The Pentax Spotmatic reminds me a lot of the VW Beetle, ignoring of course the Beetle’s association with a historical figure who will remain un-named. The VW Beetle and the Pentax Spotmatic were each not first in the worlds that they sought to exist in, but both found incredible success though their simplicity and mass accessibility.
The VW brought motor cars to owners who wouldn’t have had one otherwise, and the Pentax Spotmatic brough in-camera light-metering to an audience who hadn’t ever experienced it before.
It’s also one my favourite mechanical cameras. It’s wonderful to shoot with, compatible with a wide selection of amazing lenses, it’s solidly built, and has all the features that anyone could need while also being incredibly stylish.
A Short History of the Pentax Spotmatic.
The Spotmatic nameplate first appeared at Photokina in Cologne Germany, in 1960, when the Asahi Optical Co. unveiled an SLR camera that featured, among other things, a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000 of a second and a through the lens light-metering system.
While perhaps not the first camera to have a TTL (through the lens) metering system, the Pentax Spotmatic was still very revolutionary and turned many heads. Originally the light-meter was meant to be a spot-meter, hence the name Spotmatic.
However, by the time the camera was released to the market in 1964 the spot-meter had been replaced with an “easier to use” center-weighted average meter that Asahi figured would appeal to the masses better, and the 1/2000 sec. max shutter was scrapped in favour of a more conventional max speed of 1/1000 sec.
The camera nonetheless was one of the greatest successes of the camera world, ranking as the single best-selling SLR from 1965 – 1970, when the original Spotmatic ceased production. The Spotmatic also, amazingly, out-sold the entire catalogue from Canon and Nikon, combined, from 1966 – 1969. Needless to say, Pentax hit a home-run with the Spotmatic.
The design, layout and internal metering capablities of the Pentax Spotmatic more or less set the definition for what an SLR should be for years to come. The Spotmatic eventually spawned a series of successors:
1971 – Spotmatic II & IIa (SPII)
- ASA (ISO) range from 20 – 3200
- Integrated Flash Hot Shoe
1971 – SP500
- Budget Version of the SPII
- No Self-timer
- Shutter Limited to 1/500 sec.
1973 – Spotmatic F
- The Last Mechanical Spotmatic Released
- Full Aperture (open lens) Metering Added
- Sutter Release Lock Added
1973 – SP1000
- Successor to the SP500
- Max Shutter Speed Upgraded to 1/1000 sec.
- Immediate Predecessor to the Pentax K1000
There were also electronic models of the Pentax Spotmatic. Two in fact, one released in 1971, the Electro Spotmatic (ESI) which brought the Spotmatic name into the headlines again as the first aperture-priority automatic exposure camera. It was based on the Spotmatic II and lacked the self-timer and expanded ISO range.
Finally, in 1973, the ESII was released, which added a shutter lock and self-timer to a camera that otherwise remained identical to the ESI.
While Pentax initially struggled to keep up with demand for the Pentax Spotmatic, the competition eventually caught up. By 1974 sales were starting to slow, and by 1975 Pentax joined the rest of the camera world by replacing the venerable m42 screw-mount lens attachment system with the Pentax K-mount Bayonet.
Pentax discontinued the Pentax Spotmatic nameplate in 1975, but it will remain forever one of the greatest SLRs ever produced, fortunately for us.
The Pentax Spotmatic is a minimalistic camera. It doesn’t really have any features that you don’t need. Since it’s a fully mechanical camera that only uses the battery for the light-meter there is very little on this camera to go wrong. A well maintained and serviced example should last you years.
You’ll find that the Pentax Spotmatic, despite its simplicity, still covers all the basics.
You get a fully mechanical horizontal cloth focal plane shutter that can be set to speeds ranging from 1 second to 1/1000 of a second, adjustable in full stops with a bulb mode for super long exposures.
The shutter speed dial has a built in ASA (ISO) dial for setting the film speed on the light meter. You can choose an ISO speed from a range of 20 ISO up to 1600 ISO.
On the other side of the top plate, you’ll find a small inscription for the model and serial number, as well as the film rewind knob. Built into the rewind knob you’ll also find a clever little metal disk that can be set as a reminder that shows if the camera currently has film loaded into it, and what kind of film you have loaded; the options are „panchro” (black and white), daylight colour, and tungsten colour.
The top of the camera also features the film advance lever with built in frame counter, and next to it a shutter release that is threaded for standard cable shutter releases. In between the shutter release and the film advance you’ll find a small “ready to fire” indicator that will show orange when the shutter is cocked; this is one of my favourite things on the Pentax Spotmatic.
On the front of the Pentax Spotmatic, you’ll also find a switch to activate the light meter (more on that in a bit), the m42 screw mount lens mount, and, depending on the model, an automatic self-timer as well as two eyelets for a strap.
On the bottom plate you’ll find a standard tripod socket, as well as the film rewind release and the battery door for changing the battery that powers the built-in light-meter.
The front of the Pentax Spotmatic features two flash sync ports, there is no built-in flash, you’ll have to use an external one. There is also no shoe mount on the top of the camera, however, a shoe mount can be added with an accessory that clips onto the viewfinder which adds a removeable cold shoe.
Keep an eye out to make sure that the accessory is included when shopping for a Spotmatic should you want to use it with a camera-top flash. The flash sync speed is 1/60 of a second.
The light-meter can be seen through the viewfinder and as it’s a “centre the needle” design, the needle will move up and down as you adjust the exposure controls, when needle lines up with the centre you have set a “proper” exposure, at least according to the camera’s meter. The meter is a center-weighted-average meter.
The viewfinder is otherwise completely clear. It’s nice and bright, very easy to see through, and as it features both a split image and a micro prism focusing aids finding critical focus when composing your image should be fairly easy. It doesn’t however have an adjustable diopter, which is common for cameras from this era.
Build Quality and Construction
To put it simply the Pentax Spotmatic comes close to being the best and most well-constructed analogue camera that I’ve ever had in my hands (second to the Olympus Pen F). The entire camera body is finished in metal, which feels wonderful and sturdy in hand. The camera is wrapped in synthetic leatherette, which, so long as the example you have is in good shape, acts as a nice and grippy surface for holding on to the camera; it has never slipped from my grip.
Honestly, the camera feels bullet proof, like it could take a serious beating and still keep going without stuttering. The shutter fires with a soft, but confident click. It’s not too loud, so you can still be discrete when taking picture in public. It’s also soft enough the I’ve never had any issues with mirror slap.
The film advance leaver is also nice and smooth, not grindy as some of the ones I’ve experienced on mechanical cameras built much later than the Pentax Spotmatic.
For me personally the viewfinder is also nearly perfect. It’s crystal clear, and bright. It’s also large and the focusing aids work well.
Not everything is perfect however, I’m not such a big fan of the fact that the exposure indicator from the light meter (which on my camera is broken) takes up quite a bit of my visual field, there are also no indicators in the viewfinder for shutter speed or aperture, so you have move your eye away from the camera to see what those are set to.
Finally, I really wish that the Pentax Spotmatic had a locking shutter release. Even with the very nice cocked-shutter indicator I’ve still accidentally fired a few blank frames when I didn’t mean to. This was a featured added to the Spotmatic F in later years, however, were talking about the original Spotmatic here.
Generally, however, the shooting experience with the Pentax Spotmatic is fantastic. The camera feels great in the hand, all the controls are tactile and easy to reach, plus the m42 screw mount grants you access to an unimaginably large catalogue of compatible lenses. Personally, I enjoy shooting the Pentax Spotmatic with Pentax Super Takumar lenses, which are sharp and render beautiful images. I recently used my Spotmatic to take a series of lovely photos using FILM Ferrania P30.
One significant drawback to note about the shooting experience with the Pentax Spotmatic is the light-meter. Even though this camera’s claims to fame is the fact that it is the first commercially viable SLR with a built-in light-meter, its operation isn’t conventional.
To use the light-meter you first have to choose your composition and set your focus. Then you activate the light meter by sliding the switch on the side of the lens mount up, and then adjust your exposure controls to center the needle on a good exposure. The light-meter will switch off again as soon as the shutter is fired.
I recommend doing it in this order, since turning on the light-meter will stop the lens down to your chosen aperture, darkening the image you see in the viewfinder, making it difficult to focus and compose, which is exaggerated the more you stop down the lens. This is a little different from most SLRs with a built-in light-meters.
Full-aperture, or as I like to call it, open-lens metering was added to later versions of the Pentax Spotmatic, but only on a select number of compatible lenses.
However, since the light-meter isn’t constantly active, at least that battery won’t be consumed as quickly. Which brings me to the biggest issue with the light-meter, the batteries.
The Pentax Spotmatic was designed to use a style of Mercury Cell battery that isn’t manufactured anymore. There are some modern alternatives that you buy online or at electronics stores, however, these tend to be very expensive, and don’t usually last very long either.
Some photographers have also had success modifying their Pentax Spotmatics to accept modern lr44 button cell batteries, however, this might affect the accuracy the light-meter negatively.
Finally, in most cases the light-meter on Pentax Spotmatic that you can find for sale is broken anyhow, or at least in need of a service. My recommendation would be to treat this camera are though it doesn’t have a light-meter built in at all, and instead use an external meter or the Rule of Sunny 16, which is rather sad.
However, this isn’t too big of a drawback, otherwise the camera is an absolute joy to shoot with.
Availability and Price
The original Pentax Spotmatic was manufactured from 1964 to 1970. Altogether, along with its successors, more than 3.5 million copies of the camera were produced by the Asahi Optical Co. and sold around the world. Examples of the Pentax Spotmatic sold in North America were distributed under license by Honeywell and bear the Honeywell logo on the viewfinder as opposed to the Asahi logo.
Finding an example in good working condition shouldn’t be difficult at all. Even though these cameras are well known and beloved by many analogue photographers, even today, they haven’t been hyped up like mad. Which means, unlike some film cameras, the prices have stayed very reasonable, usually ranging from $50 USD to $150 USD, depending on condition.
I would recommend keeping an eye out on eBay and at used camera stores. There really isn’t a need to settle for an example in not-so-good condition.
If you’re thinking about getting a Pentax Spotmatic, I heartily recommend it to you, so long as you’re prepared to deal with the caveat of the light-meter. I would, as I mentioned, treat this camera as if it has no light-meter. With that in mind I would say that the Pentax Spotmatic would make a great first-time film photographer’s camera, as it’s readily available, easy to use, not expensive, and still very well made.
It’s also an absolute photography icon, if that’s important to you. The Pentax Spotmatic, thanks to its commercial success as the first viable SLR with a built-in TTL light-meter easily ranks as one of the most important and influential cameras in history. That in itself makes owning a Spotmatic pretty cool.
If you take care of it, it will last you for years while giving you direct access to a vast catalogue of lenses (including some of the best prime lenses ever made) while offering a simple shooting experience free from any electronic complications.
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