The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Pentax’s Camera Systems

The Essentials – A Guide to the Best of Pentax’s Camera Systems

2341 1317 Josh Solomon

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.

You can find wonderful Pentax gear in our camera shop

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Great, drool-worthy cameras for sure. One day that Pentax 67 will be mine!

  • Good list, James! I think that there is one more to add to it, though.
    The Espio Mini. (UC-1 here in the US)
    This little P&S is as good as or better than any of the current “cult” P&S cameras and more reasonably priced.

  • Nice overview of all things Pentax. I own a half dozen Pentax SLRs including Spotmatics, LX, MX, ME. I keep thinking of trying the big 67.

  • Great recommendations! I now want to try an MZ-S. I would modify your Spotmatic recommendation to the Spotmatic F — open aperture metering, but the stop-down lever is still there for DOF checking and for backwards lens capatability. (With the F was introduced a series of lenses with a pin to enable open aperture metering; you can ID them easily as they are Super Multi Coated or SMC Takumars.) Also the F takes a common battery where previous Spotmatics do not.

    • Not to be nit-picky, but the Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lenses (later abbreviated “SMC Takumar” and with the rubberized focusing ring) introduced with the earlier Spotmatic II in 1971 had the capability for full-aperture metering, even though that camera still made due with stop-down metering. The first Pentax 35mm camera with full-aperture metering was the Pentax ES.

  • Having owned a Spotmatic in the late 60’s, the only thing I did not like was the screw mount lenses. Not only taking care not to cross thread it in haste, but generally a tedious lens change.
    Although you mentioned the K-Mount bayonet, for those unfamiliar with early Pentax’s they should be made aware that all of the Spotmatic vintage lenses were screw mount.
    Otherwise I can still “feel” the precision of that Spotmatic all these years later in my mind, and I did enjoy using that camera.

  • Thanks for the guide. Pentax is my favorite camera brand that I have never owned. I did help my girlfriend’s daughter by an old Spotmatic a few years back and was envious.

  • The Pentax MZ-S is the best 35mm I’ve ever used and it’s such an enjoyable camera, which for me has an zen like feel when shooting.It’s well worth it’s price even though is hard to find in the UK. I’ve had mine for about 5 years now, no complaints here. If you can make sure it has a battery grip as they are as rare as hens teeth as i waited 3 years before finally picking one up.

    A great camera that more than holds it’s own.

  • 15 years ago, before I moved into Architectural design and construction, I was not an unsuccessful commercial photographer in London. My camera set up was 2 pentax 67’s with the 55, 105, 90 ls 165 2.8 and 165 ls. All great…. perhaps the best though was the 165 ls… all were used to make bill board size prints/ campaigns. These days I’m an amateur…. I still have a 67.. also a M6 with a set of lenses… I’ll never sell them! But earlier this year I bought my teenage daughter an MX for school… I fell in love with it and quickly bought myself one. Since then I have bought a 50mm f1.4, a 105mm f2.5 and 28mm f3.5. All early k SMC lenses. They are stupidly good… especially with colour… and significantly better than the m series which I used in the 80’s and 90’s in college. They really are the most underrated lenses on the market. I really cannot tell the difference in respect of sharpness from my Leica m lenses… but I actually prefer the colour from the pentax lenses! Using the mx with the 50mm f1.4 is so easy for street photography. The finder is so big and the image so bright I find focus very easy. Keep up the great work with this site!!

  • A solid round up on a remarkable brand, although I’d argue that the LX is firmly a ‘pro’, rather than enthusiast model (certainly more so that the MZ-S). It was targeted firmly at the F3 and had the full pro system to back that ambition.

    One minor quibble – the LX did NOT have a fully mechanical shutter. It was only mechanical above 1/75s. Below that it’s electronic.

    Nice to hear the SMC-K 85/f1.8 get a jersey. My favourite K-Mount lens 🙂

  • I’ve been a Pentax fanboy since the early 80’s when I got the ME, my second SLR.
    The MZ-S and the Super Program are my absolute favorites. Though, sadly, I never owned an LX. I recently acquired an MX, but it’s in need of repair, so I can’t comment on it. (Know any good repair shops?)
    Most of their zooms weren’t much to talk about–their strength is in their amazing primes.
    Pentax has always felt better in my hands than any other brand. I like the little touches the bodies and lenses have that shows they’re designed by real photographers.
    I’ll never be without a Pentax.

    • HI, For repair of cameras I STRONGLY recommend Luto Camera repairs… who have serviced and repaired many of my cameras of the year of all brands, including two MXs recently. Please note I have no interest in this firm, other than being a happy customer!

    • I can recommend Eric Hendrickson for Pentax repair. He has worked on a couple of different cameras for me and done outstanding work at fair prices.
      Eric worked for Honeywell then Asahi Optical and when that became Pentax, he worked for them. He knows film Pentax gear pretty well, I think.

    • I had Eric work on my black-paint MX. Highly recommended

      • Thanks for the tips, guys! I’ll check them out. I remember hearing about Eric, but wasn’t sure if he was still in business. I’ve got a couple of others that need repair, including a 645N.

  • I’m not a Pentax guy because I mostly shoot LTM. But I will say one thing about those Takumar lenses – they are the most robust, well build lenses I’ve ever seen. Compared even to the venerable pre-AI Nikkors every one that I’ve seen have had super smooth action, almost zero fungus or haze issues 40 years on. They just keep on trucking!

  • Just a quick-correction comment: “…the Asahiflex lacks things we take for granted, like an auto-return mirror”… My Asahiflex has an auto-return mirror. In fact, the Asahiflex was the first SLR to feature an auto-return mirror. Also, mine is in excellent shape, works like new, and is an interesting piece among my collection.

  • Pretty good configuration cameras. Just thinking to change my camera in 2020. Thanks for your suggestions.

  • Hugh W. Davis Jr March 13, 2020 at 8:51 pm

    An excellent article indeed. Your line: “When paired with a good film, good eyes, and impossibly buff arms, it’s hard to beat the Pentax 67…” is the funniest thing on a site brimming with good one-liners. It’s accurate, too. I own 3 6×7’s, and in the absence of said arms have to resort to tripods. I’ve decided to become a Patron. Get well wishes to James and keep up the great work!

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon