Pentax LX Camera Review – The Best Professional 35mm SLR Around

I’ve spent the past few months shooting an amazing and beautiful 35mm film SLR from Japan. This camera has it all – a complete system with detachable prisms, backs, winders, focusing screens, choice of attachable handles, and even limited releases in Titanium. Most important among these accoutrements are the ones containing glass – the camera couples with a complete range of lenses capable of unsurpassed image quality in their price point.

It’s a well-made camera, robust and ergonomically excellent, and it’s beautiful to look at. If it’s not the best professional SLR I’ve ever shot, it’s certainly in the conversation. Any guesses? Nikon F3? Canon F-1? Nope. It’s the Pentax LX, and that’ll surprise some of you. While the popular opinion that the K1000 is the best student camera ever made has become consensus, when it comes to professional-spec cameras, Pentax has largely failed to earn the high reputation enjoyed by its more well-known Japanese rivals.

But does any of that matter? Okay, it’s a less popular camera. Who cares? Not me. And that’s because I spent the final three months of 2016 shooting the LX, and came away feeling that it’s the best 35mm film SLR system camera around. But this can’t be true, can it? The best 35mm SLR system? Surely I’m just hyping this thing up for the sake of an article. Surely the continuous screaming of my two-week-old daughter has addled my sleep-starved brain to the point where I can no longer compose a viable opinion based on fact. Surely I’m an idiot. After all, if the LX were really this good, wouldn’t we all be subject to a sickening abundance of LXs populating the hippest Instagrams and photo geek blogs, a la the AE-1s and F3s of the world?

While I admit I’m certainly sleep-deprived, and though I may be an idiot (depending on my wife’s mood when you ask her), I can still write a cohesive theme. And believe it or not, it’s true – the Pentax LX is better than any pro-spec SLR that I’ve used from rival brands Canon and Nikon. But before you join the chorus of nay-sayers, there are real reasons I hold the opinion. Let’s talk about those.

Professional system cameras are typically heavy and large. They’re designed this way, ostensibly, in the pursuit of durability. A big, heavy camera can take a greater thumping than a lightweight machine, so the story goes. And while the truth of this can be endlessly debated (our upcoming durability test video will settle that score), it’s a bit irrelevant today. Most film shooters in 2017 aren’t using their cameras in war zones or aboard the lunar orbiter. We’re using them to shoot our every-day lives, and while durability is important it shouldn’t come at the cost of a neck-ache and excess travel weight.

But don’t assume that because I say we’re not using these cameras in rough service that I’m making excuses for the LX. I’m not, and I don’t need to. This machine is as robust as any ever made. With full-metal internal construction and metal top and bottom plates, the LX is strong, durable, and reliable. But unlike its competition, it’s also amazingly compact and light. At just 570 grams (20 ounces), it’s about 200 grams lighter than the F3 and about 400 grams lighter than the Canon F-1. Its physical dimensions buck the trend of “bigger is better” too, with a footprint that’s closer to a pocket machine than the pro-spec weapons it rivals. This combination of small size and light weight make it one of the best choices for people looking for an everyday camera, for shooters who travel, or for those who need to shoot the streets with subtlety.

Not content to simply meet the durability standard of its rivals, Pentax pushed further. The brand’s literature of the time boasts of reliability features that its rivals lacked. With full weather- and dust-sealing built in to every button, dial, lever, and switch, it’s a camera that provides the kind of internal protection that no other maker was offering at the time. Further longevity concerns were met at even the cosmetic level, with the body of the camera being coated in black chrome underneath black paint. This was to ensure that as the paint wore from heavy use, the camera would remain a shadowy silhouette. Sorry, steampunk enthusiasts. No brass here.

I think you’ve gotten the point by now. The LX is a tiny camera in a strong package. But just in case you’re unconvinced, let’s pepper you with a few more reliability features – the shutter is mechanical, operating at all speeds faster than 1/60th without the need for battery power. The shutter curtain is a Titanium foil construct. The strap lugs and handle mount are virtually indestructible. And if all this isn’t enough, there are even two special editions featuring Titanium body covers.

You may assume that this strength and portability comes at a cost, that perhaps the camera lacks certain specs that the other makers’ pro-spec models boast. You’d be wrong. The LX’s spec-sheet is as good as those flaunted by Canon and Nikon models of the era. The shutter is capable of speeds as fast as 1/2000th of a second, same as the F3 and F-1 from Nikon and Canon respectively and excellent for those of us who love using fast glass. It’s got a depth-of-field preview lever, self-timer, mirror lock-up, exposure compensation dial, ten replaceable focusing screens, nine optional prisms, and all the rest that you’d expect from a full-featured machine. Yes, the LX packs the same performance as its competition into a tighter body, and in some instances it even offers more.

Some examples of where it beats the rest? Out in the field, when your battery dies, the LX will operate across five shutter speeds, whereas Nikon’s F3 will shoot only one mechanical speed. And compared to the pro-sec F-1, the LX provides the ability to shoot in aperture-priority auto-exposure mode, something the manual-only Canon lacks. And this is a biggie. Auto-exposure is huge, and aperture-priority is the best. This shooting mode allows the photographer to control the aperture of the lens (and by extension, deth-of-field and subject isolation) while leaving the task of selecting the correct shutter speed up to the camera. In this mode, the through-the-lens, off-the-film metering system works beautifully to create perfect exposures every time, and it’s my preferred method of shooting. Nikon’s F3 offers this, but it does so in a much larger and heavier package.

The viewfinder is large, bright, and fully informed. When shooting in manual mode, the user-selected shutter speed is displayed via a needle and gauge, and unlike many cameras, the Pentax also displays the recommended shutter speed based on real-time light readings via a set of multi-colored LEDs. This is fantastic and superior to so many other cameras because when shooting manually it takes only a simple glance to see how your current settings will impact your final exposure. At the top of the viewfinder we find a display of the selected lens aperture. This combination of information and real-time readouts allows the photographer to compose a shot, adjust for exposure, focus, and shoot, all without removing the camera from the eye. Essentially, the LX’s viewfinder is perfect.

Perfect too are the camera’s ergonomics. With or without the optional handles, it fits in the hand confidently and rests with a nice balance that some of its heavier, brickier rivals can’t match. All controls (but one) are relegated to the right hand side of the machine, and all can be actuated with fingers in their natural rest positions. The previously mentioned mirror lock-up, depth-of-field preview lever, and self-timer switch are all ingeniously integrated into the same, single switch. And though this description sounds complicated and obtuse, in use it’s quite intuitive, especially considering the lever will mostly be used as a stop-down lever with the secondary functions being used rarely, if at all.

There’s a shutter lock surrounding the release button, selected with a quick flick of a finger, that prevents any accidental exposures and battery drain. A threaded cable release socket exists in the center of this take-a-picture button, and the shutter speed selector is exactly where you’d expect it, actuating with just the right amount of resistance.

Exposure compensation is handled on the left side of the top plate, integrated into the ISO selector knob, film back opener, and rewind lever. Standard stuff, and the only annoyance on the entire machine given that the exposure comp is a locking affair. This bothers me. Call it a pet peeve, but I detest control locks.

Shooting the LX is about as straight-forward as any exceptional SLR gets. Peer through the viewfinder, frame your shot, focus, and shoot. What’s special about the LX is just how well it does everything involved in this process. It’s about as concise and precise an SLR as you’ll ever find. It’s got everything you need, without overcomplicating things, which is and has always been the hallmark of timeless design. Equally special is the feeling it communicates in the hands, of being constantly ready for any situation, and of being able to surreptitiously shoot the streets without drawing attention. It’s a camera that’s the quintessence of what a great camera should be – a machine that facilitates the craft and gets out of the way of making great images.

And the images made with it can indeed be great, thanks to that gorgeous, metal mount poised on the nose of the machine. It accepts all of Pentax’s K mount lenses, which have long been regarded by those in-the-know as some of the best in the business. The brand’s SMC glass (super multi-coated) is among the very best at solving chromatic aberration, flares, and ghosting, and does remarkably well to coax out the very best color and contrast from the world around us. I’ve never shot a Pentax lens I don’t love, and with an astounding range of focal lengths and designs there’s something in the K mount for every shooter’s needs.

And that’s about all you need to know about the LX. It’s an advanced and astounding camera that’s simply better than the more popular competition. It’s small, capable, precise, and beautiful. It’s durable, reliable, and reasonably-priced. It may not have been as popular as competing models from other brands, but those who bothered to notice were keenly aware of its excellence.

Proof of this fact can be gleaned from the stunning duration of the machine’s production. For a miraculous twenty-one years, from 1980 to 2001, this camera could be purchased new. Take a moment and imagine another tool or gadget that’s just as effective and attractive in 2001 as it was in 1980. Your computer? Your car? And for that matter, think about whether or not your latest digital camera will have the staying power of the Pentax? If that matters to you, and if having the best matters to you, give the LX a shot. I can nearly guarantee you’ll love it.

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34 Comments

  • Reply
    Stu Williams
    February 19, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Very nicely done

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      February 19, 2017 at 8:37 pm

      Thanks pal. It’s easy to write a love letter when a camera’s this good.

      • Reply
        Stu Williams
        February 19, 2017 at 8:41 pm

        Not so easy that everyone has a site this good… nice work

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    February 19, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    Good review. Nice photos. Typo in this sentence “Standard stuff, and the only annoyance eon the entire machine given that the exposure comp is a locking affair.”?

  • Reply
    Mike R
    February 19, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    Well done. I find it amazing–given the short lifespan of modern digital cameras–that the LX, like the Nikon F3, was produced for 21 years.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      February 19, 2017 at 10:47 pm

      I know. It’s amazing.

      • Reply
        jeffwalin
        February 20, 2017 at 3:28 am

        Back in the days when image quality wasn’t tied to the camera body! You could use better film and lenses…not so with digital….it’s designed obsolescence.

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    February 20, 2017 at 2:42 am

    There is a very rare edition, the black painted titanium body camera, with “Titanium” inscribed on the front. Regrettably for LX aficionados, they are megabucks as only 300 made, of which how many survive?

  • Reply
    Huss
    February 20, 2017 at 3:43 am

    Sweet camera. And if it suffers from the sticky mirror syndrome Eric Hendrickson is the go to dood for Pentax LX repairs.

  • Reply
    Mike
    February 20, 2017 at 9:54 am

    Great, another Pentax for me to hunt. Thanks for the great review. While I tend towards the Pentax since the ME has been my guide to my reintroduction to film. I love the brand and the fact I can snag pro level kit for a 1/10 of the cost of the big boys.

  • Reply
    JR Smith
    February 20, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    I just picked up one of these. Anxious to give it a test drive!

  • Reply
    Nigel
    February 20, 2017 at 3:28 pm

    Wishing I hadn’t read this, Looks like I’m gonna have to buy one!

  • Reply
    Rob Studdert
    February 20, 2017 at 7:58 pm

    I still have two LX bodies, both fitted with the superb SE-60 full matt screens, great machines and I have owned at least one continuously since the late 80’s. The standard finder is still one of the best I have ever used but I also have the complete set of finders, they enhancevthe system further and offer extreme flexibility. The real time OTF metering is amazing, from the range of exposure times to the minimum sensitivity I think it’s still unrivaled.

    One error in you description, the top plates and base aren’t chrome plated, they are simply pressed aluminum alloy, one of mine is work quite a way into the metal revealing the classic aluminum lustre.

    Cheers

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      February 20, 2017 at 8:00 pm

      That’s really interesting actually. The Pentax literature from the factory says that the units were black chrome plated underneath black paint, but yours clearly are not. So I wonder if perhaps some design changes occurred in the 21 years the camera was being manufactured. I’d love to get the answer. Thanks for the insight.

  • Reply
    yashicachris
    February 21, 2017 at 5:45 pm

    Great post and fantastic review! I’m thinking you “like” the camera a lot. Interesting about the unique way of painting the LX. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything in writing by Yashica or Canon about their paint jobs. Good stuff!

  • Reply
    dangerouschristian
    February 25, 2017 at 1:11 am

    Great write up on a classic. That was one of my dream cameras back in the 80s. I had its younger brother, the ME Super.

  • Reply
    cariadus
    February 25, 2017 at 6:13 am

    I think the OM-4ti might run it close, though. It’s also small, light, strong and has great ergonomics. OK, so the Olympus doesn’t have an interchangeable viewfinder and only 1/60th if your battery dies, but what it lacks there it more than makes up for with its wonderful metering system and, of course, the great range of Zuiko glass.

  • Reply
    Johnny
    February 26, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    I just discovered this fantastic site which I’m enjoying browsing. Anyway what a great article. I have never contemplated a Pentax and wasn’t really aware of the LX only having come across the MX in passing. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether to supplement my FE/FM2n/F4 collection and build up a second system. Great work!

  • Reply
    Lazar
    March 1, 2017 at 7:49 pm

    After having used not so great cameras Yashica Electro 35 GSN and Nikon F601M I decided to up my game, and recently bought Pentax LX, so I’ll add my 2 cents. In a set with SMC Pentax M 50mm/f1.7, SMC Pentax A 35-105mm/f3.5 and a leather case for 300 euros, I think I got a decent deal.

    It’s really a great camera, just feels solid in hands and in operation. Just the right size, small weight, add a normal lens to it and you’ve got a great camera you can carry around everywhere. Any smaller and it wouldn’t feel right, at least not for people with large hands like myself.

    Rewind crank works beautifully, (orange) shutter cocked indicator is a nice and thoughtful extra touch. Shutter curtain has a nice sound and feel to it, mirror flip is not to loud. You can shift shutter speed dial with just your index finger. My example has very clean interiors, so luckily no sticky mirror problem (yet).

    Regarding viewfinder, I’d say it’s a nice solution. There are some issues in low light and extreme brightness. In low light situations it can get hard to see selected aperture and shutter speed, so it’s a good idea to use Aperture priority mode, and just change aperture until the green LED appears, that is if your shooting hand-held. I suppose it’s a better solution that with classic match-needle meters, such as in Nikon FE2, which is a comparable camera in many aspects. In a really bright sunlight, on the other hand, it can get tricky to see LEDs.

    There are two flaws (at least to me) worth mentioning to anyone who’s thinking about buying one:

    – No AE lock button. If you’ve already implemented Aperture priority mode, why not include AE lock? It can be a useful tool.

    – Max flash sync speed of 1/75s.

    Those two are about the only shortcomings I can think of from my limited experience with LX.

    I’m very pleased with the photos I got so far, so I would say these two Pentax lenses are great.

    I would very much like to get a custom hand grip, if I can find it at a decent price. It doesn’t have to be original Pentax. Anyone knows where to get one in Europe? And people who used LX with and without a grip can compare experiences, to see if it’s worth tracking down in the first place.

    Great review, great camera and a great site you’ve got here!

    • Reply
      photodesignch2
      July 10, 2017 at 5:33 pm

      It was really a design choice. They went for bunch off film plate for real time metering, which means while you are exposing a shot, whatever reflects from the film plate would determine the final timer for shutter to close. For this reason, the metering system is somewhat automatic and change any given second. So you can’t really lock the AE even you want to. Otherwise it defeated the purpose of having a real time metering.

      It’s good and bad. Good is this LX will meter down to minutes even hours for long time exposure (compare to modern camera can only meter up to 30 seconds). The bad is, no AEL

  • Reply
    Bas
    March 7, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Great review, I own both LX and OM-4Ti but tomorrow the LX will be sold to a new owner. I agree it is a very, very nice camera and I might regret selling it later, but I like the OM-4Ti just a little more and don‘t want to have to choose between the two when going out with a ‘pro’ camera anymore… it has been a luxury problem though, and I’m sure the new owner will enjoy using it.

    For my Pentax lenses I’m going to use the K2 instead, it was the topmodel of the K line (KM, KX, K2) and produced just before the LX started its career. Although the LX has a bigger and brighter viewfinder, the viewfinder of that K2 is actually quite a lot sharper and that makes focussing very easy. No titanium shutter but a Seiko one also sounds like quality doesn’t it? Recommended for review 🙂

  • Reply
    Bas
    March 8, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    Correction: the 5-bladed shutter (developed in conjunction with Seiko) is made of titanium too, mea culpa.

  • Reply
    spacecats
    March 10, 2017 at 3:20 am

    hmm…I’m looking for a fully manual camera that’s fairly small and doesn’t cost too much (I’m on a budget being a student and all) and I think this might be it…how quiet is it? and do you have any recommendations? I know I’m in that part of a beginner photographers life but I can’t help it;)

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      March 10, 2017 at 8:12 am

      There are so many to choose from. The Olympus OM1 or OM2 will be less expensive than this LX. You can also look at Minolta X series cameras and Canon’s A1. We’ve reviewed them all, so poke around the site and see what strikes you.

      Thanks!

    • Reply
      Peter Boorman
      July 20, 2017 at 9:21 am

      The LX isn’t particularly loud, but its titanium foil shutter does have quite a high pitched ‘ping’ sound, which can carry. If you want a quiet shutter in a manual camera, I’d look at the Pentax MX, which has a very quiet (by focal plane standards) shutter with silk curtains. I love the LX (I used to travel with three, sometimes four, of them at a time) but when I need an SLR that is a bit quieter, the MX is my firm first choice. The MX shutter is all mechanical, so the only bit of it that’s battery dependent is the meter: you still get all the shutter speeds even then the battery dies.

  • Reply
    muzzfuzz59
    July 29, 2017 at 1:18 am

    I am very interested in this camera and really enjoyed this summary of its fine attributes. I have a Pentax K1000 (dad’s after he died), a Minolta X-570 (my “grown-up” camera, the camera I used when I left behind a 1959 Aires Viscount rangefinder that overlapped images), but like the size and sophistication of this LX. I wanted to ask if there was a particular era within its run that is considered best, or in other words an era to avoid? I saw one offering that had colour dials, and wondered if this was a latter-day change that suggested a bad era, or mere cosmetic change that meant nothing but colour where most did not have it, and that was all.

  • Reply
    Neven Falica
    September 1, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    Damn, now I want the LX. And I already have three MXes and a MZ-S. 😀

  • Reply
    Jon
    September 21, 2017 at 9:16 am

    Well, James you are so right. I picked one of these up and shot a few rolls with the cheap 40mm pancake lens. This Pentax-skeptic is a convert.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      September 21, 2017 at 9:24 am

      Great camera, right? I’m glad you like it.

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