A lot of people say that Pentax never gets any respect. That might be true, but whenever I hear the Pentax name mentioned by a real photo geek it’s usually spoken with reverence. Popular opinion aside, Pentax is one of the most successful brands in photography, and has been for much of the 20th century and beyond. Their classically beautiful, rock-solid machines are unmistakable, and have created diehard fans the world over. We have to respect that!
In the interest of spreading the Pentaxian gospel, we’ve compiled the best of the brand into one of our popular Essentials articles. Most Pentax cameras and lenses are worth shooting, but if you’re seeking the absolute cream of the crop, these are the ones that epitomize Pentax perfection. Enjoy.
Best Professionals’ Camera – Pentax MZ-S
The MZ-S was introduced in 2001 as Pentax’s final flagship professional grade SLR (buy it using our eBay affiliate link here). It was intended to compete with the heavy-hitters of the era, the Canon EOS-1v, the Minolta a9, and the Nikon F6. Although it never quite hit the heights those cameras did, the MZ-S ended up being the most technologically advanced film camera Pentax would ever develop, and the finest pro-spec film camera Pentax has to offer.
Raw specs on the MZ-S are impressive even by today’s standards – a vertically traveling focal plane shutter with a range of thirty seconds to 1/6000th of a second, a variable metering system featuring center-weighted, spot, and segmented matrix metering, a completely backwards compatible K-mount system, a continuous follow focus AF mode as well as a traditional six point stationary AF mode, and nineteen custom modes, all user-editable.
Specs aside, if there’s any reason to get the MZ-S, it’s the design. The MZ-S’ signature control plate is tilted back at an angle, which makes for an ergonomic experience that’s totally unique in the professional segment. The two big important dials on the top plate, which control most functions (shutter speed, mode selection, etc), can be operated with the user’s thumbs, which frees up the index and middle fingers to shoot more quickly. For the professional Pentaxian, this camera is the one to get.
Best Enthusiasts’ Camera – Pentax LX (K-Mount) or Pentax 67 (medium format)
For hardcore enthusiasts, there’s arguably no better or more interesting brand than Pentax. Back in the day, Pentax built their name off of their artful workmanship, practicality, and high quality embedded into nearly every camera, which earned them some of film photography’s most dedicated acolytes. Picking just one camera to represent this segment was tough, so I chose two which just barely (and I mean barely) edge out the others.
The first is one of James’ favorite 35mm SLRs, the Pentax LX (buy it using our eBay affiliate link here). The LX is something of a marvel in the pro-spec SLR market; it bucked the trends that pro SLRs often followed at the time and showed the world that something better was possible. It was small and relatively light, but just as durable and finely made as its big and bulky competitors, and set the technological standard higher for the capabilities of pro SLRs as we know it.
The LX features a black-painted chrome body for corrosion resistance, a full weather-sealing down to the buttons and dials, a removable pentaprism with ten different available focusing screens, pretty much everything one would expect from a pro spec SLR. But what separates the LX from the rest is its fully mechanical titanium shutter. This is significant – the LX has an aperture-priority mode, but once the batteries go, the shutter can still be usable across five different shutter speeds. Nikon’s FM3a equals this feat, but lacks most of the other features that make the LX so great.
The second camera on our list is a bona fide classic, the Pentax 67 (buy it using our eBay affiliate link here). A favorite of studio photographers and amateur weightlifters everywhere, the Pentax 67 is one of the most important cameras ever made, and a must-have for those of the medium format persuasion.
The first iteration of the Pentax 67 gets my vote based on its representation of old-school 1970s Pentax. It’s an all-metal heavyweight beast weighing in at 2.7 lbs, and god knows how much with a lens. To aid in carrying this thing around, Pentax crafted a beautiful signature wooden handle to complete the stunning visual package.
The Pentax 67 was beloved in its day for its build quality and reliability (something that’s waned a bit as these machines get older), but it was the quality of its lenses that catapulted into fame (waned this has not). Nearly every single lens made for the Pentax 67 is a stunner both physically and practically, churning out some of the most nuanced and beautiful images in medium format photography. When paired with a good film, good eyes, and impossibly buff arms, it’s hard to beat the Pentax 67 in the professional medium format sphere.
Best Entry Level Camera – Pentax Spotmatic
Let’s keep this section simple – if there’s a Pentax SLR everybody should own, it has to be the Pentax Spotmatic. Yes, the K1000 gets the plaudits. Yes, the MX can fit in your pocket if you try hard enough. And yes, the K2’s got aperture priority and looks pretty sweet too. But if you’re trying to learn the fundamentals of photography, there isn’t a better camera than the Spotmatic in the Pentax lineup, or in 35mm photography in general.
The Spotmatic is perhaps Pentax’s greatest achievement, as it brought TTL (through the lens) metering into the hands of consumers (note: The Topcon RE Super beat Pentax to the punch, but that camera was priced out of the hands of average consumers). This was significant – a TTL meter enabled shooters to keep their eye to the viewfinder and adjust their settings according to the in-viewfinder display. The idea was a hit, and Pentax sold millions of Spotmatics throughout the 1960s (and they still sell well – buy it using our eBay affiliate link here).
Today, the Spotmatic still holds up as a gorgeous, well-made, and easy-to-use camera. It’s an all-metal, all-mechanical classic from the ’60s endowed with those clean Pentax lines. The design is simple, and begets the most straightforward mechanical shooting experience in photography. Frame up a shot, flip the metering switch on (which doubles as a depth-of-field preview lever), adjust settings to taste, and fire away. The combination depth-of-field preview and metering switch is a masterstroke – it lets the shooter know exactly how their aperture settings will affect the image right before they press the shutter, perfect for educating novices about the fundamentals of aperture. It’s a small feature, but an important one, and one that lifts the Spotmatic to the top spot in the Pentax canon.
[The above shot of the three FA Limited lenses was kindly provided by Ned Bunnell, former president of Pentax USA.]
Collectible Cameras and Lenses – Asahiflex and the Pentax FA Limited K-Mount Lenses
Pentax is a company which is always aware of its reputation and its position in the history of photography. It should surprise no one, then, that they boast an incredibly interesting range of collectible cameras and lenses.
Lest we all forget, Pentax is the OG when it comes to Japanese SLRs. Back when German rangefinders ruled the world and the Japanese camera industry made a living off of playing copycat, Pentax (then called the Asahi Camera Company) decided to do something different. The Asahi Camera Company were convinced that the SLR, not the rangefinder, was the future of photography, and put their money into developing their very own Asahiflex camera. The gamble paid off – the Asahiflex would be the first in a long line of Japanese SLR’s which would eventually grow to dominate the photographic market.
Today, the Asahiflex is a good-looking, charming, but slow-operating camera. Pentax were still trying to figure out the SLR format, and so the Asahiflex lacks things we take for granted, like an auto-return mirror, auto-diaphragm lenses, and a pentaprism for eye-level through-the-lens viewing. Despite its inherent limitations, there’s no denying its importance to the history of photography, which makes it an essential piece for any Pentax collector (buy it using our eBay affiliate link here).
Since then, Pentax built a reputation for itself by building extremely high-quality, but affordable cameras and lenses. Pentax decided to pay homage to this tradition with their K-mount equipped Pentax FA Limited lenses.
The Pentax FA Limited Lenses are Pentax’s attempt at bringing an old-school approach to build quality and image quality into the digital age. The three lenses are fixed-focal length lenses patterned along the lines of the old Takumars, with manually adjustable, all-aluminium components housing some stunning glass. The three lenses also offer some wonderfully off-kilter focal lengths (31mm, 43mm, and 77mm) that were selected to better approximate the way we see the world. These lenses make an interesting addition to modern DSLR setups and their specificity and relative rarity make them perfect for any Pentax collector (you can browse for these exciting lenses on eBay via our affiliate link here).
Some Essential Lenses
A buyer’s guide to the Pentax lens system really only needs to consist of one phrase – “buy one.” From Super Takumar to SMC-Pentax, Pentax’s lens lineup is fantastic from top to bottom. Whichever lens you choose will make great photos. That said, here are a couple of standouts.
The first is the crown jewel of the Pentax Super Takumar line, the Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 8-Element lens. It’s everything vintage lenses should be – masterfully made and capable of putting the clinical perfection of modern lenses to shame. It’s not the sharpest 50mm lens in the world, but the images it creates are distinct, with a warm color rendering and a detail rendering that sublimates reality into artistry. Pair it up with a Pentax Spotmatic or a meterless Pentax SV and you’ll have one of the best setups in 35mm photography.
The next is a lens for the K-mount faithful, the SMC-Pentax 85mm f/1.8. In the short telephoto range, there are few that can stand up to this lens. It’s quick and impossibly sharp, and particularly adept at subject isolation. For bokeh lovers, this lens is a must-have, with creamy out-of-focus areas that never distract or annoy. The grade between out-of-focus and in-focus areas is smooth, but clear, making it a stellar lens for portraits. These traits make it a hall-of-fame 35mm portrait lens, and an essential piece of any K-mount system (buy it using our eBay affiliate link here).
The last couple of lenses hail from the Pentax 67 system, the standard SMC 105mm f/2.4 and the wide-angle SMC 55mm f/4. These two are legendary among medium-format shooters both for the quality of their build and in the images they make. The 105mm f/2.4 is prized for the way it takes advantage of the shallow depth-of-field unique to medium format, and is beloved for its versatility and all-around image quality. The final iteration of the wide-angle SMC 55mm f/4 is a sight to behold as well, regarded as one of the best wide angle medium format lenses in class for its lack of distortion, corner-to-corner sharpness, and just-right wide-angle field of view. You really can’t go wrong with any Pentax 67 lens, but these two are two of the best (shop for 67 lenses using our eBay affiliate link here).
And that’s it for our Pentax list. Naturally we can’t include every camera or lens. Pentax has made hundreds of excellent products. If you feel like we missed something special, yell at us in the comments.