In 1960, at the Photokina trade fair in West Germany, Japanese camera manufacturer Pentax unveiled a camera that would redefine the SLR.
The Spotmatic, as this spotmeter-sporting prototype was known, would lead to a hugely successful range of SLRs built not for bullet-dodging professionals but enthusiasts who loved photography for the sake of it. The first Spotmatic camera was released in 1964, spawning a range of improved models that ran well into the early 1970s.
Two things helped the Spotmatic range; Pentax’s robust, ergonomic design and the M42 lens mount. Dozens of lens manufacturers made lenses for it, and Pentax’s own line – the legendary Takumars – were the equal of pretty much anything Canon or Nikon could make. If you didn’t need 250-shot film magazines, a myriad of focusing screens or a waist-level finder, then the Spotmatic was likely the SLR for you. Ads for them graced the pages of magazines like National Geographic; Pentax assumed the people who liked looking at great photographs might want to take them too.
The Spotmatic series sold and sold and sold. Every year from 1965 to 1970, Spotmatics were the biggest selling SLR in the world. But Pentax knew by 1970 the basic design was looking old hat. Other camera manufacturers were releasing ever-more impressive models.
In 1971, Pentax brought out a Spotmatic with a difference – automatic shutter speeds. The Electro Spotmatic was the world’s first aperture-priority SLR with an electronic shutter – you chose the aperture, and the camera’s computerised brain would choose the right shutter speed, down to a thousandth of a second. It promised to revitalise the aging Spotmatic range but there was just one problem – it was spectacularly unreliable. Pentax was so unsure of this new model that they refused to export it outside Japan, afraid of denting their reputation with what was effectively a work in progress.
Within the year, Pentax brought out a follow-up, a camera which went some way to fixing the Electro Spotmatic’s teething problems. The Pentax ES was exported outside Japan, but was still not quite the camera Pentax had hoped it would be. The sheer amount of circuitry needed for the exposure system meant the camera lacked a self-timer, and the ES’s metering sensitivity peaked at ISO 1600, below that of many of its peers.
Pentax decided to roll the dice one last time.
The Pentax ES II was released in 1973, and is 50 years old this year. It was released at the same time as the last “true” purist’s Spotmatic model, the Spotmatic F. You could see it as the last of the Spotmatic line, or as a kind of half-way house between the Spotmatic and the Pentax bayonet SLRS that would come after – two ages of SLR development in the same body. (Note: The SP1000 may have come out slightly later, but it is essentially the original 1964 Spotmatic minus the self-timer.)
The Pentax ES II isn’t the lightest of the 1970s SLRs; it’s bulky in comparison to the svelte Olympus OM-1. Its fastest shutter speed is a relatively pedestrian 1/1000 thanks to the rubberised cloth shutter. It has the same average metering of all of the Spotmatic range. Take away its “electronic shutter” (that’s what the ES stands for, fact fans) and on paper it’s a run-of-the-mill early 70s SLR.
And yet… this camera has, for the last 15 years, been the SLR that I choose to shoot with more than any other. It’s not the best SLR ever made, and it’s not the best-specified either. But it’s without a doubt my favourite. As it – just like me – prepares to blow out the candles on its 50th-birthday cake, I thought it was time to explain why.
The story starts at a rock gig. In 2007 I was shooting the Manic Street Preachers at a show at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I had been photographing their soundcheck for a long-standing project, and still had a couple of rolls of film left after the soundcheck ended. I wasn’t the only photographer in the pit shooting film, even though by 2007 most music “smudgers” had moved over to digital, and the photographer snapping away on her battered black Pentax looked familiar.
Click! Pennie Smith! Smith took what’s arguably the most famous decisive moment in rock ‘n’ roll history while shooting The Clash in the US in late 1979. Side of stage, she was in the perfect position to capture bassist Paul Simonon smashing his bass at the end of a show at the New York Palladium. It became the cover of The Clash’s seminal ‘London Calling‘ album, framed by the classic pink and green of the album’s title. It’s an extraordinary moment; a defining image of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, crystallised in gritty black-and-white.
It turned out that Smith was shooting the Manics that night on the very camera that she had used to shoot Simonon side-of-stage. She handed me the camera, and for a moment, I was able to look through the same viewfinder that had taken one of rock’s most iconic photographs.
By the end of the week, I had picked up not one of these “punk Pentaxes” but two – with film sales falling off a cliff amidst the rush to digital, I don’t think either of them cost me more than £40. That chance meeting with Pennie Smith kickstarted a decade-and-a-half of stuffing an ES II into the camera bag most weekends. Even now, with all sorts of cameras waiting in line to be tested and reviewed, I have to stop myself reaching for an ES II.
The ES II’s selling point was its electronic shutter and the fact that it could be used in aperture-priority mode with certain M42 lenses. The second bit needed some intervention from Pentax; most M42 lenses lacked anything more sophisticated than an stop-down aperture pin, so the Electro Spotmatic et al‘s aperture-priority mode could only be used with SMC Takumar lenses produced from the early 1970s. In order to “talk” to the ES II’s electronic metering, the SMC lenses have a pronounced groove in the back; a tab inside the grove interacts with the camera, which can then sense which aperture the lens has been set to without stopping it down and darkening the viewfinder.
The real breakthrough here is that the camera chooses the right shutter speed down to a thousandth of a second in automatic mode; if the exposure system believes that 1/732 of a second is just the right duration for the scene it’s looking at, then that’s what it chooses. Theoretically, that makes it much more likely that you’ll get a proper exposure, especially in challenging lighting. It’s nothing to write home about now, but 50 years ago this was space age stuff.
The ES II’s top plate is mostly 70s-style simplicity, albeit with a few extras. The camera’s rewind crank sits in the middle of a dial which includes a film reminder (old enough to include an option for tungsten colour film) and exposure compensation from half a stop under to 4x overexposure. The shutter dial also includes a viewfinder blind to stop stray light entering the camera via the viewfinder and ruining long exposures. The hot shoe takes standard flash guns and has a sync speed of 1/60, pretty standard for the early 1970s.
The camera’s automatic exposure system will only work with SMC lenses. Other M42 lenses, even if they’re Takumars, can only be used in stop-down mode, which means the viewfinder will get darker as the aperture is stopped down. If you want to make the most out of this camera, use the SMC lenses Pentax intended. The good thing they made a lot of them, and the build quality is so good there’s plenty still working. All but the most specialised are still very affordable.
The ES II has another trick. Alongside the electronic mode there are a handful of conventional shutter speeds from 1/1000 down to 1/60. These speeds are entirely manual – even if the camera’s batteries run out, you’re OK, as long as you’re fine with Sunny 16 or have a handheld meter. Most electronic-shutter cameras of the 1970s left you with only one manual shutter speed when the batteries ran out.
The ES II’s viewfinder is almost minimalist compared to what would come in the 1980s, with little to get in the way of composing. In the centre is a microfresnel screen for focusing and on the right a range of shutter speeds with an indicator needle. Pop the camera into automatic mode and half-press the shutter and the needle bounces towards the shutter speed the exposure system has chosen. A button on the left-hand side of the top plate (from behind) is the battery test function; press this and if the batteries have enough juice in them the needle will pop halfway up the viewfinder screen.
Which brings us onto the ES II’s batteries. The Electro Spotmatic and ES had been powered by a single 6v battery housed in a chamber on the front of camera, right about where you’d normally have a self-timer. The redesign that led to the ES II did a good enough job to free up room for a self-timer, partly by moving the battery compartment to the underneath of the lens mount. The good thing is, the compartment now takes four 1.5v button batteries – the type that can be found in literally every corner shop. The bad news is the design is unbelievably fiddly – getting it open requires a pen or a paperclip, which you obviously need to remember to keep with you. There aren’t many glaring issues with the ES II, but this is definitely one of them.
The earlier reliability issues with the circuitry had been largely solved by the time the ES II came out, though you can find they still chew through batteries. LR44s are pretty cheap though, so it’s not too much of an issue. The battery drain issue can be fixed by repairers; none of the ES IIs I’ve used have suffered from it enough for me to need to get it fixed.
The SMC Takumar range of lenses are almost uniformly excellent, building on the already enviable reputation earlier Takumars had earned in the 1960s. They start at 15mm and go all the way up to 500mm, but you’re most likely to find cameras paired with either 55/1.8 or the 50/1.4. Both are fantastic, though the latter has taken on something of a mythical status. The SMC version doesn’t have the eight elements of the legendary Super-Takumar version: Pentax is believed to have lost money on every copy sold because it was so expensive to produce, and lowered the number of elements in subsequent versions to cut costs. The SMC version is no wooden spoon, however: he improved coatings (it’s super multi-coated, after all) do improve colour, contrast and sharpness when the lens is opened up.
Add an SMC 50/1.4 on to the ES II and you’ve got a little less than a kilogram of picture-taking, early-70s heavy metal. This combination has become my travel staple over the last decade or so, usually with a 28/3.5 and the 105/2.8 portrait lens lurking in the camera bag aswell.
I settled on the ES II as a travel camera after a trip to Istanbul about a decade ago. Before then, I’d mostly used Voigtlander Bessaflex TMs on the hoof, the camera Cosina brought out in 2003 as a new body for M42 lens owners. The Bessaflex is from an era where camera makers chose plastic over metal, but makes up for it with an incredibly bright viewfinder. The ES II can’t compete with the Bessaflex’s brilliant finder, but wins on pretty much every other count. It feels more robust, it meters up to ISO 3200 instead of 1600, and the half press of the shutter button is to meter is much nicer than the Bessaflex’s stop down lever.
The ES II is not the smallest SLR on the block, but it’s a comfortable size; the weight is reassuring rather than cumbersome. Some people consider metal-heavy cameras like this as too much to travel with, but I’d rather go for robustness over light weight.
A word here on the auto exposure system: when such things were being mooted in the late 1960s, many purist photographers were aghast. Letting a computer inside choose the shutter speed was tantamount to letting it take the entire picture itself. (There was a similar outbreak of foot stamping a decade later over autofocus.) There are benefits beyond the more exact shutter speeds aswell. Instead of hunting for the right shutter speed for your chosen shutter speed, you’re free to concentrate on composition and focusing. That seems especially useful when you’re somewhere unfamiliar, with who knows what around the corner.
If my ES IIs had passports, they’d have quite the stamp collection. I’ve taken them everywhere from New Zealand to the unrecognised territory of Transnistria in eastern Europe to watching orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo. Snapped veteran Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space) at an exhibition launch in London and Americana legends Calexico soundchecking in a beautiful venue in Brighton. Shot the press photos for a friend who wanted his band to “look like something off Stiff Records in 1980” and wandered around the quiet corners of an ancient Moroccan fortress on the edge of the Sahara Desert. The ES II has been the camera of choice on all those trips and more because it’s a joy to use, pure and simple. I don’t need 1/4000 shutter speeds or pinpoint autofocus for what I want to photograph.
Keeping my ES IIs going, until recently, meant sending them to the wonderful Robin Gowing at Harrow Technical – he was the head of Pentax’s technical department in the UK and a visit to his workshop usually meant a half-hour discussion about Neil Young (I used to be a music journalist, so I am as happy to talk about old rocks stars as I am about old cameras.)
Back in 2018, I got an invite from Lomography for an exhibition of Brian May’s stereo photography from the early 1970s – yes, that Brian May, the guitarist from Queen, astrophysicist and devoted archivist of stereo photography. The invite featured a picture of Brian May taking a mirror selfie with… an ES II. At the exhibition a few weeks, I saw him momentarily alone in the corner of the gallery, and mentioned it was nice to see him using the ES II. Twenty minutes later, we were still talking about them.
Some six months later I found myself interviewing him for my day job at the BBC about his books on stereo photography (that fantastic video was made by my colleague Howard Timberlake). I brought along my chrome ES II to show him. May disappeared upstairs and came back down with his stereo attachment – yes, Pentax made attachments for the Spotmatic range that let you make 3D photos – and the pair of us rattled off a roll of film in his garden, my ESII and his stereo splitter, shooting stereo portraits. This is the best from the roll:
My most recent trip away with the ES II kind of brings things full circle Last year, shooting my friends Buffalo Tom on a one-date tour of Europe (Leuven in Belgium), I decided that I would leave the Nikons I usually use for music photography and take a pair of ES IIs instead. The film I shot in them may have been Kosmo Foto’s own Agent Shadow rather than tri-X, but capturing the action side of stage I was briefly and happily following in the footsteps of the mighty Pennie Smith.
(This is an updated review replacing an earlier version published in 2013.)
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