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The Pentax MZ-S Designers' Story (article, 2001)

Posted 06/11/2020 - 16:24 Link
The last Pentax high-end film camera was the flagship MZ-S (2001-2006), although the previous flagship, the Pentax Z-1p (1994-2001), was a much more advanced camera. The data imprint unit though was unique to the MZ-S and a great and very useful feature.

Below an article from the www (2001). Might be of interest even today - and for historical reasons.

"The Pentax MZ-S Designers' Story

The Product Concept
"In the development of the Pentax MZ-S, our product concept was simple and clear from the very beginning: we wanted to create a top-class 35mm SLR camera that would combine solid, reliable performance with the ultimate operability.

At the same time, we did not want to sacrifice the compact dimensions of the camera body, which photographers from around the world have come to expect from our MZ-series SLRs. In the past, we introduced both a high-tech digital control system (as in the Pentax Z-1p) and a user-friendly dial control system (as in the MZ-3 and the MZ-5N). Both systems, however, had their pros and cons. Designed for advanced photographers, the Z-1p's digital system offered such sophisticated features as a centralized display system and the "Hyper" exposure modes, but its state-of-the-art control system was a little too complicated for some of users to get accustomed to in a short period. On the other hand, the MZ-3 and MZ-5N's analog-type direct-access dial control system was easy to understand and operate even for beginners, but some of the features did not function as flawlessly as the digital system's. Frankly speaking as camera designers, we thought it would be much easier to standardize the entire control system one way or another. For the optimum benefit of our users, however, we decided to harmonize the best of both worlds to develop a totally new hybrid control system for the new MZ-S.

"First, we made a thorough review of each and every function and selected the functions which we believed were absolutely necessary to achieve the level of performance we expected from this camera. To keep the compact dimensions, there was no room for frills or gimmicks. Then, we decided which function went best with which control. Naturally, some functions suited the digital system, while others were easier to operate with the analog system. Finally, based on the importance and frequency of use, we divided the selected functions into two groups: the first group of functions, which are required frequent on-the-spot setting changes, must go onto the camera body for quick access. The second group, which are fundamental in essence and don't require frequent changes after the initial settings are made, were assigned to the Pentax Functions (PF). The Pentax Function feature also contributes to the elimination of accidental setting changes during shooting.

Top Panel Design
"When we talk about the camera's operability, we are most concerned with two important factors of the camera design: accessibility and readability. Accessibility involves the shape and position of switches, buttons and dials; readability is mostly affected by the body design and display method. We knew from our experience that, in order to improve these factors, we must do something drastic to the MZ-S camera body design. After some research and discussion, we found the ideal solution rather easily: we just needed to slant the top panel toward the photographer by approximately 30 degrees and position the control dials on this slanted plane. Imagine, for instance, that you have a computer, a clock, stationery and several family pictures on your desk. You feel more comfortable by positioning some of them diagonally, so all of them are facing you, rather than setting them parallel to the front edge of the desk. Or imagine your car. It's much easier to drive and get the information you need if all the meters and switches are facing toward you. Likewise, we concluded that this unconventional design could considerably improve both the accessibility and readability of the controls and displays on the top panel. We also figured the rest of the body design and the interior layout would follow accordingly. But it was easier said than done. This drastically slanted top panel was the core of our body design concept. It allows you to read the settings and make changes more easily from various angles: there is no need to raise your eye level when you take your eye from the viewfinder, and you don't have to stand on tiptoe or use a chair or box during high-angle shooting with the camera set on a tripod.

"Next came the design of two control dials. It's unusual to have a digital-type dial on one side and an analog-type dial on the other, but this was the result of our extensive review of the camera functions. We concluded that the functions that the user decides by absolute numerical value, such as shutter speed, aperture and exposure frame number, were better accommodated by digital operation. Consequently, these factors were assigned to the digital dial on the right side and their settings are displayed on the LCD panel positioned inside this dial. In comparison with the Z-1p's centralized display system, which is positioned on the top of the pentaprism and away from the control system, this in-the-dial display system makes data reading and setting changes much easier. On the other hand, the factors that are decided by relative value, such as exposure compensation factor and auto bracketing factor, were assigned to the analog dial on the left side. In addition, the two reference points of this analog dial (the "zero-point" index on one side and the "PF" mark on the opposite) are colored with green and red, respectively, for at-a-glance confirmation.

Exterior Design
"Once the design of the top panel was completed, we turned our attention to the overall body design. The MZ-S's novel top panel design greatly affected the rest of the body design, and we had to design everything from scratch using our advanced three-dimensional CAD technology. Most of the pentaprism housing was set into the raised front line of the top panel - in other words, protruding less over the line - creating a unique appearance from the front. Unlike conventional cameras, we designed the MZ-S to be asymmetric on both sides of the pentaprism because it looked a little awkward when we first designed it to be symmetrical. The two dials were sized differently because, due to an optical illusion caused by the difference in color and shape, the digital dial looked much smaller than the analog one, even though they were the same size. So, we designed the digital dial to be considerably larger and added a small protrusion right in front of the digital dial to refine the design. Finally, we made other minor design adjustments here and there to make the MZ-S look sharp and pleasing from every angle.

The Control System
"Our next assignment was to decide the best layout of buttons and levers, apart from the two large dials, to ensure optimum operability and accessibility. By this time, we were more confident with our design concept and became much bolder in designing these parts than we were at first. The shutter release button, for example, is not only slanted toward the front, but also tilted slightly outward because we felt it was a more ergonomically efficient design. We moved the electronic preview lever from its traditional position on the lens mount section to a spot right next to the shutter release button for easier access at the shooting position. Because of the unique top panel design, some of other buttons and levers had to be slanted to a certain extent as well. For instance, the exposure mode button, which is used to instantly jump the exposure mode from the Shutter-Priority AE back to the Programmed AE, was placed on the slanted plane on the upper right side of the front panel - an area which previously was seldom used for such buttons. We also installed the shutter-speed hold switch on the back panel, which locks the digital dial in order to prevent the accidental shift of exposure modes or shutter speeds.

Magnesium Diecast Body
"Once the basic body design was completed, we had to decide on the material used for the body casing. It had to be strong, durable and lightweight and also convey the high-class image of the MZ-S. Aluminum and zinc didn't meet these requirements. The material also had to be flexible enough in molding to reproduce the MZ-S's complicated shape with great precision. For this reason, titanium was eliminated. Eventually, we were left with only one choice: magnesium diecast, used for the first time in a Pentax camera and available in only a handful of high-end SLRs on the market today. We used this magnesium diecast material for four major components of the body casing. Compared with commonly used plastic, this material provides outstanding strength. Take the arms of the built-in RTF flash unit, for example. They are designed to be very thin, yet they are exceptionally resistant to twist and distortion.
"We also paid attention to the body coating to make it extra-durable and give the MZ-S an distinctive appearance. In our exclusive three-layer, three-bake coating process, we first apply a black base layer, and then a second flat layer. After each layer is applied, the body parts are carefully baked to provide maximum protection. The third and final layer is applied by hand to create a sandy surface texture and outstanding holding comfort. The parts are baked for the third time to perfection. Since the final layer is hand-applied, a careful inspection shows that each MZ-S has a slightly difference texture, providing sense of personality for the user.

Interior Design
"Of course, the MZ-S's eye-catching design, including the slanted top panel, greatly affected its interior design. We found that we could use only a handful of parts from other MZ-series models. As a result, we had to design almost all blocks, both electronic and mechanical, and wiring patterns from scratch to fit into the unusually shaped spaces. Many buttons and levers had to be installed on slanted planes, requiring careful calculations and minute design adjustments. So we had to think very flexibly and creatively to make the best use of available space. Our industry-leading mechanical and electronic technologies were very much needed to pack everything into a compact body, which is nearly as small as the MZ-3's.

New Features
"In addition to its solid performance and unique appearance, the MZ-S offers some outstanding new features. The first is a new six-point AF system, which has five focusing points aligned horizontally and one additional point just above the middle point. With these five horizontal points, this AF system offers the widest AF coverage of all 35mm AF SLRs currently on the market. It also comes equipped with a back-up mechanism. When the optimum focusing point has difficulty focusing on the subject because of extremely low contrast or complete monotone, the neighboring point is automatically activated to enhance focusing accuracy. You can also switch to the spot AF mode to select one of the six points for pinpoint focusing on a small area.
"The second notable feature is on-the-film data recording, which is incorporated in a Pentax 35mm SLR camera for the first time. This new feature allows you to imprint useful data (exposure mode, metering mode, shutter speed, aperture value, exposure compensation value, and auto bracketing) onto the film's blank spaces between the perforations. It also imprints the film number onto the film leader section.
"Another useful feature is an exposure frame designation function, which automatically advances the film to the designated exposure frame when the film is reloaded into the MZ-S. This allows you to rewind the film midway through, switch to a different type of film, then reload the original film and resume shooting from the first blank frame - without worrying about accidentally double-exposing already exposed frames at all.
"Finally, there is a single-action AF lock button - another first for a Pentax 35mm SLR. With a conventional AF lock mechanism, you have to first press the shutter release button halfway down to activate the AF system, then press the AF lock button to lock the focus. However, this convenient button, which is located on the back panel, allows you to activate the camera's AF system and lock the focus with just a single push. Since there is no need to touch the shutter release button, you don't have to worry about accidental shutter releases. This is also very helpful when wearing gloves in cold weather.

"In order to maximize the MZ-S's outstanding capabilities and cope with a wide range of photographic applications, we designed a new set of accessories that includes a battery grip, flash unit and cable switches.
"The BG-10 Battery Grip not only dramatically extends the operation time of the MZ-S, but comes also equipped with a shutter release button for vertical-position shooting, an electronic preview lever, an AE lock button and an infrared remote controller. Its ergonomic design further enhances the MZ-S's holding comfort and stability, while its single-action lever mechanism allows for quick, effortless installation and removal. We strongly recommend that our users pair this grip with the MZ-S camera body.

"The AF360FGZ dedicated auto flash is another great partner for the MZ-S. With a large guide number of 36 at 85mm (at ISO100/m) and a maximum discharge angle of 24mm (20mm with a wide-angle panel attached), this powerful flash unit supplements the built-in RTF flash in many flash situations. Its wireless data-transmission capability with the RTF unit automatically adjusts the discharge level with great precision, even under confusing lighting conditions.
"We also offers cable switches (in two different lengths), a release timer switch for pre-programmed interval shooting, quick shoe adapters, and soft camera cases - all made of the finest material and for maximum performance. Of course, the MZ-S is compatible with all SMC Pentax FA- and F-series interchangeable lenses and most of existing accessories, just like all other MZ-series models.

The Future Form of 35mm SLR Cameras
"If you think a camera's control system is too complicated or troublesome for the first time you use it, you may start to dislike the camera and seldom use it afterward. Eventually you may stop enjoying photography altogether - even if the camera offers the finest performance and quality. That's why we were particularly concerned about the MZ-S's control system. Because of its unconventional styling, people may at first glance be a little hesitant to try it out. But once you lay your hands on this camera, you will be surprised by its outstanding feel and flawless operation. We wanted the MZ-S to be the camera that people take with them everywhere they go. If you still prefer a camera with either a digital or analog control system, that's fine - because we believe our users deserve choice. Pentax offers all three types in its 35mm SLR lineup to meet every user's preference. But, by incorporating the new hybrid control system and a host of sophisticated features into one of the most compact bodies available today - without any frills or gimmicks - we are confident that we have successfully developed a truly epoch-making camera, which points to the future of 35mm SLR photography. We hope all photographers - both advanced and beginners - will take the opportunity to experience the MZ-S firsthand, and see and feel the real difference!"

July 26, 2001."
Posted 06/11/2020 - 17:02 Link
Thank you Keld,

MZ-S was a wonderful creation and a lovely tool to use. Sadly, mine was being used less and less as time went on (and film became harder to obtain - I mainly did slides) and was sold alongside most of my film era lenses. I suppose now that I use only FF Pentax equipment I might just get another one for old time's sake.
AKA Welshwizard/PWynneJ
Assorted Pentax/Nikon/Mamiya stuff
Posted 24/01/2021 - 15:53 Link
Edited by angerdan: 24/01/2021 - 15:55

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