My GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) setting was kicked up a notch recently as a result of falling in love with the Olympus XA. The XA is a great camera, but despite my small hands, I still find it a bit too fiddly. So, I began looking around for compact 35mm SLRs that would be as simple and intuitive to use as the XA, but provide more real estate and purchase than the diminutive clamshell camera.
Why An MV-1?
I remembered how much I enjoyed my Pentax ME Super in college, so went to eBay to find a compact M. I debated whether I should get another ME Super, or go for the M camera I really wanted when I was in High School, the more “pro” featured MX. However, I was a bit hesitant given both cameras were being sold on eBay for more than I wanted. I also felt that I would not fully replicate the experience of the XA with the MX since it was a full manual exposure camera. I ended up with a less well-known MV-1 for a great price, with a feature set similar to the ME Super, with the exception of the lack of manually controllable shutter speeds. I had never heard of the MV or MV-1 before, but after a little research and perusing of a few online reviews, I decided to go ahead and bid on one.
The MV-1 In Hand
The Pentax MV-1 is exactly what I was looking for: a larger-sized version of the Olympus XA. Like the other Pentax Ms, the MV-1 is very small for a full frame SLR. Like the XA, it is primarily aperture-preferred. It also has a 1/100 manual speed and a Bulb setting which can be used without a battery. Unlike the XA, it has no backlight compensation setting. But, you can still handle tricky exposure situations by changing the ISO settings.
I’ve forgotten how easy it is to load these Ms with their interesting plastic take up “grips”. They quickly cling onto the film leader as soon as you wind the advance lever forward. And, I’ve also forgotten how short the film advance throw is, making for very fast winding. The display readout is straightforward and more rudimentary than the XA. There are Yellow, Green and Red “smears” on the left side of the viewfinder to indicate over and underexposure. Wonderful, in my mind, because there are no other distractions to take away attention from framing the image.
Also, unlike the XA, the Pentax MV-1 is an SLR and so is nosier to shoot. It also does not have a built-in lens. I managed to get a good deal on a classic SMC Pentax-M 40mm F2.8 pancake. Mated to the Pentax MV-1, you get a fantastic, compact combination for all around, intuitive shooting. Just like the XA, but one which feels better in hand. And, the shutter button falls nicely into place – no hunting required! The black body Pentax MV-1 I have looks quite stealthy, and a simple wrist strap makes it very handy to carry around.
The One Drawback
My biggest gripe with the Pentax MV-1 so far has been the viewfinder. I don’t recall my ME Super’s finder being as dark, nor as hard to focus on. Could it be because I use progressive lenses that are hard to use with the viewfinder? Or is there something just wonky about the MV-1 ground glass? Maybe it’s also the 40mm F2.8? I have read in other reviews that it can be quite difficult to focus. Interestingly, I don’t have the same issue on the used Nikon EM which I bought at the same time (and which will be the subject of a separate article). Anyway, as with any camera, you make do with its limitations. I shot my first roll, Ultrafine 400 (a no-name brand C-41 B&W film), and hoped I got most of the shots in focus.
Reassuring Real-World Results
When I downloaded the scans from my first roll, I was happy to see that all the photos I took through the viewfinder were in sharp focus. I took a few shots using zone focusing a la the XA, and those were a bit more hit or miss.
The Pentax MV-1 meter seems to have worked well under most lighting conditions, and the 40mm lens is decently sharp for my tastes. It is not clinically sharp, but it does a solid job. And, no other lens can give you the same compact profile, paired with a Pentax M body.
Conclusions… For Now
So, this happens to be one of my favorite film cameras to shoot with now, together with the Nikon EM + Winder. The Olympus XA definitely still wins for pocketability, sharpness, and stealthiness. But the Pentax MV-1, paired with the 40mm pancake, comes pretty close as a handy all-around street shooter that will not weigh you down.
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Thank you for reading!