Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pentax MX-1 Review

Pentax MX-1 Review
June 2013, Carl Garrard
Pentax has been out of the enthusiast compact fixed/lens camera market for quite some time now. The last "serious" enthusiast fixed lens compact from Pentax that I recall came in the form of the Optio 750Z, which was introduced sometime around 2004. That's some hiatus. With a surge of entry level compact sales going to camera phones instead, it's time for manufacturers to knock the dust off of serious designs and cater more than ever to enthusiasts. The MX-1 offers many modern features on paper with a unique flair of style that harkens back to its 35mm film glory days. It's nice to see Pentax enter the enthusiast compact market again, albeit a  pretty crowded one.

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Pentax MX-1 Review-About the MX-1

The MX-1 is a 12mp digital camera with a fixed 28-112mm f/1.8-f/2.5 lens (same spec lens as the Olympus XZ-2) capable of 1cm macro focusing distance. It's sensor is manufactured to spec by Sony (designed by Pentax, silicon by Sony), and is the larger 1 1/7" size. A wide ISO range of 100-12,800 are all available in raw format (unlike what Fuji do, for example).

Here is the cockpit. Lots of controls here, most of what you need. Buttons are a bit small but raised high and click nicely.

It's also got a lot more to offer such as full 1280p HD video, a tiltable 3" 920K dot LCD screen, a hidden pop up flash unit, digital level gauges, HDR capability, custom memory modes, digital filter options, electronic shutter (which brings the max shutter speed to 1/8000th of a second), dedicated AF assist lamp, and last but not least fully automatic settings for the beginner. There is more of course but that covers the main specs. Oh wait, it has brass upper and lower frame casings, how could I forget that?

Slick flash that pops up pretty high.
The pop up flash is pretty powerful and helps keep red eye to a minimum. It sits a bit higher than some enthusiast compacts I've used in the last year or so and that does help things a bit. You can't tilt it back to bounce of the ceiling though, perhaps Pentax can design the next camera to do so? This would give the flash a lot more versatility to those in the know. You know? I do like that the flash release is on the left side of the camera which is intuitively released with the left thumb as you hold the MX-1.

Not much here but speaker holes and the flash switch.

Pentax MX-1 Review- MX-1 Field Use

The MX-1 is my first Pentax enthusiast compact. I never got to try the Optio 750Z out, but, I've used a great number (if not all) of Pentax's DSLRs and have grown very accustomed to the menu system and features that Pentax puts in their cameras. Getting to know the MX-1 was therefore very easy for me not only because of my familiarization with Pentax in general but because the MX-1 isn't nearly as loaded with customization options as I assumed it would. Also, its menu system looks very similar to Pentax DSLRS. The menu system is very easy to use- it's logical and customizes to your needs. I set up the MX-1 to my preferences in about 15 minutes time no kidding.

A solid hinged door houses a mini HDMI port and a USB port.

My first impressions of the MX-1 were mixed, but sometimes cameras can grow on me a bit. Lets start with the good stuff though. The MX-1 has ample space for both hands which is somewhat unique for compacts, it's built well, it looks really nice, and has lots of external controls. I'd call the MX-1 a boxy and practical camera wrapped in a gorgeous exterior. Size wise, it's roughly the same size as many of the mirrorless camera bodies out there, minus their lenses.

Nicely organized top panel. Oops, someone forgot the hot shoe. Also the LCD screen would be best served flush to the rear of the body, yet is easy to grab- pick your poison. The EV dial and rear control wheel fall very quickly to hand. The power button is raised and makes for easy on/off even in darkness. The Video button is flush- see how Pentax thinks? No confusing one with the other this way.
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Powering on the MX-1 is intuitively quick and also very quiet. The LCD screen is very bright, clear, and has wide ranging contrast. In the sun or shade you shouldn't have any issue using it. If you get glare, just tilt it a bit- works like a charm. Using the tilt LCD with the MX-1 for some time helped the camera grow on me greatly. It's small quirks were almost a non-issue for me by the end of my review period with this camera mainly because of its LCD.

Battery life is just fine hovering in the realm of about 275shots per charge depending greatly on how you use it. Can get a bit more, can certainly have less. For the size of the MX-1 the smaller size of the battery just doesn't seem to fit the bulk of the camera. The MX-1 gives you the impression a big fat battery would fit in that body.

Pentax MX-1 Review- Conclusion
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AF assist lamp/IR controller pick up and of course that big bright lens.

Lets cut right into the chase here. I like the MX-1, I really do. It can be a bit quirky though in its  handling and overall design. But its the kind of quirky you end up liking after some use. Somehow though, I know Pentax can do a bit better on its external design with say, an MX-2 if they so choose to make one. Pentax cameras have a reputation for being progressively better as each iteration is introduced- relying heavily on customer feedback to shape future models.

This is huge and is one of my favorite traits about Pentax.

That said, coming from Pentax I'm not accustomed to the lack of customization or the couple of ergonomic quirks that the MX-1 exhibits. They've got it mostly right though, which is more than I can say for some manufacturers. Let me be more specific though.

I would have liked the LCD screen to be flush. It also somehow doesn't cohesively fit into the MX-1's classic heritage styled exterior. Doing so would give the user more space for the thumb to rest more comfortably, and for controls to be repositioned just slightly enough to make a big overall difference in handling (for me).  The strap lugs would be much better off being flush mounted to the body as well. As is, one of them digs into my shooting hand a bit which is a little pet peeve of mine. I learned to change my shooting style a bit to accommodate the MX-1, but that's not a solution I prefer to present.

Otherwise the camera  has a very nice fit and finish. It sports a comfortable rubber that surrounds the front and right side rear of the camera. The buttons are all large and raised enough for fast control, and dials feel just fine/just right.  The external controls that are available are ones used most often, and the info screen mode takes care of any that aren't dedicated to a hard point.

Overall image quality is extremely good for raw files. I've  nothing to complain about there for a sensor of this size. I like that DNG files are standard too, its a great move from Pentax to do this with all thier cameras that have raw capability. That said lets talk about Jpeg quality. Not having control over noise reduction for Jpegs simply limits the amount of use enthusiasts will give them. This is a shame because of all the cool digital filter options this camera has that would be better off without noise reduction. 

Also, it's not customary of Pentax at all to do that, it's very much out of the norm for them and left me scratching my head. But I don't want to obsess over that too much. Jpeg quality otherwise is very good, lots of dynamic range, excellent color, nice gradation transitions and plenty of detail in the lower ISO settings. For higher ISO settings although NR is standard, I've seen many more manufacturers be much more heavy handed than Pentax is with the MX-1. Because I hold Pentax so high in terms of expectations for its enthusiasts, lack of NR just stood out more than normal.

My plea is for Pentax to offer firmware updates for this camera adding NR control (with an off setting), and longer Bulb exposure times if possible. There are many things to like about the MX-1 and certainly you can get along perfectly well without those items- but it would make a very good camera even better.

There are lots of other things to like about the MX-1, starting with its lens and its macro capability. You can also shoot in very low light due to its excellent raw capability, quick autofocus, and fast bright lens. It also helps you control depth of field more than usual for a compact and that gives it a high creativity factor for me.  It's video is implemented well and stays out of the way for the still shooter but within easy reach when needed. Watching some home made videos on my big screen was quite pleasurable to say the least.

Bottom line here, the MX-1 is a camera that continued to grow on me, and I'll be sad to send it back to Pentax. At first theMX-1 didn't pull at me to use it much, but the more I started shooting with it (using my photographer brain) the more I started to like it. When I wasn't trying to be a critical camera reviewer I really enjoyed photographing with the MX-1. And that alone should speak for itself.

Be safe and happy shooting!
-Carl Garrard

This is how you help!

I'm only left with one question. Silver or black model? Hmmm!

Pentax MX-1 Review- Pros
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  • Raw Image quality is about the best I've seen for a 1 1/7" sized sensor from any manufacturer
  • Bright and sharp lens, good useful range, great macro capability, very low distortions of any kind- a real cracker!
  • Raw available through entire ISO range
  • DNG raw files 
  • Handsome looks (especially the silver, I mean the black.. no, I mean the silver....)
  • Exotic materials for a mass produced camera (brass, who uses brass anymore?)
  • Variable LCD is very crisp, and is versatile for low and high angle shots (also helps to eliminate background glare)
  • Quick and accurate auto focus, even in low light (impressive actually)
  • Video button does not intrude on important still photograph controls (thank you Pentax!)
  • Electronic shutter allows max shutter speed to decrease to 1/8000th of a second (max mechanically is 1/2000th)
  • Excellent auto white balance, hardly touched my kelvin slider in ACR! Extremely good!
  • Front and rear IR pickups for the wireless controller (should be standard on ALL serious cameras, but alas is not).
  • Internal 3 stop ND filter cannot be overstated!
  • Digital levels (axis and rotation)
  • Shake Reduction is very good (sensor based, setting based, or both at the same time) 
  • Fun film simulation/art filter modes
  • In camera raw development options
  • Comes with a printed full size manual (amazing!) 
  • Decent battery life considering the size of it 

Pentax MX-1 Review- Cons
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  • Right strap lug digs a bit into the right middle finger when shooting one handed
  • Thumb sits on control wheel/LCD screen, it's a bit cramped
  • LCD screen/frame slightly bulky
  • No NR options for Jpeg (although light handed well balanced NR applied)
  • EV dial could have wider range
  • Menu not as comprehensive as Pentax users are accustomed too in the DSLRS
  • Separate Bulb exposure feature only takes 30 second max exposures (with or without electronic shutter)
  • No TAV mode for Pentax users
  • Design feels a bit "first timer" compared to some other brands 
  • No filter threads or hot shoe
  • No finder option
  • Tad slow for shot to shot raw shooting

Pentax MX-1 Review- Image Samples and Analysis

ISO-1600 Portrait (ACR converted) (only chroma NR applied)
ISO 100 Sunset- ACR converted and adjusted, no NR (lots of DR available for highlights and shadows)
ISO 100 portait, tons of detail, blurred background, no NR applied, ACR converted
Low light 12,800 ISO ACR converted. Chroma NR only (20 on the slider) Good beer too.
Low Light 6,400 ISO ACR converted. Chroma NR only (20 on slider) Still a good beer
Low Light 3,200 ISO ACR converted. Chroma NR only (20 on slider) Beer all gone
Macro full telephoto (I prefer shooting macro at 112mm)


  1. i'm way curious *if* the Nikon Coolpix P330 isn't better in RAW IQ terms, Carl.
    Can you please review the P330 also?

    With kind regards,

  2. If Nikon sends me one I'll consider it.