First Look
Pentax MZ S

With the new six-point (wide area) focus detection sensor of the MZ-S, off-center framing was quick and convenient, useful in action photography. Though not intended for professional sports photography, the continuous/predictive AF system and 2.5 fps film advance should satisfy photo enthusiasts. (FA 80-200mm f/2.8 IF ED zoom; f/5.6; evaluative metering at +1 EV exposure compensation; Kodak Elite Chrome 100.)
Photos © 2001, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

After testing many new Pentax autofocus SLR cameras, I jumped at the chance to work with the new flagship of the line, the MZ-S. The small and lightweight (18.3 oz) magnesium alloy body offers a handsome rounded style and the overall look of a high-precision instrument. (Full Specs are available on the web at and in Shutterbug's Photography Buyer's Guide 2001.) It sports a unique set of controls, both analog and electronic, a circular LCD panel, and a top deck that's slanted toward the user for greater convenience. The unusual switches and dials will satisfy traditionalists, but they're not as quick to operate as the more typical mode selector and command dials of some cameras. Because some controls are unique to this model, a study of the Instruction Manual is essential.

At the time of my tests, the AF360FGZ flash unit was not yet available, but the older AF500FTZ model produced pleasing results with the MZ-S. With the additional capabilities possible with the FGZ flash, more professional lighting effects will be possible. (FA 24-90mm zoom; +0.5 EV exposure compensation; Fujichrome Provia 100F.)

This model's primary upgrades include the more sophisticated SAFOX VII autofocus system with six (vs. one as in previous) focus detection sensors. They're sensitive to both vertical and horizontal lines and any single sensor can be user-selected if desired. I certainly found the new system preferable for off-center compositions and its predictive AF system was successful in tracking parade participants and groups of BMX--at the 2.5 fps film advance rate--unless they were moving at erratic speeds. Although the camera does not have a focus-assist lamp, AF performance in dark conditions was highly impressive.

Other new features include a higher top shutter speed of 1/6000 sec, full shooting data imprinting outside the image area, automatic return to the correct frame when re-loading a partially exposed roll of film, 19 Pentax Functions to extensively customize the camera, plus the wider coverage (suitable for a 24mm lens) of the versatile built-in flash unit.

My new six-point autofocus system of the Pentax MZ-S prodicted instant focus even with off-center subjects but also allowed me to select any single ficus detection sensor for precise focus on a specific area.

With the new AF360FGZ flash unit (Guide Number 119 in feet), additional capabilities can be accessed: advanced P-TTL flash metering, wireless off-camera TTL flash, plus high-speed sync. The standard top sync speed is 1/180 sec. The new flash unit was not yet available at the time of my tests, but I got beautiful results with the older AF500FTZ. Of course, the newer model will be preferable because of its extra features, including flash exposure compensation control; the latter should be useful outdoors for reducing flash output for more subtle effects than with automatic fill flash. With the AF360FGZ, the MZ-S will be capable of achieving any effect the photographer envisions; hopefully, Pentax will offer FGZ flash units with even higher output in the future.

Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. I shot from another boat and used a walkie-talkie to direct this boat into position. I used two filters--an 85B warming and a graduated color, red to orange, on my 35-70mm Nikkor zoom. Like all the photos here, it was taken with my F4.

With the evaluative metering system, my slides were well exposed except in high contrast lighting and with light-toned subjects. Then, a +0.5 or +1 exposure compensation setting was useful, as with many other such systems. For greater personal control, I preferred spot metering a mid tone in any scene. Of course, the MZ-S offers a full set of options, overrides, plus Manual mode, allowing an experienced photographer to achieve exactly the intended exposure.

Also unique to Pentax, the Hyper Shift concept is interesting. In Program mode, the camera automatically switches to Shutter Priority AE mode if you rotate the input dial; to return to fully programmed operation, press the reset button. The same concept follows in Aperture Priority mode, too, accessed by switching the lens aperture ring from the "A" position to any f/stop. As soon as you rotate the input dial, the camera switches to Manual mode and you must set the correct combination of aperture/shutter speed for accurate exposure.