Pentax Spotmatic SP – why was it a disappointment? (for me)

Some cameras are a source of disappointment. Because they carry a famous brand name, had the privilege of being “the first camera to do this or that”, and because they still look cool, you feel compelled to buy one, and you don’t like it. Or don’t trust it. You don’t use it, and you sell it.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – Pentax Super-Takumar 35mmf/2

I had all the reasons to like the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic. I’m sympathetic to the brand – my first reflex camera was a Pentax MX that I kept for 15 years and my first digital SLR was a Pentax *ist DS (what a name!). Pentax also tends to make relatively small cameras,  and I tend to prefer small cameras to large ones. And I had bought a very nice Super Takumar 35mm f/2 lens a few months before, to use on a mirrorless digital camera,  and wanted to see how it would behave on the camera it had originally been designed for.

Historically, the Spotmatic is important. It was the first SLR from one of the 4 major vendors to offer Through the lens (TTL) stopped down metering as early as 1964. (Topcon had launched the RE Super with TTL metering at full aperture in 1963, but it did not have the installed base and the market presence of Asahi Pentax and did not make the same impact).

The Spotmatic was not an automatic camera (it just offered semi-automatic exposure determination with a matching needle setup) and although spot metering was implemented on the prototypes presented initially to the press, the models sold to the public determined the exposure with an average metering system.

The Spotmatic was so successful on the marketplace that Pentax did not feel the need to mess with it – the model remained virtually unchanged until the Spotmatic SP II was launched in 1971. Which only brought cosmetic improvements.

The first significant evolution was the Spotmatic F (in 1973), the first model of the series to support full aperture metering, but it required new lenses with a specific mount (a proprietary evolution of the universal 42mm screw mount that Pentax had been championing since the fifties), that it shared with Asahi’s first automatic SLR, the Pentax ES. The Spotmatic F was short lived: in 1975, Pentax introduced the K series (KM, KX, K2) and the K bayonet mount, effectively retiring the Spotmatic line and the M42 lenses.

Why the disappointment? 

Maybe I’ve been spoiled. Or lucky. Or maybe Nikon cameras of the manual focus era were really superiorly built and exceptionally solid. But none of the Nikon SLRs have bought so far have shown any reliability issue, or any marked weakness.

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the cloth shutter – one of the weak points of the camera

The first Spotmatic I bought was a SP500. It looked very nice on the pictures of the auction site, but when I received it, the shutter proved defective. Spotmatics have a textile horizontal shutter, and after the first curtain opens, the second curtain is pulled by two very narrow bands of textile. One was broken. Once you include shipping, the cost of the repair is probably in the $100.00 range. Much more than what the camera is worth. So it’s collecting dust.

The seller of the second Spotmatic I bought (the SP shown here) promised me it would work, and it does. It makes the right moves. The shutter fires at all speeds, the metering system seems relatively accurate with modern silver oxide batteries (good enough for print film, maybe not for slides), but it often takes two or three actions on the wind lever to arm the shutter, and the lever you have to lift to activate the metering (at the left of the lens flange) is very stiff and does not always come back into position after a picture has been shot (it did not on the SP500 either, so it’s probably a design feature).

Pentax Spotmatic SP. The base plate with the battery door.

I believe that those issues are related to the fact that the Spotmatic, like most of the cameras of its generation, is designed to let you compose at full aperture, but requires that you determine the exposure with the iris of the lens closed at the pre-selected value (you measure the exposure “stopped down”). I’ve yet to see a good implementation of stopped down metering (maybe Praktica cameras, I’ve never used them) . More often than not, it’s an ergonomics disaster: in the case of the Spotmatic, you have to hold firmly the camera with the right hand, use your left thumb to lift the metering lever (it’s stiff, you have to push hard and the upwards movement is not very natural), and use your remaining left hand fingers to adjust the aperture (stretch your fingers, you can do it) or the shutter speed (no, you can’t unless your fingers are as long as ET’s).

Pentax Spotmatic SP – the camera is compact compared to the monsters sold by Nikon or Canon during the same period, with a clean lines and a toned down design.

In the end, I did not trust the camera enough to bring it with me for a vacation in the  mountains. I don’t take pictures of brick walls and don’t shoot the same studio scene over and over. I use my cameras in the real life. At the risk of coming back without a picture if the camera decides it has enough.  I did not want to take the risk of missing a whole week of good picture opportunities because the camera had decided to misbehave. And I had no backup camera that could use the same lenses. So at the last minute, I removed the Spotmatic from my photo bag and replaced it with a Nikon FM.

Pentax Spotmatic SP with Asahi’s Super-Takumar 35mm f/2 lens

I like the Super Takumar 35mm lens very much though. Like most of the large aperture lenses of its generation, it tends to be a bit soft, but what a wonderful bookeh. It seems to work particularly well when mounted on an APS-C digital camera (where it becomes a 50mm equivalent).


What was the competition doing when Asahi Pentax was selling the Spotmatic? 

The Canon FT/QL and the Pentax Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) – which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.

Asahi had a head start. When they launched the Pentax Spotmatic in 1964, none of the other big vendors had anything comparable: most of them were offering cameras with an external cell, sometimes optional and removable (Nikon Nikkorex), sometimes integrated, with its own little lens on the left side of the camera body (Minolta S7). The Spotmatic would remain the sole camera from a major vendor with through the lens metering for two years.

  • Canon launched FT QL in 1966 (stop down TTL) with the FL mount. Canon would only adopt Full Aperture metering with the FTb and the FD lens series in 1971.
  • Nikon and Minolta implemented full aperture through the lens metering (Nikon without changing its bayonet mount, and Minolta with a new  version of its SR bayonet, introduced on the MC Rokkor lenses). The Photomic T viewfinder for the Nikon F and the Nikkormat FT were Nikon’s first implementations of TTL metering (launched at the end of 1965).  Minolta’s SR-T 101, released in 1966, had an interesting arrangement of two CdS cells in the viewfinder, that were used to provide some form of weighted average metering (Minolta called it “Contrast Light Compensation system”, or CLC).

More about the differences between stopped down and full aperture metering in another page of this site.


Horace, French Bulldog – Shot with the Pentax Super Takumar 35mm f/2 mounted on a Fujifilm X-T1.

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Stopped down or full aperture metering – why it still matters for users of mirrorless cameras today

For a single lens reflex camera or a lens manufactured after 1975, full aperture vs stopped down metering is a non issue. But it was a key differentiator between 1965 and 1975. And if you’re considering mounting an old lens (manufactured before 1975) on a mirrorless camera, it may still impact you.

On a single lens reflex camera (SLR), the photographer composes the picture on a mat focusing screen, where the image formed in the lens is projected. This layout has all sorts of advantages, but the viewfinder tends to get too dark for focusing when the lens aperture exceeds F/8, and at smaller apertures (F/11, F/16), even composition becomes impossible.

Therefore, the best practice in the 50’s was to open the lens at the widest aperture, focus carefully, and then rotate the aperture ring to stop down the lens at the aperture needed to expose the picture optimally. It worked, but it was slow.  The process was easy to automate, and that’s what aperture pre-selection systems do.

Aperture pre-selection mechanism

Their goal : let the photographer compose and focus at full aperture, and then stop down at the last fraction of a second, when he/she presses the shutter release. Practically, the diaphragm stays wide open, until the shutter release mechanism  (through various cogs, springs and levers) activates a rod in the lens which closes the diaphragm to the aperture pre-selected by the user.

Two implementations

  • manual pre-selection : the lens stays stopped down after the picture has been taken. The pre-selection mechanism has to be re-armed by the photographer if he/she wants to return to full aperture; it’s a slow process (shoot, rearm the shutter, rearm the lens).

    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot
    This big lever on this Nikkorex lens has to be pushed down to re-arm the pre-selection system after each shot
  • auto pre-selection: the pre-selection mechanism does not need to be re-armed after each shot. The lens returns automatically to full aperture after each shot (that’s why lenses from the 1960-1975 period are often labeled “Auto”). It’s transparent for the user, who can operate faster and with a better chance of catching the decisive moment.

    M42 Lens mount - this lens is designed for "auto" preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to stop down position.
    M42 Lens mount – this lens is designed for “auto” preselection. It stays at full aperture until the pin is pushed to force the lens to a stop down position.

Through the Lens (TTL) metering

Aperture preselection solved the problem of composing and focusing at slow apertures, but the introduction of CdS cell meters to evaluate the illumination of a scene Through The Lens (TTL) brought a new set of challenges: the camera needed to know how open the diaphragm was going to be when the picture is finally taken. There were two ways to do it:

  • after the photographer had set the aperture, he had to press a dedicated lever to stop down the lens, and only then would the camera evaluate the illumination of the scene. It’s stopped down metering.
    Technically, it’s the quick and dirty answer:  the metering system of the camera does not need to know the value of the aperture pre-selected on the lens. It just measures the light going through the lens when stopped down. The pre-selection lenses don’t need to be modified – they simply work. But it’s cumbersome for the user:

    • it’s a step back – aperture preselection had removed the need for the photographer to stop down the aperture before pressing the shutter release. Now it needs to be done again.
    • the viewfinder is darker during metering (the photographer loses contact with the action, he can’t adjust the focus, and it’s difficult to see needle of the meter) – you cannot compose or focus and adjust the exposure at the same time.
    • it’s a disaster from an ergonomics point of view. Even in the best implementations, the photographer has to maintain the lens stopped down by pressing or lifting a dedicated lever on the camera’s body, while trying to turn the aperture ring or the shutter speed knob to adjust the exposure. You need three hands for this type of gymnastics.

      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) - which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.
      The Canon FT/QL and the Pentaxx Spotmatic SP both offer Stopped Down Metering. To determine the exposure, the photographer has to push the big switch to the left (Canon) or to lift the switch in the red circle (Pentax) – which is not a very natural movement. You wish you had three hands.
  • full aperture metering is transparent for the user. The diaphragm is stopped down a fraction of a second before the shutter curtains open and the picture is actually taken. The lens stays at full aperture all the time, including during the exposure determination.
    But for full aperture metering to be possible, the lens has to communicate the aperture pre-selected by the user to the metering system in the camera body, so that it can determine the right shutter speed/aperture combination.
    Most vendors chose to add a new dedicated lever inside the lens mount (this solution was chosen by Canon, Minolta, Olympus and Pentax).

    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i); Aperture simulator (ii): Source:pentaxforums.com
    Pentax K mount: Aperture control lever (i);
    Aperture simulator (ii):
    Source:pentaxforums.com

    A few other vendors chose to simply modify the design of the aperture ring of the lens, and use it to transmit the aperture value to the camera’s metering system. At the beginning, Nikon used an external fork (the “rabbit ears”) screwed at the periphery of the aperture ring to communicate the pre-selected aperture to a pin connected to the metering system in the body.

    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork ("the rabbit ears") to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.
    Before the adoption of Auto-Indexing, Nikon lenses used a metallic fork (“the rabbit ears”) to transmit the preselected aperture to the metering system of the camera.

    Later, Nikon redesigned the aperture ring to add  a small protruding tab at its back, and this tab moved a sensor on the circumference of the body’s lens mount (Nikon Auto Indexing or “AI” lenses). Nikon’s system is similar (in its principle) to Fuji’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 universal mount of the ST801 (pictures below).

Fujinon lens - the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera's body.
Fujinon lens – the aperture ring is designed with a small tab which transmits the aperture pre-selected by the photographer to a rotating ring on the camera’s body.
Fujica ST 801: Fuji's version of the m42 lens mount has a ring at the periphery - the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. That's how the preselected aperture is transmitted.
Fujica ST 801: Fuji’s version of the m42 lens mount has a recessed, spring loaded rotating ring at the periphery – the little pin in the red circle is pushed by the tab protruding from the aperture ring of the lens. Any change to the pre-selected aperture on the lens will be transmitted to the camera.

Mounting an old lens on a mirrorless camera

When the photographer is using an old lens through a lens mount adapter, the cameras  needs to work with the lens stopped down (only semi-auto and  aperture priority automatic exposure modes are supported). There are none of the inconveniences associated with stopped down aperture on a reflex camera: on a mirrorless camera, the viewfinder always shows the image as it will be exposed, and if the exposure parameters (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) are correctly set, the image will be perfectly legible in the viewfinder, even if the lens is set a f/11.

But the challenge is to force an old lens to operate stopped down:

  • lenses designed for full aperture operations and stopped down metering (typically the m42 lenses with auto-pre-selection and the Canon FL) have a slider to switch off auto-preselection and operate permanently at stopped down aperture, in a manual mode. When mounted on a mirrorless camera through a lens mount adapter, they need to be switched to “manual”.
     Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch - by default the operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.
    Lenses of the 1965-1975 era often had an auto/manual switch – by default they operated at full aperture but could revert to manual if mounted on an older reflex camera.

    The "manual" mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.
    The “manual” mode has to be switched on when used on a mirrorless camera.
  • Nikon lenses  – the diaphragm of the Nikon lenses is opened at full aperture when the camera is mounted on a Nikon camera (the camera side of the mount has a lever which forces the lens open), but is stopped down when the lens is removed from the camera, or  mounted on an adapter deprived of the full aperture lever.  Which is perfect if you’re mounting the lens on a mirrorless camera.
  • Canon FD – when the lens is removed from a Canon camera, the diaphragm command is decoupled (the lens stays at whatever aperture it was pre-set the last time it was on a Canon FD camera). The adapter needs to be designed with a pin that will force the lens to stop down  when mounted on the adaptor.
Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens - the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.
Lens mount adapter for Canon FL/FD lens – the pin in the red circle pushes a lever on the lens and will force it to stop down.
  • Fuji’s EBC-Fujinon lenses are highly regarded, but the brand’s implementation of full aperture metering on the m42 mount presents two problems for modern mirrorless camera users:
    • most of the lens mount adapters receiving m42 lenses do not leave room for the aperture ring’s protruding tab of Fuji’s lenses. The lenses cannot be fully screwed down on the adapter and as a consequence may not focus to the infinite,
    • Fuji’s lenses don’t have a “manual” position and cannot be forced to operate stopped down on their own (that function was provided by the Fujica camera itself, not by the lens). There are work arounds to both issues, some nice, some ugly, but a lens mount adapter designed specifically for Fujica m42 lenses still has to be developed.

New-York City - Central Park - Fuji XT-1 - Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter
New-York City – Central Park – Fuji XT-1 – Canon 35-105 f/3.5 lens with Fotasy adapter