The Thinking Man’s Compact

Pentax Espio 160

After having maybe ten Pentax Espio compacts, I can confidently say that they all perform pretty well and are enjoyable to us. Looking for a later era (’90s on) 35mm film compact, you wouldn’t go far wrong with any of this popular and almost endless range.

The latest I have been using is the Pentax Espio 160 (aka the IQZoom 160). 

In many ways it’s the best Espio I’ve used, and indeed one of the best compact film cameras I’ve used.

“Best” is of course always a subjective term. So to be less vague, here are some of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the 160.

23973459579_0689c77048_cFirst, and of course crucial with any camera, it takes decent photographs. 

Sharp enough (especially for a compact), with great detail, and without any obvious flaws, softness or vingetting, you can happily rely on the Espio 160 to take well exposed and accurately focused photographs time and time again.

I would suggest trying a few different films, as most cameras have certain films they just seem to fuse with a little better. I tested it with trusty AfgaPhoto Vista Plus 200 (rebranded Fuji C200), and I was more than happy.

The core specs of the camera are the 38-160mm zoom lens with a heady 11 elements in 7 groups, and minimum focusing of 0.8m at the wide end. Not the closest focus, but ok most of the time. 

The fastest aperture is f/4.5 at 38mm, not fast by any means when there are a wide range of 35 and 38mm f/2.8 compacts out there, but it’s not an issue at all when shooting. Whilst you’re never going to get any of the stunning depth of field or bokeh possible with an SLR, you can see from the sample images here that the camera does a fine job of softening the background to bring out the sharpness in the subject of focus.

24233033662_5fe59a4610_cTechnical specifications are important to a point, but ultimately to me mean little in relation to how a camera actually feels to use. 

The Espio 160 is a great pleasure to use, and this can be summed up by the feeling that it was designed by photography enthusiasts, people who had the end user (ie other photographers) at the forefront of their minds throughout the design and creation of the camera.

Looking through my absolute favourite cameras in my collection, this theme is common. I love cameras that feel thoughtfully and passionately designed, ones you can just pick up and use with confidence from the first time you touch them.

The Olympus XA and Pentax KM come to mind, two cameras that featured in my recent Last Three Standing post.

The Espio 160, whilst not quite deserving the same legendary status, certainly brings more than a few smiles in use though.

The overall size is pretty small in width and height, though chunky in depth – presumably housing that 160mm of collapsed lens. You’d never squeeze it in a trouser pocket and still be able to walk, but it’s fine for a coat pocket or bag, and holding it, it does feel quite compact, and pretty ergonomic.

23973459099_e4211f77ea_cOne of the best features (and unique amongst the Epsios I’ve used before) is the mode dial.

This eliminates the need for an on/off switch, and with a quick turn of the dial you’re in Auto and ready to shoot in an instant.

There are a number of flash modes, most crucial to me being the flash off mode, which I used for every shot of the test roll and likely will do for virtually every shot I ever take with the camera.

Once you get used to the position of this mode, in practice the three soft clicks to get there are as quick as one click to Auto mode.

Other features I like are a multiple exposure mode (something you’ll need to check with any Espio spec list if you’d like it, as only a few of them have this feature), and an infinity/landscape mode which locks focus at infinity.

There’s also a spot Auto Focus mode, which when chosen overrides the five point Multi AF. The focus also locks with a half press of the shutter button – a common feature and always good to have.

23973458619_2cd205e7a6_c

The Espio 160’s viewfinder is not the largest or brightest, but works fine once you’ve used it a few times. There’s a diopter adjustment to fine tune the clarity of the VF.

What I really love is the intelligence of the VF. 

Firstly, when you’re in the standard MultiAF mode, you get square brackets in the centre of the frame showing which part of the image the camera will focus on. When you switch to Spot AF mode, these brackets become smaller and closer together. On infinity/landscape mode they disappear altogether giving a clear view to compose your photograph.

The AF confirm and flash lights are just below the bottom of the main composition frame, and the AF light flashes if the camera can’t focus (usually because you’re too close to subject).

I like the clarity of these lights – some cameras have them as lights on the outer body of the camera outside of the VF window, and in bright light they can be hard to see.

Something else the VF does very intelligently is change the frame for close shots, ie it provides parallax correction.

When you’re close up, a black bar pops down from the top, providing a new reduced composition area. It even does this in the Panoramic mode, where the view is already greatly reduced vertically with black bars top and bottom. Nearly all compacts have parallax correction markings with the main frame lines, but it’s easy to forget to use them. Not possible with the Espio 160!

This VF feedback, the fast and easy to use (and see!) mode dial, the range of modes, the quality feel (for a plastic compact) and the fact it takes good photographs make the 160 one of the very best Espios Pentax made.

It feels like it’s your companion, your friend, willing to do all it can to make the experience of making photographs as smooth and easy as possible for, whilst giving you a few creative options in the process.

No camera of course is perfect, and if I was being super picky, I would change two things about the 160, which are essentially the same thing. 

I don’t much like zooms, and rarely use them on anything but the widest setting. Past about 1985, nearly all manufacturers produced only zoom cameras, especially in the mainstream consumer market. So to get a 35/38/40mm lensed compact from this era, you usually end up with a 35/38/40-somethingsillybeyond100mm lens.

Having 160mm at the tele end is pretty impressive if you like that sort of thing. But I would far prefer having say 35-70mm in a camera that can then be far more compact depth wise as its not housing so much lens barrel.

Another Espio I have, and am currently running a film through, is one of the earliest models, the Espio AF Zoom from around 1992, with a 35-70mm lens, incidentally.

This camera also has flash off, multiple exposure and infinity/landscape modes, in a much smaller package. It focuses closer at 0.6m too. If it takes pictures as well as the Espio 160, then it will become the only one of the two I need to keep.

If you do come across the 160 (like all Espios, they’re usually very cheap), it genuinely is one of the best Epsios made and offers all you could want, if you don’t mind a bit more bulk.

If you’re seeking a zoom specifically, with a long telephoto lens. it makes even more sense.

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2 thoughts on “The Thinking Man’s Compact

  1. Hello James I would like to know what kind of film you would suggest I use for shooting a vintage grainy shot with this same camera ( Espio 160 ) and if you have any suggestion on what to ask for at the lab in order to get that effect

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your comment. Are you talking about colour film or black and white? If you want grainy I would go with a faster film – ISO400 or 800 at least. You find expired films lean towards giving greater grain and sometimes unexpected colour shifts. You don’t really ask the lab for anything – the work is done mostly by the film you use. If you underexpose a stop or two you get a more grainy look too, but you lose contrast and it becomes more washed out.

      You might find it helpful to browse through my photos on Flickr, and if there are particular ones you like, see the description and tags to see what kind of film I used.

      Let me know if you find any (or indeed any images by anyone on Flickr) and maybe I can give you some more specific pointers towards getting that kind of look.

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