Pentax IQ Zoom 170SL: A compact “dad cam” from the tail end of the film era.

I just got back into film photography this year, with the purchase of a Minolta Hi-Matic 7S rangefinder camera (circa 1966). I love this machine, as it gives me the ability to control exposure and focus manually, and makes great photos with its sharp Rokkor 1:1.8/45mm lens. But old rangefinders can be bulky, and the Hi-Matic is no exception. I wanted to augment my film photography with a compact camera, something I can throw in a bag and not worry about. This would be useful when I go on a bike tour or a big hike, when I would want to be less encumbered.

I thought that an 80’s auto-focus with a wide prime lens like a Fujica DL-100 would be the trick. But it was way bulkier than I expected it to be. And it has a light leak. I gave it to another friend who expressed interest in a film camera.

So the search was on again. One angle I was looking at was at the end of the film era–super advanced compact film cameras with zoom lenses,* sold from the early 90’s until the mid aughts. When I was Electronics Manager at a Kmart, these would have been the cameras selling for $100 to $250. They typically had a lot of features, a built-in-flash, and a zoom that enlarged the image 2 to 3 times. There are compromises with such a zoom lens, though. But these “dad cams” are mostly ignored by camera collectors, as they ain’t sexy nor hyped. Many of them can be found for quite cheap, which is ironic since they were quite advanced and expensive at their time of sale.

So I looked on the ‘bay and found one for cheap: A Canon Sure Shot V155 for dirt cheap, I think $8 including shipping. I had good luck with the Canon Power Shot digital I had for a few years before it got stolen (well, besides the date resetting every time you shut it off), so maybe I’ll have good luck with it?

Nope.

The minute I got it and checked it out, it broke. I opened the film door and when I shut it the latch snapped. The door would not stay shut. I tried taping it and such, but the film wouldn’t load. So much for that. I thought about finding another one, but reports indicate that the door latch snapping was common with Canons of that vintage. So onto another camera.

Reading some camera blogs, I came on recommendations for the Pentax zooms of this era. Branded the IQ Zoom in the US and Espio elsewhere, the Pentax seem to have a good reputation. After reading a review about a IQZoom/Espio 160, I started to hunt those out. But they looked a little bulky.

Then I came across an IQZoom 170SL, which had a slightly bigger zoom and a slimmer body. This camera was introduced in 2002, when digital cameras were entering the scene. A compact film camera like the 170SL could still compete, since digital at the time was a good deal more expensive for a lot less camera. (You’d be lucky to get more than 2 megapixels then, which would give you quite the lo-res image.)

This 170SL was also about eight dollars total, so it was a low-risk to buy it** and hope that the film compartment door stays shut.

You can see the difference in size.

I got it right before the long weekend on the Oregon Coast in February, so I took it along with the Hi-Matic 7S to test it out. I had black and white loaded in the Hi-Matic, while the 170SL had color Fuji Superia Xtra 400. The landscape of the coast gave ample opportunity to test it out.

Like many of the compacts of its era, it defaults to auto-flash, so you have to remember to shut it off if you don’t want it. It did a pretty decent low-light shot of Emee by the fire.

And I used the zoom to capture the headland north of Manzanita…

…plus a parent (maybe?) and child on the beach.

The non-zoom shots came out pretty decent too. It looks better than the shots I got from the Fujica, but that should be expected as auto-focus got better in the intervening twenty years.

I had fun using the little thing, though there are quirks, like the camera setting to default auto-flash every time its turned on. In order to make sure the flash does not activate, you have to switch to a flash-off mode or the “mountain” mode, which is the infinity focus for landscapes. (Thankfully the mountain mode just takes one button to activate, but shuts off automatically after use.) I wish it had a dial for the functions like some other cameras of this vintage. Instead you have to press little buttons several times to switch modes. Luckily there’s not a lot of modes to choose from, so it’s a quick cycle through.

One interesting mode, however, is the “Bulb” mode, which means the shutter is open as long as it’s held open. This was common on older, more manual cameras (my Hi-Matic 7S has that function), but pretty rare for a camera of this era that wasn’t an SLR. Pushing the shutter release button means risk of image blur due to shake, but they did make a “remote” for this camera to get around that.***

The Pentax IQZoom 170SL: It’s not a sexy camera, it will probably not ever be worth a lot. But it does the job well, and takes up little space. It’s a reminder of a vanished time that wasn’t so long ago. I think this one is a keeper…for now. While some folks think these zoom cameras are dorky, I can think of a few instances where a zoom comes in handy, like:

  • Shots of distant things, like snow capped mountains
  • Wildlife shots, like when the Swifts visit Chapman School in September
  • Trying to take shots of the moon

So I’ll hold onto this guy, possibly until it breaks. And if that’s the case, I didn’t invest a lot in acquiring it!

*There were non-zoom cameras, but they came in at either extreme of the spectrum: Cheap point and shoots (many fixed focus), or expensive-then premium compacts. Some of those premiums sell for as much or even more than they did then, and even some of those cheapies are selling for high prices these days!

**The irony is that the compacts of this era used special batteries like the CR2 or CR123, which now can be more expensive than the camera.

***Older cameras (like my Hi-Matic 7S) would have a thread in the shutter release to allow a cable to screw in.

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