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Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review

A look at the MZ-S, a pro spec film SLR from Pentax

| Pentax MZ-S in Film SLRs

With the exception of the Z-1, Pentax had a few years of producing fairly average AF SLRs, allowing Minolta, Canon and Nikon to lead, but over the last few years things have started to change and the M-series have been responsible for this turning point. With models like the MZ-5 and newer MZ-6 establishing themselves as highly desirable cameras in their price points. This MZ-S takes the position the Z-1 did in the range, a flagship model aimed at a more enthusiast/pro level.

It, like other MZ series models, has the familiar KA bayonet mount and will accept lenses from older manual cameras, although not all function will be possible. Its even possible, using an AF adapter to maintain autofocus with older kA and K mount lenses and thats something that Canon and Minolta owners cant do.

If you're used to handling a budget SLR, he MZ-S is a fairly weighty camera at 520g (body only). With the 24-90mm, we used for the test, and a battery installed, its near on a kilo so you know when its over your shoulder. Adding the optional BG-10 Battery Grip with its AA batteries pumps up the weight much further. That said, this camera is far lighter than any other in its class, yet it still feels robust and handles like a dream. Pentax have designed this model with an angled top-plate so you can see and control the modes without having to peer over the top plate. This is a very nice touch and is really easy to operate with your thumb. Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR The controls are logical too. The large rotating dial surrounds an equally large LCD panel and various modes are selected from there. Next to this are switches for metering and drive modes and on the other side are the exposure compensation, multiple exposure and bracketing dials, along with film speed and Program function selectors. At first glance this dial is confusing, but it soon becomes apparent how you use it. The small button to the right pops up the integral flash, which has a beautiful low profile in the pentaprism and raises high enough to reduce red-eye. There's also a hot shoe mount over the pentaprism, which makes a refreshing change from the offside mount that Pentax have used on several models.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLRThe LCD can be illuminated for use in low light and theres an AE-lock button next to this. The backplate is slightly raised and has a data imprint function. This prints a small data in the corner of the picture and is useful for record work. This camera goes one stage further though. It also records exposure data on the film rebate, so it isnt visible in the picture, but allows you to refer back to the negative or transparency to check film speed, exposure mode, metering mode, shutter speed, aperture, and whether AEB, compensation or AEL where used. This is a very impressive feature that makes the camera like a note book and is found on few cameras.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLRAround the front, at each side of the lens throat, are switches for various focusing modes and theres even a lens mount alignment light to help you change lenses in the dark. This seems like a great idea, but as you dont get one on the lens its a wasted opportunity.

The lens and camera mounts both contain loads of coupling pins to transfer metering and focusing data from the camera to the body.

Compared with some of the pro spec cameras, the body is quite squat and users with larger hands may find adding the optional MB-10 preferably. My hands are not large, but handling with this in place improved dramatically. It also provides a shutter release for vertical shooting and gives you the option of using AA batteries instead of the two small 3v lithiums which only lasted for about 15 rolls of film and a couple of days solid lab testing of the focusing system etc.

Pentax MZ-S SLRThe viewfinder comes with a rubber eyepiece hood, which makes it comfortable to look through and the image through the finder is crisp, offering a bright view thats a touch on the warm side. The base of the finder shows a green LED display of the shutter speed and aperture along with a focusing indicator and flash icon. Down the right side is a scale for exposure compensation (shown here slightly larger than scale so you can see the LEDs). Theres a dioptre correction slider above the eyepiece for spectacle wearers.
In the centre of the frame are six focusing squares. The intelligent focusing system looks at the subject and uses whichever focusing point it feels necessary. The point can also be set manually using the switch by the lens throat. If youre always shooting subjects that are in the left of the frame you can permanently have the camera set up to use the nearest left focus point.
On Canon SLRs these points light up red so you know which is being used. On the MZ-S you have to take your eye away from the focusing point and check out the tiny display at the bottom to see which point is being used. Both systems have there advantages, but I prefer the Canon as you continue to keep your eye on the subject, although some may find Canon's red illuminating squares a distraction.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLRThe camera uses SAFOX VII for focusing - which is apparently Sensor Ability Fortifying Optical Compensation System. Jargon aside, it works well, offering very responsive speed and accuracy. It picked the correct focusing square most times too. The trouble is it's let down by the clunky lens that bashes and whirrs as it focuses. Pentax need to concentrate on dampening the focusing motors to make their system less noisy.

On the side of the body, by the lens throat, you have an option to switch between AF.C for continuous follow focus AF.S for single focus and MF for manual. AF.C is best used for action photography because it continues to focus as the subject moves and can keep up quite well. Use AF.S for landscapes and still life photography. If, on the odd occasion, manual is needed you use the ring on the lens to focus. On the 24-90mm this has a slightly rubberised feel which helps the grip and is easy to ensure sharp focus, thanks to the clarity of focusing screen. Like all AF lenses the movement is fairly flimsy to ensure there's not to much strain on the motors when used in autofocus mode.

Another nice touch is the AF button on the rear, which lets you activate the autofocus without having to press down on the shutter release. Useful if your a bit cack-handed and trip the shutter by mistake.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLRWhile using the camera it became obvious that a lot of thought had gone into placement of controls. The depth-of-field preview, for example, is positioned around the shutter release collar. I'm always using this and found it easier to get at than most. The focus selector around the lens throat looked, at first, badly placed, but when holding the camera using your left hand to cradle the lens, your index finger fits comfortably over it, making it easy to hold up the selector switch while you adjust the point with the thumb of your right hand. And the natural inclination to try and adjust the shutter speed input dial with your index finger has to be overcome as the sloped control is rotated with your thumb, leaving your finger to do the shooting. This makes the camera very fast to operate in action shots - shame then that the camera only has a measly 2.5fps film advance. At this price we expect more. Another uncommon addition is a Hold switch that locks the shutter speed from being adjusted on the input dial. The exposure still adjust as necessary, but it prevents you accidentally changing to an undesired speed.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLRThe integral flash gun is a useful addition that's often missed out of the higher end cameras. A viewfinder indicator suggests when it's needed and you pop it up manually using a button on the side of the central pentaprism. A button above the focus mode selector is used in combination with the input dial to select between auto, redeye reduction (fires a single preflash to dilate pupils) and wireless slave flash. The guide number is 12 (ISO100/M), which won't light the inside of a cathedral, but is perfect for the odd splash of fill-in outdoors or for close range interior work. The flash covers lenses as wide as 28mm and the sync speed is a respectable 1/180sec. You can also attach an optional AF-360FGZ to gain high speed sync, wireless remote flash and second curtain sync.

The camera, like many in this price point, has custom features (19 in total) to allow you to tailor specific buttons and modes to your preference. These are as follows:
F1 Enables/disables the audible PVC focus signal.
F2 Sets the exposure program line to normal, high shutter speed, depth of field or MTF program..
F3 Sets the number of auto bracketing exposures to three, two, or five exposures.
F4 Sets the auto bracketing sequence to ascending or descending order.
F5 Links AF and AE at the focus point so an exposure can be taken at point of focus or not.
F6 Sets both auto focusing and auto exposure metering with the AF button so the AF button activates autofocus only or both autofocus and auto exposure.
F7 Film speed set method so DX coded film speed can be set automatically or manually.
F8 Determines the focus state in the focus positions, setting whether a contiguous focus point is used when the camera is unable to use the selected focus point.
F9 Enables shutter release before the built-in flash is ready.
F10 Sets the built-in flashs function during wireless operation so the built-in flash is either used as a flash or only as a wireless controller.
F11 Sets the illumination buttons function during wireless operation so it fires a test or modeling flash during wireless flash operation.
F12 Sets the film rewind mode to either rewind completely, the leader is left out, or the leader is left out and MRC function enabled).
F13 Sets the film rewind method to rewind automatically or manually).
F14 Sets the self-timer delay time for 12 second delay or 2 second delay with mirror lock-up.
F15 Sets the film speed for imprinting data to be set automatically or manually for the film speed.
F16 Sets exposure and/or focus by pressing shutter release button half way down to lock exposure only or exposure and focus.
F17 Sets the select dials rotating orientation to advance numerically clockwise or counter clockwise.
F18 Enables/disables the lens mount index lamp.
F19 Sets the remote control shutter release time to immediate or 3-second delay when using remote, include selecting number of bracketed shots taken and the order they are taken in, prevention or not of shutter firing when flash is not ready, film leader in or out on rewind, two or 12 second self timer delay.

So overall we are very happy with the handling and most features, but what about performance? Can the six segment meter cope with all we throw at it? Will SAFOX save the day? All will be revealed...

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR

The MZ-S has a choice of metering patterns that includes a six-segment, multi-pattern option along with centre-weighted and spot options. These are accessed from a prominently positioned switch on the top plate. The six-segment option is very accurate and you will probably find that you rarely have to come off this mode. I took several shots in a cavern, which really pushed it to its limit. This photograph was from just inside the entrance. I was in a dark area and pointing towards the bright sun lit entrance. The contrast range was huge and I didn't expect it to cope, but it did, surprisingly well.
Similarly, inside under atmospherically lit areas, that resulted in a four second exposure, I was expecting all sorts of problems. The camera was laid on its back pointing upwards and the result (below) is recorded accurately.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR The benefit of having more than one focusing point is that the AE lock wasn't required here. The camera detected that the subject was off-centre and selected an appropriate sensor.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR Good exposure, accurate focusing and razor sharp - a credit to the Pentax system.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR

The 24mm setting of the zoom lens range allows you to get more in the frame from short range, but there's a cost look at the edges of the door frame bending inwards to the centre. This will be less noticeable on landscape shots and others where there are fewer straight lines to accentuate the effect. Stepping back and using a longer focal length, where possible, will help in such situations.

Pentax MZ-S Film SLR Review: Pentax MZ-S SLR

This is one of the best cameras to appear from the Pentax stable in many years. It will satisfy older Z-1 users and will attract those who're ready to move up from a lower spec model from the Pentax AF range. The other main benefit is that you may be the owner of an old manual focus Pentax kit and this camera will allow you to continue to use that as well as have a more modern SLR. If you are a Pentax owner it's a natural choice and can't be faulted. If, however, you're a newcomer and are looking for the best 1000 camera your money can buy, you could be tempted by a product from the competitors Canon, Minolta or Nikon - all who have fantastic spec products within reach of this price point. The MZ-S has, without doubt, superb handling and a fantastic exposure system, but some of the features, such as a 2.5fps drive and noisier focusing are better on alternative makes. The less expensive Minolta Dynax 7 is very worthy alternative or if you can afford to spend a little more look at the Nikon F100 or Canon EOS 3.

See the full specification of the MZ-S here. Check out the find out more about the product concept and design from Pentax here.

Existing users of Pentax equipment may be interested in the Pentax User Club.

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