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.
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. 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.