Pentax MX: I hardly knew ye

Pentax MX front
The only photo I managed to take of the Pentax MX and 40mm f/2.8 pancake lens. (Daniel J. Schneider)

A quick hit on the Pentax MX, the company’s all-manual pro SLR from 1976 to 1985.

I stumbled on the MX in a thrift shop with a rare Pentax pancake lens on it and couldn’t stop the $20 bill from flying out of my pocket.

The lens was an SMC Pentax-M 40mm f/2.8; not the best-reviewed of Pentax’s lenses, but one of the smallest and lightest they ever made.

I had the MX for nearly a week, during which I pounded through several rolls of film. I traded it for a Lowepro Mini-Trekker camera backpack and a Benro tripod last week.

Vertigo-inducing view between two buildings in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The numbers

Pentax introduced the MX as one of the smallest and lightest professional-level SLR cameras available in 1976, and continued production until the larger LX hit the market in 1985.

It uses K-mount bayonet lenses, and is reputed to have one of the biggest and brightest viewfinders of its day, as well as a complete line of available accessories including motor drive, data backs, interchangeable focusing screens, and even a 250-frame high-capacity magazine back.

The MX offers no auto-exposure, but boasts a fully-mechanical shutter with speeds form 1 second to 1/1000 second and Bulb. Multiple exposures are possible, too. The two SR44 batteries power the light meter only.

Mime violinist
A mime playing the violin on the 16th Street Mall in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film speed selector is on the shutter speed selector knob. Instead of a lift-and-turn arrangement, there’s a small silver button you press to release the outer ring and select the film speed.

The variable self-timer lever on the front rotates away from the lens mount, counting down from anywhere up to about 10 seconds at maximum rotation. Pushing the lever toward the lens actuates the depth-of-field preview. There is a hot shoe on top of the pentaprism housing.

The light meter uses an LED display in the viewfinder similar to the Pentax ME Super, with red, yellow and green LEDs indicating over- and under-exposure. The shutter speed is indicated by means of a clear disc that rotates to show the selected speed next to an arrow on the right-hand edge of the viewfinder. An optical display shows the aperture selected on the lens, too.

16th Street Mall fountain
One of several seemingly random fountains placed in the center strip of Denver’s 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The rewind knob and take-up spool release button mirror those on the K1000, and the take-up spool itself works like that of the ME Super. There’s a shutter-ready indicator on the top cover next to the release, too.

The shutter release button has a rotating collar around it that locks the shutter when not in use, and the button is threaded for a standard cable release. Half-pressing the button activates the light meter.

The 40mm lens was the only pancake lens Pentax ever made for film cameras, and the lightest lens they ever made, period.

That’s about all there is to tell for details.

Leading lines
Leading lines on a downtown Denver building. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Using the MX

I loved this thing. I was seriously tempted to keep it, but I’ve had a lot of Spotmatics and K1000s I didn’t need anymore, and I still have my dad’s ME Super, so I need more Pentax 35mm SLRs like I need fog on my film. It just felt fantastic in the hand, though.

The MX is ever-so-slightly larger than the ME Super, but definitely smaller than the K1000 and Spotmatic. Visually, it looks almost identical to the ME Super, though, which is especially evident in the shape of the pentaprism housing.

Functionally, it’s definitely a middle point — a hybrid, almost — between the K1000 and the ME Super. The film advance looks and feels like that of the ME Super, the viewfinder is its equal and then some in terms of brightness and bigness, and the meter display design matches very closely. The mechanical shutter, film and shutter speed selectors, and the size and shape of the shutter release button all remind me of the K1000.

Light plays
Late afternoon light plays across the face of a building in downtown Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The outlier is the lock collar on the shutter release, which matches none of their other cameras up to that era. It does, however, remind me of the lock on the Pentax 6×7.

I did find the focus ring on the 40mm lens a little hard to locate by feel because it’s only about 2 millimeters wide, which led to accidental aperture changes. I got more used to it, though, and imagine you’d have no problem if you used this body-lens combo regularly.

The shutter speed selector is tight and takes a firm grip to turn, which meant operating it with my index finger as I do with most cameras was difficult or impossible. Based on the condition of the camera, I suspect that could be a result of its having hardly been used during its life.

The Pentax MX and 40mm f/2.8 might be the best SLR street photography kit I’ve tried. It’s diminutive and stealthy, but so obviously an SLR camera as not to draw as many stares as a TLR or many rangefinders. The shutter is exceptionally quiet for an SLR, with the mirror barely slapping at all. I’d guess it’s on par with my Leica IIIc in terms of overall volume.

For Distant Viewing
For Distant Viewing (with Kate at Colorado’s Golden Gate State Park). (Daniel J. Schneider)

The lens is great for “f/8 and be there” shooting; set the aperture to f/8 and the focus distance to 10 feet, and you’ll get sharp or acceptable focus on everything from about 6 feet to near-infinity. The big viewfinder makes composing quickly pretty easy, too.

Of course, the K-mount lens line includes tons of great lenses from both Pentax and third-party manufacturers, and with the range of accessories, this is a great choice for a lightweight walking-around camera with plenty of hidden potential.

This is the fifth Pentax camera I’ve reviewed, and it’s the fifth to earn all five stars. I’m sensing a trend. (I’ve also reviewed five Olympus cameras, but a couple of them have fared less well.)

Afraid I just don’t have anything bad to say about the Pentax MX, though. If you see one, snag it!

Sunset meadow
A golden meadow fringed by turning aspens in Golden Gate State Park. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Colorado National Bank
Colorado National Bank in downtown Denver. A tiny bit of barrel distortion can be seen in this example. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Golden Gate State Park
Golden Gate State Park pine forests dotted with yellow aspens in mid-October. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Tea service
An enameled cast iron Japanese tea service on display in a Denver shoppe. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Denver's light rail moving
Denver’s light rail moves past as a pedestrian waits to cross along the 16th Street Mall. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Chess move
Contemplating a chess move near Skyline Park in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Denver sign
The Denver sign on c. 1998 Kodak Ektar 125 exposed at EI32. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Discarded sign
A panhandler’s discarded sign in a Denver street as pedestrians cross. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Pentax MX 35mm SLR camera
Author Rating