Desert Island Cameras is back with another very special guest. Last time, we picked our one-and-only Leicas with Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter, and today we’re picking our favorite Pentaxes with former president of Pentax U.S., Ned Bunnell.
Ned’s been a photo geek for a very long time (he bought his first serious camera in 1969, a Leica M4). Since then, he’s worked in product marketing of imaging products at NEC, Agfa, Adobe, Polaroid, and Canon. Before retiring in 2012, he finished his career as president of Pentax U.S. Beyond this impressive resumé, he’s also a friendly guy who shares his passion for photography with anyone who follows his Instagram, often sharing valuable knowledge of the craft, interesting history of cameras and the industry, and tips on how best to enjoy post-retirement Florida waterways.
So let’s get to it. If we could only choose one Pentax to be stuck with for the rest of our lives, which would it be?
Dedicated readers of the site likely know where I’m heading with this pick. I’m an SLR guy, for better or worse, and what I value most in a classic SLR is a compact form factor and semi-automation. Specifically, I need my ideal camera to offer an aperture-priority shooting mode. If this small, capable camera also happens to be well-built and pretty, all the better.
Lucky for me, Pentax made just such a machine. It’s the LX, the final professional spec manual focus SLR Pentax ever made, and when I reviewed it last year it proved a real contender for favorite SLR ever! Lofty superlatives aside, it really is a thing of beauty. Better than the far-more-popular Canon F1 and Nikon’s F3 for many reasons (which you should read about), it’s a camera that can resist sand, water, dust, shocks, and drops. It’s got an ultra-sophisticated metering system that I literally could not trick, an exceptional auto-exposure system, five mechanical shutter speeds in the event of battery death, the most informative viewfinder of any pro-spec, Japanese SLR of its era, and it’s all packed into a body that’s smaller and lighter than the competition.
Now let me digress for a moment, with good reason. Bear with me.
There’s a tendency for readers on the internet today to read an article with skepticism. I understand that. In an era of hobbyist bloggers and Yelp, where everyone’s a critic regardless of their qualifications, the written word has become less reliable. I once read a Yelp review that said “This restaurant is so good.” That’s it. It’s so good. Really? Good for who? For someone who likes to eat spicy foods? For vegans? For lactose intolerant cats?
Yes, the standard has slipped. So I get why someone might read my LX review and say, “Sure. It’s the best 35mm film SLR. Right.” I understand the assumption that some might jump to, that I’m exaggerating for a good angle on an otherwise boring post, or whatever. But I’m not.
What we do at this site is important to us, and your time is important to us. I wouldn’t tell you the Pentax LX is one of the best Japanese 35mm SLRs if I didn’t think it is. And it is. So if you’re going to be stuck with one Pentax (or any 35mm SLR, really) for the rest of your days, the LX is a really smart choice and a really good buy.
Pentax has a knack for making cameras that endear themselves to their owners. Sure, they might not be the most hyped cameras in the world, but what they lack in gimmicks and flashiness they more than make up in pure quality and charm. And if there’s one Pentax that exemplifies these qualities best, it’s the Pentax SV (read all about it).
The SV may just be the most “Pentaxian” of all Pentax cameras. It’s an unremarkable mechanical camera on the surface, but use one and you’ll find Pentax’s loveliest creation. It possesses an understated elegance, a disarming simplicity, and an air of quality that’s tough to find in any other camera. For me, it’s perfect. Sure, it doesn’t have a light meter or auto-exposure modes like later Pentaxes, but what it lacks in tech specs it more than makes up for in build quality and simplicity. The SV really is Pentax at its essential, minimal best.
But as lovely as the SV is, let’s face it, this type of classic mechanical camera is not much more than a light tight box upon which to mount a lens. And it’s Pentax’s outstanding Takumar lenses that really breathe life into the camera. Which one would I fit to my SV if I could only choose one? That question is easy to answer, but since we happen to have somebody uniquely qualified to tell you about it, take it away Ned.
Guessing that James and Josh would select some pretty excellent cameras, I decided to talk about something a bit different – a favorite lens. After all, if you’re going to be stranded on an atoll in the Pacific you’ll also need a reliable desert island lens.
In the past I would have chosen my FA* 31mm as the lens I’d keep if I could only have one. However, I recently acquired a pristine Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 (8- element) M42 mount lens. After using this lens for three months, I’m really enamored with it. Unlike some lenses that leave you ambivalent after getting to know them, this Super Tak continues to surprise me the more I use it.
I have a copy of the Japanese Asahi Pentax Takumar Lenses brochure, and in it they describe this lens as “…the most advanced regular lens. Wonderful to capture the light, focus is sharp with great contrast in a very compact lens. Luxurious construction. This lens is recognized as one of the best lenses in the world among regular F1.4 lenses.”
There was clearly more truth in advertising in the ‘60s and I can’t argue with Asahi’s marketing claims. I would only add that it’s an ideal lens regardless of whether you’re stuck on an island or just want to commit to one lens for an extended period of time. The aperture ring provides very nice tactile feedback, and focus is silky smooth with just the right amount of resistance. Optically, this Super Tak is superb despite being over 50 years old. It’s sharp at f/1.4 and displays nice edge-to-edge definition. Color rendering for my taste is spot on. Images are natural, but not over-saturated.
The 8-element version was only made between 1962-1964. Asahi Optical (Pentax) wanted to challenge the reputation of both Leica and Zeiss for making the very best 50mm prime lenses in the world. Asahi, who had ambitions to sell cameras worldwide, was committed to achieving widespread recognition for their optical prowess. The engineers delivered on their promise to make a better lens than the Summicron or Planar. Upon release of the Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4, photo publications worldwide were unanimous in their praise.
Construction-wise, the 8-element 50 used a very complicated triplet lens which Asahi developed to achieve the image quality they desired. I’ve read articles where folks have said the lens was so expensive to build that only after two years they switched to a simpler 7-element design in 1967. The more likely story is that Asahi had to use the expensive triplet glass until they could perfect production of thoriated glass, a process that Kodak first developed in 1936, and one that Asahi had been working on since the late ‘50s.
Based on discussions I had many years ago with a Pentax engineer, Thorium gave them a lens design which offered high refraction, low dispersion, precise focusing and minimal chromatic aberration. It was a no brainer for Asahi Pentax to switch to Thorium using a simpler, less expensive lens design (hindsight is always 20/20, but at the time, no one fully understood the radioactive properties of Thorium which was used in lenses up until the early ‘80s).
If you’re considering buying this lens, I have some tips to keep in mind. The 8-element is quite rare and going up in value; samples in pristine condition are going for $200-250 and more these days. A similar condition 7-element will fetch just $70-100. So your choice is pretty easy. If you want a beautiful vintage 50mm prime M42 manual lens to use everyday, get the 7-element. Buy the 8-element if you want a part of Japanese lens history which will continue to appreciate in value and give you great satisfaction while you own it.
Since both lenses use the same identical metal housing, there’s confusion about how to identify a 7 versus 8-element sample. The easiest way is to check placement of the IR mark. On the 7-element, the red marking is placed left of the numeral 4 on the DOF scale. On the 8-element, the mark is to the right of the numeral 4. Be careful. You’ll see quite a few of these lenses on eBay advertised as the rare 8-element version with a price tag to match, but the IR mark placement shows that it’s really a 7-element.
Lastly, since I mentioned Thorium, here’s what you need to know. The 8-element lens does not use Thorium. The 7-element does. Many samples of the Thorium lens will display varying degrees of yellow or brown clouding of the internal elements. Some of the better Japanese eBay resellers have already UV treated the Thorium fog, a service for which I’ve found it’s worth paying a slight premium. Lastly, don’t fret too much about the level of radioactivity in these Thorium lenses. You are more likely to get cancer from sun damage on that desert island. Or if your island is called Manhattan, you’re at greater risk holding that smartphone to your ear 24/7.
And those are our picks. Pretty amazing machines, and one stunning lens. But what do you think? Was your favorite Pentax passed over? Let us hear about it in the comments.
If you like this piece, check out the rest of our Desert Island Cameras series to see which camera we’d choose if we could only have one Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, and more. And let us know which brand you’d like to see us tackle next.