Pentax MX on handlebar bag

Back in the woods with a Pentax MX and 3 SMC lenses – By Clive Williams

They say you should never go back.  But I went anyway. A year ago, I wrote a 35mmc piece about trying to capture an impression of spring in the beech woods near my home, using a Pentax K1000 and a Takumar-A zoom. I concluded that neither item had a long-term place in my kit, and both were duly offloaded. I also decided I had better Pentax tools for the job, so in spring 2021, I went back to the same woods to try again.

Bike in beech woods
Just a hint of solar naughtiness

‘Familiarity breeds contempt’, my dad used to say; you fail to appreciate what you see all the time. Happily, not so in this case. I still love the smells and sounds of the woods – and, best of all, the magical pale-green light as the sun filters through millions of translucent new leaves. By July, the leaf canopy is so dense, so effective at grabbing the sun’s energy, that I have to take off my cycling sunglasses just to see well enough where I’m going, but in early May it all feels bright, fresh and full of promise. And this particular patch is far enough from anywhere you can park a car to get very few human visitors, so it’s peaceful too.

Blue pretty much as far as the eye can see

But this is supposed to be about photography, and the equipment I took to the woods with me. The successes of the first shoot were Fuji 200 negative film and manual metering. I’m mostly an aperture-priority guy but the woodland environment contains deep shadows and bright sky, which might fool an automated camera into making big shifts in exposure for small changes in framing. Better to stay manual, so what better than a Pentax MX?

Lens-wise, I had the SMC-A 24-50mm f/4 zoom that passed its probation last year, the bijou SMC-M 120mm f/2.8 in place of the bulky telezoom, and, in the middle, my long-serving SMC-A 50mm f/2.8 Macro. True to form, I didn’t make precise notes on which frame was shot with which lens, but the Pentax SMC coatings give a pleasing consistency across the set.

As much about the green as the blue (almost an exact duplicate of a 2020 picture)

The results are in

Enough preamble, how were the pictures? Well, as with the K1000 last year, the MX’s meter didn’t miss a thing. There isn’t a single mis-exposed shot on the roll. I don’t remember feeling I was working hard either, from which I deduce that the beautifully clear three-colour LED display was doing its job of gently telling me when I was bang-on, or simply close enough. This sort of ease-of-use is arguably worth at least as much as any amount of fancy-pants matrix or evaluative metering, because it lets me work quickly and trust my instinct, but lets me know if I’m about to do something silly. Much as I respect the Nikon FM series, I think the MX does this better.  It takes less room in the handlebar bag too.

Erm, blurbells?  (Sorry)

And the lenses made a happier set than last year’s – even if you can see a trace of flare from the 24-50, set wide and aimed towards the sun. My older SMC 24mm f/2.8 prime probably wouldn’t have done that – but it would be a brave choice for a single lens to carry all day, which is what I sometimes want the 24-50 to be. The 50 Macro can be a tricky thing to focus close on flowers when there’s even a hint of breeze, so I went for close-up impressions rather than perfect isolation.

I don’t think I have the patience to be a proper flower photographer

And the 120/2.8 is simply very good, and orders of magnitude better than the cheapie zoom. It did a nice job of compressing the view of the bluebells to maximise the impression of colour, and it’s probably the lens of the three that I most enjoyed using that day.

Show me the Monet

And finally, just to show there’s more to spring than bluebells…

Yes, it really is this red

Why it matters – to me

As I mentioned last year, getting out of the house and into these beautiful, tranquil places has been a real benefit. I’ve had nothing like as much to cope with as many during the pandemic, but I do find it difficult to spend every working day in the same chair, looking at the same screen. I know I sleep better after a day when I’ve had a change of light and scenery, so this little piece is my acknowledgement of what the woods have done for me.

Now, it must be about time to do an autumn set. At my usual workrate, it should be ready some time in March.

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13 thoughts on “Back in the woods with a Pentax MX and 3 SMC lenses – By Clive Williams”

  1. Most of us cut our teeth on the classic Pentax K1000 and most war photographers back in the day knew this camera, so sturdy one could probably shoot it and not damage it. Sorry u offloaded it, but to each his own. Most folks who have them I think zone focus and don’t depend on the meter. The K1000 and a roll of TriX used to be all u needed ????

    1. Please don’t imagine I’m picking on you personally, but you’ve raised a couple of tropes here that are over-familiar to us who frequent the film-photography corners of the Internet.

      The first is that there’s some sort of virtue in using a super-basic camera. There isn’t. And, if you’re really going to zone focus without the meter, then even a K1000 is more camera than you need to be carrying. (A Rollei 35 should be plenty.)

      I’m not sure who ‘most of us’ refers to, and why what we ‘cut our teeth’ with matters anyway. I learned to drive in a Vauxhall Nova; that doesn’t make it my ideal transport today.

      As for war photographers — seriously? The toughest test my camera gets is being shaken around in my handlebar bag, which could hurt the clockwork innards of a K1000 as easily as anything electronic. But the ‘bombproof’ and ‘bulletproof’ tropes applied to heavy old cameras are not just lazy, they’re a hideous trivialisation of what weapons of war do, not to cameras but to people.

      Finally, Tri-X. That has its place. But a piece about purple bluebells and green leaves isn’t it, so why even bother to mention it here?

      All right, I am picking on you. Your comment references a camera I didn’t use, a film type I could not have used, and a genre I don’t work in. But thanks for reading anyway. ????

    2. Again, I’m not picking on you, but as someone who used (and uses — I have a slightly disturbing number of MXs) these cameras when they were current, I think this isn’t true. The reason the K1000 is so famous is exactly because it was the camera many people learned on: it was, in fact, Pentax’s student model and was used by many institutions for photography courses. That means many people have fond memories of using it and many other people recall seeing cool young arts students using it.

      The K1000 was never Pentax’s professional camera: that would have been the MX or the LX, or before them one of the Spotmaticy cameras I think and after them I am not quite sure – the Super-A?

      And war photographers & other photojournalists generally have a single overriding consideration in camera choice: the service network. Back in the day that meant Nikon, not Pentax. The F-series Nikons were not better cameras than the MX (there is no better camera of its kind than the MX) but you could get them repaired anywhere.

  2. Nice job! The 120 mm lens is one of the many unusual focal length optics that Pentax offered back in the day. They also made 30 mm, 150 mm, and some other unusual lenses that other companies did not sell.

    1. Ha! I’m trying to avoid doing just that! In terms of Pentax glass, I’ve gravitated to a ‘big three’ of a 50mm F1.7, and ‘old-K’ 28mm f3. 5 and the 85mm f2, which are all lovely.

  3. All this could have been shot on my Pentax 35-105 A zoom lens. I bought it new and have used it ever since it is referred to a zoom lens full of primes. I used it on my ME Super Program and have used it on later Pentax DSLR cameras and is still a great performer

    1. Well yes — except for the pictures shot at 24mm. Or 120mm. Or with the 50mm macro, closer than a zoom would go. ????

      I could have shot a very similar set with my Fuji X-E2, for which I have a comparable spread of lenses. There’s nothing intrinsically magical about film or film cameras. I didn’t really intend this to be a gear article anyway, more a rumination on the benefits of getting outside in difficult times and taking a few photographs. Mindfulness, some would call it — although I suppose gear we enjoy using for its own sake can be part of that.

  4. As a Brit living in California I’m missing the UK bluebell season. But not my inability to get really good photos of them 🙂 Speaking as someone who’s first SLR was a K1000 many, many moon ago. I still have it but tbh always reach for other cameras such as my Spotmatic SP. I’ve never understood the premium the K1000 gets and the hairshirtism that’s apparently a good thing. Perfectly good camera but not worth the premium.

    That said I was wondering what you think about that 24-50mm zoom ? Sounds like a handy range when I just can’t be faffed with my usual primes. Would agree though that if you haven’t tried it the SMC-A 35-105 is a really good albeit heavy lens.

    1. Thanks Richard. I was aware of the 35-105, and I was tempted when one came up a few months ago. I held off partly because it misses the wide range I use a lot, but mainly because I thought the size of the thing would put me off carrying it. (There’s a 28-135 too, which goes wider but weighs more than my 24, 35 and 120 primes combined.)

      I’m pleased with the 24-50, given that it effectively cost me nothing once I’d sold the K1000 it came with. It is small enough to be a viable one-lens kit without being uncomfortable to carry, and the SMC gives it strong colours and contre-jour capability, which I use a lot. That’s partly why I went to the woods with my Pentax kit rather than the Nikon one.

      I’ve also had the older 24-35 for a long time, but I stopped using it once I got the 24/2.8. I should probably offload that too!

    2. Natürlich ist die Pentax MX eine wundervolle Kamera !
      Ich bin auch gerade in einer Pentax-Phase. Habe mich mit einer ME Super ausgestattet, die ich wegen des Designs liebe.
      Auch der große Sucher und die Zeitautomatik sind ganz wunderbar.
      Habe unter anderem jetzt zwei Pentax-Zooms, die ich sehr weiterempfehlen kann. Zum einen das SMC-A 35-70mm f4, recht unbekannt, aber ausgezeichnet. Ich stelle bei diesem oft auf 40mm ein, das geht sehr genau und es ist dort besser als das kleine SMC-M 40mm f2.8 !
      Zum zweiten ist da ein SMC-K 45-125mm f4, welches unglaublich kontrastreiche Bilder macht und man kann es für Landschaft nehmen und für Portrait-Photographie.

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