Well, it’s finally happening. We’re reviewing a Pentax. It’s the Pentax ME, an entry-level 35mm film SLR that entices with its promises of creative photographic controls, exceptional optics, and adequate build quality, all joined with the ease of a point-and-shoot.
But does it deliver on these promises? That’s what we intended to find out when, yearning for a break from over-saturation in needlessly-complicated cameras, we decided to head for the beach, alone, with the ME.
This outwardly simple camera’s semi-automatic nature, its diminutive size, and its surprisingly good performance left us with some questions. Specifically, why is this camera so often overlooked by shooters? How’d they make this thing so small? And why doesn’t Pentax get any respect?
We can’t answer any of those questions, but to learn everything you’ll ever need to know about the Pentax ME, read on.
Brief history; originally released in 1976, the Pentax ME is an entry-level, semi-automatic 35mm film SLR camera using Pentax’s then-new K-mount lens system. Its primary shooting mode is aperture-priority (which we’ll get into later), it offers TTL open aperture center-weighted metering and a reliable vertically-traveling metal shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000 of a second to 8 seconds. Hot shoe flash is synchronized at 1/100th of a second, there’s Bulb mode for long exposures, and non-battery powered mechanical shutter speed is locked at 1/100th of a second. Good stuff for a basic camera.
Incidental tech specs include a self-timer, optional external motor drive, socket for a remote shutter release cable, frame counter, and shutter-advanced indicator. It’s available in black, or chrome.
Aesthetically, the ME is a quintessential mid-70s, entry-level SLR. It’s basic, angular, stoic, and ready for action. But where the ME most differs from its competition is in its size. This camera is simply tiny. Its closest dimensional rival would have to be Olympus’ OM system, and it gives that legendarily tiny camera a real run for its Yen. Walking about with the ME we’re pretty amazed at how small, light, and convenient it is. Compared to the iPhone 5S (the right size iPhone), the ME isn’t much larger in two dimensions.
But a camera’s size isn’t the only factor in its portability. With interchangeable-lens cameras we need also to consider the size of its lenses. Here, again, Pentax has done good things dimensionally. Most of the standard K-mount lenses are small enough to fit into a pant pocket. That’s pretty excellent, especially for shooters who want a camera to enhance their adventures, rather than weigh them down.
Build quality is surprisingly good. We don’t call it surprising as a knock on Pentax, more a reflection of what we typically expect from cameras in this segment. They’re built to a low price-point, and that often negates the use of robust materials and heavy engineering. The ME, however, is solid enough. While it’s not going to make a dent in a Nikon F, its metal construction inside and out results in a camera that’s dense and solid. Compared to similarly specced machines of its era, the Pentax is about the best built entry-level SLR we’ve encountered.
Specific areas of mechanical joy are found in its dials (which operate with a rigidity that inspires confidence), its stainless steel lens mount (which feels built to tight, exacting tolerances), and its film advance lever (which ratchets with an uncommonly precise stroke and a welcome fluidity). We also love the absence of a locking mechanism on the ME’s exposure compensation dial. Many cameras use this, and we find it to be an unnecessary precaution that often slows the flow of shooting.
Where could things be better? The self-timer lever feels a bit cheap. It’s plastic, and feels as if its mount isn’t totally reliable. The lens release lever is similarly worrying, in that it feels just a bit fragile. But on the whole, that’s about all we can find at fault in the ME’s build. Not bad!
Functionally speaking, no one’s going to argue against the ME’s status as an ‘entry-level’ machine. There’s no denying that it was designed with the amateur shooter in mind. That said, it’s pretty damn capable, as its exceptional viewfinder and semi-automatic nature attest.
Its .97x magnification viewfinder is truly massive, and this coupled with the 92% field of view combine to endow the ME with a viewfinder that’s nearly unbeatable in its segment. The fixed focus screen is of the split-image/microprism band variety, which enables quick and accurate focusing with any focal length lens. The metered light value is shown in shutter speeds to the left of frame, with a vibrant LED light illuminating the selected speed. Selected aperture is not displayed, which is a shame, but understood in this entry-level model.
When it comes to metering and exposure, the ME offers creative control that’s uncommon in cameras typically designed for newbies. Rather than employing full auto-exposure, like some other point-and-shoot SLRs, the ME runs in dedicated aperture-priority mode. That means that while the camera will set the shutter speed to the correct value to create a properly exposed photo, the photographer is going to need to set the desired aperture value. Though this might sound technical to the amateur, it’s pretty simple stuff, and it allows the shooter to control one of the most important variables in creative photography; depth of field.
We love shooting in aperture-priority. The simplicity of setting depth of field, manually focusing on your subject, composing your shot, and letting the camera worry about the basics of exposing the image makes for a very fluid and streamlined workflow. There’s no monitoring light-meters, no setting shutter speed, and no worries. As long as the photographer understands how aperture impacts the final shot, the ME is a joy to use. And for those who don’t understand this correlation, ten minutes reading is all that’s required to get up to speed.
Shooters accustomed to greater control of exposure may lament the inability for manual shooting. We get that, and so did Pentax when they designed the ME. As such, there’s an exposure compensation dial for +/- 1 and 2 stops. It should also be said that for those experienced shooters who understand, it’s possible to push- or pull-process your exposure by adjusting the ISO dial. In this way the camera can be hacked into a sort of manual machine, albeit an inelegant one. In any case, for backlit subjects or at times when it’s clear that the lighting is tricky, the exposure compensation dial gives the in-the-know photographer that much more creative control. Good stuff.
All this exposure fiddling taken into account, you’ll likely never need it, since the ME is so extremely well-sorted in the metering department. Pentax’s system is quite remarkable in its execution. In more than 72 test shots we didn’t suffer a single over- or under-exposure when shooting in Auto mode. That’s outstanding. Even shooting a canopy of leaves backlit by a glorious mid-day sun resulted in a shot that’s acceptably exposed with pretty terrific tonality.
We talked earlier about Pentax’s lenses when we were discussing the ME’s portability, but to wrap things up without further expounding the virtues of the K-mount system would be a bit lax. Here, again, we’re pleasantly surprised by the incredible performance of the Pentax glass.
Shooting the SMC Pentax-M 50mm F/2 and the SMC Pentax-A 35mm F/3.5 brings nothing but joy. Their build quality, optical chops, and intensely compact design are indicative of the entire SMC range, and their performance bodes well for the reputation of the K-mount. Aperture rings click with mechanical precision, and the focus rings spin with a nicely weighted resistance. They’re tight, compact, and capable, and we’re once again reminded of the way many brands in photography are criminally undervalued. To put it simply, Pentax makes real good stuff.
And if you’re worried about finding your preferred focal length and a fast aperture, worry not. There’s a complete range of lenses in the K-mount to sate any photographer’s optical appetite (we’ll have reviews of certain Pentax glass coming shortly- stay tuned).
In the hands, the ME feels great. It gives the shooter the kind of casual yet focused shooting experience that we love here at CP. It allows the photographer to explore and engage with his or her surroundings, without interposing unnecessary complexities. It’s a camera that stays out of the way while enabling the shooter to make fantastic images all the same.
At its intended purpose, the ME is pretty fabulous. It’s one of those rare values in the world of vintage cameras that offers a near perfect balance of assets; excellent form factor, robust construction, technical prowess, and low cost. There are similar cameras in its category that may be just as good (Nikon’s EM springs to mind), but no camera in its segment is decidedly superior to the ME.
So if you’re looking for a truly capable, beautiful, and easy-to-use 35mm film SLR the ME may be a good fit. Buy it for cheap, get some K-mount lenses, and get shooting. The ME combined with some SMC glass will instantly elevate your photography without weighing you down, and it’ll look good doing it. And, hey, if you ever outgrow it you’ll have a stellar collection of lenses to fit your next, more serious, Pentax SLR. That’s a win-win.
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