Fully aware that I have posted a lot of camera reviews as of late, I feel compelled to offer a "Cliff's Notes" version for those viewers who simply wish to skip down to the photos without guilt...
- Quirky guy buys cheap "parts only" camera in order to secure a manual focus lens.
- Quirky guy finds out that camera actually works with no seeming issues.
- Quirky guy elects to try out the camera on a whim, though worried of its performance.
- Quirky guy finds a stellar new favorite camera in this "throwaway!"
As the proud new owner of the Pentax ZX-7 camera that can readily accept both AF and manual Pentax lenses, I got a "bee in my bonnet" to pick up a K-series 50mm lens in order to have an affordable fast prime to fit onto this modern film camera. With patience not being my strongest virtue at this particular point in time, I scoured ebay "Buy-it-Now" listings for a cheap pickup on such a lens and found the cheapest to be around $35 once shipping was added. I certainly wanted to see if I could find such a lens for a bit less, so I employed a particular strategy to search for a "parts" camera body that included the lens to see if I could find a worn out camera with an optically decent lens attached.
Knowing that the basic K-1000 cameras were typically running about $50 or more with lenses attached, I tried to jog my brain cells to recall what other models were made by Pentax, and vaguely recalled the LX and ME. The LX, a known premium model, certainly was showing up at prices reflecting that premium. However, I was able to find a some worthwhile results on my search using "Pentax ME Lens," the cheapest of which offered an ME Super body and lens for $29 total. The seller readily acknowledged that the camera likely didn't work, but this was still cheaper than buying the lens alone, and that was really all I wanted.
I knew nothing about this camera model, but by using logic (something that one should really discard in this hobby), I figured that if a bland vanilla K-1000 typically cost at least $50 with a lens, and if an ME Super could be found pretty easily for $30, then it stood to reason that an ME Super was an older, less desirable, less versatile camera than the austere "K-Grand." I gave little initial thought to the camera at all though - it was almost certainly dead, and even if it worked, I would hardly be elated to have a camera that was the lesser of the K-1000.
This camera can really be summed up in the one in-focus word in this photo.
A day or two later, with a little bit of spare time, I did a quick internet search on the Pentax ME Super, curious to discover what the fatal flaws were of the surely meager camera model that was accompanying my lens. Much to my surprise, the ME Super not only had a far more robust feature set than the K-1000, but it also had its share of fans who wrote some very glowing reviews of it, whose words I hastily skimmed. Of course, this was all likely to be a moot point since this camera heading to me would more than likely be DOA. Still, I'd started to wish I'd paid a few more dollars for a known working ME Super.
With a modest size and great control layout, the Pentax ME Super is easily picked up quickly with little in the way of "learning curve." What's that cord you might ask? Stay tuned!
As it turns out, I never had to buy a known working ME Super. A fresh set of batteries and the ME Super whose seller had forsaken it more or less as a parts donor sprang to life as it nothing whatsoever was wrong. The LED's shone brightly in the fantastic viewfinder. I quickly became enthused to finally learn more about this camera model and its features. I also was surprised and elated at how compact this camera was, yet how nice it felt in the hands. It reminded me of another well liked camera in my arsenal, the Olympus OM-2.
I quickly did some searching to discover more about this camera's features. In a lot of ways, it carried a feature array somewhat resembling the OM-2. Like the Olympus, it was a compact bodied SLR camera offering manual and aperture priority exposure and a large bright viewfinder.
Top deck layout of the ME Super. Not a bevy of settings, but this camera does quite well without an array of settings. The toggle buttons to the right of the pentaprism cycle through shutter speeds when in manual mode. Though I worried initially about them failing, they worked perfectly in this example. Note the 125X setting, a great fail safe to be able to use if the batteries fail, which, given the light usage of battery power from the meter and shutter, won't be often.
Still, there are enough distinctions between the two models that make them more like "distant cousins" than "brothers from other mothers." To help distinguish these differences, I found it helpful to create the following chart:
Each camera has its strengths and weaknesses compared to each other, to where it is a matter of personal needs and preferences that may determine which camera, if either, provides the better fit for the film camera buyer. If the average price of the last 10 ebay sold listings was any indication, logic seems to dictate that the Olympus provides the stronger product.
But did I not just say that logic seems out of place in this hobby? Loading a partially exposed roll of Efke KB25 into the ME Super to test as a first attempt with this camera, I was immediately struck by how easy it was to use this camera in either of its main modes. The buttons to adjust shutter speed on the Pentax simply worked better for me than the rim mounted dial on the Oly, while the presence of a 1/2000 speed would allow me to open up the lens more often for shallow focus shots.
The result was a photo snapping experience that was not only more intuitive to me but also more enjoyable. I looked forward to not simply finishing the roll of film, but starting off a new one soon after, while also eagerly wanting to see the results of what this surprising gem of a camera could do.
A couple of glimpses though the ME Super's excellent viewfinder. The focusing is a cinch on this bright screen and is assisted by the micoprism and split image rangefinder in the center. The LED's along the lens side are easily visible and don't compromise on the image. A closer look at the indicators is below, where one can see indicators for shutter speeds, manual exposure, and readings that are over or under the range provided here. This may well be where the idea for multi-colored indication on the ZX-7 and similar cameras originated, as the speeds from 1/30 and under have yellow "caution" dots. The rather cryptic "EF" label merely denotes exposure adjustment.
And as if to complete the process, my enthusiasm for the ME Super merely grew once I saw those results. The meter did an excellent job of measuring scenes as the finished negatives and scans bore out. This was the happiest of happy accidents from a camera collecting perspective. I'd somehow been that blind squirrel who happened upon the meatiest of nuts without even trying,
I really do like the Olympus OM-2 and can readily attest that there are some situations, such as taking low light photos in auto mode, where its capabilities will be quite a bit more adept than the ME Super. That said, I am in love with the ME Super. There is something about its interface and usage that just simply feels right every time I pick it up. And to know that it can more or less handle whatever situation I might put it in allows me to relax and shoot with confidence.
My gripe list about the ME Super is a very short one indeed. On my sample, moving between auto, manual, and off settings is a bit tricky due a somewhat sludgy control dial. And despite my comparative love for this camera compared to the OM-2, I can readily miss the fluid and smooth advance of the Oly when using this Pentax. It should also be noted that film advance is known to be a weak spot in the design of the ME Super.
And... the accepting nature of the Pentax AF cameras has a reciprocal benefit as well, since the ME Super will readily accept AF and MF lenses of Pentax mount. I can move the 50mm f/2 over to the ZX-7 as I'm shooting an AF 28-70 mm lens on the ME Super. Pentax sets the standard for me when it comes to forward and backward compatibility.
While it has become apparent that I have a bit more affection for the ME Super than the OM-2, I actually wouldn't automatically recommend it over the Olympus, given the variances in features that will vary among user preferences. Both models offer a wonderful range of features, usage, and optics that is sure to please the shooter looking for a compact, well-featured, and intuitive model. In fact, my only recommendation would be that if you can manage it, snap up both cameras, even if one sees more use than the other. And rest assured that you won't really know which that will be until you've tried both!
My photographic foray with the ME Super started on a particularly dreary winter day, but even with slow speed film that more or less required shooting at or close to wide open on the 50mm lens with Efke 25 speed film, the ME Super delivered well exposed and sharp image results.
Focus was a cinch to nail using the big bright viewfinder with its split image rangefinder. Though the Pentax 50mm f/2 is a basic lens, I was more than happy with its results.
Subject isolation, even at moderate distances, was also quite easy when shooting this lens wide open. The f/2 aperture does a great job of getting focus right where you want it.
Bokeh on the f/2 lens is pretty decent, even when there really isn't any pattern in the distance to make it into an interesting swirl or pattern.
BONUS: This camera also came with an Albinar 80-200mm lens. While I wasn't as thrilled with this lens at first due to it being a third party zoom, I did read and find that it had its fans as well. I took a few shots with it and quickly could see why. This lens is actually VERY nice!
Another shot with the Albinar shot on the 80mm end and stopped down a bit. Again, a very good result, even with a bit of distortion around the edges in particular.
Another one with the zoom out to 200mm. Not perfect, but quite decent. This lens tends to stay with me when I take out my Pentax outfit now, and gets more use.
Back to the 50mm: A foggy day image totally picks up the eeriness of the scene, and does so with a resounding bit of clarity.
Focusing on the stake in the center, I was pleased to get some separation between it and the backdrop. Using the ME Super for quick shots like this is amazingly easy.
Regrettably, some shots are taken too quickly. The well in center doesn't stand out enough to truly be a "subject."
As always, Middletown provides me some nice photographic diversions.
Another fun shot taken wide open of a hanging light fixture. I love the ethereal glow put forth by the Efke film.
Photographic rule #541: If there are horses in your composition, do not obscure them partially behind boards of a fence.
I had no idea what to expect from this foggy day foray, but the ME Super captured the feel of this day perfectly.
Making about as much sense as the price flip between K1000 and ME Super models, I moved to a fast speed film in Fuji Pro 400H for a handful of shots taken in bright Spring sunshine, The ME Super allowed me to easily rate the film at 200 speed however, and the Fuji stock responded with excellent color.
I have taken this very scene with at least 4 or 5 cameras for comparison, and this may well be the best representation. The ME Super delivers a great image in both the scene shot above and the shallow depth of field version below.
Another test of bokeh from the f/2 lens. Good round patterns are evident, but no seeming signature of a swirl such as with a Helios lens.
The ME Super was one of several I took to the Catoctin Creek Nature Center. It seemed to work substantially better than the more modern point and shoot cameras at providing sharp and well exposed images even though this was one I had to briefly slow down in order to focus.
Now that's what I call bokeh. A very impressionistic result, helped along by the fast quick shutter speeds possible on the ME Super.
Greens are traditionally a strong suit of Fuji films, and Pro 400H is no exception to this.
The backdrop for this image seems to have the perfect level of diffusion to where its context is detectable, but it is still nicely separated from the subject.
Challenging lighting presented one of the very few examples of the ME Super having a tough time pulling out detail in a dark area of the exposure.
That's right brother, fumble with that DSLR. I'm having an easy time with the ME Super.
It is always fun to have that perfect Spring weekend to capture some memories with a camera as fun and easy to use as the ME Super.
Again, of all the family keepsakes in the batch of photos taken on this day, the ME Super seemed to nail the exposure and focus the best, looking like anything but a second-rate camera.
The smaller size and weight of the ME Super made it easy to carry and compose. I didn't seem to have some of my issues in fouling up horizon lines in my compositions when trying to "one-hand" this camera.
Back lighting in this scene, but the ME Super handled it just fine.
I hoped for some isolation in this composition, but didn't expect much. I still got it.
The easy usage of the ME Super makes it just a joy to create images with. As such, it will be in frequent rotation when I simply want to shoot with something intuitive in nature.
Some cameras are a joy to use but provide only average results, and other cameras provide excellent results but can be a pain to use. The ME Super manages to hit a sweet spot in being an extremely nice camera to use that rewards you with some excellent results as well. It has worked its way into my Top 5 cameras in my employ, and could readily be considered as my favorite of all.
All this, from a "as-is parts camera" that isn't worthy enough to be priced like the Pentax K-1000 model.
Can we say "Winning!?"