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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!