Pentax MX Review – The Mazda Miata of 35mm SLRs

Pentax MX Review – The Mazda Miata of 35mm SLRs

2100 1181 Jonathan Ma

Circling the neighborhood for the 25th time looking for parking, I see a Mazda Miata NA back into the one available spot, one that my car could not fit into. The Miata represents one major ethos of Japanese engineering and design – combining sportiness and agile handling in a tiny, minimalist package. It makes me think of the Pentax MX.

When Olympus introduced their OM-1 in 1972, they ushered in a new era. With the OM-1’s compact and lightweight design, Olympus proved that miniaturization was possible during a time when 35mm SLRs were bulky and heavy. All of a sudden, SLRs from other Japanese camera manufacturers (notably, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, and Minolta) seemed bulky and outdated.

As the 1970s marched on, technological breakthroughs in electronic and computer miniaturization allowed camera makers to design bold, new cameras. The major Japanese companies began a cycle of competitive leap-frogging, a sort of golden age of 35mm SLR design.

Pentax was committed to the amateur market. Having been a pioneer of the basic SLR, their conservative designs sold to people who desired a high quality, reliable camera but could not afford the more expensive pro-oriented models of Nikon and Canon.

In 1976, Pentax introduced the M-series with the ME and MX. The M-series of SLRs represented Pentax’s commitment to the middle class – small, affordable cameras. The ME was a fairly basic aperture-priority only affair that appealed to beginners. The MX, on the other hand, was a fully mechanical, all manual camera body that Pentax hoped to appeal to advanced amateurs and maybe even a few professionals. 

By its specs, the MX offers little beyond the essentials of photography. Being all-mechanical, the only thing that requires battery power is the light meter. It accepts all Pentax K-mount lenses. Shutter speed dial right up top, with shutters speeds ranging 1 sec-1/1000 sec, along with bulb, on a horizontally running cloth shutter. Flash sync speed is a pretty standard 1/60 sec. A lever on the front that combines DOF preview and the self-timer. A couple of flash sync ports sit to the right of the lens mount. All of this is wrapped in an aluminum shell.

Sounds like any other basic 35mm SLR, huh? 

The main draw to the MX, like the OM-1, is its tiny size. At 495g body only, the MX took on Olympus’s challenge of a compact, all-mechanical 35mm SLR, and in fact, the MX is a few millimeters shorter in height than the OM-1 – the MX is one of the world’s smallest 35mm SLRs.

Another of the qualities that the OM-1 is known for is its expansive viewfinder, and Pentax answered in their MX. With a magnification of .97x and 95% coverage (with a 50mm) and a bright focusing screen with split-image microprism as an aid, the MX’s viewfinder is by far one of the largest and clearest I’ve ever used. Not as bright as an Acute-Matte, but it gets the job done, and screens are interchangeable.

However, Pentax added distinct touches that ultimately differentiate the MX from an OM-1. Shutter speed and aperture values (through a window above the ‘Pentax’ logo on the front of the pentaprism) are visible in the viewfinder. The light meter consists of 3 LEDs – green for correct exposure, orange for +/- ½ stop, and red for +/- 1+ stops. A small window adjacent to the shutter button turns orange to indicate that the shutter is cocked and ready to fire.

Along with the ME, the MX introduced the Magic Needles film loading system that made film loading easier. Just shove the leader between two white sticks, pull the rest of the canister and plop it in, and wind. Easy peasy.

But what is this camera like in the field? 

After finding a parking spot half a mile away from my destination, I took the MX on a short photo walk. Loaded with a roll of Kodak Gold 200 and paired with a similarly tiny SMC Pentax-M 35mm f/2 lens, the MX was ready for documenting my adventures around Los Angeles.

Rugged, simple, and small, it’s a  street photography machine. The center-weighted meter serves as an aid for proper exposures, but it will not hold your hand. Besides its physical size, the MX handles just like almost every single 35mm SLR of its era. No extra bells-and-whistles; only the essentials of photography.

The Mazda Miata of the 1990s served as the antithesis of the cars then flooding the market (it was a small, no-frills car for driving enthusiasts in an era of larger and larger cars which focused on driver aids and tech). Similarly, the Pentax MX stands as a counterpoint to the rapidly evolving world of camera automation. Yet in both cases, this contrarianism can be refreshing – it forces one to think and to be fully invested in the experience of driving, the image-making aspect of photography. 

However, just like the Miata, the MX’s diminutive size can be a pro or a con, depending on the user.

Being 6’2”, I cannot fit comfortably into any Miatas – the top of the windshield only comes up to around my nose. Though I would say my hands are on the smaller end in size, the MX’s size does feel quite uncomfortable for a long day of shooting. At least, most if not all Pentax K-mount bodies’ bottom edge towards the lens mount is rounded to allow other fingers to wrap around the body comfortably. The shutter speed dial, while on the top plate, is smaller than most other cameras’ and can be a bit fiddly and stiff – making it a bit awkward to change shutter speeds when the camera is held up to my eye. Equally, the ASA setting can pretty awkward. It involves some lovely finger gymnastics where one finger holds down a button and the other two turn the setting dial. The film advance lever, though it does its job well, feels a bit rough.

Lastly, one of the MX’s greatest attributes can be seen as a con: the viewfinder. Though massive in magnification, thick-spectacled photographers like me struggle with seeing the entire frame, with the aperture values towards the top of the finder. Not really a biggie for me, but it is something worth noting. 

So who is the Pentax MX for? Practically anyone interested in the encompassing umbrella of film photography. Beginning photography students will appreciate its small size and manual controls to really get the basic foundations/fundamentals of photography down. Its professional/enthusiast background means that there won’t be much hand holding beyond the meter. Its all-manual nature make it an attractive choice for a beginner 35mm film camera compared to the oft-recommended Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1. Advanced amateurs and professionals who desire full creative control may even appreciate the MX’s mechanical reliability and ruggedness.

In the end, this camera will just work as a basic rugged workhorse in any situation. It’s compact, light yet durable, and very much capable against the backdrop of technological innovation of its competition. Unfortunately just like a Miata, it’s not for me, but nevertheless the Pentax MX is that simple camera that can appeal to some degree to anyone who enjoys analogue photography. 

Get your own Pentax MX from eBay here

Find one at our shop at F Stop Cameras

Buy a Mazda Miata here (why not?)


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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a photographer and artist based in Los Angeles, who majored and graduated from UCLA in 2020. Jonathan is currently a pre-medical student who loves photography and always has a camera.

All stories by:Jonathan Ma
4 comments
  • The MX and its little sister, the ME Super, are my daily drivers. I’m 6’3″ with proportionately sized hands, and I still love the form factor. A great plus for cameras this size is portability. I don’t hesitate bringing my two bodies and some lenses in a backpack on a hike. If I had a KX or similarly sized body from Nikon, Canon, etc then I’d probably have to make some calculated compromises in the gear I took with me on an extended venture.

    I love your summarization of the MX though. When you look at its spec sheet, it’s not that special. But somehow, for me at least, Pentax did a phenomenal job with the summation of its parts. For Pentaxians it’s a classic camera!

  • Excellent pics Jonathan! And good job highlighting the problems with it that most reviews gloss over. I sold my gorgeous black MX because yes the VF is very big, but you can only see all of it if you jam your eye into it. And the meter leds are basically invisible in daylight. The weirdly stiff shutter speed dial was the final nail in my ownership coffin.

  • In comparing the Pentax MX to the Olympus OM-1, the MX has the more advanced gallium metering cells, as opposed to the OM-1’s CdS cells. The MX also shows the aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder, as opposed to the OM-1’s minimalist display. However, the OM-1’s shutter and shutter release feel smoother, quieter and more refined, with noticeably less vibration when fired. While opinions will vary, I much prefer the OM-1’s shutter dial around the lens mount, which ergonomically makes more sense than the small, fiddly shutter speed dial on the MX that requires one to take one’s finger off the shutter release. Once one gets used to it, the OM-1 shutter speed dial placement makes alot more sense. The interchangeability of the OM-1’s accessories with virtually all of the single digit OM cameras (OM-1n, OM-2, OM-2n, OM-2S, OM-3, OM-3Ti, OM-4, OM-4T, and OM-4Ti) is also a nice plus.

    • The problem with the OM1 is it suffers from prism de-silvering, and the prism foams crumbling. Also the meter uses the old mercury 1.35v cells.
      But I did prefer using it compared to my MX.

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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a photographer and artist based in Los Angeles, who majored and graduated from UCLA in 2020. Jonathan is currently a pre-medical student who loves photography and always has a camera.

All stories by:Jonathan Ma