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.