A return of sorts: Pentax IQ Zoom 150SL (Espio 150SL)

I’ve entered a new phase with my film photography obsession. After things like getting an SLR, then a medium format camera, then trying slide film, I’ve reached the point where I start reacquiring cameras I got rid of.

Back in the early days of my film obsession I picked up a Pentax IQZoom 170SL. I got it mostly due to its small size, as I wanted something to compliment the big and chonky Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. I had fun with it, ending up liking it more than I thought I should. But I got rid of it at the end of summer, after I got a Pentax IQZoom 928. The 928 had more features, so I convinced myself that I liked it better than the 170SL. But the 928 was bigger and bulkier, went through batteries faster, and the photos weren’t as good. So I got rid of that in fall, and thought I was done with late-era zoom cameras.

But then I started to miss the 170SL for some reason. It was small, about as small as the Olympus XA2. It took decent photos. A zoom lens can come in handy. I started to look at eBay. There were a bunch of 170SLs up, but what caught my eye was the Pentax IQZoom 150SL. It’s basically the same camera as the 170SL, but with a slightly different lens (38-150mm vs 38-170mm). Oh yeah, it comes in the “champagne” color.1 If that doesn’t shout “turn of the millenium” to you, you weren’t around then. Oh yeah, this specimen was cheap. Not as cheap as the 170SL I bought last February, but cheap enough. So it was on its way to me.

I popped in a CR2 battery, a roll of Kodak Ultramax 400 (my favorite “testing” film), and took a bike ride on the evening of Friday May 21st. Most of the shots from this roll are pretty ho-hum, just things to test out the camera.

One thing I was reminded about was the flash. I’m not much of a flash shooter, but these types of cameras were very much about the flash. So much so that you have to turn it off if you want to make sure it doesn’t fire, even if you think there’s no way in hell it would. Take for example this shot below:

I had bright sun at my back, as evidenced by my shadow. Yet the flash fired, as evidenced by the reflection on the “safety triangle” on my bike. These cameras had decent lenses and an adequate range of shutter speeds. What they lack is aperture range. The apertures go from f/12.8 at the smallest, which isn’t super small, to f/5.6 at the widest, which ain’t wide at all. This is just a bit over three stops. These cameras do best with high speed (400 or so) film. In the positives, there are different flash modes, and I can also set the shutter speed to a slow 1/5 of a second (or longer) if I wanted a low light shot and had steady hands or a tripod. And there is a bulb mode too. Thankfully I still had a remote shutter control for this camera!

Besides letting the camera do its job with autofocus (the five-point autofocus system generally works good), I could set it to “mountain” which is 10 feet to infinity focusing distance. (This also turns the flash off.) And there’s “spot” focus, which focus on what’s dead-center in the frame. I used spot focus on this tree trunk below. Pretty decent, though a lack of anything considered “bokeh”. It’d be hard to get any bokeh when f/5.6 is as wide as you can get.

It was fun putting the camera through its paces. But it lacked the certain “fun” of the IQZoom 170SL. No, it’s not because the cameras are that different. It’s because I’ve changed over the last year. When I got the 170SL last year, it was the second camera I got (minus the ones that didn’t work out for me, like the Fujica DL-100.) But now? I’ve got a good stable of cameras, cameras I enjoy using, cameras that I’ve gone through the trouble of getting serviced. This camera doesn’t fit in like it used to. It just proves that I don’t like these types of cameras. My tastes run to the cameras that pre-dated the point-and-shoots starting in the 1980s.

Still, I don’t think I’m going to get rid of this camera any time soon. It won’t be a camera I use a bunch, but I can see it fulfilling certain niches: The camera to loan to people or the kids. The knockabout camera when I don’t want to stress out about nicer machines. The camera to bring when I want a zoom lens but don’t want to bring the Minolta SR-T 101. It could also be good for bike touring, in fact I brought the 170SL on my two bike camping trips last year. And I didn’t spend that much on the Pentax IQZoom 150SL, so there’s no big urge to purge. It can sit at the back of the pile without me feeling guilty about it. And it’s really the only compact superzoom camera I need, so I won’t pursue any more.

It’s nice to have an artifact from the very end of the film era, a “top o’ the line” consumer compact when digital was being felt.2 And looking at cameras like this, I can see why it was easy for folks to embrace those early digital cameras, as it doesn’t look that different from what was being offered already. Yet the Pentax IQZoom 150SL delivered better photos than the contemporary digital offerings. But film rolls cost money, and people are cheap. That ended film’s dominance. Here we are twenty years later, and these super-advanced, pricey3 film compacts like the 150SL still produce good photos. Those early digitals? Your phone takes better shots.

The most amazing thing is cameras like the Pentax IQZoom 150SL can be scooped up for little. They don’t have the cachet of a Contax T2/T3 or Olympus mju/Stylus…yet. But who knows? Maybe people will start flocking to these cameras when the supply of premium compacts are exhausted or the prices get too obscene. It’s definitely a classy looking camera, and takes good photos too!

For pictures from the Pentax IQZoom 150SL, see the dynamic flickr album below. Or, click here.

1 Or is it gold?

2 And the internet was totally a thing by then, too. If you look around you’ll find there’s still listings of this camera on CNet.

3 Jim Grey’s review of the sister IQZoom 170SL points out that the list price was $433, which was getting into SLR territory. Adjusted for inflation, the 170SL would go for $642. I’m guessing that the 150SL was a bit less due to the shorter zoom.

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