musical instruments of their own, they formed Orbital and The Future Sound of London.

Er, yes, star filter:

The effect is naff if you overuse it, so that's enough of that.

Not many shops sell film in London in 2013, but there's one on Tottenham Court Road that does (for £7.99 a pop, mind). I used a mixture of some long-expired Fuji 400 that I bought ages ago, some new Kodak Ektar, and some new Kodak ColorPlus 200, the absolute cheapest 35mm film you can buy new in the UK today (at £2.39 a roll with eBay prices, in a pack of five). Here are some shots taken with this film, on an overcast day, with the colours balanced for daylight - they looked a bit green straight from the scanner - and the contrast turned up:

BOWIE IS LONDON, do you see? Also, his eyes are records.

But, the camera. What's it like? Not bad. The major innovation at the time was the light meter, which on my example was naff. Even after using the correct and tricky to source battery it seemed to be a stop under in bright daylight but roughly correct in dimmer light, so I used a handheld meter instead. Ergonomically the design must have had some thought put into it - the speed dial is right up against the shutter button, so it's a cinch to change speeds whilst holding the camera up to your face.

On the other hand I wasn't enamoured of the meter control. I can see how it's supposed to work. You hold the camera in your left hand and use your thumb to trip the meter, with your fingers changing the aperture. But I never became comfortable with it. In my opinion the unlovely, unloved Praktica LTL of the early 1970s got this right, by putting the lightmeter control right next to the shutter button (which was, unusually, mounted on the front of the camera).

Objectively, of the film cameras I've had a look at this year, I still prefer the Olympus OM-2. It's smaller than the SP500 and it has automatic exposure, which is the kind of thing that macho hardcore photo purists despise but, dammit, it works and it saves messing about. Yes, I said messing, I apologise. Of course it's not a fair comparison. The SP500 was an evolutionary update of a design that had its roots in the 1950s, the OM-2 was state-of-the-art for the mid-70s. A more fair comparison would be a Pentax ME.

Whilst I wandered around Soho and the area around Charing Cross and latterly Kensington, did any young ladies accost me and demand that I take their portrait? No, and so in that respect the SP500 failed. Perhaps it's not the camera. Still, my search continues.