Volkswagen produced the Beetle in one form or another for more than six decades. Six decades of building one of the most simple, spartan family cars on the planet. And the Beetle outlasted every single one of its competitors. The Citroen 2CV lasted into the 1990s and the original Fiat 500 evolved radically until its final near un-recognizable descendant finished its run in 2000. The Beetle lasted until 2003. The Beetle even survived George Harrison. With a fundamental quality that carries a design beyond what anyone expected to be its useful life, some things are simply survivors.
When Pentax debuted the Spotmatic concept at Photokina in 1960, I’m certain no one at Pentax expected the basic chassis to survive in series production almost into the new millennium. The K1000, which we have called the ultimate student camera, stayed in production until 1997, 33 years after the original Spotmatic entered production. The biggest changes over these 33 years was the additions of a much improved lens mount, a flash shoe, and a new switch for the open-aperture meter. That’s all, folks.
Of course, the Spotmatic is best remembered for bringing through the lens metering to a mass market camera, thereby helping amateurs achieve better results much more easily.
An Exercise In Simplicity
The top plate of an original Spotmatic is a simple reflection of its spartan spec sheet. It has five things on it – a rewind crank, a shutter speed dial with ISO selector, a shutter release, and a film advance lever with integrated film counter. The camera also boasts a switch for the meter next to the lens mount, a self-timer on the fascia, and a battery compartment cover on the bottom plate. That’s it.
If you need a camera that facilitates restless fidgeting with levers, knobs, and dials, the Spotmatic is a poor choice.
The meter has two positions, on and off, and the meter is running from when you turn it on until you take a picture. Firing the shutter turns the meter back off, which brings a few practical or impractical side effects. Because the Spotmatic only meters stopped-down, having the meter on when composing a shot is not desirable, as it darkens the frame dramatically. This means the workflow involves either composing, metering and then shooting, or metering, switching the meter back off, then composing and shooting.
Like the Beetle, the Spotmatic offers little in the way of toys. There are no shooting modes, and even the meter readout is a simple center-point needle. Since the camera’s relationship with the lens aperture is effectively binary, the Spotmatic doesn’t even offer match-needle metering, like my Canon Ftb.
It’s easy to mistake heft for quality, and while the Spotmatic has a lot of the latter, it has surprisingly little of the former. At 681g, the Spotmatic is about 70g lighter than a Canon Ftb. Though heavier than an Olympus OM-1, and most compact manual focus SLRs, it’s not an unwieldy monster. And let’s be real, until the OM-1 began the size conversation, few serious SLRs were smaller than the Spotmatic.
Despite the lack of heft, the camera feels extremely well made. Maybe not on Leica’s level, but well beyond anything made by Canon, Nikon or Olympus at the time. There is very little play in the film advance lever, and every control on the camera operates with some reassuring resistance. The tired metaphor of “it feels like a well oiled gun,” doesn’t really work here. Most of the controls on a Spotmatic feel like the adjusters on a lathe. They’re smooth, deliberate, and purposeful.
As Josh noted when this camera’s youngest relative last graced our pages, much of this functional elegance worked its way out of the camera by the end of the run. Where the K1000 can be clattery, the Spotmatic is refined. Indeed, of my elderly SLRs, only the OM-1 is quieter (though it feels far less sturdy).
Its namesake is the Spotmatic’s greatest asset. While meters had appeared on cameras prior to the Spotmatic, none had integrated the feature so slickly. The Photomic finder on the Nikon F added a lot of heft both physically and visually to the camera. The original version didn’t offer TTL metering, and instead added a second meter-finder to the outside of the prism. Later variants did offer TTL metering, but still doubled the size of the finder and added a lot of weight to the upper half of the camera.
The Spotmatic integrated all meter functions into the body. This may sound trivial today, as modern shooters need to go out of their way to find new cameras without meters, but when the concept debuted in 1960 it was virtually unheard of. By the time the consumer model launched in 1964, Pentax had been beaten to the market by both the Topcon RE Super, and the cumbersome-looking Alpa 9d. Unlike the Topcon, the Spotmatic was a lasting hit.
Pentax’s original concept used true spot metering off a very small area, the final production camera used center-weighted metering for greater ease of use. The overwhelming majority of SLRs made for the next two decades followed suit.
I have two Spotmatics, and the meter on both is reasonably accurate. I tend not to use these cameras for shooting slide film, but the meter works brilliantly for more forgiving films. Because the readout is a single needle, exposure compensation in the modern sense is not really possible. There is no compensation dial with 1/3 stop clicks. If your subject is backlit, position the needle a little higher on the scale, and if the subject is dark position it a bit lower.
Unlike many later cameras with internal meters, the Spotmatic does not rely on a PX625 mercury cell battery. Pentax used smaller PX400 cells, and equipped the camera with an internal voltage regulator circuit. While the original 1.35v PX400 is no longer available, that is not really important. I use 1.55v silver oxide 387S cells in my Spotmatic, though in a pinch virtually any small hearing aid battery over 1.35v should work.
Too Many Lenses
The M42 mount has some drawbacks. The small lens throat means that fast telephotos are uncommon. Transmitting information from lens to camera is also challenging because there is nowhere for the necessary mechanisms to go. While some M42 lenses and bodies allow for open-aperture metering, most do not.
Of course, this is easy to forgive when you consider just how many lenses were produced in M42. Because the mirror box on the Spotmatic was designed around the deep, protruding rear element of the 7-element Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4, the Spotmatic is compatible with more of them than most. This database has nearly 1,600 M42 mount lenses, with manufacturers ranging from Zeiss, to Schneider-Kreuznatch, to Voigtlander, and dozens I’ve never heard of.
My current M42 lens collection includes mostly Super-Takumar lenses, but that’s mostly because I am a little obsessed with making everything match. I have a lovely Tamron 28mm f/2.8 adapted to M42 which mostly gets used on my Fuji X-E1. The focus ring grip doesn’t match the ribs on the Spotmatic’s meter switch. In my mind, it just doesn’t work. If you’re not like me, the extraordinary lens selection is a treasure trove.
A Large, Old Family Tree
There are many Spotmatics and descendants of this camera today, and the one we’ve focused on here, the original Spotmatic, is the most challenging to use. Depending on your priorities as a shooter, it is likely that there is a Spotmatic variant or descendant that fits your needs and shooting style.
These descendants include the simpler SP500 and SP1000, which were like the original only without a self-timer. The updated Spotmatic II and IIa offered a wider range of meter-friendly ISOs, added a flash shoe, and moved the flash sync ports to a more ergonomically-correct location. In 1971, the Japan-only Electro-Spotmatic became the first camera ever to offer an Aperture-Priority shooting mode.
The final Spotmatic variant, the Spotmatic F, is the only member of the family to offer open-aperture metering. The Spotmatic F lasted until 1976, when Pentax finally retired the M42 mount in favor of the new K-Mount.
This was not the end of the Spotmatic, however. When the K-mount cameras debuted, most of the original new cameras retained the Spotmatic’s chassis. The simple, reliable K1000 outlasted all of the other original K-mount cameras in production, and stayed on the market until 1997. While the K1000 offers a few features not seen on the original Spotmatics, such as a depth of field preview lever on the body rather than on the lens, the rest of the camera is little changed.
Should You Shoot With a Spotmatic
Yes. Absolutely. Every photographer should own a Spotmatic. I’m not just saying that because my editor owns a camera shop. With the value proposition inherent in the machine, there’s really no downside to owning a Spotmatic. The M42 lens that came with your Spotmatic will work on your mirrorless camera, but it is also easily adaptable to most SLRs. M42 lenses offer infinity focus with only a basic adapter on most common SLRs, though a more specialized adapter is required for Nikon shooters.
Of course, many of these lenses are excellent. The 50mm f/1.4 that was originally included on most Spotmatics is one of our favorites, and the 28mm f/3.5 and 135mm f/3.5 are wonderful, user-friendly pieces as well.
Like the Beetle, the Spotmatic can never be called the most sophisticated tool for its particular job, but it is one of the most enduring. Like the Beetle, it’s also endearing. Decades on, the Spotmatic still has fans and supporters, myself included.
I wish I could put forward a budget alternative, but there really isn’t one. The Spotmatic is one of the cheapest SLRs around. For those of you looking for a camera with similar ergonomics, less metal in the chassis and body, as well as a higher price tag, try a Bessaflex.