The Pentax MZ S Professional Camera
The New Pro Flagship In The Pentax Line Up

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The MZ-S is Pentax's recently introduced professional level camera with new styling and some excellent new features. It is the replacement camera for the Pentax PZ-1P, although that camera is still available.

I had the pleasure of using the MZ-S, along with the new lens introduced with the camera, the SMC Pentax FA 24-90mm zoom, during a trip to China, as well as for some time afterward in the US. A most important feature of the camera was readily apparent in these tests: it is designed for outstanding handling. The camera is approximately the same size as Pentax's super compact ZX-5N, and is also very light in weight, about 4 oz heavier than the ZX-5N (and about 4 oz lighter than the PZ-1P). That makes it one of the lightest, most compact professional level cameras available. That is due in part to the titanium main casting of the camera. The shutter is noticeably quieter than that of the previous professional model, the PZ-1P.

Camera Controls
Many of the frequently used controls are adjustable with appropriate knobs and levers on top of the camera. That is in contrast to the more hidden access to controls on the PZ-1P and many other cameras, continuing a trend which Pentax has recently followed with the ZX series of 35mm cameras and the 645N. The camera drive switch is on the top deck, right side. It selects single exposure, self-timer, multiple exposures, or multiple exposures without winding (double exposures). I wondered a bit about that last setting being on the top deck, but it is not likely that you will accidentally set it.

The metering mode switch is also on the top deck, right side. It allows for the selection of multi-segment, spot, or center-weighted metering. The normal metering mode, shown in green, is a six segment zone metering method. This has been used on several previous Pentax models. The balance between the several segments is extremely well determined. Having used this system now on three cameras (the PZ-1P, ZX-5N, and MZ-S), the exposures have been essentially the best possible exposures in nearly every case. I have seen little reason to switch from that mode.

For both of these switches, the most commonly used setting is in the horizontal position. These two switches provide a convenient, easily seen means of setting these operations.

The main control ring, called the select dial, is situated to the right of the prism housing (as seen from the rear). In the center of that ring is an LCD panel that displays various setting symbols, as well as the shutter speed and aperture that the camera will use. The shutter speed and aperture and other symbols also show in the finder of the camera.

Exposure Modes
The MZ-S camera has a "Hyper" control exposure control, similar to that on the PZ-1P. If you set the lens to A (Auto), and press the green button on the front of the camera, in front of the select dial, you will be in the Programmed mode. A letter P will show in the LCD panel, as will the speed and aperture that the camera has selected. It is possible to adjust the type of program the camera uses via a Pentax function. The normal program is excellent.

You can easily switch to shutter priority automatic exposure mode by simply turning the select dial. A symbol Tv will show on the LCD panel, for "time priority." As set from the factory, a clockwise turn of the dial will give a lower speed, and a counterclockwise turn, a higher speed. (You can change that to give a higher speed with clockwise rotation using a Pentax function.) To get back to programmed exposure, just press the green button. This is a very quick and easily run system, surely one of the best available for quickly switching from programmed control to photographer control of the automatic exposure. Notice that the mentioned photographer control mode, labeled Tv, also allows preference for the aperture setting. Since the aperture is displayed, you can choose to observe that or set it to the value you want as you turn the ring, letting the shutter speed follow. You could call it aperture priority if you want to think of it as that. The PZ-1P had two separate hyper controls, one for shutter speed priority, the other for aperture priority. Only one was really necessary.

A manually set aperture priority mode is also available. To enter that mode, you press a button on the lens aperture ring and turn the lens aperture dial to the desired f/stop. For most lenses, this can be done in 1/2 stop increments over most of the range. An Av symbol will show on the LCD panel. The shutter and aperture will be shown on the LCD panel and in the viewfinder. (Non-autofocus lenses do not allow the aperture to be shown.)

Fully manual control is entered by turning the lens aperture ring to some aperture setting, not A (this gives the Av mode) and also turning the main camera control ring to set the shutter speed. A lighted bar graph in the viewfinder, on the right side, shows whether the scene would be overexposed, underexposed, or properly exposed. It also shows how much over or underexposure there is.

Spot Metering/Zone Metering
With the spot metering setting, and the manual exposure mode, you can even work out a type of zone metering. You set your exposure, and then point the center region of the viewfinder to various spots in the scene and check how far over or underexposed those various spots will be, in f/stops, using the bar graph display in the viewfinder. You can readjust the shutter or aperture setting to get the desired range of exposure.

The exposure compensation dial, on the left side of the camera top deck, allows you to set exposure compensation, from -3 to +3 stops, in 1/2 stop increments. The amount of compensation is easily read from the dial, and shows on the bar graph in the viewfinder. This display of the exposure compensation is valuable, and is not found on many cameras. If you need to manually set an ISO film speed (which normally is automatically read from the film cartridge), or if you want to change a Pentax function setting, or if you want to turn the film data imprinting on or off, these are also done with the left dial.

Exposure Bracketing
The photographer also has the choice of bracketing the normally determined exposure by 1/2 or 1 f/stop through a series of two, three, or five exposures, including regular exposure and a number of under or overexposures. The number of bracketing exposures and the sequence in which they will occur is set with a Pentax function. Once set it stays set until you deliberately reset it. The default is three exposures: correct, under, then overexposure.

If you have set the camera drive to "consecutive frame" exposures, when you push the camera release, the number of exposures selected for bracketing will immediately trigger off as fast as the camera can do so. If the camera drive is set for "single frame," you manually sequence through the next two, three, or five exposures as you push the release button; however, if 20 sec passes, the sequence will cancel, and the camera goes back to the first exposure in the sequence the next time you push the release.

In all exposure modes, you can stop down the lens to the taking aperture for viewing the depth of field. This is done by sliding the on-off lever a bit beyond the on mode. That's a very simple, easily used function. This is an improvement over the PZ-1P and ZX-5N, which allow a stop-down preview only in the aperture priority and manual modes.

Data Imprinting
One of the great new features of this camera is the edge-of-film data imprinting, which can be turned on or off. The film roll sequence number (from 1-99), ISO film speed, and data imprinting brightness are printed on the edge of the leader at the beginning of the film. Exposure mode, metering mode, shutter speed and aperture values, exposure compensation value and whether auto-bracketing or multiple exposure have been used are recorded at the edge of the film for each exposure in a location between the film sprockets. This is done "on the fly" as the film is wound, through use of a small single-digit light-emitting diode array to the top right of the format opening. This is very accurate in image placement--very impressive. The brightness of the letter imprinting can be set.

I thought that the automatic brightness setting made letters that were a little too bright, but they were still very readable. I would also have liked to have had the focal length printed out, as on the Pentax 645N, but the information that is available is excellent.

AF Features
Another new feature, the six segment autofocusing unit, also works very well. In the default automatic mode, the camera will use the center sensor, unless focus is not possible there, and then it will shift to the nearby segment where focusing is possible. Within the frame in the viewfinder the six segments are shown with etched, rectangular boxes. On the bottom of the viewfinder, six rectangles are shown in the same relative positions, and the one on which focus was accomplished stays lit after the exposure. In essentially all of the pictures I took with the camera I used this autofocusing selection mode, and it was very precise.

The focusing mode lever on the right side of the lens mount can be pushed up one click to fix the focusing at the default center segment. A person can use the focusing control slide switch to switch back and forth between the normal automatic selection mode and the fixed segment mode. One can also manually select some other preferred rectangle than the center one for fixed segment focusing.

I found this somewhat awkward to set--something you may not be able to do quickly in the heat of a photography session. However, the feature is there, and it works well.

Single or continuous autofocusing or manual focusing can be selected with a lever on the left side of the lens mount. These work just as previous Pentax professional level cameras, and in many other 35mm cameras. Predictive autofocusing switches in for a moving subject in the continuous mode. There is also a separate AF button on the back of the camera, which will autofocus the lens when pressed. This is in addition to the normal method of pushing the shutter release halfway down. The user can set a Pentax function to divide the chores of focusing and exposure in various ways between the shutter release (halfway down) and the AF button.

A quartz data back is included with the camera. Well, I confess that I'm not a big fan of these things, found on so many cameras. They put a date on the picture, well off to the side, but still within the picture. It's there, if you want to use it. You may not need the date imprinting from the camera back, since the camera's built-in data imprinting (between the sprockets) gives a number at the beginning of each roll, which increases by one for each roll. This would seem to be a sufficient aid in dating your pictures.

Flash Systems
Considerable improvements have been made in the flash systems for the MZ-S. The regular flash synchronization speed is 1/180 sec. That's better than for the ZX-5N, but not quite as good as for the PZ-1P. However, the fastest flash speed can actually go higher than that, as we will see.

Pentax continues to include a pop-up flash on its professional level cameras. I agree with them that this is important. When you need a flash, the pop-up unit can serve to get an immediate picture, so you don't have to wait to attach a separate unit. This flash now covers a 24mm lens, which makes it useable with the 24-90mm lens or any other lens as wide as 24mm. However, Pentax indicates there "may" be vignetting with a lens between 24 and 28mm, and the flash indicator in the viewfinder blinks at these focal lengths to warn you. I specifically tested this, and did not find any significant light falloff with lens focal lengths from 24-28mm. The flash worked well at these focal lengths. The built-in flash can also operate as an autofocus illuminator.

When I first evaluated the camera, I was disappointed that the capability of setting flash exposure compensation--to have the flash unit provide under or overexposure as compared to the main exposure--was not available on this camera, as it was on the PZ-1P. However, the newly introduced flash unit designed for this camera does offer that feature.

A New Flash, Too
The new flash unit, the AF360FGZ, can be mounted on the hot shoe, or off the camera. It was designed to provide many new functions, including the dim light focusing and exposure compensation just described. I was able to obtain one of these flashes just in time for testing. The usual mode for using this flash is called P-TTL. This mode, usuable only with the MZ-S, uses a pre-flash just a split second before the regular flash to set up the optimum output of the flash, based on subject brightness, distance, and contrast. It uses measurements from the camera's six segment metering system. I did not get further information on just how this works, but it does give excellent exposures. In operation, the extra pre-flash occurs only about 1/15 sec before the main flash, and so is not usually noticeable as a separate flash.

High-Speed Sync
The new flash can be synchronized at all shutter speeds. This is called high-speed flash, and it works for shutter speeds between 1/180 sec and 1/6000 sec. This probably works on the same principle that Olympus introduced several years ago. The flash is discharged several times over the time it takes for both curtains to traverse the film (1/180 sec each for a total of 1/90 sec). Because of the properties of the flash tube, these several discharges merge together to get essentially a constant light output over this period. As the focal plane shutter opening travels across there is an essentially constant illumination over all of the film.

One problem is that this means a lower guide number as the shutter speed increases, because the slit size which moves across the film is smaller. The exposure system adjusts for that reduced guide number, although the range of distance over which autoexposure can be accomplished is more limited.

Also available with the AF360FGZ flash and the MZ-S camera is wireless flash, in which the camera's built-in flash is used to communicate with the external AF360CZ flash, without wires. When using this, pre-flashes send messages from the on-camera flash to the external flash, and, apparently, help to determine exposure. This feature can also be used in the high-speed flash mode. One can also connect multiple flashes with accessory wire connectors, use leading or trailing shutter speed sync, use redeye reduction, and some other flash features.

The flash has zoom focusing, for optimum flash output in the field of view of the lens. This is driven by a motor to match the focal length on the camera, from 24-85mm, assuming you are using an FA lens. You can change the display to show the equivalent focal lengths for the 645 or 6x7 format, making this useful for Pentax's medium format cameras. The flash head swivels for automatic bounce flash, and there is even a little catchlight panel to give a bright spot in the eyes of the subject. This is a nice flash, with many special features, and smooth, simple operation.

This is an excellent professional level camera. It's clear to me that the MZ-S can do all of the things a professional or other advanced photographer normally needs, and it has some capabilities that other professional level cameras do not have. Its handling is outstanding, and that's a major feature. Although a few professional cameras can be fired in sequence operation at a faster rate, the MZ-S can do 2.5 frames per second, about the average for professional level cameras. The faster frame rate capability is costly and often requires a physically large camera size. For the vast majority of professional tasks, the MZ-S will do extremely well.

The Pentax lens line includes a large selection of outstanding optics. Many of the accessories for previous Pentax cameras will also fit the MZ-S. These include an angle finder, a viewfinder magnifier, several flash units, a hot shoe adapter and extension cord, an autofocus 1.7x adapter (for earlier non-autofocus lenses), auto extension tubes (but not for autofocus), filters, and others. Some accessories by other manufacturers, such as 1.7x and 2x rear focus converters for autofocusing with Pentax FA lenses are also available.

The SMC Pentax FA 24-90mm Lens
Recently, a number of zooms have appeared for many cameras with 24mm as the lowest focal length. These include several 24-85mm lenses, a 24-135mm and a recently introduced 24-200mm. These lenses, which go considerably further out in focal length on the longer end than the new Pentax FA 24-90mm are heavier and not as compact or convenient to operate but it is nice to have such a great choice.

The 24-90mm handles very well, and feels reasonably compact on the camera. It is essentially the same size as the most recent Pentax 28-105mm (the one without the zoom motor), although it weighs 3 oz more and has a larger filter size (67mm) compared to that for the 28-105mm lens (62mm). Both feel light on the camera, and they both handle very well. The 24-90mm comes in a black finish, whereas several recent Pentax zooms have come in a black and silver finish. The 24-90mm is more expensive than the 28-105mm, no doubt due to the more expensive lens construction. The new lens has internal focus, low dispersion glass elements and aspherical lens elements.

Since the 24-90mm has a maximum aperture of f/3.5-4.5, as you zoom, it is about 1/2 stop faster at all of its focal lengths than either of the previous 28-105mm Pentax lenses, which are f/4-5.6. A butterfly type lens hood is included. This hood works well at 24mm, but as with all zoom lenses, the hood does not provide as good protection from external light at the longer focal lengths.

The lens performance is outstanding. It is really a very sharp lens with excellent contrast. In detailed comparison of negatives to those taken with the excellent 28-105mm lens, I found that the 24-90mm was a bit sharper in the center and at the edges at all settings, especially in the 28-50mm range. It is a lens which inspires confidence.

Pentax MZ-S Professional Camera
Dimensions: 5.4x3.7x2.5" (136.5x95x64mm)
Weight: 18.3 oz (520g)
Price: $1433

SMC Pentax FA 24-90mm Lens
Price: $665

For more information, contact Pentax Corporation, 35 Inverness Dr. East, Englewood, CO 80112; (303) 728-0212; fax: (303) 790-1131; www.

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