I’m a dedicated Pentaxian, but I have experience only with the company’s manual-focus SLRs. It was high time I tried a Pentax autofocus SLR. The first one I came across in good condition at a good price was this Pentax ZX-50. It is part of Pentax’s second generation of autofocus, autoexposure SLRs.
The compact and light ZX-50 is known as the MZ-50 in some markets. Introduced in 1997, the ZX-50 was aimed squarely at the everyday photographer. In PICT (program) mode, it’s a point and shoot. Using the lever around the shutter button, you can choose one of four sub-modes: portrait, which gives shallower depth of field; landscape; close-up, which gives maximum depth of field; and action, which chooses fast shutter speeds.
My ZX-50 has a date back; not all of them did. A flash pops up atop the pentaprism when you press the black button on the side. The camera reads the DX code on your film to set ISO from 25 to 5,000. You can override it by turning the mode dial to ISO SET and then moving the lever around the shutter button to choose an ISO from 6 to 6,400. A switch under the mode dial chooses between single shot and 2-frame-per-second burst mode and, strangely, activates the self timer. The shutter operates from 30 to 1/2000 sec.
The ZX-50 offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure, as well as manual exposure. A budding amateur photographer can grow up with this camera. Pentax introduced its SMC Pentax-F line of lenses with these first-generation autofocus bodies, and they all have a proper aperture ring. No matter; on the ZX-50 you must set that ring to A for all modes. The lever around the shutter button selects the aperture in Tv (shutter-priority) mode, and the shutter speed in Av (aperture-priority) mode. Move it left and right until the shutter speed or aperture you want shows up in the LCD display atop the camera. The camera runs on two pricey CR2 batteries.
In manual mode (M), that lever selects shutter speed. To select aperture, press the exposure compensation button on the back and move the lever. It’s not at all intuitive to someone like me used to being able to use the aperture ring on cameras like this.
Despite the ZX-50 being a K-mount camera, it mostly isn’t compatible with manual-focus K-mount lenses. You can mount them, but they won’t work as you expect. It’s best to stay with autofocus (SMC Pentax-F) K-mount lenses.
Build quality is adequate for a casual user. Heavy use of plastic in the body leads to its light weight. I suspect lots of plastic components inside, too. The exterior plastics manage to not feel cheap, at least.
If you like auto-everything 35mm SLRs, check out my reviews of these Minolta Maxxums: the 7000 (here), the 7000i (here), the HTsi (here), and the 5 (here). Also see my reviews of the Nikon N60 (here), N65 (here), and N70 (here). If Canons are your jam, see my reviews of the EOS 650 (here), 630 (here), Rebel (here), and A2e (here).
I shot a couple rolls in my Pentax ZX-50 — including one that was in it when I got it. Fujifilm NPZ 800, long discontinued, was a pro color film meant for portraits and weddings. Unsure of how the film was stored and how long it was expired, I overexposed to offset any degradation. Because the 35-80mm f/4-5.6 SMC Pentax-F lens that came with the camera is relatively slow, I went with EI 400 and hoped for the best. Here’s one of our cars, a Ford Focus we call Fred.
Even though the lens goes to f/4, I couldn’t get the camera to use an aperture smaller than f/5.6. I tested this camera during the coldest weeks of winter, temps in the single digits, and wasn’t going outside much. f/5.6 really limited what I could photograph inside, holding the camera in my hands.
On days where the temperature soared into the double digits, I took it on brisk walks and made a few images. This parrot statue hangs out of a tree in my neighborhood. The ZX-50 handled fine. The controls are all in typical places so the learning curve isn’t steep. The lens focused fast enough.
One time I picked up the camera to make an image and when I pressed the shutter button, the camera started beeping. Beep beep beep beep beep. The shutter would not fire. It took me 15 minutes of fiddling with the camera and looking up possible faults in the manual and in the forums before it occurred to me that perhaps I’d activated self timer. Sure enough, I’d inadvertently bumped the lever around the mode dial and put the camera in self-timer mode.
A word about the NPZ 800 film, which I’ve never used before. It runs cool and loves blue. Colors are true to life, except for this shot of a street sign where everything is super saturated.
I tested the flash when our granddaughter came to visit. It works well enough.
I kept going with this Pentax ZX-50 using my last roll of Ultrafine Extreme 400. Loading the film is easy – insert the cartridge, stretch the leader across to the take-up spool, close the door. The camera winds it to the first frame.
I haven’t loved this film in HC-110. The only other developer I had on hand was Rodinal, which generally does best with slower films. But Alex Luyckx got terrific results with this film in Rodinal, so I mixed some up 1+25 and had at it. I was not disappointed.
I shot this whole 12-exposure roll on a walk to run an errand. There’s a Lowe’s on the way; I cut through its parking lot and captured these sheds on display. For my non-US readers, Lowe’s is a huge home-improvement store chain.
The road I walked was once a state highway, and a few right-of-way markers still stand on it. Someone clobbered this one recently, probably by running off the road in their car and hitting it. I am sharing this image because it shows the lens’s ability to capture detail.
See more photos from this camera in my Pentax ZX-50 gallery.
The Pentax ZX-50 is competent enough and is a good choice for someone looking to break into film photography. They are inexpensive enough used that as you outgrow it, you can probably afford to just buy a more capable camera.
To me, this camera is just an appliance. It works, and works well, but lacks that je ne sais quoi that makes a camera satisfying to use. However, I did find the kit lens’s f/4 maximum aperture to be frustratingly limiting given the subjects I chose. I might feel more enthusiasm for this camera with a fast 50mm lens on it. Perhaps I’ll buy one and try it someday.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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