sabato 2 gennaio 2016

One take, one frame, one camera: Asahi Pentax Spotmatic

The Asahi Pentax Spotmatic, introduced in the 1964, the year of the Olympic Games of Tokyo, was a revolutonary SRL 35mm and the camera-icon of the '60s. The other icon of those days were the Beatles. The Spotmatic was as popular as the Beatles, indeed the Beatles took their photos with the Spotmatic and the Spotmatics took the pictures of the Beatles.
The Asahi Pentax was the first optical and photographic producer to solve the problem to calculate the exposure through the lens, also if not yet wide open. This is why there is a black lever on the left of the camera that turns it on the light-meter while close the f-stop to mesure the light in a stopped down modality. We have to thank this camera if the SRL found their diffusion between the professionals and the photography enthousiats.
Fifty years ago the make of the rising sun (Asahi) was so popular that it was able to sell more Spotmatic than all the SLR cameras produced by Nikon, Canon and Minolta together.
The Spotmatic was a very desired camera, but at the same time was quite affordable for many people because it had a right price. It was very reliable, it was very well designed and it was among the smallest SLR 35mm on the market. Later on, I will tell you other interesting informations I retrieved from an old italian photographic magazine.
The camera I used for taking Sara's portrait is not the first Spotmatic, but a SP II.
The Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II, made in 1971, is not so different from its predecessor. The shape, the shutter, the controls and everything is the same of the SP, exept for the addition of the flash shoe. 


The shooting
This is a shoot enterely dedicated to the fabolous '60. Sara is a fashion designer who produces hats, headgear, caps and bonnets with fabrics typical of the '60; she also loves dressing any kind of clothes of those years.
The model was photographed in externals and illuminated by the diffused light of a cloudy day. I used a Fujicolor 200 exposed at 1/60 sec. f 4. The camera mounted the SMC Takumar 50mm f 1:1,4, an extraordinary lens, very apreciated, still now. This 50mm, like all the other Takumar lenses, has nothing to envy to the Zeiss optics of that period. On the contrary, probably some Zeiss lenses could not be as well designed like the SMC Takumar.

Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II with Super Multi Coated Takumar 50mm f 1:1,4

General appearance
The camera, like nearly all the cameras produced in this period, is strong and well made, personally I don't like the screw coupling because it takes  (You need t use 2 hands to change the lens) more time to mount a M42 lens than a bayonet lens. The possibility to mount any M42 lens, for me is not a real advantage because usually this is an economic option. Among the screw mount lenses I consider interesting only the SMC Takumar and the Super Takumar, but also in these series it's very difficult to find a fast lens. For me, there are only two reasons to chose the SRL 35mm instead of a larger format camera: portability and fast lenses. If there are not fast lenses in a 35mm camera set, it has not much sense to use that camera make. Because of this when I take pictures with my SP II I nearly always mount on it the 50mm f 1,4. Another reason to use the 50mm f 1,4 is the low brightness of the viefinder. The camera viewfinder is not really so bad, but probably the fameous Super Multi Coating treatment never involved the pentaprism or any other optical part having to do with the vision of the image.

A view to distinguish the SP II from the SP

The results
I'm glad of the photo I got with this camera. In the picture of Sara it is impossible to evaluate the bokeh because the flowers are not real, but designed on a background wall. If you wish to see other pictures taken with the SMC Takumar it's possible to see them on my other blog: Frammenti di Cultura where I used the Takumar lenses on the Pentax K-01. Anyway, believe me, the image resulting from a shoot with the SMC Takumar is very good; not so sharp as a modern lens, but very personal and recognisable.

The Beatles like special tourists on the Champs-Elysées Avenue, in Paris - 1964

To give a more precise idea of the value and of the goodness of the project of the Spotmatic I thought to summarise the results of some scientific tests commissioned by Fotografare to the Cinematography Laboratory of the Politecnico di Torino in 1969.
Here, an ingeneer studied especially the working of the shutter and its effects on vibrations and noise.
There are variables that influence the behavior of mechanical shutters, their normal running speed slows down with the decreasing of the temperature, but a photograph taken in winter can also have different effects on film speed and other factors. The same thing could occur to the cells of light-meters that could have a different reading also for other variables. 
The Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II used with a regular time of  1/1000 sec. at 20 °C has a very constant and regular shutter that produces well exposed images of the strobe flashes (used to check the shutter) in the various areas of the frame. The difference in exposure is quite low and the shutter can be considered good.
At -20°C the duration of the exposure time decreases producing slightly underexposures. With a time of 1/500 sec. the shutter can be considered good at 20 °C , while at -20°C the difference of the time of exposure could be considered acceptable.
Compared to the cameras of its time the Spotmatic shutter is slighty better of the average, turning out even better than Leica M4 and Nikon F shutters.
Most of the drawbacks to low temperatures is caused by the hardening of the tissue curtains and by the viscosity of the lubricants. One way to solve this problem, a time, was to eliminate the lubrication of the gears, which shortened the life of the cameras, but reduced exposure errors. 
There are situations such as wildlife in nature or shows and concerts in theaters where shutter noise can create hassles. The focal plane shutters are noisier than the central ones, but also among curtains shutters some are less noiser than others. The Polytechnic of Turin recorded the sound of a few cameras with a microphone to study them. Every single camera was handheld to avoid other sources of extraneous noise (such as scrolling of cable realise or vibrations) during the shooting.
At a time of 1/1000 sec. the resulting noise level is 90 dB; at 1/30 sec., 88 dB; at 1/4 sec. 87dB. 
Just to have an idea of the noise of a rangefinder camera, Leica M4 produces respectively 80 dB, 77 dB and 75 dB at the same exposure times. 
The Nikon F resulted a quite silent camera with 82dB (1/1000 sec.), 82 dB (1/30 sec.), and 81 dB (at 1/4 sec.).
In addition to the intensity of noise can also be assessed, the duration is 0.4 second, for the SP II,  except for the exposure of ¼ sec. that produces a noise for a period of 0.6 sec.
Oscillograms (diagrams of oscillations) are forked and show that there are two noises at the height of the shooting moment: at first you hear the noise of the tilting mirror and immdiately after there is the noise produced by the shutter curtains.
From the results of this tests the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic produces a noise loud enough (more noise than other SRL) and has an average duration of the noise.
Only the metal elements of the Copal Square mounted on the Konika Autoreflex T and FT; on the Nikkormat FTN (and in other SRL) are noisier than the Spotmatic with 92 dB; 91dB and 89 dB. Apart from the noise, the Copal Square shutters have vertical scrolling elements so robust and reliable that even after 50 years they can manage to keep shutter speeds precise enough.
When you press the shutter button you set in motion a series of mechanisms formed by springs levers and gears of various types which result in forces that cause inevitable jolts and vibrations of the camera, regardless of the firmness of the operator's hand. It is not easy to measure the vibrations induced by the shutter and the mirror of a SLR camera, but thanks to the use of a accelerometric head (more or less the same concept of a pick-up used on a record player) connected to a preamplifier, in turn connected to an amplifier from which then get the dates of the oscillation amplitudes.
The oscillations are caused by:
a) Action of mechanisms of transmission and lifting of the mirror
b) Start of the shutter curtains
c) Arrival of the shutter curtains
d) Return and damping of the mirror
The width and length of time of vibration of Pentax are rather contained. Much better than the average SLR of that era.
The duration of the oscillations is of 1/30 sec while the maximum oscillation is 5,4 thousandths of a millimeter (5,4 microns)

Conclusion of the test: the shutter is good, regular and precise enough; it is quite noisy, but this "big" noise has nothing to do with the production of vibrations, indeed the SP/SP II has much less vibrations compared to other SRL of those years. About this, I would say that vibrations can surely give worse effects on a shoot than noise. 
I can also add that my nearly 45 y.o. camera works very well and expose correctly the pictures I take with it.

Why to choose this camera
I bought this model of camera around 15 years ago, because I liked it, because it was and it is a cult camera and because it was a bargain. I didn't use it very much, but I had not even to do any service on it, i just cleaned it after I bought it, that's all.
The SP, more than the SP II, is a collectible camera, but it's also usable with satisfaction in our days, if we are not in the hurry to follow fast subjects.
For me, the only reason to take photos with this camera is to make a vintage shoot (like I did) with very good lenses like the SMC Takumar. You could objet that it's possible to muont a SMC Takumar on many cameras, also on a Praktica, for example, but I would tell you that a SP II is much better than a Praktica MTL 5, including the viewfinder.

Unsticked pentaprism

Last time I took the SP II in my hands to use it I noticed a strange ennoying line on the viefinder. While the prevoius day everything was fine, suddenly and without explainations I got this problem. It looks this could be a commun bother to many old pentaprisms. 

Commercial value VS real value
In 1969, the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic in Italy costed 115000 Lire, an average salary of a worker. It means that today it would cost around 1000 euros.
If you are able to find a SP in good condition and a SMC Takumar 50 f 1,4, you enjoy taking pictures with film cameras and you are not frightened by the special glass slightly radioactive of some Takumar buy them. Their prices are always lower of their value. You can find a SP II for around 50 euros. Tony Graffio

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