Three funky little points about the ultra-retro-hipster icon the Pentax Spotmatic that I failed to mention the other day:
- Spottie without a spot meter: The name "Spotmatic" derived from the fact that the camera was originally intended to incorporate a spot meter. Late in pre-production the decision was made to abandon the spot metering function, but the name was already in the pipeline and for some reason more difficult to change, so it stuck—even though the reason for it had gone away.
- The "Takumar" name for the early lenses was adopted in honor of the Japanese-American painter Takuma Kajiwara.
- Like buttah: The Super-Takumar and its immediate successors has the smoothest, silkiest, most tactile helical focusing action in the history of cameras and lenses—better than any Zeiss lens, better than any Leica lens, better than any Nikon lens, better than any anything—at least in my experience, and I have a fair amount of experience with old lenses. It's the gold standard for manual focusing action, the apogee, the peak, the best of the best. That's not something some people give a fig about, but there it is anyway.
There were four versions of the M42 screwmount 50mm ƒ/1.4 for the Spotmatic worth knowing about. The first was the original 8-element Super-Takumar. This had a cemented triplet with all surfaces of all three elements being spherical.
Lore I've heard concerning the Super-Takumars over the years:
- One of them has an element of then-special rare-earth glass that is radioactive. Some say it's the 8-element lens that has it (this is what I always heard, back in the day); some say it's the later 7-element version that does (more common to hear lately).
- Some Super-Takumars take on a yellowish cast over time and the cure is sunlight—leave it out in strong sunlight for a few hours and the yellowish tint will go away.
- Some people attribute the yellowing to the radioactive glass element, but it's more likely the glue between the cemented elements...
- ...which was made from pine sap.
- Set a Super-Takumar with the radioactive element on a piece of Polaroid film for a few days and it will record a faint circle of exposure on the film.
- You shouldn't hold it up to your eye for too long or bad juju will happen to you.
I don't know if any of these are true. Since Asahi quietly changed from the 8-element to the simpler 7-element version on the fly during production, there's no easy way of identifying the 8-element version. Some people think you can do it by weight (8-element version 245 g, 7-element version 230 g); some say the focusing ring on the earlier lens is slightly wider; some say it can be done with serial numbers, which method has the advantage that you can dispute happily about the serial-number ranges till the cows come home; some point out that the convex rear element on the earlier lens protrudes farther; and some say that on all the 8-element lenses, the red infrared focusing index mark is inside the "4"s on the D-o-F scale. All?
This early lens—I'm still talking about the 8-element Super-Takumar—was intended by Pentax to be a better lens than the Zeiss Planar of the day. And it was. Not only that, the Pentax fast 50s were better than Zeiss Planars all the way up to the AF era—sez me, anyway. This—the 8-element Super-Takumar—was most likely the lens that Pentax produced at a loss; it was a loss leader for the sake of company pride...and Japanese national pride.
Here's the rub, though: there's no evidence that the 8-element lens was any better than the 7-element Super-Takumar or the later versions. The contrary, in my opinion. That's if you can detect any difference at all beyond sample variation, which I doubt most people could. Some mavens go to great lengths to hunt down the fabled 8-element Super Tak, but there's no reason to do so IMHO. There's also no reason not to—this all falls under the heading of enthusiast stuff—so suit yourself. As far as health risks are concerned, I doubt the "radioactive" element could hurt you if you swallowed it, but then I don't know, and that's another thing people can argue about.
The second version is the garden variety 7-element Super-Takumar, produced in great quantities as Asahi's "The Pentax" became the best-selling "good" SLR of the 1960s. This reduced the cemented triplet with a doublet at 4/5 (but still with concave and convex surfaces, unlike the flat surfaces in most planar-types). Most Super-Takumars were single-coated but some late ones were probably multi-coated.
The third version has improved coatings. The whole truth about this is difficult to research, and indeed probably lost to history, but what I believe is that Zeiss and Pentax worked cooperatively in the early days of multi-coating came up with their solution jointly. Zeiss called it T* (pronounced "tee-star") and Pentax called it "SMC" (for super multi-coating), but they were more or less the same thing at first. Something that is not well known by photography buffs is that not all lenses are coated on all surfaces—many lensmakers try to cut corners, and coat lens elements only where they think it's needed. So earlier lenses might have a few elements multi-coated, a few elements single-coated, and in some cases even a few elements uncoated. Coatings are highly proprietary, but one of the reasons for that is that many lensmakers didn't want you to know how much they were skimping.
Of course, these days, coating of lenses has progressed greatly and gotten much cheaper, thanks to zooms—which were essentially made possible by advances in coatings. Before multicoating, a zoom with many elements would have been impossible—the aggregated flare from all those air-to-glass interfaces would have overwhelmed the image-forming light. One of the reasons the famous Tessar developed by Paul Rudolph of Zeiss was so sharp is that it had only six air-to-glass surfaces, which minimized flare before lens coatings came along. Now, Olympus can make the whimsical and fantastical 25mm ƒ/1.2 PRO lens with an over-the-top nineteen elements (I love that, I have to say)...and that lens probably has less veiling glare than an uncoated 4-element Tessar-type from the early 1900s! That 25mm PRO is a prime lens that only exists because zooms do. Coatings are much more important to lens design, and lens performance, than most hobbyists realize.
Third version—note that "Super-Multi-Coated" is written out.
Anyway the third version is marked "Super-Multi-Coated Takumar" (with the words written out). It's important to realize that at least up till this point, Asahi was trying its best to put as much value into these fast 50s as it could—the engineering it applied to the products was devoted to making them better rather than to making them cheaper. There's often if not always a war between these two impulses. So the Super-Multi-Coated version of the fast 50 was multicoated on every surface. It might have been early MC, but they weren't cutting corners.
Next we reach the end of our tour with the SMC Takumar, with the initials for "super-multi-coated" on the lens instead of the words written out. This version has a rubberized focusing ring with a checkered pattern rather than the scalloped and grooved metal focusing ring of the earlier versions.
What went with what
The Super-Takumars were the lenses sold with the original SP, including the SP500 and SP1000; the Super-Multi-Coated Takumars (quote-unquote) went with the much better-constructed but similarly-featured Spotmatic II; and the SMC Takumar was the native lens for the Spotmatic F and the Electro-Spotmatic, ES, and ESII, the world's first SLRs with autoexposure.
After that, Pentax changed to the K-mount bayonet mount, after sticking with the M42 screwmount probably a bit too long.
And the verdict...
So which one is the best? The same basic 7-element design followed the Pentax fast 50s all the way through the K-mount era into the autofocus era, with the SMCP-FA lens you can still buy today. That included the SMC Pentax-M and SMC Pentax-A. The SMCP-FA is the last 50mm that Pentax still makes that dates from the film era—and it's a direct descendant of the justly famous 7-element Super-Takumar screwmount lens of the 1960s.
Block diagram of the 7-element Super-Takumar
I've used all of these lenses, each long enough to get a handle on them (but only with B&W film, it should be noted), and to be honest they're all great—"3D," characterful, and possessed of the famous old Planar-type "look." The Super-Multi-Coated Takumar was the best-built, but the later K-mount cameras are more convenient and I prefer the SMC Pentax-M as a user, as it handles the best. The SMC Pentax-A K-mount lens is considered by Pentax fanciers to be the sharpest of them all, probably attributable to coatings. Honestly, though, there's not much to choose.
I've never used any of them on a digital camera.
The Pentax fast 50 is not a Zeiss and it's not German, but in my opinion it's the ultimate expression of the classic Planar lens design—and one of the treasures of the Land of the Rising Sun.
UPDATE from Ray Ulrich: "Here's more information on Asahi and multicoating. I'd heard this before (OCLI was in my home town—Santa Rosa, California), but this was the only link I could find that mentions their part in it."
UPDATE from Paul Farkas: "If you haven't already heard, in May of this year former President of Pentax Ricoh Imaging USA Ned Bunnell made two posts on his Instagram account outlining the differences between the 8-element and 7-element 50mm ƒ/1.4 Takumar lenses: here is the first, and here is the second. Since then, he's been posting numerous photos of pictures taken with both lenses on a Pentax DSLR. Additionally, he wrote about the 8-element version on the casualphotophile website.
"His recommendation: '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.'
"P.S. My favorite Pentax 50mm lens is an SMC Pentax-M ƒ/1.4."
Mike replies: Thanks gents! I had not seen Ned's posts.
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Tom Burke: "I enjoyed reading that, Mike—obviously a subject about which you care.
"A slight aside, but—what happened to Pentax? I recall that in the late '60s, when I first became aware of SLRs (and photography generally) a Pentax SP500 was the goal, at least for an amateur. Nikons were around but were probably viewed as professional cameras only. (This is in the UK, by the way.) The other camera that people bought was the good old Practica, from East Germany, and many people had them—including me—and they used the M42 thread. But everyone agreed that they were nowhere near as good as a Pentax.
"Then I suppose I started hearing about Canon SLRs—especially the FT QL—and then later models such as the A-1, AE1, and AE1-Program. I started seeing Nikkormats around that time also. The Olympus OM-1 appeared in the early '70s, followed by more Canons—T50 and T70 especially—and somewhere in there Pentax just seemed to vanish from consciousness. I know the ME Super was around, but by then Pentax was just one of the pack—at least in the UK the marque had lost the status it had enjoyed in the '60s.
"Do you know how that happened? And was it the same in the US?"
Mike replies: Well, the fortunes of companies ebb and flow. Just off the top of my head, I'd say Pentax was a player up until at least the LX, a wonderful camera with a couple of quirks (don't they all seem to have them?). Mainly that the strap lugs were proprietary and the shutter made a noise like a firecracker exploding. (I mean it was on the loud side.) The LX came along in 1980. There were 1,000 gray titanium bodies issued in 1994 to mark the company's 75th anniversary, with 300 more in black two years later; and finally there was a Japan-only Pentax LX 2000 to celebrate either the new millennium or the long run of the LX itself (accounts vary). It finally left the scene in 2001, after the digital transition had begun.
Pentax was still selling loads of cameras through at least the 1980s as far as I recall. Most, however, were amateur models—the company had gotten a reputation for catering to hobbyists, amateurs, and casual users, and of being for those who could not quite afford a Nikon or a Leica. Sort of the Chevrolet of cameras, if you will. Of course the company made the K1000, which was endlessly popular and well known as the basic camera for students to learn on.
The company was called Asahi Optical starting in 1938. It was dismantled after WWII but allowed to re-form in 1948. It changed its name to Pentax Corporation in 2002, probably because that's how it was mostly known anyway. Then in 2007 Hoya acquired 90% of its stock, mainly for the non-photographic businesses. Hoya then sold the camera bits on to Ricoh in 2011.
People who use Pentaxes are afflicted with a stereotype to this day. Which is, they're like Canadians—all nice, mild, and polite. They tend to be decent people free of disputatiousness and bloodymindedness, who love their parents and children, are modest about their wealth and accomplishments, and are courteous, kind and friendly to others. :-)