Pentax Super Program

Sun 2012.02.19
by brian hefele

Recently, in replacing my beloved Pentax MX, I also happened upon a Pentax Super Program. Some might disagree, but I would consider the Super Program to be the last classic camera Pentax ever made. It’s not the last manual focus body they ever made, nor even the last manual advance. But it’s the last with a classic look, a classic heft, and relatively few/simple settings. It’s not a ‘pro’ body by many definitions – indeed, at the time it was released, a fully electronic shutter with no mechanical fallback was a dangerous proposition. But it does have four exposure modes, a solid meter, decent finder readout, and features that creatives yearn for, like DOF preview.

A fully electronic camera with a wealth of automatic modes is not typically what I look for in a camera. Primarily, I shoot fully manual bodies, only because these tend to be tough, fully mechanical bodies as well. In reality, shooting manual based on your camera’s meter is no different than shooting Av or Tv (assuming you have adequate compensation), or Program (assuming you have program shifting). I don’t have a snobbish ‘artists only shoot M’ opposition to automatic cameras, I just don’t own many and therefore don’t use them often. This is all to say that the Pentax Super Program is not really ‘my type’ of camera — and I was shocked at how much I love shooting it.

the main control knob, buttons for changing shutter speed, and shutter speed readout lcd.

My ideal interface to a fully automated camera is a normal shutter speed dial, with the addition of an Auto setting, and exposure compensation right on the dial. My least ideal interface is the PASM dial, with actual settings moved to the background, and likely a handful of extra silly program modes tacked on the knob. The Super Program is somewhere in between. It has a main control knob with Auto and Manual settings — these dictate the shutter operation only. Setting a manual aperture on the lens, or setting the lens to its ‘A’ setting dictates how the aperture operates. So, for fully manual, pick an aperture and a shutter speed (main dial on ‘M’); for aperture priority, pick an aperture and set the main dial to Auto; for shutter priority, pick a shutter speed (main dial on ‘M’) and set the lens to ‘A;’ and for Program mode, set both the lens to ‘A’ and the main control dial to Auto.

The main control dial also has dedicated settings for 125 (TTL flash sync speed), bulb, and shutter lock. Next to the knob are two buttons, used for adjusting the shutter speed in ‘M’ mode. Ask someone if they think you should get a Super Program (or, an older ME Super), and this button interface and lack of a proper knob will inevitably come up. It’s definitely different, and I’m certainly more used to a knob. But, in practice, shutter speeds can be changed quite rapidly with the button interface, and it’s really very usable. The finder has two LCD segments for information. In most modes, one side displays shutter speed and the other aperture. In metered manual mode, however, you lose aperture info for the sake of the meter (±EV readout). If you want to shoot metered manual primarily, you’re better off with an MX — more finder info, and the LED meter is more immediately recognizable.

duck, shot in aperture priority mode with a rikenon 135/2.8 on the pentax super program.

The half-press switch that activates the meter is incredibly flaky on my example. While this is inconvenient, fortunately if the meter is not already on, the camera does meter right before the shot is taken as well. This means that even if I can’t get a readout beforehand, I will get a properly exposed shot if I’m in an automatic mode. Exposure compensation on the right-hand side is not particularly odd, but I definitely prefer it to be built into the main shutter dial. The camera is not particularly small, being somewhere in between a K-series and an M-series. Film loading is convenient, using the Magic Needles take-up spool. While the camera feels overall very sturdy, the film advance is incredibly cheap and plasticky feeling. The electronic shutter (15″ to 1/2000″) makes a beautiful noise when fired. There is a backlight for the finder display, but it’s a bulb, and consumes an enormous amount of power from the 2 SR76 cells.

All in all, the Super Program is a really fun, easy to use body. I still prefer my MX, but I have no qualms about grabbing for the Super Program. I’ll probably have it cleaned up at some point to get the switches working (not just the half-press switch — my backlight switch isn’t the greatest, and the self-timer switch barely works). But even with incredibly flaky switches, the camera is very usable. I probably won’t bring it out on many night shoots — long bulb exposures will likely take a toll on the batteries. But it’s a great camera to have around, especially for the relatively low prices they demand.