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Pentax MX preview I recently

Found at: zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/~solderpunk/phlog/pentax-mx-preview.txt

Pentax MX preview
-----------------

I recently wrote about how enamoured I was
with my new Pentax ME Super camera[1].  I
also hinted that my plans to limit and
rationalise my camera collection were not
proceeding according to, well, plan.

As much as I love the ME Super (and I really
do!), my extensive reading about Pentax's M
series had made it clear that in the mind of
most enthusiasts, the ME Super is not the
crown of the M line up.  Popular consensus
undeniably awards that title to the MX.  The
MX has the same diminutive form factor as all
the M cameras (it is a tiny bit larger and
heavier than the ME or ME Super, but not by
enough to get worked up about), but it has a
fully mechanical shutter which works without
batteries at all speeds, and nothing but a 
fully manual exposure mode.  I suppose it is
analogous to the Olympus OM-1 which started
the compact SLR craze in the first place.

The MX seems to have a bit of a cult-like
following.  Many people have called it their
absolute favourite 35mm SLR of all time.
There are plenty of forum threads asking
questions like "if you could only keep your
MX or your ME (or ME Super), which would it
be?" and without fail everybody chooses the
MX.

Unsurprisingly, the MX, while cheap as far as
cult classic mechanical cameras can go, is
notably more expensive than the rest of the M
series.  Being very happy with the ME Super,
I put the MX firmly in my mental category of
"Well, it's nice, and if I ever come upon the
chance to own one at a decent price I'll jump
on it, but I have no pressing need for it and
shouldn't be actively seeking one out".  This
is exactly the same category that Canon's A-1
and EF models lived in while I was shooting
my AE-1.  It stayed in that category for
about three years, and I fully expected the
MX to do about the same.

Then one fateful night I stumbled across an
eBay listing for an MX body from Germany,
allegedly working, for 40 EUR, far less than
they usually cost and even less than you'd
likely pay for a good condition,
known working ME Super from a real store.  I
was immediately torn between thinking I
couldn't pass the opportunity up and
realising that I had no need for it and,
indeed, that it would mess up my neat little
system by essentially duplicating the role
that my Spotmatic was supposed to play.  I
initially resisted buying it.  I refreshed
the listing an hour or two later, fully
expecting this bargain to have already been
snapped up.  To my surprise it wasn't, and I
caved, and it's been sitting on my coffee
table for about two weeks now.

I haven't put a roll of film through it yet,
so this is very much a "preview" and not a
"review".  I've promised myself that I'll
eventually keep only one of the MX and the
Super ME.  It's not a light decision so I
will hold off until I have put at least one
roll through the MX to form my final
impressions.  I'm only bothering to write
about it now because I had such a strong
initial reaction to it and want to put my
thoughts in order - and also because famous
film blogger Hamish Gill of 35mmc.com has
just recently started a series of posts[2]
about the MX and a perverse part of me wants
to beat him to the punch on Gopher!  So,
let's get to it.

I have to say, after all of the online hype
surrounding the MX, I unboxed it with great
anticipation.  After a few minutes of
playing, though, my overwhelming first
response was:

"Oh.  This is what all the fuss is about?"

This is not, let me be clear, to say that the
MX is a bad camera.  Not at all.  But it's
not without shortcomings, and they are not,
for me, easy shortcomings to overlook.  I
certainly don't think it's the case that the
MX beats the ME Super hands down.  I think
it's far less clear cut than that.

But before digging into shortcomings, let me
say right off the bat that if the choice
between the two came down to a beauty contest
there'd be no real contest.  The MX is the
better looking camera, no question.  I wrote
about how I didn't really like the shutter
speed adjusting buttons on the ME Super: they
have a plasticy 80s vibe that detracts from
the camera's otherwise classic styling.  As
you'd expect from a totally manual camera, in
their place the MX has a traditional shutter
speed knob, anodised black with nicely
knurled sides.  The shutter speed lettering
is ever so slightly recessed, with colouring
that *almost* exactly matches the colouring
on the Spotmatic.  Being fully manual, the MX
has no equivalent of the ME Super's exposure
compensation knob around the film rewind
lever housing, giving the left half of the
top plate a much cleaner appearance.

In terms of ergonomics and user interface,
things aren't so beautiful, though.  The
first thing that struck me was the throw on
the film advance lever.  It's long.  Very
long.  In fact, the second or third time I
tried to trip the MX's shutter, nothing
happened and I thought "Oh, no, this cheap
eBay camera isn't working after all!".  It
turned out I just hadn't advanced the lever
enough to fully cock the shutter!  Paying
more careful attention to winding after this,
I noticed that not only did the lever have a
really long throw, but about three quarters
of the way through the feeling of it changes
- it becomes softer, like part of the
mechanism has disengaged.  I actually
thought that perhaps something was faulty
inside and it was supposed to finish its
stroke at that point, but checking the
manual, the image in there makes it clear
that the lever really is supposed to go that
far around in.  The manual states that it has
a 162 degree throw with a 20 degree standoff
(and more on *that* later), for a total of
just over 180 degrees!  The Spotmatic's
manual gives figures of 160 degrees and 10
degrees respectively, so the MX has actually
only a slightly longer throw.  But
subjectively it feels a lot longer to me:
possible this can be attributed to the
difference in body size?  182 degrees on a
tiny body may feel more than 170 on a larger
body.  Regardless, the MX's throw is much
longer and much less nice feeling than the
similarly sized ME Super's lever (135 degree
throw with 30 degree standoff), which is not
what I was expecting.  Ultimately, though,
this is a matter of taste of just getting
used to something.

My second nasty surprise was worse.  The ME
Super has a wonderful light meter interface:
slightly depress the shutter release to
activate the meter, and then it stays active
for 30 seconds after you remove your finger
from the button (or until you take a shot!).
This frees your finger to adjust the shutter
speed while being able to immediately see the
effect on the meter, or to adjust the
aperture with your other hand *without*
having to be careful not to accidentally
completely depress the release and take a
shot.  The MX doesn't work this way at all:
partially pressing the shutter activates the
meter, but only for as long as you keep your
finger there.  This was a disappointment, but
it rapidly got worse.  It turns out that to
keep the MX's meter on after removing your
finger from the shutter release, you need to
pull the advance lever slightly away from the
body, to its 20 degree standoff position.
Argh!  I *hate* this interface design!  When
I first got into photography I used a Ricoh
KR-10 for a little while, where you had to
pull the advance lever out just a little to
unlock the shutter.  I came to really detest
that aspect of its design.  It makes it
impossible to take a vertically-oriented shot
without having the protruding lever poking
you in either the eye or the face, depending
on how you hold the camera.  I've read a very
large number of online reviews of the MX by
now and literally not one of them have ever
mentioned this aspect of it, in negative or
positive tones.  I'm really shocked that
people seem so totally indifferent to it.
For me it's an immediate strike against the
MX.  I just can't ever really love a camera
that makes you do this.  Once I've wound on,
that lever should be immediately and
completely pushed back flat against the body
and stay there until I've taken a shot.

My third and final serious gripe against the
MX's interface is one that a lot of people
*have* commented about online.  That
beautifully labelled and knurled shutter knob
is difficult to turn.  In part this is from
it being stiffer than average, but it's also
partially due to its smaller than average
size and the general crowdedness of the right
hand of the top plate.  In fact, the decision
to have the film advance lever do double duty
as a light meter switch makes *some* sense in
the context of the MX (unlike my old Richoh),
because it's just about impossible to change
shutter speeds with the lever pushed fully in
against the camera body.  The knob is so
stiff that turning it in a controlled fashion
has to be done with a thumb and index finger
pinching opposite sides of the knob.  Trying
to use only the index finger on the side of
the front of the knob requires you to use so
much force that it's very difficult to
reliably move just one stop in either
direction.  I often end up jerking the knob
through two or three stops at once when I try
to do it this way.  Pinching two opposing
sides of the knob makes precise control
straightforward, but your thumb is very
likely to push the advance lever out to the
metering position.  The cramped layout of
this part of the camera seems to make this
unavoidable.

I wonder if this provides some insight into
the design decisions behind the OM-1.  One of
the reasons I've never seriously considered
getting into the OM series is that, aside
from the usual problem of them being designed
for mercury batteries, they have an unusual
interface that I never understood the point
of.  What looks, at first glance, like a
shutter speed knob on the top plate is in
fact a film speed knob for the light meter.
Shutter speed is adjusted with a ring just
forward of the lens mount, in much the same
way that aperture is adjusted in a "standard"
interface.  To make this work, lenses
designed for use with the OM series have
their aperture control rings at the *front*
of the lens.  This always seemed to me to be
super weird.  Nothing one couldn't get used
to, but why bother doing things so unusually?
Now I really wonder whether Olympus came to
the conclusion that on a very compact SLR
body a shutter speed knob in the conventional
location just couldn't be made to work
comfortably, and so decided to rethink
things, while Pentax just forged on ahead
with uninspiring results.  That would be an
extremely interesting thing to know!  If it
were true, it still wouldn't answer why on
Earth Nikon used a similar interface with
their Nikkormat cameras...

This also casts new light on those ugly, 80s
push buttons used for shutter speed control
on the ME Super.  A lot of people love to
hate these things, and I have seen people
allege that they are a "tacked on", rather
than carefully thought out, solution.  I have
to wonder if they are in fact actually a
very deliberate decision made as a direct
result of experience with the MX (released
three years earlier).  They might be kind of
ugly, and perhaps they are more prone to
failure long term, but at the end of the day,
after setting the aperture I can shoot the
ME Super in manual mode one-handed using
those buttons.  Doing that on the MX is
inconceivable.  It really seems like the
buttons are a better design when the
constraints of a very small camera body come
in to play.  Many people complain that they
can't see what speed the ME Super is set to
without looking through the view finder,
because of the lack of a traditional knob.  I
am kind of baffled by this, as you have to
look through the view finder to compose your
shot or take a meter reading anyway.

So, as beautiful, capable and well-built as
the MX is, the long, sloppy feeling lever
throw, the inconvenient meter operation and
the difficulty of adjusting shutter speed
mean that I can't really consider it a joy to
use, which is a surprise and a
disappointment.  Obviously a lot of people
can look past these things.  More power to
them, but I think they are a real shame.

Speaking of the MX being "well-built": it is,
and a lot of people online when comparing the
MX to the ME or ME Super will opine that the
MX is *better* built than the other M series
cameras.  Based on my limited experience of
the two, I can see no evidence for this
whatsoever.  While they obviously don't share
exactly the same body (the MX is slightly
shorter than the ME Super, but also slightly
longer and wider), I strongly suspect that
many parts are completely interchangable
between them.  The corresponding body parts
of different shapes/sizes between the two
seem to be made of exactly the same materials
and via the same manufacturing processes.  I
think the MX cultists are really exaggerating
the difference here.

So far, beyond complimenting the MX's good
looks and build quality,  I've not done much
more than complain about its shortcomings;
But there are things to like here, too.  For
starters, the MX has a much nicer, machined
metal shutter release than the ME Super with
(yes!) a proper shutter lock, which beats the
living daylights out of the stupid, fiddly
lock on the ME Super.  The MX also has a DoF
preview feature, which the ME Super lacks.
In a very clever move, rather than adding
another dedicated control for this, the MX's
DoF preview is activated by pushing the self
timer lever in the opposite direction that
you'd turn it to wind the self timer.  This
works really nicely, it's easy to do with the
camera held to your eye (much easier than
operating the combined DoF preview and meter
activation switch on the Spotmatic), and the
double duty of this lever does not interfere
in any way with using it for either purpose.
Finally, the MX has a small transparent
window in the pentaprism housing which lets
you see the aperture markings on your lens so
you can tell the current setting.  To be
clear, it's not a little plastic wheel with
apertures printed on it which rotates in
synch with the actual aperture adjustment
ring: you are directly seeing the actual
aperture adjustment ring.  Obviously this
only works when it's light out, but that's
most of the time for most people.  These are
all genuinely great features - a hypothetical
"dream M camera" which was basically an ME
Super (with its beautiful advance lever and
wider range of shutter speeds) but with these
things added would be absolutely amazing.
I'm not at all sure how you could get the ME
Super's auto/manual/mechanical/bulb mode
selection to work if you replaced its shutter
with one more like the MX's, but it seems
like the aperture setting window and the DoF
preview function would both be
straightforward to transfer between the two
similar bodies.  If the body had to be
enlarged to the every so slightly larger
dimensions of the MX I think that would be a
perfectly fair price to pay.

Ultimately, I think there's a very plausible
case to be made for the ME Super being the
better camera.  I think perhaps a lot of the
MX diehards must belong to that breed of
photographer who places an inordinate value
on fully mechanical operation at all shutter
speeds without batteries.  It's not that I
don't see any appeal in this at all, I
totally get it.  But at the end of the day I
can only consider it a small bonus, and not
enough to offset major usability concerns.
The ME Super takes very easy to find, small,
light, cheap batteries - easier to find,
smaller, lighter and cheaper than a spare
roll of film, so only extremely poor planning
is an excuse for battery dependence causing a
disaster on the hypothetical remote
wilderness scenario that people like to
obsess about.  True, if the electronics fail
in an ME Super repair may be impossible due
to lack of replacement parts, while a
mechanical failure in an MX can in theory
always be fixed because new parts can be
machined.  In practice, getting a serious
mechanical failure in an MX repaired is
guaranteed to cost enough money to buy
several replacement ME Supers.

Gun to my head, if I had to choose between
the two today, I'd keep the ME Super.  Maybe
this will change after actually putting a
roll through the MX, but I wouldn't bet on
it.  My expectation is that if the light
seals prove to be in working order I'll
resell the MX for more than I paid for it and
stick with my previously planned Spotmatic/ME
Super duo.  It would make good logical sense
to replace the Spotmatic with something from
the K series, so that my big, heavy, slow,
manual camera and my small, light, fast,
semiautomatic camera could at least share
lenses.  I just like the Spotmatic too gosh
darned much, though.  That said, I do still
sometimes ponder replacing it with something
even older and simpler, like a Pentax SV.

What?  Be content with what I have???

[1] gopher://zaibatsu.circumlunar.space:70/0/~solderpunk/phlog/pentax-me-super-review.txt
[2] https://www.35mmc.com/21/10/2019/the-pentax-mx-doing-the-one-camera-thing-to-aid-a-lack-of-inspiration/