Pentax ESII (All pics: Stephen Dowling, unless otherwise stated)

In May 2007, I went to take pictures of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers for a long-term project shooting bands at soundcheck.

For a big chunk of my career as a journalist, I’d been a music writer; as my interest in film photography grew, I chose a long-term project that would happily combine music and photography.

The Manics were playing a string of London club dates to support their latest album, ‘Send Away The Tigers’. I turned up with my usual set-up for the project at the time – a Voigtlander Bessaflex TM with a couple of lenses and a Nikon F100 with a 28-70/2.8 lens or an 85/1.8.

I shot what I could during the soundcheck – pretty short, as the band already knew the venue and were pretty tight – and because I had a photo pass and a couple of rolls still to shoot, I thought I’d finish them shooting the band during the first three songs. Usually I’ve finished my photography by the time the band starts the gig, so I can just enjoy the show.

There were of course, a host of other photographers shooting the show, but this being 2007, I thought I would be the only one still shooting film. I was wrong.

Also in the pit was a black-haired woman snapping away on an old-school Pentax around her neck. I knew I recognised her face, and as we waited for the band to take to the stage I racked my brains to try and remember who it was.

Pennie Smith.

I worked at the NME in the mid-90s, one of a pair of Kiwis tasked with setting up their website (which they duly placed in a side room, away from the ‘proper’ editorial) and remember taking the lift one day with my boss, in there was a photographer he warmly greeted as “Pennie”. They knew each other well, and I suddenly realised I was sharing a lift with the woman who had shot possibly the greatest rock ‘n’ roll photograph of all time: the picture that become the cover of The Clash’s 1980 album ‘London Calling’.

Smith was stood on the side of the stage that fateful night bass player Paul Simonon smashed his guitar against the stage floor. Smith, then a 30-year-old photographer, had been following The Clash on their US tour. In a 2011 interview Simonon explained the bass was not the object of his frustration – he was annoyed the venue’s bouncers wouldn’t let the audience stand up on their seats. She snapped from the side of the stage – a lot closer to the action than it may appear from the photograph – a froze a moment that has become rock history.

(Read Johnny Martyr’s excellent piece deconstructing this image: “Nothing’s even sharp! Nothing. The subject is the most in-focus part of the image but is far from sharp, clear or crisp.)

Here she was, in the pit next to me nearly three decades later. I asked her if she was Pennie Smith and she nodded, extending her hand. I told her I was shooting film aswell and asked her what she it was she was shooting on. She held up the Pentax – as much brass as black paint – and said: “An ESII. I’ve always shot with these.”

Johnny Martyr's diagram showing how perfect centred Smith's pic is (Pic: Pennie Smith)
Johnny Martyr’s diagram showing how perfect centred Smith’s pic is (Pic: Pennie Smith)

We chatted as we shot the band, Smith shooting practised ease as the band rattled through the first few songs. I’ll be honest, the setlist is a bit of a blur; I’ve had to check exactly what songs the band started with, as my recollections mostly revolve around fact I was shooting a band stood next to Pennie Smith.

At some point, I managed to blather that the cover of ‘London Calling’ was my favourite rock photo – something that Smith has no doubt heard thousands of times – and she laughed. “It’s not even the best picture on the roll.” (True story: it was The Clash’s frontman Joe Strummer who saw it on the contact sheet and demanded it be printed – Smith herself thought it was too out-of-focus) And then she held up the Pentax camera again. “I shot it on this.” She held up her battered Pentax, streaks of black paint worn away from years on the road.

Not only was I standing next to Pennie Smith, but I was holding the very Pentax that she’d shot the cover of ‘London Calling’ on.

Being both a fan of M42 cameras – the ESII is the last of Pentax’s SLRs to sport the mount – and someone cursed with the collector gene, I went out and bought two black ESIIs the following week off eBay. I don’t think either of them cost me more than £50.

That was 2007. Fast-forward 12 years and my camera cabinet has no less than five ESIIs in working order, plus a couple of spare bodies for parts. What was Pentax’s screw-mount camera before it embraced the bayonet has become my go-to travel camera more than 40 years after it was released.

 

The ESII offered one vital difference compared to most M42 cameras – choose the Auto mode and the camera became an aperture-priority SLR, with an electronically controlled, stepless shutter. That meant that if the camera’s meter decided that the best shutter speed to expose the frame was 1/343rd of a second, that’s what it chose. This system, theoretically, meant that the camera was more likely to take spot-on exposures than the more rudimentary manual shutter speeds – 1/125 or 1/250, for instance – usually found on 1970s cameras.

Smith was a photographer who made a living taking pictures form Britain’s flourishing music press. She was a professional. But professionals didn’t really shoot Pentaxes. The ESII was not a system camera like the Nikon F2 or Canon’s F-1. So why was a smudger like Smith packing a Pentax instead of the usual press-pack workhorses?

When Pentax released the ESII in 1973, the screw mount was starting to look decidedly long in the tooth. Professionals rarely used it because the lenses were slower to change that bayonet mounts.

Pentax could only bring aperture-priority an M42 camera (the ESII’s ancestor the Electro Spotmatic) because it had already released an entirely new range of Takumar lenses for open-aperture. These were also made for the Spotmatic F, which also appeared in 1973.  These had a tab at the back that allowed the camera’s electronic brain to read the set aperture and work out the right shutter speed. You can use other M42 lenses on it too, but you lose the ability to shoot in Auto. You have to use the ESII’s handful of manual shutter speeds.

The ESII replaced the broadly similar ES in 1973. The changes seem cosmetic but actually make the camera a lot more useable, especially when the light’s a little low. The camera’s metering range now allowed it to be set to ISO 3200 instead of 1600. It now included a self-timer. The full range of electronic shutter speed – up to 8 seconds – could now be seen in the viewfinder. A blind blacks out the viewfinder if you’re shooting slow speeds. about the only retrograde step is the placement of the battery compartment which is an absolute pain to get open.

Pentax obviously intended ESII owners to shoot in Auto, and shoot with its raft of Super Multi Coated (SMC) Takumar lenses. These were the lenses with the special tab on the rear. They ranged from a 15mm fisheye right up to a 1000/8 monster telephoto. The ‘ES-mount ‘cameras – the Spotmatic F, Electro Spotmatic, the ES and the ESII – were variously in production from 1971 to 1976, and many thousands of SMC Takumars were made for them. The more common focal lengths such as the 50/55 standard lens and the wide-angle are by no means rare.

To this day, Pentax’s screw-mount Takumars are held in high regard. They are by no means the sharpest lenses in the block, but they boast stacks of atmosphere: rendering out-of-focus highlights as pleasing pools of bokeh. They’re well built and most are still eminently useable four decades on.

I’m a big proponent of using the manual settings on a film camera because it’s by far the best way of learning how aperture and speed combine on a correct exposure. But there’s something really appealing about the Auto setting on the ESII. It’s just enough to take some of the legwork of the exposure without sacrificing complete creative control. You set the aperture, push the shutter, and the needle in the viewfinder leaps up to show the chosen shutter speed.

In a situation like Smith found herself in – side of stage at the New York Palladium, with Paul Simonon about to smash his bass on the stage floor – that the ESII’s Auto mode comes into its own.

My ESIIs never became the camera for my soundcheck project – having started it with Nikon cameras I decided to stick with them. I have shot a handful of gig on them though. When Calexico played Brighton Corn Exchange in 2013, I shot the soundcheck on Nikon’s but the gig on an ESII loaded with Fuji Superia 400. The pictures looked fantastic.

 

For a musician friend’s birthday some years back – a huge Clash fan, natch – my present was shooting his gig on the ESII and Kodak Tri-X, the film Smith had shot that fateful New York night on.

It’s as a travel camera that the ESII has really come into its own, at least for me. The Spotmatic family of cameras were aimed at enthusiasts – photographers expected to get out in the world and take pictures of it. The ESII was no different. They’re not war-zone-ready behemoths able to shrug off South east Asian swamp water like the Nikon F2, but neither are they delicate little flowers you’d fret over taking further than the end of the street. Being mostly made of metal, they have that satisfying early 1970s heft.

Their fanclub obviously extended a lot further than Smith; Pentax made nearly 250,000 ES/ESII cameras during their relatively short production window. That might be part of the reason why they remain relatively cheap, even if a lot of photographers have recently woken up to the quality of the Takumar lenses to stick on digital cameras.

My ESIIs have gone on the road with me back to my native New Zealand, to Italy’s  Amalfi Coast and Slovenia, the jungles of Sri Lanka and Borneo and the deserts of Morocco, the banks of the Dniepr River in the unrecognised state of Transnistria. When it comes to packing a camera bag for a trip away, an ESII is pretty much the first thing to go in it. (You can see more in my Flickr set)

Several years after that Manics gig, I was at a memorial for the band’s old manager, in the upstairs room of a Soho pub. Among the gaggle there was a familiar face – Pennie Smith. I told her that we’d met a few years back, and that because of watching her shoot with the ESII, they’d become my favourite SLR and I’d scoured eBay to buy as many as I could. Her reaction was instant: “You’re probably the guy bidding against me.”

I probably was.

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