Competent Companion

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Recently I’ve come across a number of Pentax compacts, and am gradually working through them, separating the best from the rest.

Which isn’t that easy.

Pentax know how to make a decent compact, and you can’t go far wrong with any of their models from the early 80s onwards for a capable point and shoot.

This post is specifically about the Pentax Zoom 70-X, the third incarnation of their Zoom 70 series.

See below the original Zoom 70, the 70-S in the centre, then the 70-X.

23222812202_bbdb232a51_cAfter playing with all three, I quickly found that for me the 70-X offered the most usable options.

When all three are so cheap (I paid about £3 including postage for each of them), it makes little sense to go for either of the first two.

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Here’s what I liked about using the 70-X.

The lens, whilst being a zoom rather than fixed, is a reasonable 35-70mm rather than the crazy 140mm+ of some models, which suggests it’s going to retain decent image quality across the range.

A neat feature is the focal length displayed in the LCD, so you can shoot at 35, 38, 42, 46, 50, 55, 60, 65 or 70mm, rather than a unknown figure somewhere between 35 and 70. Yes, these numbers aren’t going to be precise to the millimetre, but they give a good guide, and allow a different way of using the camera.

In my view there are two ways to use a zoom compact. 

The first is to stand still, look around for something you want to photograph, then point the camera at it and let the zoom do the work until what you see in the viewfinder is what you want to capture.

I never shoot like this.

What I prefer to do – and the focal length display of the 70-X aids this hugely – is to pick one focal length, then experiment with it, moving myself into position to get the shot I want.

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Much of the time so far I’ve used the camera at 35mm (my favourite focal length for a compact, and which incidentally gains brownie points from me for actually being 35mm rather than the 38mm virtually every compact from the late 80s onwards defaulted to).

Though I have the option to experiment with the 70-X as a 42mm (supposedly the same field of view we naturally see as humans), 50mm (the standard SLR prime lens), or 70mm lensed camera for more of a portrait length.

I feel that having the figure displayed in the LCD and knowing what you were shooting at helped to educate me further in the focal length(s) I like to use best in certain situations, rather than the point-zoom-shoot approach mentioned above.

The camera has pretty much all the modes you’d need on a compact, including the vital flash off switch.

It also has a useful backlight compensation mode (the camera has auto DX ISO, so this feature becomes all the more welcome) and Bulb mode for long exposures.

Also pleasing is the inclusion of a Multiple Exposure (ME) mode, which is relatively rare in compacts, and adds a whole other layer (literally!) of creative possibilities.

Using this mode means you can shoot twice on exactly the same frame without the camera moving it a millimetre, unlike the makeshift manual way of shooting multiple exposures on a camera with manual wind on, which is often tricky to get the frames to line up correctly.

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The only further addition I would like to see is a landscape/infinity option, for those shots when you feel the AF might be tricked and want to ensure you’re shooting at infinity.

Overall the camera handles well and with the curved rubberised grip at the front and raised grooves on the film door at the back, feels comfortable and confident in use. 

The viewfinder is quick to locate with your eye, and clear and bright, with the “bright lines” type of framing I prefer, as opposed to the smaller black outlines on later cameras.

The green AutoFocus (AF) confirm light comes on quickly and is very clear, as is the red flash light to let you know when the camera wants to use flash.

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I was more than happy with the photographs I managed to get with the first roll, and the colours, render and detail were all very pleasing, especially for a zoom compact. I don’t think you’d be disappointed with the quality of image this Pentax is capable of.

As with virtually all cameras though, there are downsides.

With the Zoom 70-X pretty much the only downside is its size. It’s not huge by any means, and as we talked about above, it handles really quite well.

But the overall bulk is marginally larger than the body of a Pentax MX SLR.

There are far smaller compacts that likely offer the same kind of performance and features.

As we speak I am testing a Pentax from a few years later, the Espio AF Zoom. It also has a 35-70mm lens, all the features of the 70-X (plus the landscape/infinity mode, though it lacks the focal length display in the LCD) in a body about two thirds the size and weight, and which could comfortably squeeze into all but the tightest of trouser pockets.

Having used a few Espios before, I don’t expect the image quality to let me down either.

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Also always a factor for me is the closest the camera will focus to.

The standard close focus of the 70-X is 1m, though there is a macro mode which allows you to shoot between 0.6m and 1m.

Cleverly, when you press the macro button, the VF shifts a little to compensate for the closeness, which I liked. But the camera also defaults to 70mm for the macro, which I wasn’t so keen on.

So at 35mm, you’re stuck with a paltry 1m minimum focus, which makes it very disappointing close up compared to something like an Olympus mju I which has a 35mm lens and focuses down to 0.35m.

If you’re looking for a very cheap, reliable and well featured zoom compact, and size and close focus aren’t significant factors, then the Pentax Zoom 70-X is a very sound option.

I could use it for ten rolls straight and I know I’d get some really pleasing shots, especially with the Multiple Exposure capabilities.

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But these days I’ve not only become more picky about my expectations from a camera, I’m also increasingly enjoying smaller and genuinely compact cameras.

Pentax’s own Espio (IQZoom in some markets) range offer half a dozen or more equally competent cameras, at similar pocket money prices and with much tinier bodies.

And if you’re going to carry a camera the size of the 70-X, there are a number of rangefinders of comparable size (plus a few of the smaller SLRs like a Pentax MX or ME or the later, lighter MZ-5N which has AF capabilities too) capable of better results and with far more creative control.

If you want a bargain competent companion, and you’re happy with large bulging pockets, the 70-X won’t let you down.

But for me, if the Espio Zoom 35-70mm and/or Rollei X-70 I’ve recently greatly enjoyed give comparable results, I can see the Pentax Zoom 70-X destined straight for the charity shops.

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