Two unappreciated film cameras: Pentax K1000 and Pentax MZ-M.

Both the Pentax K1000 and MZ-M can be seen as bookends to Pentax's PK bayonet mount lens manual focus 35mm cameras. The K1000 was one of the first-generation PK mount cameras, and it became the longest-lived while the ZX-M was the last manual focus Pentax.

Both models are almost universally seen as budget cameras, good for students. Stepping stones to better. I think that misses the point and the hidden genius.

Pentax's K-mount series began in 1975. The K2 was the flagship model. As such, it incorporated aperture priority auto-exposure provided by a step-less, metal-bladed, Seiko shutter having speeds from 1/1000 second to 8 seconds, plus Bulb. Its match-needle manual metering is a sophisticated, center weighted, silicon photodiode system. Mirror lock up, depth of field preview and self timer rounded out its set of features.

The KX has center-weighted match-needle metering and silicon photodiode meter cells, with aperture and shutter speeds displayed in the viewfinder. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It also has mirror lock up, depth of field preview and self timer.

The KM has center-weighted match-needle metering and less expensive Cadmium Sulfide meter cells. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It features only depth of field preview and self timer.

The K1000 has a simplified averaging match-needle meter and Cadmium Sulfide meter cells. The mechanical shutter has speeds from 1/1000 second to 1 second, plus Bulb. It has no other features, eliminating the KM's depth of field preview and self timer.

See the trend? Pentax simplified or eliminated features to reduce the model's cost. So, the K1000 must be the cheapie. Well that's strictly true, it misses the genius of the design. Yes, compared to the other models of Pentax camera, it's quite basic, if not downright spartan. But compared to other budget SLR camera is, it's a completely different story.

Many of the budget SLR cameras made by other companies feature self timers and sometimes depth of field preview, trading off build quality by using less costly parts.

More importantly, they have fewer shutter speeds -- often only 1/8 second to 1/500 second. Had a glance, this may not seem important, but it actually is. Fewer shutter speeds means that the camera can take photographs in fewer situations, within a more restricted range of lighting conditions. In other words, it's a less versatile camera as a result of having a more-limited range of shutter speeds.

In contrast, the K1000 gave up features that do not directly relate to its ability to take photographs in a wide range of lighting conditions and situations. Depth of field preview, mirror lock up, or a self timer are nice features to have, but they don't affect the range of lighting conditions that the camera can take photographs in. They're convenience features. The K1000 also does not sacrifice build quality.

The name is no mistake. K1000 was chosen to draw attention to what the designers felt was its most important feature: the 1/1000 second shutter speed.

At the time, a quality camera was assumed to have at least 1 second to 1/1000 second shutter speeds. A narrower range of shutter speeds denoted a lower quality camera. For example, a contemporary of the K1000, the Ricoh KR-5, features shutter speeds from only 1/8 to 1/500 second plus B. This limits its ability when compared to the K1000.

That's the hidden genius of the K1000. The "full range" of shutter speeds means it doesn't compromise what matters most: a very wide range of situations where it will take a usable photograph, unlike most other budget models. Dismissing it as a student camera is a mistake. It's the result of a series of choices to give photographers the minimum camera features that does not sacrifice photographic equality, only convenience. Keep in mind that many professional cameras of that time have the same set of features as a K1000, although in larger film formats.

So, a K1000 could arguably give you professional quality at a lower price point then other budget model SLR cameras. That was exactly my experience with the camera. I begin my professional career using a K1000, and other than the lack of status appeal or convenience features, it let me achieve truly professional quality. It was the only 35mm SLR camera in its price range that would have done so.

So, I see the K1000 not as a merely a student camera. I see it as a professional capable camera on a budget that gives up a little bit of convenience for overall excellent quality. It is the product of a great set of design choices, and overall, it's been my most favorite camera for the past 40-odd years.

Fast forward to 1997. Pentax had just discontinued the K1000 and the P30T. By then, Vivitar, Promaster and others had introduced less-expensive manual focus cameras that had more features than the K1000 with the same range of shutter speeds. The K1000, from a business point of view, had lost its edge. So Pentax decided to discontinue it. Similarly, the more-expensive manual focus P30T was also deemed not to be market competitive, and thus was also discontinued that same year.

Nevertheless, Pentax felt that they still needed a manual focus camera in their then-current MZ (ZX) camera line.

Why? Because manual focus cameras give the photographer a degree of creative control otherwise not available. Autofocus cameras, although convenient, sometimes do not place the point of focus at the best distance pictorially. Serious photographers almost always prefer manual focus.

So, they introduced the Pentax MZ-M as the sole manual focus camera. The camera was positioned as the worthy successor to the K1000. Operationally it was based on the MZ-5N/ZX-5N with a classic knob-based control layout. It retained the built-in autowinder, but not the LCD displays and pop-up flash. More advanced features were also omitted, such as the autofocus mechanism, exposure auto-bracketing and TTL flash control.

The result was a lightweight construction, achieved by making the lens mount ring of plastic and replacing the traditional solid glass pentaprism with a pentamirror viewfinder.

Critics, many who were accustomed to older brass-bodied cameras, derided the MZ-M as excessively cheapened, with a flimsy feel, especially because of the short-travel electronic shutter release button. Other criticisms included the slow, noisy autowinder; the plastic lens mount ring, and the painted finish that was not considered to be durable.

I have several criticisms of these criticisms. "Flimsy feel" is an opinion, one not shared by many I've spoken to about shooting the ZX-M. Yes, it does feel quite a bit different than traditional brass body cameras, but it's also quite a bit lighter. And that's a good thing.

The shutter release is comfortable. It works easily. It's very durable. The short push stroke of the shutter release button reduces the tendency to shake the camera at the moment you take the photograph. So, I actually see it as an advantage.

Autowinders, usually, are by their nature noisy and slower than motor drives. The Pentax Winder ME-II for my ME Super is just as noisy and no one was complaining about its noise back then.

There is a tendency to react to plastic as being a material used in cheap products. And, most of it is. But, some plastics are just as strong as metal, if not more so. Pentax chose a very strong plastic for the lens mount ring. It's just as strong as a metal one, it's just as precision made, it works just as well, and it's just as hard to break. So what's the problem? I don't see any.

Camera finishes do get scratched and can look tatty over time. It doesn't matter if it's a cheap camera, or the most expensive camera, if the camera is used often, it's finish will become marred. So, it is no surprise that the Pentax MZ-M's finish is subject to damage. It's inevitable. Also, it's not a fair criticism.

The Pentax MZ-M it's not a cheaply made, stripped down, budget camera. It's a lightweight, precision made, very convenient manual focus camera. The built-in autowinder is a nice amenity that was an expensive option many years ago.

The Pentax MZ-M would make a nice introduction to film photography for those who presently are using digital cameras. It features DX film speed coding, which prevents mistakenly setting the proper film speed. The viewfinder is bright, making manual focusing easy. Three exposure modes (metered manual, aperture priority autoexposure and programmed autoexposure) increase the versatility of the camera. The built-in autowinder with automatic film rewind improves its ease-of-use.

Best of all, the Pentax MZ-M's light weight means you'll be more willing to carry it with you everywhere you go. The more often you carry a camera, the more opportunities you have to take a great photograph. It's been said, "the best camera is the one that's with you." The Pentax MZ-M could be that camera.