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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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?
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.