Updated July 23, 2020
PROGRAM...the buzzword for SLRs in the early 1980's. Only with this technological breakthrough could photographers now surmount the barrier of having to think about camera settings and composition at the same time! Freedom from Aperture- or Shutter-priority or (heaven forbid you were still using) m...mm...mmm...Manual exposure beckoned. At last, focus (no pun intended) only on composition...unencumbered by such banalities...and our wunderkamera will do it all better than you ever could, anyways...(Okay, okay, that's enough...1980's marketing-speak now set to OFF). Riiight. Anyhoo, Program was going to be the next big thing to save the Japanese manufacturers from the the slippery slope of the latest SLR sales slide (Aside: it didn't ;-)). From the introduction of the Canon A-1 (1978), the first proper Program mode SLR (along with the three more familiar exposure modes mentioned above), to the 1985 introduction of the real "next big thing" (Auto Focus), the profligate proliferation of Program SLRs only accelerated. Followers included: Fujica's AX-5 (1979), Canon's AE-1 Program (1981) & T50 & T70 (1983 & '84), Minolta's X-700 (1981), Nikon's FG & FA (1982 & '83), Olympus' OM-2S & OM-PC/OM-40 (1984 & '85) , Ricoh's XR-P (1983), Yashica's FX-103 Program & the Contax 159MM (1985), and the two subjects of this article: the Pentax Super Program (1983) and Program Plus (1984). That's 16 models within seven years. So what set the Pentaxes apart from the rest of their competitors? Read on Macduff ;-).
The Pentax Approach to Program
All of the manufacturers had to make changes or additions to their existing lens mounts in order to incorporate Program capability, some more extensively than others. The big challenge was to convey specific information about the position and size of the aperture of the lens at a given setting to the body so that an accurate calculation of exposure could be made. Pentax' engineers came up with a novel approach that, while permitting use of their existing K-mount, would allow them to enable not only Program operation but also other future advances. They named this modified mount KA. Instead of using mechanical means (levers and cams), they integrated a series of electrical contacts into the flange of the lens mount which, when a compatible lens was mounted, would convey two pieces of information to the camera body: 1) the maximum (widest) aperture value of the lens and, 2) how many total stops the lens had. Five contacts were used to transmit this information by using different combinations of conducting (metal) and non-conducting (plastic) discs inlaid on the lens' mounting flange. This produced a 5-digit binary (0 or 1 were the values that could be produced) code that identified the lens' maximum aperture from f/1.2 to f/8) to the camera (pretty clever :-)). While this modification to the lens mount was instantly noticeable, a second, but no less important change in the operation of the mechanical aperture actuator in the SMC-A lenses had to be made in order for Program mode to be a viable one as far as exposure accuracy was concerned. On the older K-mount (SMC and SMC-M) lenses, the aperture actuator lever moved proportionally to the diameter of the aperture opening. This is termed non-linear (the physical distance traveled by the lever between stops is not equal). This was sufficient for aperture-priority exposure (Pentax's choice for auto exposure prior to Program) because the camera could adjust the shutter speed incrementally to compensate for any slop in the actual f/stop (calculated using the area of the aperture opening) versus the transmitted value. But successful Program (or Shutter-priority, for that matter) operation required more precision, so Pentax changed the movement of the aperture actuator lever to a linear (equal distances between f-stops) one based on the area of the aperture opening (the actual f-stop). Nikon had done the same thing (changing from non-linear to linear aperture actuation) when they introduced their AI-s lenses in 1982. For a more in-depth (READ: geekier) explanation, check out this page. The beauty of Pentax' solution was that the new SMC-A lenses were completely backwards compatible with the older Pentax K- and M- bodies while opening up new possibilities for further advances (such as Auto Focus). Alrighty then, with that out of the way, let's take a closer look at the two bodies Pentax would use to plant their flag on planet Program.
The Super Program (aka super A)
As implied by its name, the Super Program, introduced in 1983, was the offspring of the very successful ME super, and it bore a considerable resemblance to its illustrious ancestor. The top-deck control layouts were nearly identical, with only the appearance of an LCD to display the set shutter speed on the Super Program being immediately noticeable. On the front of the body, in place of the clockwork self-timer lever of the ME super, there was now an electronic self-timer switch with red LED indicator, a new, removable fingergrip, and the piece-de-la-resistance...a depth of field (DOF) preview lever (about time, Pentax). The ME super's excellent Seiko MFC-E2 shutter was upgraded to the MFC-E3 with a wider range of speeds from 1/2000 - 15 sec. (vs. 1/2000 - 4 sec.). ISO range also increased to 6 - 3200 (from 12 - 1600 on the ME super). The Super Program was the first enthusiast-level Pentax to feature through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering (the pro-level LX had it in 1980). The Super Program was also the first Pentax SLR to feature all four exposure modes: Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, and metered Manual. Looking through the viewfinder, here we come upon a major change...the use of LCDs instead of the LEDs of the ME super to display exposure information. LCDs consume far less power than LEDs (which Pentax had already done a pretty swell job with; batteries can last for years in an ME super or Super Program). The one issue with LCDs is that they are difficult to see in low light without a source of illumination because they reflect light rather than emit it (as Light Emitting Diodes do :-)). No problem, says Pentax, we will include an illuminator for use in low light conditions. Okey-dokey, except the illluminator is based on traditional incandescent technology and sucks more juice and will burn out eventually. The other big difference with the viewfinder is its magnification. The ME super viewfinder had 0.95x magnification, which was pretty impressive, but the price you paid for that big ol' picture-window view was minimal eye-relief (meaning you have to jam the eyepiece into your eye socket to see the whole view and too bad if you have a bit of a protruding shnozz ;-)). And if you happen to wear glasses, sorry, that ain't gonna happen, either. The Super Program knocked that magnification down to 0.82x, a very noticeable difference. Great for the glasses-wearer but a definite step down for those that love the ME super's outlook. Other than that, pretty much everywhere you look, the Super Program was an improvement on the ME super (oh one more thing...the mechanical backup speed of 1/125 on the ME super disappeared on the Program cameras, alas never to return).
The Program Plus
The Program Plus was, simply put, a de-contented Super Program. You can be discontented with that if you want to be, but Pentax needed something to compete lower down the totem pole with the other manufacturers (remember that whole race-to-the-bottom thing once a technical improvement comes along?). So what got tossed out?
But not all the changes were for the worse. In the interim between the introduction of the Super Program and the Program Plus, Pentax tidied up the circuitry of the Program Plus to the tune of eliminating 24 soldered connections, making repairs far simpler and reducing the number of potential failure points.
Vs. the Competition
So how did these two stack up against a baker's dozen (or more) of competitors. Well, by the end of 1985, there were five different price levels for manual focus Program SLRs ranging from $330 to $750 USD (inflation-adjusted for 2019, as are all prices in this article). Here's a breakdown:
Pentax was always one of the best value-for-the-dollar camera makers and the Programs were no exception. Now this is only going to concern specifications for dollars (an admittedly narrow view, but used only for the sake of comparison). Let's start with the Super Program:
Moving a price point level closer, the Pentax outdoes the Canon A-1 and Fujica AX-5, which it should, being four to five years newer, yet it is still nearly 20% less-expensive:
The Canon T70 made things a bit more interesting with bigger LCDs, built-in powered film-winding and rewinding, three Program ranges (speaking of gimmicks ;-)) for different focal length lenses (Standard, Wide, and Tele), and two selectable metering patterns but frittered that away with:
Dropping down to the sales leaders amongst all Program cameras: the Canon AE-1 Program and Minolta X-700, which both cost maybe 10% less than the Super Program:
Now, within its own price category, how did the Super Program fare? The Ricoh XR-P and Olympus OM-2S were very strong contenders, with the Ricoh, in particular, going spec for spec with the Pentax, and besting it with full viewfinder info in all modes, giving you three Program options, and incorporating a basic intervalometer (2, 15, and 60 sec. intervals that required the XR winder to be used). The only problem? Ricoh's P-lens lineup was far less extensive than the SMC-A lineup (because Ricoh used their own variation on the basic K-mount, KA lenses could not give Program or Shutter-priority functionality, even though they could be mounted and used in Aperture-priority or Manual modes).
***WARNING*** The Ricoh P lenses used a pin to enable Program and Shutter-priority function. If mounted on a Pentax AF (Auto Focus) body, that pin can engage in the AF screw-drive slot and this results in the lens being stuck.
Now to the OM-2S:
The Program Plus, at first glance, looks to be in for a tougher time in the bargain category, due to the deletions that were made. And things were much closer, with each entrant having features that the others' lacked. So you have to really know which features are more important to you personally when choosing between them.
Starting with the Yashica FX-103 Program:
As for the Canon T50, it was no contest. For the extra $50 USD the Pentax gave you:
In the Hand and to the Eye
Ergonomically, both Program Pentaxes feel pretty good in my medium-small hands. The fingergrip is one of the best among their contemporaries and makes either of them more comfortable and less cramped-feeling for me (YMMV :-) than the ME super (which is basically the same size, but without that grip it takes more effort to hold onto). They both feel nice and solid (again when comparing them to their contemporaries, just don't expect Spotmatic-levels of build-quality ;-)). The lower magnification viewfinders are definitely nicer for eyeglass wearers, and are nice and bright so focusing is still excellent if not as immersive an experience as in the ME super. The LCDs can fall victim to bleeding and fading (like any other LCD-equipped SLR from this era), although every one I have come across has been just fine, so far. But make sure to check them out before putting your money down. The Seiko shutters are great in these cameras, they retain accuracy far better than Spotties (which I love, by the way, but need calibration more often, especially if they have sat for a long time).
So is a Super Program or Program Plus for you? Well, if you can live with push button shutter speed adjustments (perhaps you were considering an ME super, which is also a great choice), and are an eyeglass wearer - the Program brothers might just be a better choice and they will give you DOF preview, to boot. Program was viewed as a gimmick by "serious" photographers when it was introduced and well into the '80s. However, once Nikon stuck it in the F4 in 1988, it has never been absent from any pro SLR and has been tweaked to be even more flexible (shiftable Program, etc.). Not a few pros use it today, when the situation calls for it. But how far is too far when it comes to automation? Well fresh from 1983 (when the Super Program debuted ;-)):
Pentax definitely wasn't among the first to get with the Program...but when they did, they pulled it off as well as anyone else :-).
Various SLR User Manuals @ https://www.butkus.org/chinon/
Lab Report: Pentax Super Program - Popular Photography Jan. 1984
Lab Report: Pentax Program Plus - Popular Photography Dec. 1984
User Reviews: Pentax Super Program @ https://www.pentaxforums.com
User Reviews: Pentax Program Plus @ https://www.pentaxforums.com
Features and Operation of the KA Mount @ http://kmp.pentaxians.eu
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.