I’ve spent the past few months shooting an amazing and beautiful 35mm film SLR from Japan. This camera has it all – a complete system with detachable prisms, backs, winders, focusing screens, choice of attachable handles, and even limited releases in Titanium. Most important among these accoutrements are the ones containing glass – the camera couples with a complete range of lenses capable of unsurpassed image quality in their price point.
It’s a well-made camera, robust and ergonomically excellent, and it’s beautiful to look at. If it’s not the best professional SLR I’ve ever shot, it’s certainly in the conversation. Any guesses? Nikon F3? Canon F-1? Nope. It’s the Pentax LX, and that’ll surprise some of you. While the popular opinion that the K1000 is the best student camera ever made has become consensus, when it comes to professional-spec cameras, Pentax has largely failed to earn the high reputation enjoyed by its more well-known Japanese rivals.
But does any of that matter? Okay, it’s a less popular camera. Who cares? Not me. And that’s because I spent the final three months of 2016 shooting the LX, and came away feeling that it’s the best 35mm film SLR system camera around. But this can’t be true, can it? The best 35mm SLR system? Surely I’m just hyping this thing up for the sake of an article. Surely the continuous screaming of my two-week-old daughter has addled my sleep-starved brain to the point where I can no longer compose a viable opinion based on fact. Surely I’m an idiot. After all, if the LX were really this good, wouldn’t we all be subject to a sickening abundance of LXs populating the hippest Instagrams and photo geek blogs, a la the AE-1s and F3s of the world?
While I admit I’m certainly sleep-deprived, and though I may be an idiot (depending on my wife’s mood when you ask her), I can still write a cohesive theme. And believe it or not, it’s true – the Pentax LX is better than any pro-spec SLR that I’ve used from rival brands Canon and Nikon. But before you join the chorus of nay-sayers, there are real reasons I hold the opinion. Let’s talk about those.
Professional system cameras are typically heavy and large. They’re designed this way, ostensibly, in the pursuit of durability. A big, heavy camera can take a greater thumping than a lightweight machine, so the story goes. And while the truth of this can be endlessly debated (our upcoming durability test video will settle that score), it’s a bit irrelevant today. Most film shooters in 2017 aren’t using their cameras in war zones or aboard the lunar orbiter. We’re using them to shoot our every-day lives, and while durability is important it shouldn’t come at the cost of a neck-ache and excess travel weight.
But don’t assume that because I say we’re not using these cameras in rough service that I’m making excuses for the LX. I’m not, and I don’t need to. This machine is as robust as any ever made. With full-metal internal construction and metal top and bottom plates, the LX is strong, durable, and reliable. But unlike its competition, it’s also amazingly compact and light. At just 570 grams (20 ounces), it’s about 200 grams lighter than the F3 and about 400 grams lighter than the Canon F-1. Its physical dimensions buck the trend of “bigger is better” too, with a footprint that’s closer to a pocket machine than the pro-spec weapons it rivals. This combination of small size and light weight make it one of the best choices for people looking for an everyday camera, for shooters who travel, or for those who need to shoot the streets with subtlety.
Not content to simply meet the durability standard of its rivals, Pentax pushed further. The brand’s literature of the time boasts of reliability features that its rivals lacked. With full weather- and dust-sealing built in to every button, dial, lever, and switch, it’s a camera that provides the kind of internal protection that no other maker was offering at the time. Further longevity concerns were met at even the cosmetic level, with the body of the camera being coated in black chrome underneath black paint. This was to ensure that as the paint wore from heavy use, the camera would remain a shadowy silhouette. Sorry, steampunk enthusiasts. No brass here.
I think you’ve gotten the point by now. The LX is a tiny camera in a strong package. But just in case you’re unconvinced, let’s pepper you with a few more reliability features – the shutter is mechanical, operating at all speeds faster than 1/60th without the need for battery power. The shutter curtain is a Titanium foil construct. The strap lugs and handle mount are virtually indestructible. And if all this isn’t enough, there are even two special editions featuring Titanium body covers.
You may assume that this strength and portability comes at a cost, that perhaps the camera lacks certain specs that the other makers’ pro-spec models boast. You’d be wrong. The LX’s spec-sheet is as good as those flaunted by Canon and Nikon models of the era. The shutter is capable of speeds as fast as 1/2000th of a second, same as the F3 and F-1 from Nikon and Canon respectively and excellent for those of us who love using fast glass. It’s got a depth-of-field preview lever, self-timer, mirror lock-up, exposure compensation dial, ten replaceable focusing screens, nine optional prisms, and all the rest that you’d expect from a full-featured machine. Yes, the LX packs the same performance as its competition into a tighter body, and in some instances it even offers more.
Some examples of where it beats the rest? Out in the field, when your battery dies, the LX will operate across five shutter speeds, whereas Nikon’s F3 will shoot only one mechanical speed. And compared to the pro-sec F-1, the LX provides the ability to shoot in aperture-priority auto-exposure mode, something the manual-only Canon lacks. And this is a biggie. Auto-exposure is huge, and aperture-priority is the best. This shooting mode allows the photographer to control the aperture of the lens (and by extension, deth-of-field and subject isolation) while leaving the task of selecting the correct shutter speed up to the camera. In this mode, the through-the-lens, off-the-film metering system works beautifully to create perfect exposures every time, and it’s my preferred method of shooting. Nikon’s F3 offers this, but it does so in a much larger and heavier package.
The viewfinder is large, bright, and fully informed. When shooting in manual mode, the user-selected shutter speed is displayed via a needle and gauge, and unlike many cameras, the Pentax also displays the recommended shutter speed based on real-time light readings via a set of multi-colored LEDs. This is fantastic and superior to so many other cameras because when shooting manually it takes only a simple glance to see how your current settings will impact your final exposure. At the top of the viewfinder we find a display of the selected lens aperture. This combination of information and real-time readouts allows the photographer to compose a shot, adjust for exposure, focus, and shoot, all without removing the camera from the eye. Essentially, the LX’s viewfinder is perfect.
Perfect too are the camera’s ergonomics. With or without the optional handles, it fits in the hand confidently and rests with a nice balance that some of its heavier, brickier rivals can’t match. All controls (but one) are relegated to the right hand side of the machine, and all can be actuated with fingers in their natural rest positions. The previously mentioned mirror lock-up, depth-of-field preview lever, and self-timer switch are all ingeniously integrated into the same, single switch. And though this description sounds complicated and obtuse, in use it’s quite intuitive, especially considering the lever will mostly be used as a stop-down lever with the secondary functions being used rarely, if at all.
There’s a shutter lock surrounding the release button, selected with a quick flick of a finger, that prevents any accidental exposures and battery drain. A threaded cable release socket exists in the center of this take-a-picture button, and the shutter speed selector is exactly where you’d expect it, actuating with just the right amount of resistance.
Exposure compensation is handled on the left side of the top plate, integrated into the ISO selector knob, film back opener, and rewind lever. Standard stuff, and the only annoyance on the entire machine given that the exposure comp is a locking affair. This bothers me. Call it a pet peeve, but I detest control locks.
Shooting the LX is about as straight-forward as any exceptional SLR gets. Peer through the viewfinder, frame your shot, focus, and shoot. What’s special about the LX is just how well it does everything involved in this process. It’s about as concise and precise an SLR as you’ll ever find. It’s got everything you need, without overcomplicating things, which is and has always been the hallmark of timeless design. Equally special is the feeling it communicates in the hands, of being constantly ready for any situation, and of being able to surreptitiously shoot the streets without drawing attention. It’s a camera that’s the quintessence of what a great camera should be – a machine that facilitates the craft and gets out of the way of making great images.
And the images made with it can indeed be great, thanks to that gorgeous, metal mount poised on the nose of the machine. It accepts all of Pentax’s K mount lenses, which have long been regarded by those in-the-know as some of the best in the business. The brand’s SMC glass (super multi-coated) is among the very best at solving chromatic aberration, flares, and ghosting, and does remarkably well to coax out the very best color and contrast from the world around us. I’ve never shot a Pentax lens I don’t love, and with an astounding range of focal lengths and designs there’s something in the K mount for every shooter’s needs.
And that’s about all you need to know about the LX. It’s an advanced and astounding camera that’s simply better than the more popular competition. It’s small, capable, precise, and beautiful. It’s durable, reliable, and reasonably-priced. It may not have been as popular as competing models from other brands, but those who bothered to notice were keenly aware of its excellence.
Proof of this fact can be gleaned from the stunning duration of the machine’s production. For a miraculous twenty-one years, from 1980 to 2001, this camera could be purchased new. Take a moment and imagine another tool or gadget that’s just as effective and attractive in 2001 as it was in 1980. Your computer? Your car? And for that matter, think about whether or not your latest digital camera will have the staying power of the Pentax? If that matters to you, and if having the best matters to you, give the LX a shot. I can nearly guarantee you’ll love it.
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