I think that it would be unfair to judge and review Pentax MZ-S separately from the FA Limited line of lenses – it’s my opinion that you have to look at them together as one set. They look good together, they are good in use together, and they are all ODD together. There is something about this kit that reminds me of the Contax G2 with its 45mm, 28mm and 90mm lenses. I understand that this argument may sound a bit strange, but for me this comparison somehow confirms that this kit should be reviewed as one.
This lens set is the holly trinity of close-to-classical focal lengths: There is photojournalists or walk-around normal 43mm lens, the classic wide 31mm lens and portrait 77mm. Then there is a lens-and-body control philosophy that ties them all together. The camera is and looks modern, but it’s still made to be controlled in “classical” way; aperture control on lens ring and shutter control via a shutter dial.
The Pentax MZ-S and lenses are tailored to each other, but this is a very specific package, a quality one, but – as I say – an odd one. It’s not going everybody’s “cup of tea” – most will either love it or hate it. At first I was drawn to lenses but was skeptical about camera, but in time we blended perfectly together to the point that now it’s my main 35mm film set. As such, my aim here is to draw a bit of deserved attention to this overlooked set and to share my personal experience of it.
Bit of a history
The Pentax MZ-S was one of last film models from Pentax. It was introduced in 2001 and produced until 2006. The Pentax MZ-S was aimed at the enthusiast and pro user market, but to me it looks more of enthusiast camera – though this is my own subjective opinion based on my views about build robustness and speed of function. A “Pro” film camera of the time was the Nikon F5, the MZ-S feels like more of a competitor to the Nikon F100 or F90.
The first lens, introduced in 1997, was the 43mm. This was followed by the 77mm in 1999 and 31mm in 2001. The Pentax MZ-S body appeared after all three lenses were made available. All three lenses were created by same man, lens designer was Jun Hirakawa. My personal assumption is that the camera body was stylistically and ideologically tailored to use the limited lenses. This seems logical to me; top of the line body with top of the line lenses.
Pentax MZ-S: Body design
There are some distinct features that instantly cache the eye looking at the Pentax MZ-S. The angled top panel, the uniquely designed right control wheel, the drive and metering switches, the green button on front/top side, and the left side control wheel.
First of all, the slanted panel makes camera body to look very unusual. To me, at first sight, I thought it looked strange – I didn’t liked it much. After I began to understand the logic behind it (and my eye got used to it) it started to seem natural. The main logic to the slanted top was to give comfort to the user – all top placed controls might be seen from top of the camera and from behind the camera at all times.
The slanted panel also makes the Pentax MZ-S look bigger than it actually is – the prism hump is very small, because camera’s “shoulders” are raised. At first sight you see beefy looking aggressive athlete of a camera body; a bone breaker. In reality its quite compact, take a look again at the picture of the set above and compare it the size to Fuji Klasse and you’ll see the real size. To me camera size is almost perfect; I’d describe it as a mid-sized SLR that – together with its properly shaped grip – is the most comfortable camera body I ever held and shot.
Lets start with right side of the top of the Pentax MZ-S. The biggest part of right side is dedicated to right control wheel. the main function of this wheel is shutter speed dial, in other modes – and if you are in Pentax special functions menu (a bit later about them) – this wheel lets you to toggle between desired settings.
The dial stands out of camera body a bit and its edges are angled and it has ribs. The ribs enable you to grip it and comfortably rotate with one thumb. The dial has some resistance and rotates with satisfying click stops. I dare to say that ability to rotate it with one finger and the tactile feeling it gives make it one of best shutter speed control dials I used.
The centre of this dial is LCD screen, where you can see all main setting info: mode, frame count, shutter speed, aperture, other settings. Just below the dial there is a “Hold” switch – it is used to lock setting dial in order to avoid accidental changes.
To the right side of the “Hold” slider is the AE-L button – for AE modes this will be self explanatory. Behind AE button is the screen illumination button – this one helps to see settings in the dark. It’s worth mentioning that it not only illuminates the screen but also a lens changing alignment mark as-well.
On the top, to the right of the main control dial, you see drive switch. The self timer is 12 seconds or 2 seconds with mirror lock up – selected via the Pentax special functions (see below). Then there is a metering switch with spot, centre-weighted and multi segment options.
The top left side of camera is where things get complicated at first sight… ant they are still complicated at second sight too. The dial seems to be overcrowded, but when you get used to it, its OK. Simple things first – see that switch behind dial? Its a lock button, you have to press it in order to move dial. Then this dial (the outer part) works as exposure compensation dial. Then on the other side of dial, opposite the “0” you can see manual ISO override/set. Inside exposure compensation dial there is internal bracketing dial; you can set bracketing off, or you can chose between half and full stop bracketing.
Top centre of camera contains in-build pop up flash.
The back of camera has data back, that lets (if you need it) to print date and/or time of exposure. I don’t need it, so I switch this function off. On the back of the right side there is AF button that activates auto0-focusing without usual half press of shutter button.
On the front of camera, on the left side is a flash button – but as I never ever used flash on this camera I have no idea what it does. Below the flash button is focusing switch with options for manual focusing, single and continue focusing.
The top front side of the Pentax MZ-S contains shutter button, and ON / OFF and DOF preview switch. The shutter button on this camera is very well implemented soft, with good transition between half press and full press.
The right side of camera contains lens release button, focus point selector switch (one of only few criticism for camera – this is not convenient to use) and green exposure mode reset button.
The Pentax MZ-S offers standard exposure modes: Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual modes. What’s a bit different from other cameras is how those modes are accessed.
To set program mode, you set the lenses aperture ring to the “A” position and you are in program mode. If you want to switch to shutter priority, start to rotate shutter dial and camera understands that you want to leave aperture control to the cameras metering system and control shutter speed manually. Want to shoot manual? You set aperture ring on lens on any position other than “A” and you are already in manual mode. In case you want to go to aperture priority from manual – hit exposure mode reset button and you done. As such, using different exposure modes and switching between them is very fluent and natural on this camera.
The Pentax MZ-S Viewfinder
Big, bright, good eye relief are the first things you notice. It also has very well implemented exposure readings – everything is displayed in the lower part of the viewfinder, readings are brightly lit and visible even in strong light. The display shows: aperture, shutter speed, in focus indication, selected focus point and exposure / exposure compensation bar. The viewfinder magnification is 0.75 with a 92% coverage – this fact combined with the eye relief were main factors as to I started to look at this camera. It’s one of most comfortable cameras I have used for spectacle wearers.
Note – there is also diopter correction in viewfinder, with ability to adjust from -2.5 to +1.5.
As I mentioned previously camera has 3 modes for metering. Centre-weighted metering is a quite straightforward thing – I barely use it and find there is nothing to say about it.
Spot metering is my goto setting for 99% of all shots – its reliable and accurate. One thing to note: you have to know what you are doing with spot metering. You have to meter the main subject in the frame and apply exposure compensation based on main subject colour, and your vision for particular shot. This is not a camera related thing though, more general spot metering related issues.
Then there is multi segment metering, which is worth few extra words. There’s 6 zones for meter – the Pentax MZ-S meter thinks about scene contrast and suggests proper exposure. It can detect and compensate for backlight scenes – which I think is good for people who are just starting to understand light and metering. As for me, I use multi segment metering only in low contrast scenes and don’t have extensive experience of this highly intelligent mode – you can blame my experience in metering and paranoiac need to decide and do everything by myself.
But, the most interesting and unique function of multi segment metering and exposure determination algorithm in the Pentax MZ-S is that this camera is able to read exposure latitude form film DX canister (if this info is present), take into account lens resolution (if this is coded in lens electronics) and take all this info into account when suggesting exposure settings.
The Pentax MZ-S also has an exposure setting imprint function. Now this is a quite cool function! What you get is sort of a analog exif; on the film, above the frame between film perforation holes it prints basic exposure info, such as: exposure mode, metering system, shutter speed, aperture, exposure compensation value. This imprinted information should help to learn exposure by analysing shot scene and selected values. Combined with the DX code reading, this should be awesome guide to learn tricky exposures.
Three modes are present for focusing. Single AF is quite fast. I don’t have and hadn’t used any modern, fast focusing cameras, so I can only compare it to Pentax MZ-3, where it feels twice as fast. Admittedly, thats a feeling, I haven’t actually measured focusing speed… It’s also very accurate – I very rarely have hunting or missed focus shot. Autofocus is screw driven, so there is some noise.
I don’t use AF-C (continuous focus), so cant comment on it’s speed or accuracy.
Manual focus is really good. I use some manual focus for 70% of all my shots and I can easily see on the screen when my subject comes into focus – focus “snap” is quite evident. There is no split prism or micro-prism for visual focus aids, but I can say firmly, that with this camera I do feel the same confidence in focusing I have with manual focus cameras.
There is also an electronic focus aid if you need to – the focus indicator lights up when the subject in the selected focus point comes into focus. You can turn on/of aa audio signal “beep” if you wish too.
It’s worth noting, that the Pentax MZ-S has 6 user selectable focus points, though the spread of these point is not very wide. There is a line of 5 focus points in horizontal centre of viewfinder, with one of those points at very centre of vf. Then there is one additional point – vertical centre above central vf spot – the idea of this additional point is to place it where human face should be if you soot horizontal portrait.
For 100% of my shots I use the centre spot. But there is a switch to set auto point selection, where camera guess where the main subject is. I don’t use it in practice, but tried to use it just out of curiosity when writing this review. It actually works quite well. You can switch focus point manually too, but this is where one of main ergonomic issues of this camera comes into play. You have to move a switch situated near lens with right hand, and whilst holding it you have to rotate main dial (again with right hand). This procedure is very awkward, but lucky me – I don’t need it!
There is a legend that this camera drains batteries, I read it in several places that battery lasts only a couple of rolls and was afraid that this was to be the case, but it isn’t. In fact I don’t see any difference in battery life comparing to MZ-3 or MZ-5N, from two CR2 batteries you can get approx 15 – 20 rolls of film.
On the left side camera control dial there is a “PF” marking. By choosing it you open a menu of what the manufacturer calls “Pentax functions”. There is 19 of them, some are useful and quite unique, some not, the list of available functions is here:
F1 – enabling or disabling audio focus confirmation signal
F2 – setting exposure program lines
F3 – setting the number of auto bracketing exposures
F4 – setting auto-bracketing sequence
F5 – during multi-segment metering, the autoexposure reading can be taken or not taken at the point of selected autofocus point
F6 – setting of backs AF button to only focus or focus and obtain exposure reading
F7 – set ISO manually or automatically
F8 – if focusing on selected focus point is impossible you can select or not to use neighbouring focus point
F9 – enabling / disabling shutter release before build-in flash is ready
F10 – setting build-in flash as a flash or wireless controller in the wireless mode
F11 – setting the firing method when using the illumination button with the AF360FGZ in the wireless mode
F12 – setting the film rewind to rewind completely or to leave out film leader for mid-roll film change
F13 – setting the film rewind method (automatic or manual) at the end of the roll
F14 – choosing of self timer delay between 12 sec or 2 sec with mirror lock up
F15 – setting the film speed for imprinting data
F16 – focusing with or without the shutter button pressed halfway down
F17 – setting the select dial rotating orientation for advancing numeric value
F18 – enabling or disabling the lens mount index lamp
F19 – with optional battery grip attached, setting the remote control button to release the shutter in 3 sec or immediately
A balance between main and advanced functions.
All main functions are comfortably placed where they should be, and in general, in terms of ergonomics for basic/pure photography it’s almost perfect. The Pentax MZ-S has some advanced functions and sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to access and use them.
As such, I have two versions of what happened during design of camera. Either designers failed to give convenient access to most advanced functions, or their had a goal to make a simple camera not overcrowded with buttons and dials, so if user need more – he had to dig a bit deeper.
If this is failure or great achievement or design will come down to the user. As for me, I found this design philosophy a revelation. The hidden functions I just need to set one time giving me a set and forget body that’s a purist joy. In this regard this camera design philosophy reminds me a bit of Fuji Klasse S compact camera – another favourite of mine!
This camera, as almost all Pentax camera bodies, opens up possibility to explore very vide variety of Pentax legacy lenses. For the sake of this article I will stop only on three of them I mentioned at the start. But, be aware, there are more hidden gems in lineup! And with Pentax system to this day remaining somewhat underrated, they are therefore often quite affordable.
All three of my lenses are metal with a very solid build! All of them have aperture rings. The 31mm and 77mm lenses have integrated lens hoods, and the 43mm lens has screw in lens hood that is so well tailored to lens that I wouldn’t hesitate to call it integrated. The 43mm and 77mm lenses use 49mm filters and 31mm use 58mm filter. All three lenses are autofocus lenses, but if you use them for manual focusing they feel nice to use. The focus throw is adequate, resistance is perfect, the feel is almost the same as a dedicated manual focus lens, except some noise and grinding from screw focus gear.
The main thing that sets these lenses apart and makes them unique is not one particular feature, but a set of them. They are high end, metal built. They are compact, have good manual and autofocus and have dedicated aperture rings. Where else do we get this same combination of features? I’ll remind you, it’s in the Contax G line…
The other distinct feature of these lenses is the unusual focal lengths. Common information is that the unusual focal lengths came from design priorities of the lenses. The main priorities were compactness and image quality, and as far as I understand it, the exact focal length came as a result of these priorities. The strange lens focal lengths could easily be used as an advantage if you get used to them. The 77mm as a portrait lens gives you ability to put a bit more context into frame, the 43mm is perfectly normal for the 35mm frame and is, for me, the perfect reportage lens. The 31mm is moderate wide with ability to use it as a standard lens.
These lenses are also quite fast – not WOW fast, but real world fast – 77 and 31mm are F1.8 and 43mm is F1.9. They are all perfectly usable and sharp from maximum aperture. Wide open is my most favourite F number… you will see it in photos below.
77mm and 31mm have 9 rounded aperture blades, as such, you get pretty pleasing highlights even when stop down a little bit. If we want to talk about bokeh quality and aesthetics, let me say like this: The 77mm is a cream machine and 31mm has one of the best bokeh from all moderate vide angle lenses I used. In case of 43mm, lets say just that bokeh quality is not the strongest side of this lens – I’d say it’s a little nervous and when you have distinct highlights in background it forms them in small distracting bubbles.
The minimal focusing lengths of all these lenses is good and common for similar SLR lenses. The 77mm has 70cm, 43mm has 45mm and 31mm has 30cm minimal focusing distance.
Flare resistance, contrast and detail in pictures is good – all lenses have moderns coatings, and that makes impact. This all said, all three lenses has its own distinguishable character, that is to say, they are not just another boring, perfect lens!
With the Pentax MZ-S and these three lenses, I can have everything I need in such small and light package for a whole photo weekend where I’m not sure what photo opportunities will encounter. That, I think, is very cool.
I’m completely satisfied with ease of use of this set. If the main measuring of camera equipment criteria is the I don’t have to think about camera while taking picture and can completely concentrate on scene, its perfect. Simple as that. And this camera, together with any mentioned lens completely disappears during usage.
The quality of results that I get more than satisfies me. I’m not an photo artist or professional that makes living from photography. I’m only hobbyist and only sometimes I use a picture or two for my work. The level of my pictures corresponds to that, and this means that the abilities of camera and lenses is greater than the possibilities I will throw at it by fair amount. I’m limiting factor of my pictures, not this set and I think that I’m still unable to show true potential… though I do try… This also means that I don’t have those “pro requirements”, don’t care about super sharpness, ultra high resolving power, very serious weather/storm/ Sahara desert sealing abilities, or my equipment’s ability to survive tank/battle helicopter attack….
But I do care about such aspects as design, ergonomics, the weight of system, the possibility to use – and availability of – accessories that I require. I care about adequate feeling of quality during use, I care and like when lenses have and show their character, their unique signature in the pictures.
The Pentax MZ-S and my selection of Limited’s deliver in all those areas with excess, and I have very good time using them.
Do I think it’s the best camera in the world, the only one that I will use or even the holly grail of all compact SLR camera systems? No, there are other similar good sets out there. I even use some of them: I love the Contax S2 with its spartan usage philosophy and superb Zeiss glass. I enjoy my MF Mamiya 645 1000s set with its balance of size and weight and the shallow DOF abilities that comes with its fastest MF lens. I adore Yashica MAT 124 G for unique TLR experience, true MF feeling and special Tessar lens signature. Hell, I even like to shoot my Sony A7R II for ability to state that digital sucks (thats not true, I like it, but it sometimes it still annoys me). And then there are countless cameras and systems that I haven’t used yes… What I’ve tried to say here is that this Pentax set is not “best”, because there is no “best”!
What I’m saying that my Pentax MZ-S and my selection of Limited’s posses very unique abilities and design solutions. Some might say that when you spend some time to think about this camera and lens set, it’s also very odd! But odd in a good way, I say, like Odd John from an Olaf Stapledon novel…
More of my work can be found here: www.beautifulgrain.com