Pentax Espio 120 – 1/3rd roll review

Unfortunately this is yet another post about a camera that’s failed me in use. In fact, the Pentax Espio 120 actually failed me more seriously than the few others that have failed me before too. So why write about it? Well, there’s two reasons, the first is that it has a lens that far exceeded my expectations, even at the far end of the zoom. The second is that it has a bit of a nifty trick up its sleeve when it comes to remembering (or otherwise) your desired flash settings.

The Pentax Espio 120 was a £1 junk box find. It looked mint – in fact, on face value, it still looks mint now. It’s not though. After shooting less than 10 shots of a roll of Portra 400 it decided to unceremoniously fail. One minute it was working, the next minute the lens made a funny click and it was game over. Frustratingly it still switches on, but when it does the lens moves all the way to its most extended position, makes a slightly unhappy noise again and the camera reports an error.


Ordinarily, this would stop me in my tracks in terms of writing about it, but not long before it failed I spotted that it has an interesting feature relating to its flash function.

Flash memory

Like most point & shoot photographers I get frustrated by constantly having to switch the flash off every time I switch a camera on. That being said, short of the cost saving benefit of not including a memory of some sort in cameras, I can understand why cameras like this function this way. These sorts of cameras were largely designed for Joe-public, not the photographer. Photographers make good decisions about when a flash should be turned off, Joe-public doesn’t. Having the flash mode reset at the point the camera is turned off ensures higher standard of outcome for the average happy snapper. The problem is, for us photographers it’s quite irritating – especially when you are out and about taking photos within similar situations when you constantly need to switch it off.

This Pentax Espio 120 – through some stroke of genius on the part of the designer – does something no other point & shoot camera that I’ve so far come across does. It finds the perfect line between the need to reset the flash, and not reset the flash. It does this quite simply by only resetting the flash when the camera is switched off. This might sound no different to usual, but, the big difference is in the automatic power down.

If you leave this camera long enough, it will automatically power down. Loads of cameras do this, it’s no big deal. But, if this one powers down automatically with the flash switched off, when you power it back up again, the flash is still switched off. Let me just reiterate that… It remembers the flash settings when it goes to sleep! This is such a good solution to this problem, I can’t understand why this is the only camera I have so far found that works this way…?

Image quality and the lens

Ok, so that’s point 1 in its favour. Point 2 is that having developed my 1/3rd of a roll of film, I’ve found that it actually takes pretty good pictures too.

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Moreover, I discovered that it takes good photos at the long end of its zoom range. This really is quite rare in cameras of this type in my experience – especially with cameras that go over the 100mm mark.

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Snaps with a Pentax Espio 120

Not only this, but having read this wiki page, it seems that the lens on this thing is only f/8.8 at the long end. 120mm f/8.8 in a compact point & shoot is pretty damn good, especially as the photos it takes at that end of the zoom aren’t shit either.

Conclusion (if I can call it that)

I’m not going to buy another one of these. Ultimately this sort of camera is too big for me to carry around on a day-to-day basis. But it has got me wondering if any of the smaller models from Pentax from the same era share this flash memory feature. Anyone know?

One way or another, if you see one of these going for the £1 I paid for it, assuming it’s lens doesn’t break like mine’s did, I’d say it’s worth picking one up… Perhaps someone else could fill in the gaps of this “review” if they do happen find one too?!

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18 thoughts on “Pentax Espio 120 – 1/3rd roll review”

  1. Dang – that thing does do a nice job. Sharp, nice colors, and no overwhelming vignetting or distortion.

    Don’t toss it in the bin yet – some of these 90s zooms report lens errors when a piece of debris gets lodged in the space between the lens and the body. Try a bit of compressed air or even rout around in there with a scrap of paper. The “click” you heard sounds discouraging, but it’s worth a shot!

    The Canon Sure Shot Megazoom 105 (from 1991) remembers the flash setting when you turn it off. It’s downright luxurious!

  2. I have a Pentax Espio 738 which jammed back in 2002 the day before we went to the US for two months and caused me to buy my first digital camera. Ultimately that was a good thing because we were able to share photos of our trip with family back in the UK on MSN network. Anyway, last year I dug out the Pentax and unjammed it–it seemed to be the lens covers that had stuck–and haven’t run a film through it since. That flash setting issue always used to drive me mad, but I’ve just tried letting it sleep and it behaves exactly as you describe. I’ll put a film in and see how it goes. Incidentally, I bought this Pentax in a second hand camera shop while on holiday in about 1998, after I left a much better Canon compact on the top of Kinder Scout. The digital camera I replaced it with was a Panasonic LC20, with a 2 megapixel sensor and a Leica lens. It was pretty bad.

    1. Msn, haha…

      Really interesting to hear this flash thing as a common trait – you will have to let me know how you get on!!

  3. Just picked up my Pentax Espio 928 after reading your discovery, and yes! Switched to flash off, and then left it to power down which it did after a couple of minutes. When I pressed the power button the camera reactivated and the LCD panel shows the flash still disabled. Great find Hamish! Also just done one of my slightly bonkers modifications and attached a Sony wide convertor lens designed for Sony Handycams. I’m still shooting the film and don’t kn ow how it will perform. Could be a disaster:

    1. The 928 has a very good lens, esp. when shot at its widest. Try to find out exactly how the exposure compensation works and use it (it’s not super straightforward without reading the manual) as i found out that the camera tends to underexpose a bit.

  4. I’ve had excellent results from two zoom Espios of the same line, the -140 (38mm-140mm) and the -928 (28mm-80mm) and I can definitely corroborate your comments about image quality. I am 90% sure that the same intelligent flash-off function is present on the -928 but I’m not as certain regarding the -140 (although I see no reason why it should be any different from the -120). They are a bit on the bulky side and the viewfinders are just average, but they give pretty good results and they are packed with features like multiple exposure, exposure compensation, Bulb mode, infinity focus lock etc which make them quite interesting.

    1. I’m wondering if there might be a smaller camera short zoom with a lens of similar quality …

      1. Christos Theofilogiannakos

        Well, Pentax downsized the successors to that line (Espio 120MI, Espio 140V, Espio 120SW) but the lenses became slower and many features disappeared. I’ve use the 140V and 120SW (my entry to your Leica M4 competition was shot with the latter) and they were OK, but uninspiring.

  5. Can’t recall the Espio 200 lens being anything to write home about at the long end, or whether the flash remembers its setting. You’ve tempted me to put another film through to check. The size of the thing turned me off, almost Canon SLR proportions.

    1. Thanks Dan – by coincidence I’ve been pointed to your posts on Flickr a good few times recently! Always a good read!
      You’d be welcome to post something on 35mmc if you wanted to?

      1. Hi Hamish, thanks for asking, that sounds a great idea. I have a camera review in mind, something I haven’t seen on here and that doesn’t get much press generally, but that I consider one of my favourite 35mm compacts I’ve used.

        1. That’s great Dan – send it over when you’re ready and I’ll make you a contributor to the site!

  6. Hi Hamish, you are incorrigable! Discovered your blog 5-weeks or so ago. Have since acquired Canon Sureshot AF7, am awaiting delivery of Pentax Espio 120 and Olypus XA2. Am on lookout for an Olympus XA!. Am enjoying Canon, and looking forward to new arrivals with anticipation. I have never commented on a blog before though look at several. Hats off to you for inspiring me and other readers.

    1. Hi Ian,
      Always nice to get such feedback – especially when it’s from people who have been inspired to shoot such inexpensive cameras. Enjoy – and let me know how you get on!
      Thanks for breaking your comment cherry on my site 😉

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