The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.
My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.
By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.
Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?
Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.
I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom
The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.
So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.
Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?
Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.
I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.
This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?
If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.