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The "Best" Pentax Cameras

In 2000 and 2001 Albano Garcia conducted a survey among the members of the PDML i. He wanted to find out how many and what kinds of Pentax cameras everyone owned (screw-mount, K-mount, 645, and 67 were all considered). In an attempt to help people who are looking to buy (yet another) Pentax camera, here I present a simple analysis of the raw survey results and then briefly describe the top performers.

For the analysis, I grouped the USA and international versions of the each body, the "normal" and the "SE" models, and the bodies which are extremely similar to each-other. I then colored all bodies according to mount type, listed them in a single table, and sorted them by decreasing unit-count. After looking at the resulting table, seven clear winners emerged. Below I describe the weaknesses and strong sides of each one of them, detailed technical descriptions can be found in these pages.

Take the survey results with a grain of salt — the PDML members are not a good approximation of "the average (hobby) photographer." For example, the average PDML member probably spends more money on photo equipment and tends to have no appreciation for fully-automated, cheaply-built, and gadget-laden cameras. Thus it should come as no surprise that at the top of the list one finds cameras with a senseful feature set, a flexible system of accessories, high reliability, good price/performance ratio, and (of course) ones which are or were widely available.

The Clear Winners

1. LX

This is Pentax's most advanced manual focus camera. To begin with, it supports just about every imaginable "pro" feature of its time: mechanical construction, support for fully mechanical operation, extreme reliability and durability, DOF preview, MLU, TTL flash, interchangeable screens, a large system of accessories, etc. But the LX stands out (even by today's standards) as it also features interchangeable viewfinders, a light meter with extreme low-light sensitivity, off-the-film metering (OTF) for ambient exposures, and dust- and moisture-proof seals on every button and dial.

Because of the OTF metering, no exposure adjustment is needed when a different screen or viewfinder is in use, and no viewfinder blind is necessary for long exposures. These advantages paired together with the sophisticated metering turn the LX into the preferred camera for a large variety of applications. For example, the LX is capable of taking extremely long metered exposures and achieving correct exposure even if the lighting conditions change during the exposure. The body is the center of an elaborate photographic system that features interchangeable viewfinders, motors, winders, grips, etc. Exposure compensation is in 1/3 EV steps, and there is an optical aperture readout in the viewfinder.

On the negative side, the LX is a product of the early 1980's. It offers only center-weighted metering, low flash sync-speed, and the viewfinder indicates EV levels in full stops. It is not possible to combine self-timer and MLU. After about 10-15 years of operation without servicing, most bodies develop the famous "sticky mirror syndrome." The problem is fixable via a normal CLA, but the camera is generally very expensive to service, and parts for it are getting more and more difficult to find.

Prices for used units range between US $350 and US $700, and a CLA starts at US $150.

2. MX

This is one of Pentax's simplest and most robust cameras. It features manual focus, manual exposure and fully manual flash operation. It is fully mechanical, and uses batteries only for its light meter. The MX does, however, offer DOF preview, self-timer, interchangeable screens, and interchangeable backs. The viewfinder offers an optical readout of the selected lens aperture and shutter speed as well as five LEDs that indicate how far the manually-set exposure is from the camera's recommendation: 1 EV or more under, 1/2 EV under, identical, 1/2 EV over, 1 EV or more over. The camera is extremely small, light, and easy to use. A winder and motor drive are available as optional accessories.

On the negative side, the camera's design is from the late 1970's and supports only center-weighted metering, has a slow flash sync-speed, no mirror-lockup, and no flash automation of any kind. Parts for the MX are getting difficult to find.

Prices for used black-silver units range between US $130 and US $180. Fully black ones tend to fetch about US $50 more.

3. ME Super/ME Super SE

This manual focus camera is from similar vintage as the MX, and is also very light and small. However, it is targeted at a different group of users. It lacks the "pro" features of the MX (DOF preview, full mechanical construction, interchangeable screens, aperture indication in the viewfinder) but offers convenience. It has aperture-priority operation in addition to full manual, dedicated flash, wider range of shutter speeds, faster X-sync, etc. While it offers some mechanical speeds, it relies on batteries for showing its full potential. It is plentiful on the second-hand market, and is simple to learn and use. Finding a repair place for this body is not so difficult, and parts are relatively easy to come by.

A clean ME Super typically costs between US $85 and US $110. Fully black units cost about US $30 more.

4. PZ-1p/Z-1p

From the time of its release (1995) until the release of the MZ-S (2001), the body was Pentax's AF flagship. The camera is large and heavy, but also solid and well-built. Most functions are selectable through two wheels positioned under the thumb and index finger as well as a function selector on the upper-left side. The camera's features are targeted towards professional users: separate flash and ambient exposure controls, custom functions, exposure control in 1/2 or 1/3 EV steps, fast shutter and flash synchronization, DOF preview, 2-second mirror-prefire, multiple exposure, interchangeable screens, spot metering, custom user mode, etc. Very useful is also the ability to "shift" exposure along the program curve and to instantly jump to the camera's internal preference (even under changing light conditions).

The camera has a few weak points too: dust gets to its insides quite quickly, it consumes a lot of power, there is no AA battery pack available for it, and the TTL flash system lacks evaluative and multi-segment TTL flash metering. A few mechanisms seem fragile: the mechanics of the built-in flash, the battery compartment cover, and the base plate. The viewfinder is well laid out, but offers only 92% coverage. But the biggest problem with this camera is Pentax's lack of commitment and further development. In the years between 1995 and 2001, the competing manufacturers have upgraded their models a number of times while Pentax has left this body with a small number of fitting accessories and an AF system whose performance is hopelessly outdated by today's standards.

Many of the disadvantages of this camera have been addressed by the "new" flagship — the MZ-S.

Prices for used bodies range between US $350 and US $450.

5. MZ-3/ZX-5n/MZ-5n

These cameras have brought a lot of acclaim to Pentax. Being members of the MZ/ZX-series, they have the small size and light weight of the M- and A-series manual focus bodies, but except for metal construction and mechanical operation, these bodies have all features of the top M- and A-series cameras and more: built-in flash, built-in winder, spot and multi-pattern metering, etc. Their controls are intuitive and easy to learn and the AF system is a welcome improvement over that of the older Z-/PZ-series cameras. DOF-preview works in all operating modes.

There are a small number of things that could be improved, however. The viewfinder is a bit small, and its display is difficult to see in bright light. The AF system has only three sensors, and of those none is sensitive to both horizontal and vertical patterns.

The cameras are available new (12/2001) for about US $300. Used units are difficult to come by, mostly because their owners are reluctant to part with them.

6. Super Program/Super A

This is the top A-series camera. It was developed alongside the SMC-A lenses, and takes full advantage of their new features: Tv and P operating modes as well as program and TTL flash. However, this small and light camera has a lot more to offer: solid (mostly metal) construction, DOF preview, self-timer, a good electronic shutter, Av and M operating modes, etc. The display is suitable for eye-glass wearers, and uses two LCDs for displaying the needed information. LCD illumination is also available. The camera accepts an optional winder or a motor drive as well as a variety of other accessories.

On the negative side, since the camera is not really intended for "professional use," it is fully dependant on battery power and lacks interchangeable screens and MLU. The working aperture is visible in the viewfinder only in the Tv and P operating modes. Finally, the X-synch is listed as 1/125 in the specs but it is only 1/90 in reality.

The camera is plentiful on the second-hand market and usually costs around US $150.

7. K1000/K1000SE

This big, heavy, and fully mechanical body offers no automation of any kind. It offers only the most basic features: a light-tight box, a film advance, a tripod socket, and a built-in light meter: all that one needs for learning the basics of photography. This total lack of convenience features explains the cult status of the K1000 among photo students worldwide. However, it fails to explain its popularity with PDML members. I mean, do you people not miss viewfinder information on aperture and shutter speed, a self-timer, a DOF preview lever or minimal flash automation? Wouldn't a KX or a KM be a better choice?


i = "PDML" is the Pentax-Discuss mailing list. It is a group of men and women who own and appreciate Pentax photographic equipment.