Pentax MX-1 camera

Pentax’s retro throwback is anything but old-fashioned inside

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Pentax MX-1
  • Pentax MX-1
  • Pentax MX-1
  • Pentax MX-1
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Wonderful design and ergonomics
  • Excellent lens and sensor

Cons

  • Slow to save RAWs
  • Size rivals mirrorless competitors

Bottom Line

Pentax’s premium compact is an excellent example of an enthusiast-focused digital camera -- it’s incredibly well-built, has a good sensor and lens combo, and is very similar in handling to a full-size digital SLR. It can be slow when used to its fullest extent, and it’s not particularly compact, but operating within these limitations it’s become one of our favourite sub-DSLR cameras to use.

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In recent years, the compact digital camera market has catered more and more towards enthusiast photographers. With occasional and amateur photographers largely catered for with a few entry-level models and almost every smartphone, companies like Olympus and Panasonic have targeted top-end buyers instead.

The Pentax MX-1 joins a crowded top shelf dominated by the Sony RX100, Olympus XZ-2, and Panasonic LX7. It has a brass-plated body, DSLR-style controls, RAW-capturing 12-megapixel sensor and 4x zoom lens, but is it greater than the sum of its parts?

Pentax MX-1: Design, features and setup

The MX-1 is a surprisingly large ‘compact’ camera, with its 122 x 61 x 51mm dimensions rivalling the smallest mirrorless cameras like Olympus’s E-PM2 and the Panasonic GF5. It’s also quite heavy, nearing 400g with a battery and memory card installed.

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The reason for this bulk is partially explained by the MX-1’s tilting 3-inch LCD on the back and bright f1.8-2.5 4x zoom lens on the front. The camera’s hefty weight comes from its brass top and bottom plates — a throwback to the original brass-bodied Pentax MX from the 1970s.

In pictures: unboxing the Pentax MX-1

Use the MX-1 for a while, Pentax says, and the silver (or black) paint will rub off to reveal “a stunning patina, impressing a history on the camera with each use” — a little self-indulgent, yes, but it goes to show the thought that has been put into this camera’s design and construction.

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The MX-1 feels excellent in the hand — despite being relatively short from base to top plate for a digital camera, the controls are simply and elegantly laid out. Everything falls naturally within reach of thumb or forefinger, making the camera entirely possible to use with only your right hand. There’s no control dial around the lens — a popular feature nowadays — and the only left-hand contrivance is the manual flash pop-up switch.

The Pentax MX-1’s controls are laid out in a very similar fashion to its K-series line of digital SLRs, which themselves have a long history of impressive ergonomics. The camera’s top plate has the aforementioned pop-up off-set flash, a versatile shooting mode dial (P, A, S, M, scene, auto-scene, user-set, HDR, movie, and the hand-holding ‘green box’), power button, movie button, a combination zoom toggle and shutter button, and a dedicated exposure compensation dial.

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The camera’s back, like any compact, is dominated by the 3-inch, 920k-dot LCD screen — which isn’t touch-sensitive, but doesn’t need to be. The screen is articulated with an arm that brings it an inch out from the camera’s back, letting it tilt vertically around 45 degrees down and 90 degrees up. This makes the MX-1 possible to use at waist level surreptitiously, and above your head for shooting over a crowd.

The controls on the camera’s back are set out in a grid — control dial up top, with a vertical line of exposure/aperture lock, delete, playback, and info buttons. Next to them is the menu button and a five-way menu navigation pad which also allows quick access to common shooting features like ISO, flash, focus and drive modes. There’s nothing revolutionary about the MX-1’s control scheme, but that makes it very easy to understand if you’ve ever used a compact or DSLR before.

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The MX-1’s menu system is intuitively designed; any previous Pentax or Canon user will be at home with the camera’s horizontal tabbed-folder layout. Menu options are utilitarian — no fancy names or excessive sub-menus, just a small range of features that are easy to alter.

Pentax MX-1: Performance and picture quality

When you’re actually using the Pentax MX-1, it feels great. It’s one of very few compact cameras that we’ve been happy to use in manual mode, with the combination of control dial and AV button feeling natural to operate under the thumb.

The MX-1 is not particularly slow or fast to start up, taking around a second and a half between hitting the power button and the camera being ready to start shooting. Full-size JPEGs take around a second to save, and the camera hangs while the image is stored. This isn’t a problem with JPEGs, but use the camera to capture the more versatile RAW format and save times stretch to around 5 seconds — this is quite a long wait, made more excruciating by the fact you can’t re-compose another shot or change any settings during this time.

In normal shooting, camera shutter lag is inconsequential at 0.3 seconds. If you’re shooting in the MX-1’s continuous drive mode, you’ll ideally be able to capture a shot every 0.25 seconds or so, although if you’re shooting in RAW this drops down to a minimum of one shot every 1.5 seconds.

A photo we took with the Pentax MX-1, shot in RAW mode and then processed in-camera to JPEG.
A photo we took with the Pentax MX-1, shot in RAW mode and then processed in-camera to JPEG.

The images captured by the Pentax MX-1 are quite similar to those of the Olympus Stylus XZ-2 — not surprising considering they share the same combination of 12-megapixel back-side-illuminated CMOS sensor and 28-112mm (full-frame equivalent) f1.8-2.5 lens.

A macro shot of a flower taken with the Pentax MX-1.
A macro shot of a flower taken with the Pentax MX-1.

The fast and versatile lens is one of our favourite parts of the Pentax MX-1 — it’s able to focus as close as 1cm, making very-close-up macro shots possible, and has an appreciably fast maximum aperture all the way across its zoom range.

The MX-1's ISO performance. From top to bottom, left to right: ISOs 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800.
The MX-1's ISO performance. From top to bottom, left to right: ISOs 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, 12800.

The camera’s 12-megapixel sensor captures images that are an OCD-pleasing 4000 x 3000 pixels in size. Images are clean and detailed from the MX-1’s native ISO of 100 all the way to 1600. After this point, images captured by the camera get successively softer and noisier from ISO 3200 up to the camera’s emergency-mode ISO 25600. We’d use ISO 3200 in a pinch, but for the most part ISO 100-1600 is the camera’s effective working range.

The Pentax MX-1's colour modes. From top to bottom: Monochrome, Bright, Natural, Vibrant, Reversal Film.
The Pentax MX-1's colour modes. From top to bottom: Monochrome, Bright, Natural, Vibrant, Reversal Film.

The MX-1 has five preset colour modes — Bright, Natural, Vibrant, Reversal Film, and Monochrome. Select any of the settings, and you’re shown a colour wheel which gives you a quick preview of which colours will be more or less saturated in your chosen setting — a simple feature, but an invaluable one too.

This ISO 100 photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/640sec, f2.8. It's got great detail, even in the darker lower areas of the frame.
This ISO 100 photo was taken at a shutter speed of 1/640sec, f2.8. It's got great detail, even in the darker lower areas of the frame.

Having such a bright lens means that unless you’re trying to take handheld photos at twilight or at night, you’ll probably get acceptably clean and detailed photos from the Pentax MX-1. It performs very well in bright and daylight conditions, and the inclusion of an automatic ND filter in the lens means you can use the camera in extremely bright conditions at wider aperture settings.

There’s a fair amount of barrel lens distortion when you’re close-focusing with the MX-1’s lens at its widest 28mm setting, although this settles itself quickly as you start to zoom in. The camera’s software distortion correction generally does a good job of removing any aberrations in images, and the MX-1’s integrated sensor-shift shake reduction means you can hand-hold the camera at shutter speeds as low as 1/8sec, as long as you’re at minimum zoom.

An example of the Pentax MX-1's 1cm close-focus mode.
An example of the Pentax MX-1's 1cm close-focus mode.

Like most other enthusiast cameras, you can adjust the MX-1’s focus settings from autofocus to macro, to super-macro, to ‘pan focus’ (an automatic hyper-focus point that means you’ve always got as much in focus as possible), to infinity focus, to manual focus — the last of which is controlled with the up and down buttons on the navigation pad, with a helpful distance scale shown on the left side of the LCD.

The MX-1 has the ability to capture movies at 1920x1080 pixels at 30 frames per second, the ‘Full HD’ setting that is becoming increasingly standard in compact cameras. This retro compact can also handle 1280x720p at 60 frames per second, as well as that same 720p resolution at 30 frames per second as a space-saving mode.

Pentax MX-1: Conclusion

The Pentax MX-1 is a great compact digital camera. It’s not especially small or light, but that won’t bother the enthusiast buyers lusting after its good looks and versatile lens/sensor combination. Its only significant flaw is in its slow operation when used to capture the RAW image format — if you’re shooting JPEG, we really can’t see an issue with this camera beyond its comparative bulk.

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