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.

Pentax ZX-50

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.

Pentax ZX-50

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.

Pentax ZX-50

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.

Fred, parked

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.

Fake flowers

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.

Random parrot

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.

Trash & recycle day

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.

Grandma and granddaughter

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.

Fake Flowers on the Railing

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.

Knocked-over ROW marker

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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19 responses to “Pentax ZX-50”

  1. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Ah those early auto-everything film SLRs! They’re like turning your competent camera into a point-and-shoot, except they had a tendency to not work as well. Remember when cars had computer-controlled carburettors before electronic fuel injection became the norm? Yeah; like that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah, I wasn’t blown away by this one. It’s fine. It’s not more than fine.

  2. tbm3fan Avatar

    Don’t have a single AF Pentax in my collection and won’t change that. Being a Minolta collector I have their mid-range and up AF cameras and really liked the 7, 5 700si, and 7000i so far. Have used my Nikon N90 and N80 which were also pretty nice. Picked up a N75 for $14 but haven’t used it yet. Have a handful of mid-range and up Canons while waiting on a EOS 5 to also come in. These are all pretty hefty cameras other than the Maxxum 5 which you know. I’m a little different from you whereas being in love with a camera is very much secondary to me while the image quality comes first. You should try shooting with my Voigtlander Prominent which demonstrates German screwiness in design but takes great images. You’d hate fumbling around with it. Or better yet my Koni-Omega Rapid M which would break your neck.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      If the ZX-50 is representative of Pentax AF cameras, I don’t need to try others. The Minolta Maxxum 5 is straight up delightful to use. My Nikon N90s is uber-capable yet still pleasant. The Pentax ZX-50 did the job but inspired no love.

      Yes, I’m no fan of having to screw around with a camera. But I can be coaxed if the images are stunning. I just wouldn’t run to cameras like that all the time!

  3. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    A lot of the ‘soccer mom’ SLRs were pretty capable– limitations offset to some extent by low cost and light weight. But these days there are so many better choices for very little money

  4. Kurt Ingham Avatar

    I bought a Pentax lens a few years ago that came with a ZX-50 attached-the seller couldn’t find the rear cap so he stuck that on and apologized. Camera worked fine, with a few of the ugly scratches that silver finish of that era seemed prone to

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Tells you a lot about the perceived value of this body that it is a good substitute for a rear lens cap!

      1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        However, if someone wants to take good technical quality 35mm photos at a low entry cost, these semi- plastic SLRs will do the job. Leica M3 plus 50 Summicron: $2000+. Pentax ZX50 plus lens: <$100. Hmmm….

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Absolutely. And now is the time to buy cameras like this, as they aren’t expensive. I paid $30 plus shipping for this Pentax.

          1. Kodachromeguy Avatar

            As I may have written to you before, I recently bought a Spotmatic F with the superb 50mm f/1.4 SMC Takumar lens for $35 plus shipping. How is that still possible?

            1. Jim Grey Avatar

              That’s on the low side for sure; I see these kits commonly go for closer to $80-100 on eBay.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    As I recall, the Pentax MZ-S was the top of the line in Pentax AF cameras of this era. I have not tried any of the Pentax auto focus bodies. Have pretty much stuck to Nikon; F5, F4, F100, N90s, N70, N50. I still shoot regularly with the F4 and F100. The rest are gone.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I should probably try the MZ-S before I write off this generation of Pentax cameras. Often the flagship is a far better experience.

      I still have my N90s; it’s flat out terrific. I got rid of my other autofocus Nikon bodies; I just passed the N50 on to its next owner last week. If I were to have a consumer Nikon AF body I’d get another N65, I think.

  6. Walter Garvock Avatar
    Walter Garvock

    I just purchased a ZX-50 from eBay for just $3 plus $18 for shipping. Bought it because I also have the K-3 digital camera and a have at least 6 lenses so can use on the ZX. I liked your review and just know the limitations of these cheap lenses without a constant aperture
    that when the zoom is adjusted, the aperature changes.
    I am looking forward to receiving my ZX-50 since I have many rolls in my freezer
    that I’ll also develop and transfer to digital files.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Assuming your ZX-50 is fully functional, it will be a basic but competent performer that will let you take advantage of your lenses!

  7. Richard Merren Avatar
    Richard Merren

    I owned this camera new–still have it. This was my last film camera before I went digital (or one of the last–it was about 20 years ago). I was just googling around because I am thinking of sticking some batteries in it and shooting a roll for old times sake and I found your review. It was a perfectly usable camera (though at some point the spring in my flash died and I had to hold it up to use it). Full auto worked reasonably well, and I could set shutter speed or aperture when I was feeling creative. I remember being disappointed that it had no split focus screen on it for when I wanted to focus manually. Overall, I remember this camera fondly.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      “Perfectly usable” describes this camera well. It’s not brilliant or inspirational, but you can make lovely photos with it all day long.

  8. James Avatar

    I have been mulling over one of these for $25.00 at the local Value Village in my neighbourhood. It has the SMC Pentax-FA 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 Pentax K Mount AF SLR Camera Zoom, with lens cap. Feel like I have little to lose. I think I’ll bring it home as a birthday present to myself, tomorrow.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      If you don’t like it, you can probably sell it on eBay for the same $25!

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