Pentax ME 

Not the ME Super, but perhaps the ME Better!

Pentax ME

I think I struck lucky with this one. Found, by chance, when searching for a Pentax-M 50mm lens, the description of this item detailed the lens only and was priced at about the same as the lens alone would go for. But all the pics showed the camera too, so I asked the seller to confirm what was included in the sale. The answer: everything! I snapped it up even though I wasn’t sure I’d need the lens (see previous post) because the camera looked so clean. No knowing whether or not it would work, though, so it was another cheap punt.

This is the camera that led to the later, and much more popular, ME Super. The latter has many refinements but, as I have discovered, also involved some cost and weight reduction by replacing some of the metals with plastics. One of the reasons I prefer the look of the plain ME is the metal top cover with the ASAHI stamp; the Super has a top cover which is mostly plastic but plated with a metallic outer and, as such, has a slightly different appearance. There are no buttons near the shutter dial on the ME because it’s not possible to set manual shutter speeds on this model; it’s aperture priority only apart from a purely mechanical speed of 1/100s (x-synch for flash) and B. The shutter dial itself is more robust on the ME, compared with the all-plastic affair of the Super, and I prefer it even though it results in a more fiddly process to remove the top cover. Most of the remaining differences between the ME and the Super are inside.

So, upon arrival, the lens seemed fine apart from the fact that it was very dusty inside. No fungus (unlike the one that had arrived just prior to this) and mechanics were fine. This was a simple, half-hour job to dis-assemble, separate the main groups either side of the aperture blades and blow out the vast majority of the dust that had settled onto the two surfaces there.

I noticed immediately that the camera’s wind-on lever was loose when near the end of its travel and it didn’t click closed. The shutter, though, seemed fine as did the electronics and meter display. I knew what this meant: the “click spring” had broken off inside. The purpose of this spring is to secure the wind-on lever close to the camera body to, firstly, switch off the meter and, secondly, prevent accidental partial wind-on. Easily overlooked but should not be; the broken-off bit of metal can travel down into the workings or even shutter and seriously jam or permanently break something. I decided to resist the temptation to check shutter speeds any further and see if I could fish out the broken spring. Luckily, after removing the camera base plate, a few short shakes resulted in the piece in this picture falling out.

Broken click spring
Broken-off click spring. Better out than in!

Safe now to carry on testing, I figured all seemed well apart from the usual need to replace the mirror buffer and light traps.

I ended up harvesting a click spring from a parts-only ME Super (the springs are identical) and installed it into the ME. The Super has a refinement, though, where a second, coiled spring is used to strengthen the main click spring and presumably make it less likely to break off. The coiled spring is held around a post and is sprung against a second post, neither of which are present in the ME. I discovered that both posts are direct replacements for plain screws in the ME and so I gave the ME the Super’s full click spring refinement job! Perfect.

With the top cover still off, all that was left was to remove and replace some crumbling old foam which was meant to cover the open area where the meter LEDs go, leading straight into the area between prism and top surface of the screen. This was a very fiddly job and resulted in more cruddy bits than I wanted to see when looking through the viewfinder, so when all was sealed again I removed the prism and cleaned the underside, the viewfinder side, the back of the viewfinder lens and the top surface of the screen. The prism itself is held in by two tiny screws – one on each side – and removal requires the electronic boards to be carefully lifted away from the top surfaces first of all. After loosening the two prism screws the entire prism will then lift out. It’s the same situation in the ME Super and it’s the only way to remove debris that has found its way into the space between prism and screen, since screens are not user-removable in these cameras. The eventual replacement for the ME Super – the Super A (Super Program in the U.S.A.) – does have user-changeable screens which, if nothing else, makes cleaning much easier.

I have renewed the mirror buffer now and will soon replace the light traps in and around the rear door so that I can run some film through. I love the mirror/shutter sound and feel of this camera; there’s something very reassuringly 1970s about it and that’s only meant in a good way. It’s ever so slightly less dampened in movement compared with the Super but it’s certainly no Spotmatic in terms of noise or vibration. And that’s not to say that the Spotmatics are bad, either – far from it.

Something worth mentioning is that I get the distinct impression that the ME suffers much less from the very common shutter and wind-on issues that many Supers will suffer from now, if not serviced. Perhaps because it’s slightly less refined internally, with fewer plastic parts. My Super had the wind-on issue (film winds but shutter won’t charge), which I appear to have fixed without the need for a full service, and my (much more shabby) parts body has the same issue which can’t be fixed in the same, relatively simple, way.

So, is the ME better than the ME Super? Purely in terms of functionality, not really, and yet I prefer it. If you’re on the lookout for a fully working ME Super and don’t care much about manual shutter speeds, give the ME a go.

Saving Pentax-M

I’ve just spent pretty much the entire day restoring a Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7.

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Fungus-free!
I not able to do much moving about at the moment and so, rather than mope around and feel sorry for myself all weekend, I thought I’d spend an hour or two doing this. Lesson number one: estimate the time required to clean and restore a lens as bad as this was and then multiply it by three.

The lens arrived this morning from a well-known auction site and my expectations were fairly low from the start; it was at a buy-now price which was about half that of most others, with no real description to speak of and no way to see close detail from pictures. This was a cheap gamble and I was expecting to do some work on it, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the state of the thing when I examined it. Not that it needed close examination to see that it was completely infested with fungus – the worst I’d ever seen.

The outside barrel wasn’t too bad; a little grubby but easily cleaned. The elements, though, looked completely stuffed. Just about every glass surface inside and out was covered in masses of threads and patches of mould. Nasty! I’ve had success at cleaning fungus from elements before but I have to say I was close to giving up on this as it was so badly affected throughout. Pretty much unusable, optically.

OK, so it may take more than an hour, I thought. More than two, even. All in all, it took about six hours! Was it worth all that time, considering price difference between this one and a good one? Well, yes and no but I favour the “yes” because it gave me a project to do whilst unable to go out and, more importantly, I have saved a now-decent lens from the scrapheap. Make do and mend!

Often, it’s said that fungal infestation of lens elements is the end for them: the fungus etches into the coatings and, sometimes, the glass itself, causing irreparable damage. Up to now, though, I’ve been lucky as I’ve been able eliminate fungus on a few old lenses without leaving much permanent damage, if any at all. This lens turned out to be no exception but it’s been the most laborious lens-fix I’ve ever done, without any mechanical fixes, even, as everything mechanical worked perfectly. It was necessary to separate all of the individual elements and clean all surfaces which is very, very difficult to do because, even with fungus all gone, getting truly crystal-clear cleaning results on internal surfaces, without any smears whatsoever, takes a lot of time and patience. Still, time is what I’ve had and it did pay off in the end. Lesson number two: do not use a blower bulb with a metal end too close to an internal surface because one small slip could result in a permanent coating mark. Doh! Thankfully tiny and won’t affect anything but still, a swear-inducing moment.

I wish I’d taken a “before” picture but I honesly didn’t think I could salvage it so didn’t bother. Believe me, it was horrendous! Here it is again, in its fully restored state (I restored the filter, too, which was also in a very sorry, mouldy state but it’s a nice Hoya one so worth saving. I had to take the glass out of the frame to clean everything but all’s well and clear with that now, too):

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When elements and groups are taken apart and re-assembled it’s always a good idea to check for any misplacement or decentring as a tiny amount of misplacement of any individual element can have profound optical consequences. I’m glad to say all is well, wide-open and at high magnification (digital test). I replaced the front name ring and cleaned the barrel exterior thoroughly.

One clean and clear lens to add to the collection, and a very good one at that. I could now sell it for twice the amount I paid but it’s definitely a keeper.

A return to M42

I started with 35mm SLRs when I was 11 years old. The first was a Zenith (or Zenit) EM, followed by a Praktica MTL3 for which I traded the Zenith (I wish I hadn’t but I had no choice). At the time I looked longingly at cameras I couldn’t possibly afford – the Fujicas, the Olympuses (Olympi?), the Pentaxes – but it wasn’t until a few years later, and well into the 1980s, that I moved to a Japanese brand. By then it was Minolta and their budget X300 model; a good camera but with fairly typical 1980s-style replacement of some metals with plastics.

For a while now I’ve been trying to find an excuse to return to those early cameras with their screw-thread M42 lenses, for no other reason than what is presumably the result of a mid-life crisis. For me, as a youngster, the arrival of the Zenith, which had followed some fairly dodgy instamatic-types, was a revelation and I remember the excitement, the heft of the thing and even the smell of the leather case. I could change lenses (the ones I had were terrible, apart from the Helios 58mm) and I could actually view through the lens that was going to take the picture! Changing lenses was a bit of a faff – they were prone to fall if the thread hadn’t taken on the first twist – and stop-down metering was awkward. I loved it. And now I wanted some of that back.

Zenith EMs don’t appear to have aged well, it seems, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy into a camera that I’d be unlikely to run a film though anyway. One day, maybe, if I see a mint one for a reasonable price, but in the meantime my attention turned to Pentax. I started initially looking just for a lens or two to use with digital, but found that many of the Takumars were attached to Spotmatic bodies. Those cameras looked really nice and so the decision was made: this would be my re-entry into the land of M42.

After some research, the Super Takumar 55mm f/1.8 was to be the lens of choice (to begin with!) and I managed to find a SMC version attached to a Spotmatic F for not much more than the lenses alone typically go for. The body looked dusty but was described as fully-functional; the lens was described as optically good but with an aperture ring that was somewhat stiff to move. At the asking price (the body was practically free!) I took a chance but then I saw another SP F which looked nice and was very cheap, and so I thought I’d have that as well, just in case the first one turned out to be bad. And then I saw a SP500 at a ridiculously cheap price. It would have been rude not to.

So, here are the latest arrivals in various sates of restoration. Some details are below but in summary: these are real beauties that are built to last. They are such fine pieces of precision engineering that they are a joy to use, with a reassuringly heavy heft and refined controls. With very few exceptions, cameras aren’t made like this any more; even the SP500 (1971-1973), the first budget SP model, feels every bit as solid and well-engineered as the SP F. I’m looking forward to running some film though these.

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L-R: SP F w. SMC Takumar 1:1.8/55; SP500; SP F

Spotmatic F with SMC Takumar 1:1.8/55  (picture left)

Arrival state: dusty and grubby camera body. Lens cosmetically better but the aperture ring was very difficult to move, then jammed completely.

Work done on body: cleaned the outside of the camera body only for now. Meter tested and all correct. Shutter tested and fires without any problems. Needs a total clean plus all light seals and mirror bumper changed, which I shall do myself.

Work done on lens: dis-assembled after the aperture ring totally jammed. I expected to find a broken/bent lever or something inside, but upon inspection it became clear that the lens had been dropped and the impact had bent the aperture ring ever so slightly in a 1 cm portion, as well as affecting internal aperture mechanics. I milled the aperture ring so that it was no longer grating hard against the lens body underneath. An internal ring which is driven by the external aperture ring was also grating badly on the inside, so was bent a tiny amount using a vernier calliper as a guide. Ultimately, I cannot get the lower part of the body totally back into as-new shape, which would be ideal since smooth operation requires tiny tolerances. img_0152 (1)I made it the best I could and re-greased the inner and outer components. Re-assembled (checking to make sure I had infinity focus set correctly before the final steps) and now have a lens which is quite usable. It’s still not ideal – the aperture ring needs more force than usual to rotate, especially at the extreme values – but it does now rotate all the way from 1.8 to 16. Unlike many Nikon lenses, some of which I’ve fixed before, these have to be taken apart from the front. Here it is with name ring, filter ring and focus ring removed. I got some tips from this article which was good enough, even though mine is the newer SMC version.

Spotmatic SP500 (picture middle)

Arrival state: sorry.

Work done: I thought this was a goner. Outside it was superficially nice except for the base plate, which had clearly been the victim of a leaked battery in the past, although to be fair the worst of the damage had been cleared up. Meter tested and found to be working in reverse! The needle went up (+) for under-exposure and down (-) for over. This was easy: the battery had been installed the wrong way around by the previous owner/seller, so I reversed it. Outer body cleaned up nicely. Moving inside, the mirror was absolutely filthy and the focus screen had crud on it, so both were cleaned (the mirror using sensor swabs and sensor cleaning fluid with next to no pressure applied; the focus screen using a dry sensor swab). Someone had done a bad job of replacing the mirror bumper foam which contributed to some of the crud inside; I have cleaned it all up, including an unidentified deposit on one side of the mirror box – no idea what it was and it was a pig of a job to remove. The meter then stopped responding altogether, so I removed the base plate and cleaned the contacts underneath the battery chamber. All OK now.

This one needs a bit more work, to remove the old door seals and replace.  Also (maybe) to fix the aperture actuator at the bottom inside the mount which doesn’t spring back as it should. That’s not a major problem, though. What I thought would end up as spare parts is now a clean and functional camera.

Spotmatic F (picture right)

Arrival state: nice! Needs new seals but apart from that, cosmetically the best of the lot.

Work done: Nothing much so far. This one very occasionally sticks with the mirror up but I can only reproduce that at 1/60th. Winding-on and taking another frame cures it until the next time. The wind-on feels slightly rougher than on the other two bodies, so it could do with a full CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust) service, I think. Meter checks out fine. This one will probably be sent off for the proper treatment.