Pentax ZX5n

Pentax ZX5n & 40mm DA Limited – A Crop Pano for a Winter Coat Pocket – by Rob Jamieson

I have to confess, I have a bit of a panorama problem. I absolutely love panoramic cameras and cameras with a panorama mask feature. I love them big and small, expensive and cheap. Some people find the panorama masks that were all the rage for a hot minute in the 90s to be a cheap trick or a useless fad. And I completely understand that point of view. You could, after all, simply take a full frame photo and crop it to a panoramic aspect ratio in Lightroom or photoshop later.

But for me, and this might be just me, I believe that I take very different photographs if I compose them through a viewfinder with a panoramic framing rather than taking a full frame shot and cropping it later. I really enjoy seeing what the framing of the final image will be in the viewfinder and composing what I’m shooting as I’m shooting it. And I’m not picky about the film size in terms of cropping a 35mm negative. I shoot panos in all sorts of different formats, big and small.

Pentax ZX5n 40mm DA Limited

One of my favorite crop panos is my Pentax ZX5n. My jaw dropped when I saw this post from Hamish here describing his experiences with the same camera, the almost identical MZ5. I didn’t know that anybody knew about this cheap little thing, a secret gem of a crop pano. I found out about it while listening to the Classic Lenses Podcast and it was with great delight that I walked into Central Camera one day about two years ago to talk to CLP co-host Johnny Sisson about the Pentax ZX5n after listening to him rave about it on his podcast.

Johnny, it turns out, is also a person with a pano problem. What he was raving about went something like this. Pentax made a line of fantastic little plastic cameras in the 90s that take K-mount lenses. One of them has a pano mask. The MZ-5 which was released for the Japanese market and the ZX-5 for Western markets. Same exact camera with different names. There’s also an MZ-5n/ZX-5n which is the same exact camera with an additional (as far as I can tell) depth of field preview button. You can pick these up very cheaply, I see them regularly on eBay for about $50-$60.

Now here’s the thing that makes the Pentax ZX5n really cool for pano people. Well, first off it obviously has a pano mask. And it has a gorgeous dark mask that pops down into place in the viewfinder when you flip the little pano lever to “P” on the back of the camera so you can see what you’re composing. I find this much better and more intuitive for shooting versus the dotted line method of other pano masks like in some canon cameras from the same era where you’re looking at a full frame image and have to sort of frame the pano as if it were frame lines within that larger image. I don’t like doing it that way, I find it distracting. Second, the camera has a dedicated exposure compensation dial on top of the camera. So even though it’s an all plastic camera, when you hold it and shoot with it it feels like a “real” camera. Okay, the third thing that I just love, and this elevates the entire experience of this camera to me and this is a bit of a weird one which Hamish writes about in his excellent post on his MZ5 which is that these cameras can mount and shoot Pentax DA lenses.

Okay, a slight digression. That’s a pretty cool thing for a camera that was intended to shoot K-mount lenses in the mid 1990s, full frame lenses for 35mm film cameras. DA lenses from Pentax, on the other hand, are lenses meant for crop sensor digital cameras. These lenses came later. So imagine my surprise when I was standing in Central Camera in Chicago looking at Pentax lenses and Johnny finds a little DA pancake lens on the shelf: an HD Pentax-DA 40mm 2.8 limited. This tiny little thing the size of a rear lens cap. This lens doesn’t even have an aperture control on it. Aperture is normally controlled by a digital camera for this lens but the ZX5 can drive this lens in program mode (A on the shutter dial) or in shutter priority mode on the shutter dial where you just pick a shutter speed and the camera chooses the aperture for you. This lens covers full frame! It might get a little vignetting in the corners if you shot it without the pano mask but with the mask engaged the corners aren’t an issue alt all. This lens is great and it’s tiny,

I love this Pentax ZX5n and 40mm DA Limited combo. It’s so light. It’s so small. Obviously there are smaller crop pano point and shoots like the vaunted Minolta Riva, which I also love and Hamish reviews here with it’s glorious viewfinder and 24mm lens. I have a bunch of smaller point and shoot like the river that have pano masks and those are fantastic to me in summer when I want to pop a camera in the back pocket of my jeans but the ZX5 offers something a bit more robust. It’s of course bigger than a typical point and shoot but it’s much smaller than a typical SLR and I feel like it has some of the fun factor of point and shoots like the Riva. Some of the ease and intuitiveness. It’s what I call a “winter camera.” A camera you can slip in a winter coat pocket. With a bigger k-mount lens I think this would intrude on SLR territory in terms of size and ergonomics but with a pancake lens on it, to me it’s an entirely different beast. It’s easy. It’s intuitive. It just begs to be shot. When I carry it around and use it I stop thinking about the ergonomics of the camera, it just becomes an extension of my arm. I don’t spend any time thinking or fiddling with it, I just shoot, shoot, shoot. It’s a camera that’s fun to shoot. No fiddling, just composing. And because the camera is driving the lens it essentially functions like a slightly bigger point and shoot. In fact, that’s exactly how I think of it, like a big point and shoot. A point and shoot for a winter coat pocket. In summer I want something terrifyingly small but in winter I don’t mind a chunky monkey like this.

Pentax 40mm DA Limited
Such a tiny little lens!

So the lens. I think the 40mm pancake lens I have might be slightly different than the one Hamish writes about in his post, they labelled the one I have the “HD DA 40mm 2.8 limited”. Pentax seem to have a bunch of different versions of the 40mm pancake. I’m honestly not sure what the difference is with any of them optically. My assumption is that they’re all the same optics. The one I have is black with a red ring on it. Some are black and some are silver, some have green rings, some have red. Yours looks even smaller (thinner) than mine if that’s even possible because this 40mm lens is the second smallest lens I own next to a 17mm MS Perar 4.5 I picked up from a guy in the states who grew tired with it. That thing is absolutely tiny! This is one finger of whiskey small.

Pentax ZX5n photo of Chicago cat elevated tracks
Under the train tracks in the Northern part of the city.

The image quality is superb. Sharp and punchy. It’s a top shelf lens and it shows in the pictures. I’m not a technical person, I don’t take photos of test charts or find meaning in the tea leaves of lens diagrams. I find the photos I get from this combo have the right amount of punch I’m looking for. The right amount of contrast I’m looking for when I push black and white film a stop or two. Certainly it holds up well when stacked against legendary point and shoots like the Yashica T5 and also I think it stands up well to bigger SLRs as well.

Portrait of a man with Pentax ZX5n 40mm DA Limited
My friend Todd being a good sport and letting me stick a lens in his face while we met for coffee.

The one cause of concern with the Pentax ZX5n which is that there is a tiny little plastic thingie that controls the mirror that is, apparently, the thing that fails on this camera when it fails. Buyer beware, it is a cheap plastic camera from the 90s, it’s a fantastic camera but at some point it will break down. I don’t really mind that given how cheap these are second hand. A quick search finds that there prices of these have remained stable over the last two years at about $50 USD more or less. If mine craps out I will for sure get another one. In fact, I’m browsing the all black version from Japan as the one I have has the ever popular 90s faux “champagne” that many people wish was left to the mists of time.

Marina Towers Chicago Pentax ZX5n 40mm DA Limited
An obligatory Chicago shot for Wilco fans!

In any case, I know this might be sacrilege but I love using the ZX-5n so much I sold my LX. I know I’ll be murdered by Pentax diehards for this, the LX is a beloved camera but I honestly just never used it after I got the ZX-5n. The ZX is just so much fun and when I have it I don’t think about it, I just compose and shoot and I sort of treat it like a chunky point and shoot. I find myself blasting through the rolls when I use it. It’s so light and fun and easy. I meant to buy some rolls of Metropolis based on some stuff Hamish has been shooting but then the world went into lockdown from this global pandemic we’re all going through so I’ll get back to that later. In the meantime here are some shots I took with it on Fomopan on a typical day in Chicago riding in on the train.

The “L” in Chicago is a fixture of the city Chicago is the only city in the US to have elevated trains that run through downtown.


Chicago is one of the few places in the US that has an elevated train. I popped by Central Camera which is like a film Mecca in the states. It’s one of the oldest Camera shops in the US and it’s where I bought this.

A dutch angle shot of me in front of Central Camera in Chicago, one of the oldest film photography stores in the US and Heaven for film shooters here in Chicago.

Johnny was there and I asked him if he would mind taking a photo of me in front of the iconic neon sign. I met my friend Todd for lunch at a coffee shop and took a few snaps of him. And on my walk back to the train there was a street musician playing trumpet. As he was playing I motioned to him that I could take a photo of him if he was cool with it and he shrugged to be like, sure, so I wound up snapping a few dozen shots of him playing under the train tracks.

A street musician under the tracks on South Wabash.
If you walk out of Central Camera and look up you see this.
Shadows at Daley Plaza
The bridges at Wolf’s Point shot from my office. Wolf Point was the origin of Chicago. It was where the fur traders met where the three rivers come together when this was all just a big forest.

All in all an ordinary day in Chicago with an extraordinary little piece of plastic, the Pentax ZX5n. Now I just need to find a black one to go with the black lens.

If you’d like to see more of my photos check out my instagram under jamrobert here.

Thanks for reading! And thanks for having me, Hamish!

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17 thoughts on “Pentax ZX5n & 40mm DA Limited – A Crop Pano for a Winter Coat Pocket – by Rob Jamieson”

  1. Put that lens on an MZ-s body and you’ll be a happy person! Yes they are not cheap but a wonderful bit of kit as the top of the MZ/ZS range by Pentax……………..

      1. Seems to me that the MZ-S is the only one to have – the tiddly, dark, pentamirror viewfinders on the lesser models simply don’t cut it! As someone who’s Pentax-inclined, it’s a big disappointment not to be able to find a mid-1990s onwards SLR that is half as useful as just about anything that Canon was chucking out at the time.

        1. Fair point. The MZ-S is top shelf. I had an EOS film camera (the Elan I think) to use with Canon glass I bought for my digital bodies (5d, 7d). Fantastic glass and the backwards compatibility was terrific. Ultimately, I sold all my canon bodies and glass in favor of smaller cameras (smaller bodies, smaller lenses). I figure if I want to use a big camera I’ll take out the Pentax 6×7. I mean, if you’re going to go big, go big! Cheers. -Robbie

  2. Thank you for those wonderful shots of Chicago, especially that of Central Camera, my playground downtown on the way to visit the Art Institute and later a wonderful respite from the pressures of DePaul’s Law School. Talking cameras and photography was the highlight of my youth! Those captures of yours are wonderfully evocative of the city I love.

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words. I hung out around there quite a bit prior to the lockdowns. It’s a great city to shoot in. and Central Camera was a particular favorite of mine. I hope to be back there at some point buying film again.

  3. Richard Moore

    You’ve got me scouring Ebay for that lens now. I was looking for a Pentax p&s on Goodwill recently (like you do) and spotted one being sold with some other old “kit camera” gear. I think the whole bag cost me about $30 which included the aforementioned P&S , three lenses (horrible plastic things one of which didn’t work) AND a spotless ZX-5. Spotless as in it looked like it has never been used. Even got a databack. Even got a sticker on it advertising the pano function. I have plenty of MF Pentax lenses but you’ve got me thinking about an AF lens now. Oh and my wife is in the UK for five weeks. Not that’s got anything to do with it.

    1. It’s such a great thing about these cameras that you have so many different lens options. I have a DKL to M42 adaptor and an M42 to k adaptor on mine right now with a 50mm 1.9 xenon. There are so many options. The pancake lenses make it pocketable (sort of) which was the original appeal of the camera to me. Though Hamish seems to be sliding down the slippery slope of pentax glass. 🙂

  4. Good set of pictures and interesting story. What You and Hamish triggered me to do – to remember this cool function of camera. My MZ-3 is loaded with film, and has 20mm lens on it, in panorama mode – we’ll see where it will take me. 😉

    1. Thanks. I’ve been thinking about something in the 17mm-24mm range. It seems like it would be really interesting for panos. I’d love to try the M 20mm f4. I know there are better 20s for other mounts but it’s nice and small and seems really good.

  5. The MZ name was also used in the UK, not sure about the rest of Europe. I have an MZ7 which was the slightly cheaper brother of the 5 and also has pano mode (though I never used it).

    Gotta love K mount compatibility, if a feature is common to lens and camera it will generally work. A friend of mine once took a very interesting series of shots on his P30T with my DA18-55, and I’ve even confirmed that the metering is sane if you put a DA lens on a 1970s vintage K1000. It’s locked on minimum aperture so you couldn’t call it useful, but the meter is correct.

  6. Hi, good article. But this camera shoots panoramas at 13 x 36 mm, how come all your examples are a different aspect ratio to that?

    1. I’m honestly not sure. I’ve checked all my scans and these are straight from my negatives. But you’re right, the aspect ratio is slightly different than the shots Hamish took from his MZ5 article. Hamish, did you crop your MZ5 shots to the same aspect ratio the crop pano curtains gave you or did you widen them a bit when you cropped?

  7. One of these days I’ll probably end up picking up one of these panoramic cameras – I normally shoot 4/3 or 6×6 and so this would provide a really nice distinguishing complement to those.

    Btw, if you want to see some really tiny lenses, take a look at the “bodycap” lenses Olympus has made for micro four thirds. They quite literally are the size of the cap you would put on a lens-less body.

  8. Pingback: 5 frames with Pentax MZ-3 and Voigtlander 20mm in Panorama Mode - By Aivaras - 35mmc

  9. MZ5n was my favourite pocket camera (until I got black version MZ3) . I replaced screen with MZM one (classic split prism) .
    The problem with MZ series is dark viewfinder. Internal green display is to dim. If you wear glasses and there is sunny day it is necessary to use second hand as sunshield.

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