Pentax MX-1: Retro Design, Digital Compact Style

Jill Rahn's picture
The Pentax MX was a 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera produced from 1976 to 1985 and, for a time, was the company’s flagship SLR. It was solidly built featuring all-mechanical construction, including the shutter, and only the metering system was battery dependent. The new all-digital, all-electronic Pentax MX-1 couldn’t be more different. For openers, the MX-1 is not an SLR but an advanced digital compact camera with the kind of retro styling that’s all the rage these days with camera designers and, apparently, camera buyers, too. So, how does the MX-1 stack up?

Here’s the original MX.
Image courtesy of NNE, via Wikimedia Commons

Here's the new MX-1.
Image courtesy of Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation

What’s New?
The Pentax MX-1 is smaller and lighter than Fuji’s X100 that started the big megapixel, small retro-style camera trend. The design fits the classic 35mm film camera mold in only the most superficial ways, but it is constructed with brass top and bottom covers and metal accents, just like its namesake. It has an integral f/1.8-2.5 zoom with a range of 6-24mm (28-112mm equivalent) that produces crisp images from a 1/1.7”, 12-megapixel CMOS sensor. In 1cm Macro Focusing mode, the lens focuses as close as 0.39”. In Scene mode, the camera offers a Flower option that Pentax says “softens the flower’s outline.” The MX-1’s dual Shake Reduction system produces blur-free images, which was useful when shooting close-up photographs.

Here the lens (at the 6.4mm focal length) was 2” from Snoopy’s nose and not even close to its minimum focus of 0.39”. Exposure was 1/50 sec at f/1.9 and ISO 640. Yes, that’s real 35mm Snoopy color negative film behind him; it was only available in Japan during the 1980s.
All Photos © Joe Farace

This image was captured using the Pentax MX-1’s Flower Scene mode, which Pentax says is designed for “images of flowers; the outline of the flower is softened.” Exposure was 1/60 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 400.

Tilting LCD
The MX-1 has a 3” LCD monitor that tilts down 45 degrees and up 90 degrees but when folded in does not fit flush into the camera’s back, taking the edge off of the MX-1’s otherwise svelte shape. The screen does not flip out, rotate, or turn inward toward the camera protecting it as some LCDs wisely do on other cameras.

The MX-1’s imaging chip has a top sensitivity of ISO 12,800 and lets you shoot in image ratios of 4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1, although maximum image quality is reached at 4:3 so you might as well shoot it that way and crop it the way you want later. You can shoot in several Custom Image modes, including Bright, Natural, Vibrant (default), Reversal Film, and B&W. After giving each of the modes a try, I tended to shoot color images in Vibrant and occasionally used the B&W setting.

The MX-1 offers several capture modes (4:3, 3:2, 16:9, and 1:1) but because you get all 12 megapixels when shooting at 4:3, that’s what I used here along with the B&W Custom Image mode. Lens at 24mm and a Program mode exposure of 1/1600 sec at f/5 and ISO 100.

Exposure for this series was an identical 1/400 sec at f/7.1 and ISO 100. From top to bottom, the difference between the Program mode exposure and the Standard HDR mode is subtle but noticeable with a slight HDR kick. The Strong 1 (third from top) image seems to have a broader yet flatter tonal range that adding contrast should improve but the images here are as they came out of the MX-1. The Strong 2 image exhibits some of the characteristics of what some people expect HDR to look like, but are just a little over the top for my taste. Yours may be different.

There are 21 Scene modes that are accessed through the mode dial and menu structure and I found the Portrait mode especially useful. For those of you who like effects, the MX-1 has 15 digital filters, including Miniature and Toy Camera, that when accessed in Playback mode, can add a few Instagram-like touches to previously captured images.

The MX-1 uses the de rigueur SD cards (SD, SDHC, and SDXC) and I used whatever was lying around, but the camera also has 75.3MB of internal memory. You can shoot in Raw, JPEG, and even Raw+JPEG capture modes, but fully writing a Raw file can take five seconds or so, so impatient shooters should be prepared to see a “Data Being Processed” message from time to time. It can be annoying, but it’s not a deal breaker for me. Pentax uses the Adobe DNG (Digital Negative) format for Raw capture so file portability and movement between computer systems and software is assured, although SilkyPix Developer Studio 3.0 LE is included in the box.

I ended up having a love-hate relationship with the MX-1’s HDR mode, especially when shooting in the Strong 2 mode, seen here. But—and this is a big but—I did have fun with it and if anything, that’s what the Pentax MX-1 is all about. Exposure was 1/400 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 100 shot with the lens at 6mm.

This three-shot composite shows the range of the 6-24mm (28-112mm equivalent) lens plus the 4x digital zoom. The camera was in a fixed position and mounted securely on a Manfrotto tripod; only the focal length was changed. Exposure was 1/500 sec at f/8 and ISO 200. The top image is at the 6mm (28mm equivalent) setting and the middle shot was made at the long end (112mm) of the optical zoom. While the first two shots are crisp, the bottom image would fall into the category of “acceptably sharp” with just the merest hint of noise and artifacts in the sky.

Exposure Controls
A lot of cameras, including SLRs, hide the exposure compensation control but the MX-1 places it conveniently on a dial atop the camera. It’s next to a mode dial that provides access to 10 different shooting modes, from the normal M, P, Av, and Tv to HDR, User, SCN, and Video. The MX-1 features HD video (H.264 format) with 1920x1080 pixels at a 16:9 aspect ratio at a frame rate of 30 frames per second. It also offers creative video capture modes, including a High-speed Movie mode for slow-motion playback and a Time-lapse Movie mode for fast-forward playback, although the recorded size is reduced to 640x480 pixels in these modes. A micro-HDMI jack is built into the body but there’s no external mic connection, so you’re at the mercy of the built-in microphone. There is a USB jack, though.

The thermometer said 37˚F but the wind blowing across frozen Bingham Lake was really cold on my face and ungloved hands. Shot with an Av exposure of 1/800 sec at f/8 and ISO 200.

In The Field
The MX-1’s ergonomics and build quality are quite high. You can turn that mode dial sitting atop the brass top plate to HDR and access a menu giving you a choice of three modes: Standard, Strong 1, and Strong 2. I shot a series of images of Parker, Colorado’s Victorian Square at each of the settings. When comparing Standard and Strong 1 HDR modes, Strong 1 images seem to have a broader yet flatter tonal range that adding contrast to later would improve, while Strong 2 images exhibit some of the characteristics of what some people expect from HDR. You may love it.

If you’re in a hurry, use the Standard HDR setting, especially since you can shoot HDR mode in monochrome and I had fun doing that with snow shots. If you want the ultimate control, use the camera’s built-in auto-bracketing mode and shoot a series of three or so images and process them in your favorite HDR software.

The digital zoom a.k.a. Intelligent Zoom extends coverage up to approximately 218mm (equivalent) without, Pentax claims, “compromising image quality” and I must confess that while this feature is far from perfect as implemented, it’s better than missing a shot. Using the digital zoom produces images that fall into the category of “acceptably sharp” with the slightest hint of noise and artifacts. The noise and artifacts can’t be eliminated or minimized by shooting in Raw because digital zoom is disabled when shooting Raw.

The pop-up flash (GN 18/feet) works in automatic mode only but does a good job producing well-exposed images for fill at night when using the Night Scene Portrait mode. Tripod alert: After the flash goes off, hold the camera steady while the shutter is open to capture additional ambient light. Otherwise, blur can occur.

Night And Noise
The MX-1 has a top sensitivity of ISO 12,800 but while the chip may be larger than some point-and-shoot cameras, the resultant images, even when shot in Raw, are relatively noisy. Unacceptably so? That’s for you to decide, but a combination of a fast lens and 12,800 maximum ISO let you get a shot that might otherwise be impossible. Shooting in Raw and then applying Imagenomic’s Noiseware 5 digital noise reduction software produced the best results.

There are other MX-1 features to make the MX-1 fun to shoot at night, including a Handheld Night Snap mode for capturing blur-free nighttime images by taking multiple images, then combining them into a single photo. The pop-up flash (GN 18/feet) does a good job of producing well-exposed images for fill and for nighttime shots using the Night Scene Portrait mode. Alas, there is no hot shoe for mounting an accessory flash for when you need more power.

Handheld Night Snap mode minimizes camera shake for shooting at night without a tripod by taking multiple images, then combining them into a single photo. Although I did a little perspective correction in Photoshop, the exposure you see here is unmanipulated and as it came off the memory card. Nominal exposure as shown on the EXIF data is 1/15 sec at f/1.8 and ISO 400.

Conclusions And Recommendations
There’s a lot to like about the MX-1, but I had a few minor quibbles. The mounting lugs for the supplied somewhat short camera strap are located on the beveled front of the MX-1’s body instead of the sides, but that’s how the MX mounted its strap back in the day. It’s a nice retro touch but means the camera hangs slightly askew pointed upward, leaving that beautiful f/1.8-2.5 lens vulnerable to assault in unfriendly environments.

Tip: Use the provided cap and tether to prevent schmootz from getting on the lens.

The compact charger is connected to a bulky cord that other manufacturers have figured out how to get rid of long ago by building an AC plug into the charger. I think that a small camera should have an equally small charger.

On the positive side, I gave the Pentax MX-1 lots of cold weather testing, shooting in temperatures as low as 14˚F and it never missed a beat. I carried it with me every day during my testing, shooting hundreds of photographs but never experienced any “brassing” on the body that Pentax touts as slowly creating a veteran, used look that will appeal to “retro” fans. Maybe in time, but the black paint job seems too good.

For me, the Pentax MX-1 is more like the spiritual successor of 35mm compact cameras such as Nikon’s 28Ti (I still miss mine) than the venerable MX. Nevertheless it’s a competent and well-crafted point-and-shoot camera that Pentaxians will find easily fits into their systems. When traveling, I tend to shoot with an SLR during the day but take a point-and-shoot with me at night. The Pentax MX-1’s image quality and low-light capabilities make it a perfect traveling companion for those occasions.

The Pentax MX-1 has a suggested retail price of $499.95, and is available in a silver or black version. For more information, contact Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation at www.us.ricoh-imaging.com.

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