Some of Joseph's personal Pentax ensemble, still in sporadic use.

Nikon User In Praise of
PENTAX

Whether film or digital, Pentax has long been a class act ... one that has had a profound influence on all of comtemporary photography no matter what camera you shoot with ...
 



 
I love independent thinkers. The ones who, in the grammatically-incorrect promotional urging of Apple Computer, 'Think Different'. But before Apple became The New Chic, those who adopted the deviant mindset were dismissed as second-class outcasts of misguided non-conformity. Behavioral lepers among the obedient. The morally corrupt Scarlet Letter soiling the space more rightfully occupied by the Man of Letters.

And so it would be, regarding cameras. The Leica camera, magnificent as it was (and remains), found its home principally among the rich who shuttled through Europe with a tour bus window as their principle viewfinder. When the bus stopped, out came the Leica. They stood firmly at the painted safety rail, as all tour-stop Points of Interest curiously seemed to have them. Click. The world traveler returned with magnificently sharp images of Holland, but still, the most decisive image that Leica conjured was that of a task-free, investment portfolio retiree wearing a felt hat, adorned with a feather.

Click.

But it would be Nikon -- and later, Canon, as well – that grabbed the headliner attention. These were the cameras used by professionals. And any other choice was regarded – even among the commoners – as less serious in tone and gestalt. Quaint, even. Yes, the peasant-like Lilliputians, with their point-and-shoots, saw the likes of, say, Minolta as a “good camera”. But, come on, they weren't Nikons, as told. And further, most Minoltas were referred to as “my dad's Minolta”. You know ... my thrifty dad. The one who wouldn't spring for the Nikon and additionally swore by the Craftsman tools he bought at Sears. But the otherwise cheap bastard dutifully spent the extra ten bucks to get the protective 'UV' filter recommended by the salesman at the camera store. Yes, the kind of dad who kept the user manual – and in damn good condition, too. Damn good. It was the obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive twin to meticulously preserving the ‘Passed’ inspection sticker in all of its original, golden oval glory.

But your dad never knew that the Minolta SRT-101 was the principle camera of choice for that nasty, gallery-featured purveyor of depravity, David Hamilton, who photographed soft-focus images of barely pubescent Lolitas, salaciously absorbed in the self-discovery of their pre-nubile, naked little bodies. And as yet another example of ... lurid perversion, Hamilton just used the standard 50mm lens that came with the Minolta camera, straight out of the box, making him the most twisted little shit of all ... Men of breeding used a Nikon and an array of lenses for more dignified endeavors of vision, such as Hustler magazine spreads and 'The Best of Cum', Volumes 1 through 48.   But enough about me ...

Click.

Among the second-class citizens of photographic elitism, few cameras – along with their owners – have been so undeservingly relegated to the 'Coach Section' like Pentax. As a line of cameras originated by the Asahi Optical Company of Japan, the Pentax cameras – in a number of incarnations – have sold in the millions. Indeed, for a long duration of their history, they out-sold Nikon and Canon, combined – just not so much to the professional photo journalism market. And, with this, was an erroneous implication that while the finer Pentax cameras were, perhaps, capable of professional results, they were somehow not up to professional standards – however that may be considered or defined.

Never mind that Pentax has been the marque found on some of the most professionally-based photographic equipment in the form of exceptional medium format cameras (though, again, eclipsed by the reputation of the far more use-awkward Hasselblads and Rolleis), with no such offerings from the likes of Nikon or Canon. Or that Pentax also produced one of the reference standards of dedicated light meters – along with Minolta. But as it related to 35mm roll-film cameras – and now, in the digital format, Pentax has still been often regarded by many as 'second string' offerings for “advanced amateur” or “enthusiast” use. And an 'enthusiast', after all, is just one step up from the mere hobbyist. Lounge singers among the rock stars.

In truth, Nikon and Canon – along with Leica – took many of their design and engineering cues from the parent company of Pentax, Asahi Optical. These would include the rapid-return mirror, the flip-up lever rewind crank (previously a knurled knob), the film advance lever (again, previously just a knob), internal light metering, multi-coated lenses, and the first mass production of an auto-focus, 35mm Single Lens Reflex camera (albeit with one, dedicated lens that required its own batteries). Indeed, the very layout of SLR film cameras – of all makes – was defined by Asahi Optical. Point of fact, outside of Leica (a.k.a. Leitz) introducing the 35mm still-frame format in 1925, no other camera maker influenced 35mm photography more.

Meanwhile, Nikon and Canon owners have long been fighting a pointless war of who possesses the best camera. This battle isn't much fought by working pros and artists, but rather by testosterone-driven males who apply a Muscle Car mentality to a simple paint brush and canvas. The good news for the Pentax owner is that they never had to engage in this silly warfare. Their cameras are immune to the battle by virtue of being summarily dismissed by the hyper-Alphas as girlie cameras. And, in some sense, perhaps they are ... as Pentax has long produced some of the sexiest cameras known to man (and, presumably, bisexual women).

While still very much a kid, I made the switch from Pentax to a Nikon F2. And having used most every professional-grade Nikon made since, I came to realize that my favorite Nikon of all was the trimmed-back and less expensive Nikon FM -- along with the electronic 'FE' camera housed in the same form factor. And why, you may ask? Simply because the original 'FM/FE' series was the closest Nikon ever came to replicating the handling and feel of ... a Pentax Spotmatic.

While Pentax really began to hit its digital stride with the introduction of their exceptionally fine K10 cameras – and others that would follow, those long-familiar with Pentax become teary-eyed with the very mention of the film-based, screw-mount Spotmatic, commercially introduced in 1964 and, in truth, living on in the same basic chassis and form factor – under other model designations – for 33 years, inclusive of the bayonet-mount inceptions of the 'KM' and 'KX' cameras to, yes, the “student-grade” 'K1000'. This design longevity speaks to just how 'right' the camera was to begin with. A camera still in wide use to this day. Websites, Blogs, and User Groups remain dedicated to it. Devoted to it.


This pristine, 1972 sample of the classic Pentax Spotmatic II was aquired for all of $60, inclusive of the attached 50mm, f1.4 Takumar lens.

While of the 'screw-mount days', a couple hundred of dollars can buy a versatile setup with additional lenses.

Still one of the best damn basic mechanical designs in film cameras ... ever.


The original lenses for the Spotmatic cameras – the Takumars – were, and remain, world-class. Their manual-focus, 50mm f/1.4 design is widely regarded as one of the finest normal lenses made – ever, by anyone. Yes, even today. Additionally, the very feel of its focusing movement rivals anything made by Leica. The Takumar 85mm lens is also legendary as the best in its focal-length class. And as a general lens line – an extensive one, the Takumars were simply top-flight, for the most part. They could – and can – be used without apology, and without feeling even slightly diminished by the presence of Nikon or Canon lenses. In fact, there are users of these two 'professional camera' makers who have adapted some of the old, Takumar screw-mounts to their most modern and expensive digital cameras – in many instances offering higher resolution than their digital sensors are actually capable of rendering.

It should be noted, in a related aside, that the 'Takumar' name, as it pertained to the later, bayonet-mount optics would ultimately be reserved for the 'budget lenses' from Asahi Optical - though often farmed-out by Asahi for others to produce - while the newer 'SMC Pentax' lenses represented the in-house quality Asahi Optical was always known for. That is, the bayonet-mount 'Pentax SMC' lenses are more the optical and construction equivalent of the older screw-mount 'Takumars'. How the world has changed. The very notion of 'budget line' lenses and farmed-out production would have been conceptually inconceivable for Asahi, years back.

But it was, perhaps, Pentax's original screw-mount lenses – more than anything else, such as interchangeable finders and screens – that kept Pentax pretty much out of the professional market, particularly as it related to photojournalism where the faster interchange of bayonet-mount lenses was seemingly required. This, despite the fact that, back in 'the day', Photojournalists typically swapped out entire camera bodies – flung about necks and shoulders -- already 'loaded' with pre-determined optics, rather than taking the seconds involved to actually change lenses in the first place. And rapid sequence, motor-driven Pentax cameras were, indeed, available. But there was something of a gap in the availability of fast lenses at some popular focal lengths, alas. Most of the Takumar wide lenses, for example, opened up to a maxed-out f/3.5, outside of the 35mm focal length optics that were available in 2.0s. Virtually all of them were – and remain – excellent lenses. They just weren't the large aperture, 'light-suckers' that Nikon had already begun to offer. For the “illustrator” or artist, it probably didn't matter. For the photojournalists, it did.

Further, it was also thought that professional Nikons were of a sturdier build. But with countless Pentax cameras still clicking away more than 40 years later, one may be urged to reassess. After all, at the end of the day, a fall down a rock-laden mountain just isn't good for any camera -- or photographer, for that matter. But certainly the shutter life-cycle of the classic Pentax meets anything ever built by Nikon, it seems.

Alas, as Pentax switched to bayonet-mount cameras (while also designing some faster lenses) and ultimately delivered a hyper-modular “professional camera” in the form of the 'LX' model, Nikon – and, increasingly, Canon – had become firmly entrenched in the pro market. Canon, in fact, had made previously inconceivable inroads in a professional arena formerly dominated almost entirely by Nikon. For Pentax, not so much. A shame.

But for those who have made Pentax their choice of 'capture' (the new and annoyingly trendy term), whether film or digital -- if by conscious decision or 'dumb luck', they have several reasons to be proud. And longtime Pentax adopters can also enjoy a remarkable compatibility between the older, manual-focus, film-era lenses and the more recent Pentax digital camera offerings.

So while Nikon and Canon may grab the daily Photo-Press headlines, Pentax ... wrote the history.

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