Look at virtually any of the online guides recommending the best SLRs for newcomers to film photography and a shortlist soon becomes familiar: Pentax K1000, Canon AE-1, Olympus OM10, plus a variable selection of other models from the same era. All are perfectly solid choices no doubt, and with a certain retro cachet for some – but are they really the best starting point?
What about a camera that doesn’t require exposure to be set manually for every single, solitary, shot – or doesn’t just offer manual exposure plus aperture priority, but also has shutter priority for when the occasion demands, and even a program mode that gives you the freedom to simply focus and shoot when something catches your eye? One that’s got pretty much every conceivable photographic situation covered, with exposure lock and exposure compensation and depth of field preview. And manual override of DX codes for the freedom to push and pull film. One that you can just bring along, not lug around. A more modern camera than the favourites of the 1970s and 80s, but one that maintains the timeless stylish design of an SLR with dials for controls and manual focus. And can be easily picked up for a much lower outlay. Wouldn’t you rather go for that camera?
After renewing my acquaintance with film photography with a point-and-shoot autofocus SLR, I’d been looking for a manual focus camera for a little while when I picked up a Pentax MZ-M (or ZX-M in North America) from an auction site in near-mint condition. This model belongs to the generation just before digital, and pristine examples seem to be common. It is exceptionally light, and when paired with a lightweight lens seems only marginally weightier than a 35mm compact. The standard Pentax K-mounted Tamron Adaptall-2 28-70mm f3.5-4.5 zoom (159A) that I received with the Pentax MZ-M restricted exposure options to aperture priority (with the right-hand dial set to A) and manual (by turning the dial to the shutter speed of choice).
The small LCD panel displays exposure mode and frame number, and provides a low battery warning, whilst the second dial provides exposure compensation and ISO override. The image in the viewfinder isn’t exactly luminously bright, but you can certainly focus well enough using the usual split image (horizontal in this case) and microprism arrangement. Film rewind and wind-on is motorised (2 x CR2 batteries, widely available, are needed) and automatic, which I welcomed as one less thing to think about.
I used two lenses with the Pentax MZ-M: the Tamron zoom (this had a useful macro setting and also performed well enough stopped down in the middle of its focal length range, but results were soft and vignette-prone at 28mm) and the widely lauded SMC Pentax-A 50mm f1.7 prime, which has a KA mount that gives the MZ-M control when the aperture ring is set at ‘A’, and so brings the program and shutter priority modes into play.
I had no cause to use the shutter priority or manual modes, but looking through the Pentax MZ-M viewfinder in manual mode, the LEDs which guide you to the correct exposure are agreeably bright and indicate both if the image is under or over-exposed and by how much.
Overall, a really pleasant camera to use. Light, small and feature-packed.
There is a ‘but’. Towards the end of the roll of Tri-X 400, pressing the depth of field preview button, which had worked fine previously, randomly seemed to be the trigger for a catastrophic malfunction, and the shutter never fired again (though the Pentax MZ-M did have the presence of mind to spontaneously autorewind the film).
It seems there is a reliability issue with the shutter mechanism of the Pentax MZ series. I really hope there are people out there who’ve shot dozens of rolls of film with these cameras trouble-free and that this problem isn’t completely endemic. Either way, no camera is infallible, and surely there can’t be too much to lose if you want to give film photography a try-out with this often overlooked Pentax. Maybe just think twice before using depth of field preview.
There is also an autofocus version of this camera, the MZ-5, which is reviewed here.
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32 thoughts on “The Pentax MZ-M (ZX-M) Review – The Ultimate Beginner’s 35mm SLR? – By Iain Paterson”
Thank you for the story and pictures
Yes, these are actually problem-free cameras for beginners and yet everything can still be set manually.
Even so, a no-frills mechanical camera is better, even for beginners.
Until recently I also had two of these – along with many others; unfortunately some of them suddenly break (plastic gears that break); so if you go on vacation with it, it is better to have a second housing with you … otherwise you get annoyed – like I was recently on vacation.
Thank you very much for your comments Andy. I completely understand your reservations – I guess the cost of repair would exceed buying a replacement MZ-M, which is a shame, although I guess there’s the option of DIY – not for me! – and it might be that a well-repaired model would be more reliable (I think there are upgraded parts available).
You can source replacement mirror gears for these cameras, But sadly the issue is rampant with the entire MZ/ZX line, it even crops up in the MZ-S. For the price of a replacement gear, shipping, and the time to entirely disassemble the camera (it needs to be taken apart almost completely) you’re looking at a price/time investment that’s just not worth it, you’re better of buying another body in working order.
I’m a huge Pentax collector and shooter, But personally these cameras aren’t worth the gamble unless you come across one with a lens for a good deal and treat it as a limited time use object.
Thanks Brent, I would say your last sentence sums it up perfectly – if the camera body is approximately ‘free’ with a useful lens, then worth a go without a doubt.
This was my first camera when I started taking photos around 1998. It was great. Even with the plastic bayonet mount I was able to hang a 300 mm Takumar off the front (or maybe I hung the camera off the lens!).
Agreed, I liked it a lot too Dave – now using a (weightier) Pentax P30 (P3) instead, which is great, and has a brighter viewfinder, but is definitely more limited.
These are indeed terrific cameras – the whole MZ range seems to have an issue where they pick up dust, small hairs and such in the finder very easily over time. I’ve never found a really clean copy of the MZ-M, and I looked for a while.
Shout out to Ricoh for still having the product information online, years after they have no longer been sold.
Thanks for the link, Tom – I hadn’t seen that product sheet before, and good for Ricoh for keeping it live. I wryly noted Pentax used the words ‘dependable’ and ‘unfailing’ in their strapline…
I have an autofocus Nikon N65 (F65) that I stopped using because of two features it shares with the ZX-M (MZ-M): the dim pentamirror instead of pentaprism viewfinder and the cost of CR2 batteries.
Luckily the camera came with batteries already in it Doug, but I do seem to recall that the MZ-M’s manual stated they should be good for up to a hundred rolls or so (I guess the absence of AF is a big factor) – though whether this is actually achievable in practice I never got to find out 🙁
Whether or not they are great beginner cameras, bodies like the Canon AE-1/AE-1 Program and Pentax K1000 have been overhyped and overpriced for some years now. It’s like the bandwagon that every noob thinks they need to jump on. Eye roll. I’ve been recommending 1990s-2000s modern SLRs as good starting points for new film shooters. Examples include any Canon Rebel, Nikon N65, Nikon N80. And the Pentax ZX-M fits right in. You can buy these for under $50 on Ebay all day long. They offer the same feel and most of the features of any DSLR someone may already be familiar with. And there’s the extra, added benefit of potentially being able to use your existing DSLR lenses on these modern film bodies, but less so if you have lenses made for APS-C digital sensors. For people looking for a more manual film shooting experience, I have been recommending the Minolta X-500/570. These too cost $50 or less and the Minolta MD glass is top-notch and less costly than many other brands.
Couldn’t agree more Lee – I’m finding the ’90s AF Minolta SLRs are excellent buys too.
I have many of the great Minolta AF cameras from the 7000 to the 7. Two of my favorites, while not bullet proof like my SRT manual group, are the Maxxum 5 and 70. Small, light, great features, use the great Minolta lenses in my collection, super cheap, and my favorite of all they used a metal bayonet mount and not plastic.
Absolutely Michael, plus there seem to be great value third-party lenses available like the substantial Tokina 70-210mm f/4-5.6 AF.
Hi, interesting points made here. I have two MZ5s in my collection one if which is a permanent loan to a friend who really can’t work with anything not full auto… Great little things. However, I can see why they aren’t what newcomers to film photography look for. Though technically more capable than cameras from the 70ies and 80ies, they just don’t give you that retro feeling that many (including me) look for at leat as much as they look for the film look. An Eos or MZ or… Isn’t looking or feeling too different from the latest Canon consumer DSLR. Film photography for many people is more about a statement they want to make and a feeling they want to experience. And a Pentax MX just does that better than a Pentax MZ. It’s not only about quality of results… However great the MZs and their likes are, if they were the only film cameras around I dare say film wouldn’t see the Renaissance it has today.
Thank you Stefan – good point, I agree that the continued interest in film photography must surely owe a great deal to the deserved appeal of the classic SLRs. I think that they are though sometimes unwittingly presented as ‘the’ way into film, when there are lots of great alternatives.
I gave my then 14 year old daughter a Nikon FE to learn on – this had just enough automation to be useful, and for a beginner, gave her a high proportion of sharp, well exposed shots. This has proven to be a decently reliable camera, with the required amount if street cred. Also not too pricey with a 50 F2 Nikkor.
Thanks for your recommendation Tom – the FE and possibly another Nikon, the EM, could perhaps both be in the mix for the best beginner’s SLR.
I was about to write “This was my first camera when I started taking photos in 1998″… but I see someone has already written that! ????
A good camera, simple to use, looks cool in a ‘retro-modern’ 90s plasticy way. Eats batteries. The kit 35-80 lens always seemed a touch soft to me. And plasticy. Nevertheless, I shot probably one of my favorite photos ever with this set up: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/46449248512/in/dateposted-public/
Thanks Alan, indeed I think the reasons to avoid the MZ-M, reliability aside, would likely be less immediately tangible than the results it can produce.
Funny thing, isn’t it? I bought an MZ-5n in 2000 and pretty much stopped using my ‘classic’ ME Super. Since I resumed using film in 2018, I’ve had a dozen different cameras, all older. The MZ is more capable than any of them but I’ve done no more than power it up to make sure it still works. (It does.)
So there’s clearly something emotional at work because it’s an excellent photographic tool that should be all I need. The metering display in manual mode is simply the best I’ve used: intuitive, progressive and still readable in poor light. A really well-executed design.
Incidentally, there’s a battery pack that lets the 5n run on four AAs instead of the CR2s. I imagine it will fit the M too.
Many thanks Clive, I just checked and the battery pack is compatible – perfect. From the sound of it, ‘objectively’ it’s got to be worth putting another film through that MZ…
Here’s how I look at it: beginners, who will probably start with a couple of zoom lenses, don’t need a manual focus film SLR- a late 90s af body will do fine, and are both reliable and not in need of new light seals.
Yes, a 50mm f1.8 lens will be desired, and manual focus ones are cheap. But reliable film bodies for them are not.
In comparison, AF film bodies are very cheap, but AF 50mm f1.8 lenses a little more uncommon/ higher price (e.g. EF mount still used for digital) – so coming to a similar total cost.
In my experience this is actually cheaper, but you see the point I was trying to make.
If you wish to manual focus, then they could buy an EOS 650/620/600 which came with official interchangeable manual focus screens. There are issues with sticky shutter, but this is easily improved without disassembly and non special tools (credit card), and out of my sample of 35 only two were stopped from working any faster than 1/125th.
I completely agree Callum that autofocus SLRs are likewise undeservedly overlooked in this context, and just incredibly good value. Very neat that the Canon models you mention have got both bases covered if needed.
I wouldn’t recommend ANY of Pentaxes MZ series to a beginner, on the grounds that if they’re not already broken, they soon will be. The mirror motor gear weakness is present in every model, except, possibly, very late production models (I have an MZ3 which I have crossed fingers over…) and repair, though possible, is a major undertaking. Late model AF film cameras are a good idea for film newbies; just not Pentaxes. I wonder, though,if the plastic DSLR like aesthetic is really the retro experience many people fancying film are really after.
Thanks Nigel, true enough, the AF film SLR look maybe isn’t what many have in mind – though I believe DSLRs are fast becoming superseded by mirrorless, so who knows, maybe that unfashionable aesthetic will acquire vintage respectability soon enough…
The plastic gear that breaks can be replaced with a metal gear of the same size – which was done from the factory in the late production of the MZ series – just by taking off the bottom plate. Instructions and a source/dimensions for the gear are in this thread on PentaxForums: https://www.pentaxforums.com/forums/8-pentax-film-slr-discussion/39450-mz5n-mirror-blocked-service-manual.html
Thanks Valerie – really useful; I found the gear replacement instructions on page 4 of the link, and that repair (evidently simpler than the mirror motor repair that precedes it) does look at least feasible for the non-specialist.
An MZ-50 is a perfectly decent option for a beginner wanting to test the waters in film photography with minimal financial commitment – and a few modern aids (A/S priority, AF) to help ease the learning curve.
A Nikon FM, Canon AE et. al., Olympus OM or Pentax K series will be a vastly better long term investment of course – better made, better availability of lenses, accessories and spares – but given all of these cameras are going up in price now that film’s popular and hip again, it’s not bad to have a <$50 option for those who are curious… but aren't entirely sure they want to invest three-figures-plus just yet.
Of course, I do stress the "<$50" bit… our local store had one up for sale at AU$150, and that is literally $100 too much for a camera like this. Any more money than that and a 1990s prosumer Canon EOS or Nikon F makes way more sense.
I used a friend's MZ-50 quite a bit back in the late 90s when they were still a current "thing"… cheaper than comparable prosumer Canon EOS SLRs at the time. Not as sexy as my then-extensive Nikon FM kit obviously, but they were reliable and autofocus was sometimes a very useful thing. I used it for paying work sometimes and it did the job well.
A couple of years ago I was cleaning out my partner's collection of long-replaced-and-forgotten-about cameras and was surprised to find a clean MZ-50 complete with both standard and telephoto kit zooms. Apparently she bought it some 20 years earlier, there was still film in there from over 10 years earlier. Popped in a fresh battery, fired right up, finished the roll and got 24 perfectly exposed frames. I've put through a few rolls of (mostly expired) colour film through it now and it continues to operate flawlessly. Autofocus is surprisingly nippy and reliable. The UI isn't as satisfying as turning big mechanical knobs, but it is intuitive and is more than usable in manual mode.
Of course I'd recommend a committed beginner get themselves a well maintained and tested Nikon FM as their first 35mm film camera any day of the week (and twice on Sundays), because they are damn well near perfect 'student' cameras. But if you find one in a cupboard that still works… well, buy a fresh battery and roll of film and go have some fun 😉
Agreed Ben, starting out with a 90s autofocus SLR for very little outlay has got to be hard to argue against – and, luckily, numerous near-mint Pentax, Minolta, Canon & Nikon models seem to crop up for next to nothing on auction sites.
I have one of these (donated) and the motor seems to “hunt” for the correct mode – screen moving from TV,AV,M, etc – constantly.
It will shoot occasionally – not enough for me to brave putting in a film. Changed batteries for new ones and the “switch/lever” thing seen when removing the lens is freely working – although jams occasionally – but that could be due to the mode hunt.
Any ideas? Search engines don’t seem to show much info on this issue.
I’m afraid I can’t shed any light on this one Steve – I’m nowhere near sufficiently knowledgeable, but if you’re in the UK Asahi Photo are Pentax film camera repair specialists and it might well be worth contacting them for a free fault diagnosis to see if they can easily fix it – they might also be able to replace the plastic gear with a metal one. Lightest SLR ever, I think (305g), which, if it’s made more reliable, has got to be worth having.