Life has a way of giving you exactly what you need when you least expect it to. So when I came across a Pentax SV for the first time, I knew life was throwing me a bone. It sat in a glass case at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, its accompanying sign proclaiming it the chosen tool of Ishiuchi Miyako, a photographer from postwar Japan whose photographs happened to be on exhibit that day. The photographs were gritty, stark, and dirty, and the camera was too. Worn and battered by years of usage, this Pentax now found a temporary resting spot as a museum piece.
This camera, surrounded by the haunting and beautiful images it produced brought about a torrent of thought, the predominant one being the mind-boggling realization that this very camera witnessed every single one of the moments hanging before me. Here I was being afforded the unique opportunity to see life as captured through the lens of this very camera, of course masterfully handled by the photographer, and as I continued through the exhibit I found my mind continually marveling that this otherwise nondescript camera could occupy such a place of honor in one of the most famous museums in the world.
My starry-eyed reverie came to an abrupt halt the moment I looked down and noticed my own camera (which happened to be a Minolta SRT-101) hanging around my neck. And it suddenly occurred to me that any camera could be sitting inside that glass case, and indeed, my own camera looked old enough to be at home there too. I realized that the Pentax SV wasn’t the only camera that could’ve taken these pictures; any other camera in the hands of a photographic master could’ve produced the same miraculous images. But still, there was something about the SV that drew me in. It looked somehow special, and I was hooked.
I left the Getty that day equal parts inspired and infatuated, and on account of my acute camera addiction, wholly determined to find an SV for myself.
[Words and images by Josh Solomon]
Months passed while I waited patiently for the day that I’d find an SV in good condition, and while I’d occasionally stumble upon them at flea markets and thrift stores there was always an issue. Either their mirrors were locked up or their shutters were too slow- something was always amiss. To my frustration, I seemed destined to live without a pristine SV. But as it did at the Getty, my own SV took me by surprise.
I was walking through the awe-inspiring Pasadena Camera Show with a friend when I spotted a row of Pentaxes. “Cool,” I thought, “perhaps I can find something to sell.” I sifted through a sea of Spotmatics, K1000s, MEs, and MXs before, without warning, a lone SV appeared sitting casually in the middle of the jumble. I snatched it up, peered through the finder, fired the shutter, and felt my spine tingle from sheer satisfaction.
I quickly hailed the seller, a soft, spongey man who gave a distinct impression of being too old and too uninterested to sell another camera. I stole a glance at the vibrant $75 price tag stuck clearly atop the camera’s pentaprism, and asked in my most disinterested voice, “How much for this camera?”
The seller waddled over, took it from my hands and grumbled, “Twenty bucks.”
I stifled a small squeal and hastily groped for my wallet. I gave him the $20, he gave me the SV in return, and I nearly ran out of that camera show cheering for my luck. I finally held in my hands the camera I’d admired through so much glass case. But even though I was excited for my long-anticipated union with the SV, the camera mercenary in me reminded that I could sell it at a tidy profit once the thrill had died. Worse still for the little SV, the camera snob in me reminded that this lowly commoner’s camera could never garner as much use as the Nikon F and Leica in my collection. I’d soon learn that surprises come in threes.
A little history; the original Asahi Pentax is notable for many reasons, most importantly for it’s being the first easily-handled SLR with a pentaprism, and for being the very first Japanese SLR with an instant return mirror, a gargantuan innovation that immediately streamlined SLR shooting. The Asahi Pentax (or AP as it’s known in collector’s circles) came out in 1957 and predates the mighty Nikon F, a camera widely credited for doing a lot of things first, by two whole years. One can even rightly argue that it was this original Asahi Pentax that laid the groundwork for the design of every SLR to come over the next twenty years.
The Pentax SV is the final incarnation of this original Asahi Pentax, its healthy production run spanning from 1962-1970. But even though it was the latest and greatest from the old generation of Pentaxes, it’s still about as bare bones as an SLR gets. The SV’s horizontal silk shutter tops out at a distinctly average 1/1000th of a second, bottoms out at an also-average 1 second, and features a bulb and time setting for long-exposure junkies. It also has the bog-standard Pentax M42 screw mount, and unlike previous iterations, the SV has a self-timer (hooray!), which is rather ingeniously found around the collar of the rewind knob. And… that’s it.
Unfortunately for the SV, what it lacks might define the entire camera for most modern shooters. None of the creature comforts we take for granted in the 21st century (and indeed, the latter half of the 20th century) can be found in the SV. The camera lacks any and all shooting aids, offers an unbelievably sparse viewfinder, and perhaps the most jarring of all, doesn’t even feature a built-in light meter.
This depressingly spartan feature sheet may almost certainly be a deal-breaker for many of today’s photo geeks, unless we remember that a camera’s true merit is rarely based on its specs. It’s the gestalt product that matters, the overall package that determines whether or not a camera will make an indelible impression on photographers.
Spend some time shooting the SV and it becomes instantly clear that it’s got it right where it counts. What the SV lacks in features it makes up for in the masterful execution of its design. I’m not going to mince words; the SV’s design is one of the best SLR designs I’ve ever experienced. Everything just feels so incredibly natural. Pentax’s design crew somehow managed to make every single function on this camera fall into place. The shutter release falls directly under your finger as you grip the camera (looking at you, Nikon F), and the shutter dial is conveniently placed next to the shutter release, ready to flick at a moment’s notice (looking at you, Olympus OM-1). Everything is where we expect it to be, and we don’t have to compromise or adjust our shooting style to accommodate it.
The SV’s size also contributes to its divinely natural feeling. As touched upon in our Leica IIIc review, the entire 35mm philosophy revolved around portability and compactness, and this Pentax SV expresses this philosophy with understated aplomb. The SV is actually almost as small as the famously compact Olympus OM-1, remarkable considering that the SV predates the OM-1 by an entire decade. And although it’s not the smallest camera ever, it’s not big either, and it doesn’t have the sort of middling, stately feeling we get from its descendants, the Pentax Spotmatic and K1000. In fact, it makes my heavyweight Nikon F look like a caveman’s tool, and when I carried the SV around it didn’t feel like I was carrying a troublesome lump of metal; it felt like I was carrying a small, friendly companion.
The Pentax SV also has the curious quality of looking as natural as it feels. It’s exactly what you’d expect an SLR to be, but it’s not vanilla either. It’s actually incredibly attractive in a camera-next-door kind of way. The lines are straight and well defined, but terminate gently. The pentaprism sits atop the camera as a soft hill instead of a geometrical malady, and the backs and sides of the camera feel like they curve in the hand while still being beautifully angled. The SV’s overall look is defined while being understated, a quality that belies its very operation.
Even the features the SV lacks seem to become features in their own right. As said before, the SV doesn’t have a light meter. This seems cruel and unusual, and it prohibits beginners from using the SV to its full potential. But for the advanced photographer, this sin becomes the SV’s entire salvation. The absence of a light meter results in a viewfinder that is possibly the purest in all of photography. It’s well-sized and bright, and contains absolutely nothing but your image. And though we find the focusing screen could be slightly brighter, things snap in and out of focus beautifully across the entire plane of the image. Through the simple elegance of the SV’s viewfinder, it’s plain to see why shooters originally switched from TLRs and rangefinders to SLRs in the first place; they’re dead simple to focus and shoot.
The SV’s meter-less qualities do require us to change our shooting style slightly, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The absence of a light meter in the viewfinder makes setting exposure entirely separate from the act of composing. We set the aperture and shutter speed, make peace with our decisions, and move on with our composition. With the SV, I find myself worrying less about the accuracy of my exposure, less worried about a needle rising and falling in the periphery of my viewfinder, and instead find myself completely immersed in undistracted composition.
This stress-free workflow combined with Pentax’s signature build quality makes the SV one of the most graceful cameras on the vintage market. The SV is not a child of cold, mass-produced industry. Rather, it’s one of hand-built finesse. Its dials click into place with gentle assurance, the mirror and shutter fly light and carefree with minimal camera shake, and the film advance lever slides gracefully to prepare the next shot. The camera’s ease of use makes the SV feel as if it’s dissolving in your hands as you shoot it, a mark of truly great camera design.
It’s this graceful, light, and carefree quality which surprised me the most about the SV. From the first frame, the SV never made any demands of me beyond metering the light on my own. I took my SV all around Los Angeles and it handled everything from the dark backstreets of Chinatown to the bright beaches of Malibu with consummate ease. The SV nonchalantly slid right into the action when I needed it to, and unobtrusively stowed away when I didn’t. It didn’t interfere or confuse whatever was happening with cumbersome weight or controls, and I loved that about it.
Finally, and most critically, the SV offers something a lot of cameras don’t- an unbelievably varied range of incredible lenses. The SV’s M42 mount is home to one of the deepest and widest lens systems in photography. The lauded Carl Zeiss Jena lenses are available at reasonable cost, along with the Pentax’s own superb Super Takumars. Additionally, almost every third party lens manufacturer made lenses in M42 mount, bringing the lens count to numbers some would consider astronomical. What’s more, all of these lenses are dirt cheap, and their low price encourages experimentation. My own SV kit boasts an East German Pentacon 135mm f/2.8, a Pentax Super-Takumar 50mm f/1.4, and a Vivitar 28mm f/2.5, all purchased for about $80 total. Pretty amazing for the shooter on a budget.
Though it should be said that the M42 mount isn’t without its problems. The system is outdated and slow compared to more modern systems. Screwing in a lens just isn’t as fast, precise, or as secure as snapping one in via bayonet mount. Use these lenses with caution lest you want a dropped and damaged Super Tak. This is the primary reason Pentax abandoned the M42 mount in favor of the swap-friendly K-Mount bayonet system, but even with this caveat the M42 lenses of the SV offer incredible value and can create stunning images.
With all this praise being lavished upon it, the SV does have a couple of small drawbacks. The SV has a reputation for troublesome breakdowns and issues of longevity, so you’ll have to really search to find one that’s usable straight out of the gate. I had to wait for months before I found one that was fully functional and even then it needed new light seals.
But once I found a working copy, I felt like I was united with a camera I had unknowingly missed for my entire life as a photographer. Its graceful operation and unassuming demeanor make some of my other, flashier, more famous cameras look needlessly excessive. And today, I’m glad to say that the SV has found a place alongside my trusty Nikon F and my Leica. I’d even venture to say I have more pride in my SV than either of those cameras because it reminds me that great, even museum-worthy images, can come from absolutely anywhere.
Want your own Pentax SV? Buy it on eBay, Amazon, B&H Photo, or F Stop Cameras
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What a truly great review of this camera! I love the history lesson with which you began it.
I own a similar Pentax H3 and found it to be an enjoyable shooter, too. I didn’t mind the lack of light meter either!