Pentax Spotmatic SP: The all-manual m42 workhorse

Pentax Spotmatic SP front
A front view of the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic SP with a 50mm f/1.4 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens, and a random roll of Kodak ASA 400 film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Everyone knows about the Pentax K1000, but only slightly less well-known is the Spotmatic, with its total lack of automation, cheap and plentiful lenses, and rock-solid construction.

The name Spotmatic seems to imply something to do with spot metering, right? The prototype did have a spot meter, but it was replaced with center-weighted average metering just before production began in an effort to appeal to a broader range of amateur photographers. Nevertheless, when it was introduced in 1964 the Pentax Spotmatic was among the first SLRs with TTL (through the lens) metering.

Kettle Arcade off Larimer Square
A look at the Kettle Arcade from inside the Courtyard of the Bear and the Bull, off Larimer Square in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Spotmatic name applied to a long line of cameras that lasted until 1976 and included several functional variants. The SP500 and SP1000 were budget models that omitted the self-timer and accessory shoe; the SL model also omitted the light meter; the Spotmatic II arrived along with Pentax’s Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lenses and added a flash sync switch and hot shoe; and the Spotmatic F allowed metering without needing to stop down.

It’s worth noting that while the SP500’s fastest shutter speed was 1/500 sec., there are a lot of reports that many SP500s have an unmarked 1/1000 setting on the dial which may or may not be accurately calibrated.

I own and tested an original Spotmatic SP model as released in 1964. Note the “Asahi” marking, the self timer lever and lack of accessory shoe in the photo above.

When I first mentioned the Spotmatic a couple months ago, I incorrectly believed that it was an SP1000 model, at the time not having realized mine included the self-timer. The self-timer simply isn’t a function I use or look for in a camera, though a missing one was a source of great consternation when testing my FED-5c.

Specs and stuff

The Spotmatic uses m42 screw mount (also known as Praktica Thread Mount, Pentax Thread Mount or Universal Thread Mount) lenses and the camera is fully mechanical aside from the light meter.

Skyway in 16th Street alley
A short skybridge crosses the alley between two old, brick buildings off of 16th Street Mall in Denver. The smell of most of these alleys is nearly overwhelming. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The light meter uses stopped-down metering, so the meter is only activated when you press down the meter lever (on the left side of the lens mount when you’re using the camera). The meter was designed for a PX625 mercury battery, but the wiring features a simple bridge circuit that allows you to replace the mercury battery with commonly-available silver oxide batteries and still get accurate readings.

The meter displays a simple needle in the viewfinder which is mechanically coupled to the shutter speed knob and which features speeds from 1 sec. down to 1/1000 sec., with a 1/60 sec. flash sync speed, and bulb. Lift and turn the shutter speed dial to adjust the film speed from ASA 20 to ASA 1600. The aperture couples via a pin in the lens.

The shutter release is a simple affair threaded for a cable. The film advance is a molded metal lever with the frame counter incorporated into the pivot point. The frame counter resets automatically when the back is opened.

The rapid rewind knob lifts to release the film door, and beneath it is a handy film-type reminder ring. Turn the ring to select from three film types or “Empty” — “Panchro” for black and white film, and “Color” with two white balance options: a round sun for daylight and a tiny bulb for tungsten-balanced film. Note that the spool release button (on the bottom plate as with most SLRs) rotates during rewinding.

Alley of 16th Street Mall
A moody alleyway off the 16th Street Mall in Denver, late on a spring afternoon. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The depth-of-field preview switch is built into the lenses — it’s near the base of the lens behind the aperture ring. When set to “Auto,” the lens stays wide open for focusing and automatically stops down when you trigger the shutter. Set to “Manual,” the diaphragm stays stopped down all the time. Actuating the meter switch, which is on the camera body, automatically engages the DOF preview as well as turning on the metering circuits.

The Spotmatic features a fairly bright viewfinder at 0.88x magnification, and the standard focusing screen incorporates a microprism dot in the center of a very nice Fresnel field.

The horizontal-travel cloth focal plane shutter, “instant return” reflex mirror and 5-13 sec. Self timer round out the package. With a standard lens, the Spotmatic weighs a tad over 30 ounces — just under two pounds.

The Spotmatic Experience

The Spotmatic was the first of a dozen or two cameras I took out for testing in fairly rapid succession in the spring of 2015. I’d been in a bit of a blog malaise for months, and while I hadn’t stopped photographing or testing cameras, I had slowed down quite a bit. It was a good start to the intensive testing streak.

Denver Diner parking lot
This tree has been growing up between two parking spaces in the lot behind the Denver Diner at the corner of Colfax Avenue and Speer Boulevard in Denver for as long as I can remember. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I picked up the Spotmatic sans lens for $8 at the flea market (talked the guy down from $10 on the ground that it had been sitting in the sun with the body uncovered and who knew how much cleaning it would need). When I got home I poked around my piles of miscellany and found an apparently working 35mm f/2.8 Hanimex m42 lens. Pretty sure the lens was one of those “I’ll throw this in for a buck!” purchases during a previous flea market trip — probably the one that netted the Ansco Shur-Flash.

I popped it on and took the camera with me on some errands in Denver’s Cherry Creek North shopping district and burned through two rolls of expired Kodak 200 in a couple hours — the Spotmatic is really a pleasure to use!

Despite the lack of a split-image in the center of the focusing screen, I found the microprism very easy to adapt to. The focusing screen is bright and reasonably big, and that, combined with the overall good layout and ease-of-use that come standard on the Spotmatic, made it easy to chew through the film.

Republic Plaza lunch tables
The umbrellas stand closed on the lunch tables in the courtyard of Denver’s tallest building, Republic Plaza, just off 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Hanimex lens was hard to find much information about, although they seem yo be generally well-regarded by those who chance to use them. Obviously it’s not going to hold a candle to a Pentax Super-Multi-Coated lens, but few knockoffs can. Heck, for the money it’s hard to beat them even with other premium lenses. In examining my negatives it’s clear the Hanimex isn’t as sharp as it could be, but it’s not soft. The distortion is pretty minimal and the chromatic aberration isn’t too bad, either. For a buck or two, it would be hard to go wrong with this lens.

The Spotmatic was, however, too much fun to photograph with. I found a very reasonably priced Pentax Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4 lens on Craigslist and met the seller to get the matching lens. He said he had two, and it turns out the other was of the Super-Multi-Coated flavor. I bought both for $50 — a proverbial steal.

The weight of the Super-Takumar lenses is about double the weight of the Hanimex, and though the latter feels quite solid, the former feels like it’s custom-machined from a solid block of pure awesome.

Bistro Vendôme off Larimer Square
Seen from the Courtyard of the Bear and the Bull, Bistro Vendôme is located in the historic Sussex Building in the 1400 block of Larimer Street — the heart of Denver’s Larimer Square. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I put several more rolls of film through the Spotmatic, testing both the Super-Takumar and SMC lenses. To be honest, I can hardly tell the difference between the lenses from the film alone. They are both excellent, displaying minimal distortion and virtually no chromatic aberration. Both appear to have stellar resolution and contrast. The contrast and chromatic aberration on the SMC may be just a hair higher and a tiny bit lower, respectively.

And the glass! Both Takumar lenses have huge, beautifully curved front elements that just scream “Optics!”

The reasons I enjoyed testing the Spotmatic so much have a lot to do with its design, which is both simple and elegant. The film advance lever, for example, has a simple knurled flat on the end, which is obviously economical in materials, but whose paddle-like end is just the right size to be comfortable to use. The shallow, gently-rounded knurls are enough to offer solid purchase for your thumb tip without digging into it, even when you fire off a number of frames in rapid succession.

Skyline Park fountain parkour
Two practitioners of what I’ve only just learned is called “parkour” do their thing on one of two fountains in the Lawrence Halprin-designed Skyline Park, which crosses Denver’s 16th Street Mall at Arapahoe Street. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The advance also operates smoothly and while its throw isn’t short, it’s also not unusually long, making it easy to advance the frame in a quick, easy motion. Conversely, when the shutter is cocked the advance locks very solidly, but flips out far enough to hook your thumb behind comfortably. Anyone who has spend any amount of time with a Nikon FM2 or its relatives probably developed the same grip I have and would appreciate that it can be comfortably employed on the Spotmatic, too.

Similarly, the shutter release is easy to operate and moves fluidly and easily. Perhaps a tiny bit too easily, sometimes — especially if you’re used to a camera that operates the meter with a half-pressed shutter release and have a habit of keeping your finger near the button, as I do. It’s not too hard to avoid accidental exposures, though.

The meter activation switch on the left side of the lens mount is a tad awkward at first, and while it takes a little getting used to it’s not bad, per se. I never did quite get totally comfortable with it, though. That’s okay — I was only using it half the time, anyway.

Kettle Arcade on Larimer Square
Looking out at Larimer Square from inside the shadows of the Kettle Arcade next to the Sussex Building in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The rewind knob really is easy to use and allows for fast, smooth operation. Pentax’s “rapid” description fits adroitly. And the spool release button is big and easy to depress, though it requires enough force that it’s hard to do accidentally. The loaded film reminder wheel under it is super handy, too — I wish Nikon had stolen the idea (or that Pentax had put one on the 6×7)!

Overall the best things I have to say about the Spotmatic are about its size and shape. It’s bigger than an ME Super, but smaller than an FM2. It’s lighter than a Canon AE-1 or Nikon F3, and in spite of that it feels completely solid — even rugged. I wouldn’t hesitate to test its ability to drive a 16-penny nail if I couldn’t find a hammer (or a Nikon F2).

The Spotmatic is fully mechanical and doesn’t really give a damn if you put batteries in it. It’s built just the right size to fit in the hand comfortably, rounded in the right places and with controls laid out as if by someone who actually cared about easy operation.

Emily Griffith school
The Emily Griffith Opportunity School across Glenarm Place just north of Colfax Avenue in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

This was the first m42-mount camera I’ve ever tested, and I can say that the experience has been extremely positive. Right after it I tested the Fujica ST605N, and I must say, I can highly recommend them for easy use and wide variety of available lenses.

If you get a chance to pick up a Spotmatic in good shape (and it would be hard to put one in bad shape without a very heavy bludgeon or a very high cliff…) you should definitely give it a try.

Here are the rest of the photos I prepared from my test rolls:

Street dancers on 16th Street Mall
Some sort of breakdancing group trading off on 16th Street Mall to the beat of a live drummer on a sunny afternoon in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Denver Athletic Club windows
Ornate cast iron grates cover the street-level windows of the historic Denver Athletic Club building on Glenarm Place in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Statues in Cherry Creek fountain
Statues of playing children in the middle of the (mostly) empty water feature at the corner of Third Avenue and Milwaukee Street in Denver’s Cherry Creek North Shopping District. (Daniel J. Schneider)
16th Street Mall bicycle
A bright green fixie (single-geared bicycle) is parked just off Denver’s 16th Street Mall next to a yellow fire hydrant along California Street. (Daniel J. Schneider)

UPDATE: This original version of this post incorrectly listed the m42 mount as synonymous with LTM/Leica Thread Mount — it is not; LTM is synonymous with the m39 mount. I have updated the post to correct this careless error.

Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Asahi Pentax Spotmatic SP SLR camera
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