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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Being one of the last Espio models made, they’re still around in very good condition.
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.
When shooting single exposures, the lens can really delight.
This following shot remains one of my favourite I’ve made with any compact camera.
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.
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 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.
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 are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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