Camera review: The unlovely (but very good) Pentax MZ-S

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First an admission, I am an accidental Pentaxian. Like thousands of others, quite by chance I first learned to shoot film on a Pentax K1000. Since then many other Pentaxes have passed through my life: Spotmatic II, KM, MX, LX, 645n, both the 67 and 67ii and the MZ-S of course (twice!). The attraction is that they just work…without any fuss. So there’s an inbuilt bias to this review that you should be aware of; I admire Pentax for its commitment to making cameras that just get the job done. But does the MZ-S fit the mould? Is it in the lineage of rugged, no-nonsense cameras? We shall see.

Pentax MZ-S front right (with lens)
Pentax MZ-S front right (with lens)

A quick bit of MZ-S history

Where does the MZ-S fit in the Pentax 35mm line-up? It belongs to the last series of film SLRs made by Pentax – the MZ series (called ZX in the USA), the third generation of Pentax 35mm film cameras to incorporate autofocus. The MZ-S is the flagship camera of this series. After the MZ series came the final Pentax film SLR, the *ist (not to be confused with the digital *istD).


Pentax MZ-S front right (with lens)
Pentax MZ-S front right (with lens)

In September 2000 Pentax announced the full-frame 6 megapixel MZ-D prototype, which was cancelled a little over a year later. As you can see by comparing photos, the MZ-D borrowed a ton from the MZ-S. To me, this suggests that Pentax designers and engineers were working through a lot of ideas about how a digital camera interface might work when they crafted the MZ-S.

The Pentax MZ-S’ design

Let’s address the elephant in the room: the MZ-S looks weird.

It doesn’t resemble any other film camera I’ve ever held. What does it suggest? A digital camera, that’s what. And that may be why I felt an initial distaste for it (I work in communications, hanging out with designers, and consider most digital cameras to be proof points of the consequences of design failure… yes I’m talking to you, Sony). I bought and sold my first MZ-S, reflected on my time with the camera, overcame that first blush reaction to the design and subsequently bought a second one after the usual seller’s remorse.

The user interface centres on two top-plate mounted dials, one to the left and one to the right of the prism (which also houses the entirely superfluous internal pop-up flash unit). Did I mention that the top plate is sloped backwards on about a 45 degree angle? Well it is. This is supposed to make it easier to view the settings at a glance. It helps but it’s not a game-changer by any means.

Pentax MZ-S and Spotmatic SP II top plates
Pentax MZ-S and Spotmatic SP II top plates

Back to the dials. The left one presents (as you can see) an initially baffling series of options nestled in concentric rings, including ISO setting, exposure compensation, auto bracketing settings and entry in the ‘Pentax functions’ menus. The right dial is a knurled ring around an LCD screen. This ring allows you to move through the core shooting modes (manual, aperture priority, program) as well as select any of the Pentax functions. In manual mode the ring also serves to select shutter speed.

Pentax MZ-S top plate
Pentax MZ-S top plate

When the camera is powered up the LCD screen displays status (film in the camera, battery status, frame counter, flash recommendation, selected mode, shutter speed). When it’s off, it shows the frame counter. Helpfully, there’s a button on the back of the camera that lights up the screen for low light use (it’s the one with the light bulb icon for the slow of thinking like me).


Telegraphing the future of digital camera design, there is a profusion of buttons and controls peppered around the camera body. Some of these I set and forget; some I just ignore. On the rear is a back focus AF and an AE lock button. AE lock works for 20 seconds then reverts. There’s also a ‘hold’ switch that essentially locks the shutter speed and the exposure mode selection mechanisms. To the right of the right dial are the switches for drive mode (single shot, timer, bracketing and multiple exposure) as well as the metering mode selector (spot, centre-weighted or multi-segment). Just above the viewfinder is a slider for setting the built-in diopter, which I found a useful feature.

Pentax MZ-S front right
Pentax MZ-S front right

Moving to the front of the camera we find the combined on/off, depth of field preview and shutter release and two more settings around the lens mount that address focus. There’s a focus mode selector (manual, single, continuous) and a focus point selector that allows you to manually select the auto-focus points or let the camera figure it out.

I’ve been trying to skip over the truly appalling aspect of this camera but I can’t in good conscience ignore it. There’s a data imprint back on this camera. Yes it’s true. If you’d like to disfigure your images with a date stamp, the MZ-S will help you do so. On colour film the stamp shows up as the colour of an infected wound. It’s ugly, pointless in my opinion and mars the mostly clean lines on the back of the camera. I leave the battery out of this unit and try to pretend I can’t see it.

Pentax MZ-S rear
Pentax MZ-S rear

In the hand, the camera feels light (it’s magnesium alloy and weighs in at about 500g without a lens) and well-balanced. The grip is good and the shutter release positioned conveniently. The common Internet complaint that the rear door of the camera is plastic and feels cheap compared to the rest of the body is, well, true. It does have an odd spring to it but it has never failed on either of my copies of this camera.

In essence, the design seeks to provide a compact, lightweight camera with easily accessible features. I think it largely succeeds.

MZ-S Features

The K1000 user manual is 33 pages long. The MZ-S manual is 134 pages. That should tell you about the leap in complexity from 1976 to 2001, the dates when each of these respective cameras were introduced.

The MZ-S gives you boatloads of capability if you want to tap into it. It has 19 programmable functions (that I very rarely use) ranging from setting auto bracketing to using the internal flash as a trigger for an external flash.

Here are what I think are the key selling features of this camera:


  • Autofocus, using a six-point version of Pentax’s SAFOX technology.
  • Six-point metering with options for centre-weighted, spot or multi-segment.
  • 1/180 flash sync.
  • 1/6000 maximum shutter speed (I’ve never needed it but it seems cool to have).
  • DX coding with manual override.
  • Automated film advance/rewind at up to 2.5 frames per second (blisteringly fast for 2001, I suppose).
  • Depth of field preview.
  • Bright viewfinder with 92% view (you can even have the focusing screens changed out if you want).
  • Photo information data imprinting (outside the image area… you’ll likely need a loupe to read it though).
  • Film reminder window for the forgetful.
  • And of course, the venerable K mount with its access to a universe of lenses.

User experience

This is a tough camera. I’ve used an MZ-S in Canadian and Polish winters and summers in Florida and Baja, California. Even in these extreme conditions, it works reliably. It’s also a fast camera to use once you have the settings you want dialed-in. I find this makes the MZ-S a good choice when shooting models or street. I typically pair mine with the 43/1.9 Pentax Limited lens. I tend to use the camera in aperture priority mode and occasionally with autofocus. I ignore everything else like program mode and the Pentax functions.

Pros

  • Fast shooting experience with the auto film advance and rewind.
  • Quiet shutter and film advance (sounds more like a metallic snap and a whirr compared to the clunk of the K1000).
  • Accurate metering, although I found it performed less well with pinhole and Holga lenses.
  • Generally reliable focus confirmation with some challenges with adapted M42 mount lenses; hunts in low light.
  • Bright viewfinder with easily viewed information (displays at the bottom just outside of the frame).

Cons

  • Proprietary cable release.
  • Battery dependent (using two CR2 batteries, which are expensive) although a set of batteries lasts forever (the manual claims you’ll get about 50 rolls per set of batteries).
  • Stupid, stupid, stupid data imprint unit.
  • Plastic back feels a little at odds with the magnesium body.
  • I personally think there’s a little too much ‘feature creep’ in this camera with the modes and such.

Conclusions

The TL;DR version is simply that this a fast, smallish, quiet, reliable and capable camera that’s just a little lacking in the aesthetics department and has a little too much frippery in the features department.

The MZ-S came at an unfortunate time for film cameras, entering the market in 2001 (the same year as the Nikon D1H DSLR and FM3A SLR) and quietly disappeared just five years later. By comparison, the K1000 lasted over 20 years before the tooling eventually wore out in 1997. Timing is everything.

This short-lived oddity is the very violation of the Leica spirit of ‘das wesentliche,’ or the essence of the essential. This means you won’t be tempted to absent-mindedly fondle it like you would an M3. If you’re a purist devoted to a minimalist photographic sensibility, you’ll hate this camera.

Which makes it strange that I would like using it. After all, my distaste for digital cameras is driven in large part by their over-complication of the photographic process and their mindless focus on ever-more features. Surely I should be firmly in the Leica M (or at least the more budget-friendly K1000) camp. Yet the MZ-S does make great images. At the end of the day I take refuge in the great photographer, Don McCullin’s adage that one should have as much attachment for one’s camera as one has for one’s toothbrush. They’re tools. The MZ-S is a useful tool, just not an elegant one.

I asked at the beginning of this article if the MZ-S fit with the Pentax camera lineage of rugged, dependable cameras. Despite its odd looks, I’d have to say it does.

~ Paul

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7 thoughts on “Camera review: The unlovely (but very good) Pentax MZ-S”

  1. Thank you – a great review of highlight of an “unloved era” in camera development as 35mm gave way to digital sensors.

    For 2020 – the Pentax film highlight for me is the P30. In an era where digital sensors and 400 images a day make sense for near everything you want to image then film is for “slow photography”; when you take time to walk around and change or adjust your lenses to get the best perspective, find the optimal exposure to separate subjects from distracting foreground and background, before committing the shutter with a click.

    If the Pentax MZ-S is “unlovely” then the Pentax P30 is “unloved” as a cheap coda at the end of the era of manual film cameras. Yet the P30 embodies all that you need for “slow photography” with film; the viewfinder is big and bright, the exposure meter works down to low light levels in churches, temples, markets and at dusk, crucially it has a depth of field preview (no amateur model Nikon since the Nikkormat had that facility), and when shooting with exposure tolerant negative film it has very good aperture priority auto exposure – finally it has the K-mount, with access to an amazing range of lenses even today.

    P30s sold in their millions. Today they sell for the price of a Starbucks for two in the UK. Many were used for only 4 films a year and stored lovingly away between summer holidays and Christmas in their boxes and are pristine still. They use cheap silver oxide batteries and are voltage independent with a bridge circuit. In the last 2 years I have bought three P30s to future proof my film shooting, along with a great range of lenses from 24 to 200mm. None cost me more than £10, and often they came with a SMC Pentax lens attached and a case.

    A P30 with film does 2 things that no digital can give me:
    [1] they slow me down such that each picture is more considered in composition and execution
    [2] film still manages the roll-off into highlights in a way that even the best fun frame sensor cannot accomplish as it always hits a “clipping limit”.

    Can I suggest that you try one out – often a friend has one to borrow, and they come up on auction sites every day.

    Best wishes to you all – Paul C in thre UK

    Reply
  2. Great review Paul, with regards to Imprinting the date and time, if the rear display is set to [— — —] then it will not record this information on to the film. But this camera has a clever trick of recording exposure data on the edge of the film between the sprocket holes, but requires a battery in the data back. To enable this hold down the lock release button and turn the exposure compensation dial to D, then turn the select dial to display on. Then it will record 9 different pieces of data such as exposure mode, metering, shutter speed, aperture etc against each image. Also at the beginning of the roll it records total number of films shot, iso speed and imprint density. This is on page 37 of the operating manual for future reference.

    Reply
  3. The camera carries a vague design resemblance to the Leica R8/9. Thrusting its “shoulders out”. That design detail has been continued in the Leica S medium format cars.

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  4. I had the MZ-S and hated it. Pentax got rid of so many great features that the PZ-1p had. The PZ-1p was such a great camera I just knew they couldn’t top it. Gone was the 1/250 flash synch, gone was the custom zoom lens features, gone was the off the center hot shoe, which made it easier to use contrast control flash, and they lowered the top shutter speed from 1/8000 to 1/6000 and reduced for. Everything to me was a downgrade. The MZ-S had slighly better autofocus but not enough to make up for all the features they removed. So I sold it a few months after I bought it. Awkward design and inferior performance. The worst film camera from Pentax I ever owned.

    Reply
  5. Great user perspective and very nice captures, Paul. I became a big fan of Pentax, ironically, through the K-5 DSLR, which I bought to take advantage of the Pentax lenses I already owned and was adapting to MFT mirrorless.

    Like you I struggled with the MZ-S, but after I developed my first roll, I decided it was a keeper. I’d already done the buyer’s remorse thing with my Maxxum 7000, a decided cheaper camera to reacquire, so I decided to hang on to it. It’s steadily grown on me, I’d have to say.

    Reply

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