The Pentax ESII was the last generation of one of photography’s classic lines; the Pentax Spotmatic. Few cameras before or since can match the simple elegance of this screw-mount workhorse; tough and reliable, it gave professional reliability within the grasp of the amateur enthusiast. And its lenses – Pentax’s range of Takumars – were truly world class.
In 1971, the Electro Spotmatic bought Pentax’s classic into the space age; using a new range of specially modified lenses, it allowed aperture-priority shooting with a stepless, electronically controlled shutter. The admittedly troublesome Electro Spotmatic was replaced by the more robust Pentax ES, and two years later, in 1973, by the ESII, which added a slightly different layout and metering up to ISO 3200.
The ES II was only manufactured for two years – by the middle of the decade Pentax had embraced the bayonet mount, which was quicker to change than the old screw mounts. But this last gasp of the Spotmatic is a cracking camera; if I had to shoot on one camera for the rest of my life, this would be it. And it’s only by meeting a photographer who took one of music’s most iconic pictures with one that I ended up getting one.
The ES II was not a camera used by Vietnam-era war photographers, like the Nikon F was. Nor did the great street photographers give up their Leicas to take their iconic street photographs. The ESII was aimed at the amateur enthusiast crowd instead.
What makes the ESII so nice to shoot with? Despite the electronic heart beating in its metal shell, it’s a pretty simple camera. There’s only a handful of shutter speeds which can be used in manual mode, but flick the shutter dial to A and a whole range of speeds become available – if the camera decides the correct speed for the aperture chosen is 1/509th of a second, that’s what it uses. These abilities are only unlocked with the SMC range of Takumar lenses, the ones which have the special tab on the rear of the lens which allows the camera’s auto-exposure system to read the lens aperture. The camera will use pretty much all of the vast arsenal of M42 lenses, but you’ll lose the auto-exposure, auto-aperture qualities. But if you have the SMC lenses fitted, it’s a case of setting the aperture and snapping away – something which makes the ESII particularly good for street shooting.
The ESII might not have been the staple of the mid-1970s pro photographer, but there is one iconic photograph taken on it. Pennie Smith is a British music photographer renowned for her work as a staff snapper at the NME in the 1970s. As punk hit, she went on the road with The Clash and caught the iconic image of Clash bassist Paul Simenon smashing his bass – on her trusty Pentax ESII. The pic, personally picked off the contact sheet by Clash frontman Joe Strummer, went on to become the cover of the band’s 1980 album London Calling.
In 2007, shooting the Manic Street Preachers at a concert at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I realised I wasn’t the only photographer in the pit using film – next to me was Pennie Smith herself, shooting the band on an ESII that looked like it had seen the sharp end of several war zones. The cheerful Smith made the based-up look like the best damn camera I’d ever seen. The next week I bought two off eBay, and ever since it’s been a rare day when one hasn’t been in the camera bag.
The only downside with the ESII their ability to chew through batteries; if you’re storing one for any length of time, it makes sense to take the batteries out. Or, if you’re heading out for more than a week or two and plan on shooting a lot with the ESII, make sure there’s a few packs of spare batteries. Unlike a lot of 70s-era cameras, which used mercury batteries, the Pentax uses the kind of button cells you can find in most corner stores. That’s another factor which makes it really useable 40 years after it was made.
Since my run in with Smith I’ve bought a couple more ESIIs – spare bodies that don’t work are particularly useful for spare parts to keep others working. Though I try to use as many of my cameras as possible on trips abroad or weekend shooting, I’ll still usually have an ESII to hand – they’re easy and instinctive to use, and the Pentax’s Takumars are simply superb.
I’ve taken ESIIs on trips to Slovenia and Istanbul, Dublin and New York, and used them to take pics of several bands. I hope Smith approves.