In 1981 Pentax took an ME Super, added autofocus, and started a revolution.
By the start of the eighties, Asahi Pentax had an illustrious history of pioneering cameras and world firsts. They had three modern SLRs to their name before the end of the fifties and before Nikon had made their first (but what a first). They pioneered TTL metering, multi-coated lenses and automatic exposure, amongst other advances. In their fourth decade of making SLRs, the company continued to progress.
Why is the Pentax ME F a Landmark Camera?
1: The world’s first 35mm autofocus SLR.
2: The world’s first SLR with audio focus confirmation
3: The world’s first SLR with electronic focus assist system in the viewfinder.
The User Experience
Thanks to the generosity of a local collector I have a working Pentax ME F. At first glance it appears identical to the ME Super, with the innovative push buttons controlling shutter speed selection conveniently next to the shutter release button. It’s also of a similar diminutive size, and with its light aluminium frame it is among the smallest SLR cameras ever made.
Look to the opposite side of the prism hump though and you will find some controls never seen before on a 35mm SLR. Without resorting to the manual they are somewhat puzzling. A small black switch to the rear sliding left to right has a musical note symbol to indicate its function. A second silver switch sliding rear to front has two active settings marked by green and orange notches. A key near the switch has “2.8” written in green and “3.5” in orange. These two strange features are an audio focus switch and electro focus selector respectively and help give the ME F its landmark camera status.
The ME F was the world’s first 35mm SLR camera capable of autofocus, albeit with one lens; a somewhat bulky, heavy and weird looking 35-70mm f/2.8 zoom which contained the drive motor for the contrast detect autofocus system and a battery chamber for 4 AAA batteries that powered the motor. I understand that the ME F was not a great success, as the pioneering AF system was somewhat unreliable. What was a stepping stone camera to the reliable autofocus we take for granted, can be used today as an enhanced ME Super.
In the hand, the ME F naturally feels similar to my ME, the first camera in the series. It’s a touch heavier and taller. The top plate is of course rather more packed than the aperture priority only ME. I don’t have large hands or sausages for fingers, so it’s small size is no issue for me. It has the same awkward, black plastic mode dial with the the crappy little white unlocking button. On my ME, this came apart, and I am half expecting the same to occur here. I am not a fan of push button controls either. I leave this camera in auto mode, allowing the camera to set the shutter speed, just like with my ME. Looks wise, I find it undistinguished. Again, I find myself preferring the cleaner looking ME. The Asahi logo is also absent from the front of the prism hump.
Without its sole AF lens, the ME F still has genuinely useful focus assist features, unique at the time, courtesy of those switches mentioned earlier. Switching on the electro focus selector provides visual focus confirmation at the centre bottom of the viewfinder. When focus is achieved using a regular Pentax manual focus lens, a green hexagon flashes in the viewfinder. Just remember to focus on something with sufficient contrast to enable focus confirmation to work, otherwise you will only see two red flashing arrows pointing at each other.
If a flashing green hexagon isn’t enough confirmation for you, then flip the audio focus switch to the right. You will then hear the all-too-familiar ‘beep’ notifying that focus has been achieved. Like many, I am not a fan of the focus confirmation beep.
I exposed a roll of Kentmere 400 while visiting relatives in Kent. I found the green hexagon useful and accurate when trying to focus on some fungus in woodland under dim light with an SMC Pentax-M 50mm f/1.7 set at the widest aperture. This simple system helped my fifty-something eyes get some well-focused images. I shall remember to pack the ME F next time I encounter such conditions. It’s a keeper.