History Makers: Pentax MEF – An attempt at autofocus…1981

If you’ve never used a film camera before you might struggle to believe this, but there was a time when you had to focus the image yourself. It wasn’t always that easy to get perfect either, especially in low light or in a busy scene.

Imagine, they said, if the camera could do that for you? Well, those clever boys and girls at Pentax worked out a way that it could….Well, sort of.

Rather than start with a blank sheet of paper Pentax looked at incorporating autofocus into a re-design of one of their existing cameras, the Pentax ME Super. Without getting too technical this “only” involved significant alterations to the lens mount, with the rest of the autofocusing technology being in the lens. No longer did you have to spend an age trying to get your focusing right, only to realise when you got your prints that your efforts had been entirely wasted.

Sounds great.

But it wasn’t.

The camera was a flop. Pentax only produced one lens that was compatible with the camera, and that was a zoom lens. This lens needed additional AA batteries to run it, making it heavy. The autofocus mechanism was rather primitive too. If you used it today you would laugh at how long it would take to get the focus right (or at least what it thought was right!). The noise it produced when focusing was rather laughable too.

Given they were paying somewhere close to £2000 in today’s money for the camera and lens together, people weren’t happy.

Other companies soon worked out that Pentax had got the mechanics of the focusing wrong, and that more radical alterations to the camera body were needed to make autofocus a success.

Some people feel Pentax never really recovered from this flop, having put so much time and money into this technology only to see it rendered obsolete within a year of hitting the market, but that’s another story.

Whatever the problems with the camera, it remains a piece of history nonetheless, [and still worth owning and using, given the LED focusing assistance you get through the viewfinder, even when using manual focus lenses].

Read our previous History Maker posts:

Canon A1 - Automatic for the people...1978

Minolta XD - Giving you a choice...1977

Pentax ME - A helping hand...1976

Olympus OM1 - Smaller is better...1973

Pentax Electro Spotmatic - Aperture priority is born...1971

Pentax Spotmatic - TTL Metering...1963

Asahi Pentax - The Modern SLR is born...1957