Retro Tech: “Just handle a Pentax” by illustrator and writer, Richard Bell

This week we are celebrating the Japanese cult classic, the Pentax Spotmatic. When the first model was released back in 1964, it was one of the first consumer SLR cameras available and it has influenced many people’s love for photography. Richard Bell shares the story of what the Pentax Spotmatic meant throughout his career.

31 Jul 2013

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Join TechTalk in a series that aims to celebrate the technology that has shaped past decades. From cult classics to forgotten oddities, we want to bring them back into the spotlight through the eyes of the people that still love them.  

  This week we are celebrating the cult classic, Pentax Spotmatic. When the first model was released back in 1964, it was one of the first consumer SLR cameras available and it has influenced many people's love for photography. Richard Bell shares the story of what the Pentax Spotmatic meant throughout his career.   

  Even before I'd ever handled one, the Pentax Spotmatic was an object of desire. The 'just handle a Pentax' campaign in photography magazines had been followed in the Sunday colour supplements with a series of full page portraits of much-travelled Spotmatics.

 These rather battered and personalised models had accessories such as an ill-fitting lens hood held on with elastoplasts, accompanied by captions like 'Alan Whicker's Pentax' or 'Ken Russell's Pentax'. This built an image in my mind of the Spotmatic as a sleek and reliable travelling companion, especially for would-be creatives like me. I wanted to set off on my own adventure.

Pentax SketchMy sketch of the camera. I think the drawing shows how fond I was of it. Looks like an old friend.

I finally got the chance when, as a student in the illustration department, I was handed a Spotmatic at the start of a three week photography course at the Royal College of Art. Up until then photography had been a half a day a week kind of activity, so the opportunity to drop everything else and engage in for three whole weeks of image-making was literally an eye-opener.

Studio to Seashore

 When we started our studio sessions, the 50 millimetre macro lens was the big attraction for me. With my eye for detail in the natural world I'd always been frustrated by the 3 foot limit on close-up photography of the non-SLR cameras that I'd used.

Pocket Content

A little time capsule of the contents of my pockets.

To make the most of its ability to zoom-in on textures I fixed the camera to one of those rock-steady studio pillar 'tripods', trained a single raking spotlight on a still-life subject, such as a bunch of keys, and took a long exposure to get as much depth of field as I could. Artful out of focus passages weren't an option for me! 

Old Shoe

This is my favourite photograph from the college course. I always liked the contrast of natural with some mouldering man-made object.

Naturally when we went on location, on a day trip to the south coast, the macro was my lens of choice and I photographed shells, seaweed and a shoe on the strandline. The built-in exposure meter that gave the Spotmatic its name was also a big plus for working on location.


This is a cropped scan from one of the negatives, taken in the fern house of the Chelsea Physick Gardens

It's one of those cameras that can help you see the world in a different way. I felt that it had proved itself as an advanced piece of technology that could put up with the treatment it got, indoors and out, from a bunch of student sculptors, painters, potters and textile designers.

Travels with a Camera

 The Pentax Spotmatic was the first major purchase I made when I set myself up as a freelance illustrator a year or two later, and it became essential for gathering reference and for making a record of artwork before I sent it off to publishers.

Mother and baby

It has to be said that I didn't have a clue how to put mums and babies at ease when it came to the live model session.

But it had its rivals. After six months of a year-long sketching expedition for a book project I went for an Olympus Trip, which wasn't nearly as versatile but which made sense when you have to take all you need for 3 weeks in a backpack. Again I was influenced by a clever advertising campaign, as at that time Olympus was running a series of television ads that featured David Bailey. 

Moreover, the Spotmatic had disadvantages as a means of collecting reference for my illustrations. For instance, I didn't always want to take 24 or 36 photographs then wait for the slides to come back from the processor's, so I added a Polaroid camera to my kit. It was a classic of its kind, the model with rubber bellows than snapped neatly shut so that it was just the size of a large paperback, but the film packs proved so expensive that I kept it for special occasions only.

Old Barn

Thatch and weatherboarding of an old barn.

Like so many of us, I finally made the move to digital and my little Olympus Tough - currently my one and only camera - goes everywhere with me. A Cannon scanner makes a far better job of recording my artwork than the Spotmatic ever did. 

I still feel a bit guilty about it but after several years of sitting unused (but not unloved) in the wardrobe my 30 year-old Pentax eventually appeared on eBay, where I sold it for roughly what I'd paid for it back in the 1970s. The macro lens went off to a keen photographer in Gibraltar. 

I hope he's enjoyed using it as much as I did.

Richard Bell


About the Author:  Richard Bell is an illustrator and writer, based in the Calder Valley. You can read his nature diary and drawing journal on Wild West Yorkshire. You can see his published sketchbooks, walks and local guides at Willow Island Editions. He's currently working on a Sherlock Holmes book project.



Did you own a Pentax Spotmatic? Why not send us some pictures that you've taken with using #retrotech on Twitter.  For the latest cameras, check out Currys DSLR range