Why A Pentax Espio Should Be Top Of Your Compact Film Camera Wishlist

My gradual shift from shooting film to digital was motivated by a number of factors, but a significant one was the size and weight of cameras.

The digital compacts I favour these days give me results that are more than good enough, with the bonus of being very small and light.

I can walk for two or three hours with them in my hand and on a wrist strap and barely know they are there.

During my film days I was no stranger to compact cameras either. 

Travelling light and shooting simply has been an enduring theme for me.

Looking back over the hundreds of film cameras I’ve owned, the 35mm film compacts that offered the best combination of performance, value, reliability and fun, were the Pentax Espio range (known as IQZoom in some territories).

Given the ridiculous prices of some of the over hyped film compacts these days – I’ve recently seen examples of the Olympus Mju II go for up to £350, and even the Mju Zooms you could barely give away five years ago are going for £150-175 or more – I wanted to shine the light on what are still rather unsung heroes.

So to restore some balance and sanity and reassure anyone looking for a capable, fun and affordable 35mm film compact that they’re still available, here are some of my favourite models in the Pentax Espio range.

Any of these are well worth seeking out.

An added plus is that because they were a relatively late range of film cameras (they began in the early 90s but the later models continued until 2003 I believe) they are likely to be in better working condition than some of the earlier 80s and 90s compact often talked about too.

Let’s begin.

Pentax Espio 120Mi (1999)

The first zoom compact I owned – and one of the very first 35mm cameras at all – was a Pentax Espio 120Mi, found in a charity shop for a few pounds.

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Compact (just 105mm wide), good handling with a rubber front grip, and all the functions you really need, including focus lock, infinity focus and flash disable.

As set the trend for pretty much all zoom cameras and lenses I’ve used since, I didn’t touch the zoom controls, which meant the 120Mi was for me essentially a 38mm prime lensed camera.

If you do like to zoom, this one goes to, yep, 120mm. Kudos to Pentax for naming most of their Espios (but not necessarily all – see below!) logically.

Other Espios have more functions (again, see below) but the 120Mi should meet most needs, and is one of the most compact.

As with all Espios, in the right conditions, it delivers an impressive photograph.

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How much?

Plenty have sold on eBay recently for under £15, the cheapest just £3.20, with two other cameras!

Pentax Espio 24EW (2002)

This is probably my favourite film compact I’ve used. Partly due to the classy slim aluminium body and quality feel, and partly for that 24mm lens.

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Pentax cameras for me always feel intelligently designed, by photographers, for photographers.

An excellent example here is that when you switch on the 24EW, the lens automatically extends to 35mm. Which is probably the most commonly used focal length for a compact camera.

You then have the option to zoom out further to that super wide (or Extra Wide) 24mm if and when you wish.

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As few of us would want to shoot at 24mm all the time, I found this an invaluable feature.

Most of the time I just forgot the zoom and treated it as a 35mm prime compact. Then when I felt the urge to go wide, it was right there at the push of the zoom rocker.

The 24EW also has a close focus of 0.3m at the wide end – closer than virtually all other film compacts – exposure compensation, and an array of bulb and times shutter modes that proved great for night photography.

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Being one of the last Espio models made, they’re still around in very good condition.

How much? 

Because of that unusually wide lens, these tend to fetch more than other more standard zoom Espios. That said, one sold recently for only £26, and another £45 Buy It Now, which is still a fraction of what the likes of the Mju zooms go for, and represents fantastic value. Be patient and you’ll find one at a sensible price.

Pentax Espio 928 (1994)

Not quite as wide as the 24EW, the Espio 928 still goes to 28mm, wider than most compact zooms.

This one will never win any awards for being tiny, but it’s still fine for a coat pocket or bag, or on a wrist strap, and handles well enough with its curvaceous front grip.

The 928 has more features than most, including focus lock, infinity focus, multiple exposure, various bulb modes, and exposure compensation.

I had great fun with the multiple exposures with the 928 especially.

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When shooting single exposures, the lens can really delight.

This following shot remains one of my favourite I’ve made with any compact camera.

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How much? 

Plenty on eBay for £15-20 Buy It Now and if you wait a while you’ll win an auction for even less.

Note the facelifted 928M isn’t quite the same and has fewer features, so make sure you go for the original Espio 928.

Pentax Espio AF Zoom (1992)

This Espio AF Zoom was one of the first in the Espio range I believe, but Pentax got it right very early on.

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I wrote about this in my recent round of my favourite bargain cameras, and there’s little to add except the Espio AF Zoom does all you need, starts at 35mm (a touch wider than the standard 38mm so many zoom compacts start at) and is one of the smallest Espios released.

Not being a fan of super zoom cameras, although I only used my AF Zoom at the widest 35mm, I like that it sticks to a sensible range of 35-70mm, meaning even at the longest end, you’re unlikely to get the kind of camera shake or deterioration in quality a zoom going to 120mm, 150mm or even longer will likely suffer.

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How much?

Not the most common, but I’ve seen them sell at £8.99 Buy It Now with free postage within the last month, and a handful of others well under £15. Tremendous value. Note there’s also the Espio Jr AF Zoom which appears to be virtually identical but the lens goes from 35-60mm rather than 70mm. Either model is well worth £10-15.

Pentax Espio 120SW (2001)

This one is from the same era as the 24EW, and is just as classy with its aluminium body and svelte figure.

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If you don’t need the extra width of the 24EW, and want something smaller and more luxurious than the 928, this could be the one for you.

Also being a late model like the 24EW it has all you need and more, including various AF, flash and timer modes.

Not much else to say, it’s probably the classiest and one of the best performing 28mm zoom compacts ever made.

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I got mine in a lot of 13 Pentax compacts, the best four are pictured above, including the 120SW. So it cost me about £1.

How much?

Plenty available Buy It Now for around £40-50, but I’ve seen auctions end at under £15, so again patience pays off. Even £40-50 for, as I said, possibly the best 28mm zoom compact ever made, it’s good value.

Pentax Espio 160

I wrote more extensively about the Espio 160 a few years back, where I christened it The Thinking Man’s Compact, so head there if you want the full lowdown.

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I would summarise this as probably the best equipped Espio I’ve used, including all the usual features plus clever additions like the smart mode dial, and the viewfinder changing as you change AF modes, or from standard 3:2 to panoramic perspective.

It isn’t the smallest – although not wide its depth makes it feel chunky overall, but it’s perfectly fine in a coat pocket or on a wrist strap.

If you want a high spec’d zoom that’s a joy to use and goes to 160mm, look no further.

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How much?

Plenty of these have gone for under £10 on eBay recently. I think because they look nothing special (unlike the handsome 24EW and 120SW) people think they’re far more basic than they are. Good news for you when you’re buying!

Other Espios worth considering

I’ve not really found an Espio I didn’t like in the perhaps 15 different models I’ve owned.

The Espio 115M (1996) is another favourite as it’s one of the smallest and cutest (genuinely one you can slip in a trouser, rather than coat, pocket), with all the essentials, and actually one of the fastest lens, with an f/3.9 max aperture at its widest 38mm.

If you need an even longer zoom than the 160, there’s the Espio 170SL (2001), which looks almost as classy as the 24EW and 120SW, even if it doesn’t quite feel as luxurious as those two.

Possibly the most unassuming and simple looking model is the Espio 140M (1998). It doesn’t have as much going on as the very late models, but still plenty for most needs, and again is a pretty small body. Cheap and plentiful too.

Which Espio is right for you? 

Because the whole range is very competent, making a choice from me would come down to lens, or rather zoom, requirements, and overall size.

If you love the idea of having an Extra Wide 24mm lens at your disposal, the choice is easy, the Espio 24EW.

If 28mm is enough for you, and you’re not bothered about looks or it being super compact, seek out a 928. For a classier 28mm option, the 120SW is the one.

Virtually all of the others start at 38mm (except the Espio AF Zoom at 35mm), so more important might be the tele end.

Personally I like compacts with 28 or 35mm lenses, and this has carried through to the digital compacts I love today.

I hardly ever zoom with a zoom lens.

Partly because the image quality lessens, partly because the lenses get slower (as in a smaller maximum aperture) the more you zoom, and partly because it’s much harder to keep the camera steady and ensure blur free photographs.

But if you do want a long zoom, start looking at the 140M, 160 or 170SL.

Hopefully this post has given you an overview of the Pentax Espio range, the sheer variety they offered, and some sample shots to show how they can perform. 

If you’d like further information, the Pentaxoda blog is an amazing resource. It also goes back further and includes the Espios’ predecessors, like the larger but still very capable Zoom 70 series.

Otherwise just keep your eye out in local charity shops, or head to eBay. I just searched for Espio, under £5 in the UK, and it returned 43 sold items in the last couple of months, the cheapest selling for a mere 6p (!) plus a few pounds postage!

A tip for UK readers, try searching eBay for “IQZoom”, there are a few imports around, and people looking for the Espio branded models will likely overlook them. Under the hood they’re the same cameras.

Have you had any of the Pentax Espio / IQZoom 35mm film cameras? If so, which would you recommend?

Please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

Thanks for looking. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too. If you’re interested, this is what I’m into right now.

17 thoughts on “Why A Pentax Espio Should Be Top Of Your Compact Film Camera Wishlist”

  1. After last week’s camera post I started looking at Espios on eBay and it looks like prices are creeping up on them here. If I wait patiently I might snag a good one for $30. I want one of the ones that starts in the 35-38mm zone, and I don’t care how much zoom it has. I want it to be on the svelte side among the ones you showed.

    1. That’s interesting, we don’t seem to have seen that price rise with Espios yet, despite the silly prices for the Olympus Mjus…

      I know I said I haven’t come across an Espio I didn’t like, but I think perhaps your IQZoom EZY might be one of the oldest and most basic.

      I can’t find much about it online. You mentioned it might be the 70-E in other markets, and there is an Espio 70, but that one looks very similar to the Espio AF Zoom I talked about above, not like your EZY.

      I’d love for you to get hold of one of those two classy late ones with the metal bodies, they’re quite probably the best built and most luxurious feeling compacts I’ve used.

      Both the 120Mi and 115M are little crackers too – plastic, but robust, and both quite small.

      As I said, any of the others above have decent build and feel too, I can’t recall any having a soft or vague shutter button. I think you just got unlucky and happened upon one of the few average Espio/IQZooms made!

      Hopefully you’ll give one of the above a try – I know you’re a Pentax lover generally!

  2. I don’t think I have ever shot with a Pentax film camera but I did use a few of their digital in the Optio range; I was very impressed with them; loved those cameras – macro on them was astounding.

    1. Thanks SilverFox, I’ll look out for an Optio perhaps for a future month of my One Month, One Camera project. I believe the Optio range were the digital successors to the Espio film cameras, so I’m sure Pentax took all the best parts of the Espios and added a sensor!

      1. I had a 550 and a 750z both were great and the super macro allowed you to get under 2cm (or an inch) from your subject!
        Only problem I had with the 550 was that I found that if you drop it onto a hard floor it generally stopped working 🙂

  3. Adding another comment as I always forget to tick the box 😀
    Looking back at some of the photos I took as a lad before I got ‘serious’ and got an SLR it is interesting how very good the quality of those images are; one wonders occasionally why we decided to complicate our lives so much by adding all that technical stuff. I guess we wanted control and options to capture the images we missed or didn’t quite nail because the focus went wrong or we couldn’t get close enough. Even back then before sensors came along (and this hasn’t really changed) a camera was a dark box with and adjustable whole that open and closes for a given amount of time; everything else is for our convenience really.
    (notification box ticked)

    1. Ha hs, I do try to remind people by saying “don’t forget to tick the box” at the end of each post…

      I think that the main reason any of us upgrade cameras (or anything else) is because we feel pressured to by the manufacturers/advertisers/photo reviews/our peers etc, that we need to have something supposedly better or our photos can’t possibly be any good…

      That and the planned obsolescence that all brands build in these days, changing formats for memory, leads, file types, batteries etc, so there comes a point we’re forced to upgrade.

      (One reason I love using 10 or 15 year old compacts is to rebel against this and prove you can still use old technology very easily…)

      1. Agreed that that pressure to upgrade is true now but I don’t remember that being the case back when I first went to SLR from a compact. The only advertising I remember (apart from in photo magazines) were adverts for things like the Olympus trip and such. I think there was just a general understanding that if your were ‘serious’ then you had to have an SLR

        1. Yeh an SLR back then was very different, you couldn’t do anything like as close focusing or shallow depth of field with a compact, they were very much point and shoot, even something like an Olympus XA.

          Even with film cameras though, you had the emergence of bridge cameras which, well, bridged the gap between compact and SLR.

          Thanks re the Optios, models noted, thank you. That does seem very unreasonable about non-resistance to dropping though. I dropped my K10D DSLR lens first from neck height and it survived with nothing but a mere dent on the lens’s filter ring (an A series 50/1.4 I’d just paid about £90 for!)…

          1. Yeah it happened twice, the 550 was knocked out of my hands and after that didn’t operate as the lens open/close mechanism failed; both were open and on when this happened so I guess the lens was vulnerable. Luckily for me my accidental damage cover on the house contents insurance covered the replacement ending up with the 750z the second time (technically and upgrade) as the 550 was no longer available.

          2. This reminds me of someone I knew who damaged his MacBook Pro (the screen I think) and wanted to replace it through home insurance.

            He decided he better make sure it was properly beyond repair before he sent it off, so tried all kinds of things like immersing it in water, coke, all sorts.

            But it just kept coming back to life, time and time again!

            He eventually left it soaking in something like orange juice overnight I think and it finally killed it off. After much red tape and dozens of phone calls he finally got a replacement.

            Great ad for the strength of Apple laptops though!

  4. Ah, pretty Pentax’s – I have to run some more film through an Espio AF Zoom, 120SW and 24EW – First time round they showed promise (especially the 120SW) but think you have to be Very particular about the film – had run a high contrast B&W through the 120SW and the amount of black was almost overwhelming (hadn’t had that result with that film in other cameras), of course it’s also quite a slow lens, so going to try with a ISO 800 colour film next time. The 24EW had softness and a pastel wash through much of the range, think it’s got a narrow sweetspot (going to try it next with a finegrain B&W); And the AF Zoom had colour balance issues with the film used (again, going to try next time w a cheap C41 B&W).

    Hopefully not diverting but instead Adding to your article, this last year the best brand I’ve had results from was Minolta – The AF-S (w/o the stupid voice chip), the Riva Zoom 135EX, and Himatic AF2. They’re all bigger beasts than these beautiful Pentax models, but make up for it in crispy, stunning results – The 135EX and AF-S both have to have the most underrated lenses out of the 60-odd cameras I’ve got, for the prices they currently fetch on ebay. And gawd I just Love the way the AF-S handles and feels in hand – No wells and bristles apart from a flash you have to pop up – just compose, focus, and shoot.

    1. Hi Gorpalm, thanks for your thoughts. I think with many film cameras, it pays to experiment with two or three different types of film. Some combos just seem to work better than others. I was always reading about Kodak Max 400 and how people liked it in compact cameras, but I only ever got horrible washed out results!

      In contrast, I tried one of my Pentax Espios with Kodak Ektar 100 once or twice and the results were pretty stunning.

      I had a couple of the Minolta AF-S cameras over the years, cracking cameras! Yes that little 35/2.8 lens is fantastic.

      Ricohs are another brand that are underrated. I had an FF-3D AF Super from the early 80s which was ugly looking but really excellent to hold and use, and like the Minolta, delivered contrasty, colourful images.

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