Pentax IQZoom 170SL: I shouldn’t like this camera, but I do.

I’ve had my Pentax IQZoom 170SL (known outside the US as the “Espio 170SL”) since February. I got it because I wanted something small to go along with my Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. It wasn’t the second film camera I bought after the Hi-Matic (that’d be the Fujica DL-100) but it was the second one I kept.

The 170SL is pretty typical of your super-zoom compacts from the end of the film era (circa 2002): a 38-170mm zoom lens, built-in-flash, auto-focus, auto-exposure, auto-wind, auto-rewind, all in a small package. There are many cameras similar, and they are all a bit dorky: dad cameras made for ordinary people. There’s definitely a bias against these cameras that dominated the last decade of film’s primacy by those who care: When I mentioned to my camera-collecting friend that I bought one, he gave me an Olympus XA2, a very covetable camera, for free. Because owning one of these dad-zoom cameras was just not acceptable!

And why are they looked down upon? It’s that lens. There are certain compromises to zoom lenses to make them work. They are typically “slow”, meaning that their maximum aperture (where the most light will be let in) is not that big. The 170SL’s maximum aperture is f/5.6, not that big, but pretty standard for these cameras. It also defaults to auto-flash, never a great thing for discrete shooting. And most importantly, the aesthetics scream pure ’90’s and early aughts. This era is not necessarily known for good product design.

I realize having a fixed focal length prime lens is generally “better”. And a telephoto lens on an SLR is going to produce better results at the long end. Yet, I still come back to this camera, despite the setbacks.

I usually have been using my Olympus XA2 as my “second” camera: the Minolta or Konica C35EF or Ricoh 35 ZF loaded with black and white, the Olympus XA2 with color. The XA2 is a fun camera and gives good results. But there are times where a compact zoom camera comes in handy.

For example, I went with Emee and her kids to Tryon Creek Natural Area in deep SW Portland in early June 10th. I love this wooded second-growth preserve, but don’t get out there as much as I should. During the walk, Emee, ever the owl lover, mentioned how she never got to see an owl in the wild. And of course, we turn the corner and see an owl in the wild. But all I had was the Olympus XA2. This is the shot of that.

Can you spot the owl?

I wasn’t going to get a good shot of a small owl at a distance with a fixed focus lens. My iPhone wasn’t much better. Sure, I can crop the hell out of the image for either a grainy (XA2) or pixellated (iPhone) photo. But neither is as good as bringing something with a zoom lens.

So, from now on I’ll probably be bringing the Pentax as the second camera when I go into nature like this. And I have been using the 170SL a lot lately since the XA2 has an issue I need to get fixed. And even without the zoom, the Pentax takes some pretty good shots. Well focused, decently exposed.

And a flash for those low light shots.

Plus a bulb setting for long exposure? Not many compact point-and-shoots had this feature, but they seem pretty standard on Pentax IQZooms. I’ve done some nice night shots with it.

So I know that I should love my Olympus XA2 more. And those late era prime lens wonder cameras like a Contax T2 are going to be written up more and sell for way more. But I’ll stick with my Pentax IQZoom 170SL for what it’s worth. And I only paid $8 for it! These IQZoom cameras don’t seem to go for as much as comparable cameras from other companies. So you can still score a good deal on a 170SL or something else from the line (about 46 different models in all.)

Journal Comic, 25 Feb 2020. Anticipation.

For a nice write-up about the Pentax IQZoom 170SL, see this blog post on Down the Road.

And a good overview of the benefits of the IQZoom/Espio series from 35Hunter.

3 thoughts on “Pentax IQZoom 170SL: I shouldn’t like this camera, but I do.

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