Pentax ESII review


The Pentax ESII – space-age stuff in the early 1970s (Pic: Nesster/Flickr)

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 buying one.

The ES II was not a camera used by Vietnam-era war photographers, like the Nikon F. Nor did the great street photographers give up their Leicas to take their iconic street photographs. The ESII was aimed at hobbyists, albeit those that took their photography seriously.

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.

ljubljana bike

A bike installation in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana

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 an 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 bashed-up Pentax 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. 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 over the last few years. I hope Smith approves.

Check out my Flickr set taken on the ESII, and my blog post about shooting socialist R&B band Thee Faction on the ESII.

josh guitar

Josh Rouse playing at a free gig in Camden, on pushed Tri-X rated at 3200

ljubljana reflections

Two women chat in the light reflected from a building in Ljubljana, Slovenia


Lift controls from an Istanbul workshop


A jazz bar on London’s South Bank


Bike bling on the streets of Dublin


Chairman Billy from Thee Faction, up close and personal

istanbul captain

A captain’s pose on the quayside at Eminonu, Istanbul

istanbul cat

One of Istanbul’s many cats, on a bench at Uskudar


Texting in the sunlight in Kilburn, north west london

About zorkiphoto (163 Articles)
Writer and analogue photographer. NZ-born, but living in London since the mid-1990s. I'm an incurable fan of film photography, never happier than snapping away one one of the dozens of old films cameras I own. Other boat-floaters: Music, cricket, travel, cooking, history, football, pub quizzes and writing.

12 Comments on Pentax ESII review

  1. Back in the 60s I had a Pentax S1A, then a Spotmatic. Among other old film cameras I now use an LX and an MX.

    • I now shoot the same (MX and LX)… two of the finest SLR cameras ever produced in my opinion. I’ve two MXs that I shoot with day-to-day and the LX comes out for more serious work. I would change nothing about either of them. I’ll have them the rest of my life.

  2. I learned to shoot on my dad’s old Spotmatic, and I used it until fairly recently; due to its broken light meter and sticky shutter, I left it behind when I moved to Istanbul. I miss it!

  3. Thanks John – I had a Spotmatic F at one point and loved it, but switched to the ESII because the battery situation is a lot easier. The ESII is a cracking camera if you can find one – has that classic 70s SLR feel.

  4. I recently visited Istanbul for the first time – and hoping to go back there soon – and that’s how I found out about your lovely blog. The light in this city is pretty unique and I mostly walk around with my old but pretty unfaithful Minolta SRT-101.🙂

    I was wondering what was the type of film you used for the bike shot in Dublin. I really like the tones and texture.


  5. I recently visited Istanbul for the first time – and hoping to go back there soon – and that’s how I found your lovely blog. The light in this city is pretty unique!

    As I’m looking foward to learn more about the film types and their specificities, I wanted to know what was the film you used for the bike in Dublin’ shot. I really like the color and texture.

    Many thanks!

  6. Awesome write-up and photos.

  7. I have an SPII that I bought from a garage sale a few years back, it’s my favorite camera, but you’ve inspired me to buy an ESII as well! I’m sure I won’t be disappointed.🙂

  8. I am a dedicated Spotmatic fan, I personally find them smoother to operate and prettier to look at than any Nikon or Canon. The buttery-smooth film advance of the Spotmatic has not been surpassed by any mechanical camera. I only wish Pentax had produced a rangefinder based on the Spotmatic. The ESII looks like a great camera indeed, but I just can’t give up the security of a fully mechanical camera that does not need a battery to operate the shutter.

  9. Hugh McJanet // May 4, 2015 at 11:57 pm // Reply

    Hello Christos-

    The coolest thing about the ESII is that there are actually two shutters: one electronic, one mechanical. When you use the auto-exposure function, you are using the electronic shutter, and therefore battery.
    The mechanical shutter, however, does not require battery power: it will function properly even if batteries have not been installed. Simply turn the shutter speed selector to any speed other than “Automatic” and the camera works perfectly well even with dead/no batteries.
    Problem solved!

  10. I have several Spotmatics and I love them all. I also have adapters to use the Super Takumar lenses on my Micro 4/3 and Nikon digital cameras; love them!
    I saw an ESII on Ebay a couple of days ago and didn’t even know that this model existed. Needless to say I snapped it up and am delighted to read such a gleaming review of the camera here. Can’t wait until it arrives!

  11. Pentax ES series are really good imho. Especially the Takumar lenses. Have both; the ES and ES II. Can’t find battery for the ES so that one is used manually, the batteries for the ES II are easy to find so that one is for automatic🙂 Btw. couldn’t notice any battery drain on the ES II, they seem to last for ages. It’s funny, sometimes I ask if I can take a picture and usually the answer is positive. Next thing you know: “can I see it?”🙂 I think the concept of just having a roll of celluloid in a box with a lens is simply great. I usually have the ES loaded with a B/W film and the ES II with colour. Anyway, great review for great cameras.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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