A New Toy: First Time Out with the Pentax ME-F and Expired Efke 100 film

Just before my 40th birthday in February one of my friends messaged to tell me her mum had some old camera equipment she wanted to get rid of and asked if I was potentially interested in any of it. A few photos were exchanged and in amongst a jumble of compact cameras and camcorders I spied a Pentax SLR and several lenses. “I’d love to take those” I said.

A few weeks later, just before Social Distancing entered our lives, I managed to pick up the gear and I was very excited to get it home and see what I’d got.

The camera turned out to be a Pentax ME-F which Wikipedia informed me was the first mass produced auto-focus capable SLR. Not a very successful one in the end, only one compatible AF lens was produced for it, an ungainly 35-70mm zoom with a chunky battery pack and onboard focus motor. Sadly this novel innovation was not included in my haul, but I was lucky enough to receive an SMC Pentax-A f/1.7 50mm, an SMC Pentax f/1.4 50mm, an SMC Pentax-M f/2.8 28mm and an SMC Pentax-M f/3.5 135mm.

Excited to give the camera a go, I loaded up a cassette of expired Efke 100 and took it out for the day with the f/1.4 50mm on the front. I’d got some great shots I thought and was all ready to develop the film at the first opportunity. Unfortunately when I came to rewind the film I quickly realised I’d not loaded it properly, and was devastated to discover I’d not exposed a single frame.

The reason for this error is the Pentax’s strange take-up spool design, which features a core completely surrounded by white plastic rollers which the film leader needs to be awkwardly threaded through in order to be secured. It’s a bit of an odd system that seems needlessly complicated to me.

A week later, after making sure I’d properly loaded the film, I has another attempt at taking some pictures. The ME-F’s top plate is a bit different from the all-manual SLRs I’m used to, so I had to do some reading to work out what button does what. Surrounding the shutter release is a selector ring which manages shutter functions. It moves between Lock, Auto, Manual, 125X and Bulb. Auto is effectively an aperture priority mode which selects the correct shutter speed for you – this is displayed in the viewfinder by a series of LEDs next to the available shutter speeds (4 seconds to 1/2000th of a second), along with an Over and Under indicator.

Manual mode allows the shutter speed to be selected via two push buttons next to the dial, one up, one down, and again LEDs blink either Over and Under until you have the correct speed set. 125X mode is the flash sync speed, and is also the only setting that will work when the camera has no batteries. As standard, Bulb will hold the shutter open as long as you have the release pressed down.

On the other side of the pentaprism hump is the switch that activates the autofocus mode. Or at least would do if the special autofocus zoom was attached. Without that activating this mode gives a focus-assist function. In the bottom of the viewfinder are two red triangles and a green hexagon. With the shutter release half pressed the red triangles will indicate which direction to turn the focus ring on the lens to get the correct focus, the green hexagon flashing when the correct focus is reached. It works relatively well, although as usual the split prism in the centre of the viewfinder allows you to judge this by eye. A ring around the film rewind incorporates the ISO selector and exposure compensation feature.

Once I’d mastered the controls, I loved using the ME-F. Compared to my clunking heavy Zenit TTL, it’s lovely and light and compact. The controls respond in a very precise and reassuring way, it’s a camera that feels as though it’s working with you rather than a beast that has to be tamed. I mostly used the f/1.4 50mm and f/3.5 135mm, both of which were easy to manipulate with smooth focus rings and reassuring f-stop clicks. The whole process was very enjoyable, and I wanted to take the camera out everywhere with me.

With the Efke film finally fully exposed, I processed it in my usual Rodinal clone developer and once fixed, hung it up to dry. The negative was super curly and the images thinner than I’d have hoped for. At this point I’m not sure if it’s down to the light meter not being 100% accurate or the film being out of date. A few scenes were really under exposed so perhaps the lighting conditions confused the meter somewhat. Fortunately the Epson V550 was still able to make a decent scan of most of the shots.

I had to scan the first two strips of negatives twice because the pictures were covered with white specs which I thought was dust. A second scan after a thorough blower-brushing of the film revealed this was not the case and I realised this was an artefact of the Efke being old and expired.

Besides the decay, the images are sharp and the details satisfyingly well rendered. Whilst lacking the vintage character I’d expect from my Zenit and Helios 44M lens, the pictures are pleasing and accurate. When I received the ME-F I had wondered if I might just give it one go and then pass it on, but my experience with it has been so positive I have decided to keep it and make it my main analogue SLR. I can’t wait now to put a colour film through it and see what I can capture with that.

Big thumbs up to the ME-F.

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