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The M42 Universal Camera Lens Mount
When I first became interested in photography as a child, there were very few options for SLR cameras available to amateur photographers on a budget. While moderately affordable brands such as Chinon, Fujica, Mamiya, Petri, Ricoh and Yashica existed – they were uncommon. Smaller retailers stock more well-established safe islands, and if the local camera shop doesn’t sell any, it’s pretty much unattainable. In the early 70s, people didn’t go out of town to shop.
Nikon and Olympus cameras were out of reach for most buyers. Minolta and Canon cameras were expensive and relatively new, and therefore somewhat unknown. The usual choice was very limited to Japanese Pentax, East German Praktica or Russian Zenith.
A Pentax camera was a wish, but too expensive for young children. Zenith was the cheapest option and hence my first camera. The Praktica was a make bought by people who couldn’t afford Pentax. I’m sure there are plenty of Practica collectors today who would disagree, but I don’t believe anyone had any real aspirations to own a Practica in the early 1970s and the brand’s main attraction was – it was better than the Zenith.
The element that unites all affordable brands is the lens mount. Pentax, Practica, Zenith (plus Chinon, Fujica, Mamiya, Petri, Ricoh and Yashica) all share the common M42 screw mount, while more expensive cameras use different systems.
That was key to the appeal of the M42 family; You can mix and match different makes to suit your budget and quality needs, and buy lenses from other manufacturers (such as Sigma, Soligor, Tamron and Vivitar). You can change/upgrade your camera body without buying a whole new kit.
The M42 lens mount includes a screw thread with a diameter of 42 mm and a thread pitch of 1 mm. This system dates back to around 1949 and was first used on cameras sold by the East German branch of Zeiss under the name Pentacon. The Pentacon became the Practica and accordingly the M42 thread mount became known as the Practica thread mount.
Many other manufacturers adopted the system because they did not own the standard, which led to a new name – universal screw mount. Pentax did the most to popularize the M42, which is why it is also known as the Pentax screw mount.
In those early days, product development did not usually go back to the drawing board and designs evolved by adding new features as needed. The first M42 lens was a simple stop-down design (aperture setting ring), but this was modified to produce a “semi-automatic” diaphragm type lens. This allowed the aperture value to be selected in advance without closing the diaphragm, and a separate – manually operated – ring was added to quickly close the aperture just before exposure. The advantage is comfortable framing and focusing with a bright viewfinder, followed by the ability to stop-down without taking your eyes off the eyepiece. This is how my first Zenith lens worked.
The next development was the “auto” lens. It had a pin in the mount, which closed when the aperture was depressed at the selected setting. The cameras were redesigned to include a bar at the bottom of the mount, which pushed the pin when the shutter was released. To allow the use of auto lenses on earlier cameras, many had an “auto/manual” switch to put the lens in stop-down mode.
A further development of the M42 lens was the inclusion of open aperture metering, through the introduction of a link to inform the camera of the lens aperture setting. This advance proved to be the demise of the universal screw mount, as the method of operation varied between manufacturers.
Pentax developed an additional lever in the lens body, which operates a variable resistor in the camera mount; Fujika placed this lever on the edge of the lens body (it was new for SLRs, and there was no need to worry about backwards compatibility); Practica developed an electrical connection and long before the M42 mount became obsolete, each camera manufacturer developed a new and unique system capable of transferring and coordinating more information between cameras and lenses.
I have no doubt that many manufacturers thought it was a good idea to adopt specific lens mounts, as it gave them a better chance of securing lens sales, but in reality it reduced consumer brand loyalty. The only real winners were the independent lens manufacturers, who not only replicated the various mount systems but also produced adapters so that the Pentax M42, for example, could be used with some other camera body.
For the rest of us film camera users and collectors, the legacy of the M42 mount development has left something of a minefield, and I’m sure there are still many people who are baffled that their M42 EBC Auto-Fujinon lenses don’t quite work. They try to use it on the M42 Pentax Spotmatic F body. The irony is that the universal mount became the extraordinary lens mount.
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