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Pentax 645z

A User's Review Part One

Guy Aubertin

Berkshire based photographer and fundraiser.

guyaubertin.com



(This is not a technical review - that has already been done brilliantly elsewhere (herehere and here) This article is I hope the start of a rolling users review of the camera - from a landscape photographers perspective. No walls will be harmed in the making of this review. Or family pets.)

Some background

My love affair with Pentax started just as I was getting into photography, back in 2003, with the venerable Canon D60. As soon as I had bought the camera and a huge 1Gb microdrive CF card (!) I was introduced to a Pentax 67. This large, awkward beast of a camera just had something about it that the small, plastic body of the Canon did not. It looked like a proper camera, it sounded like a thunderclap and the chromes that came out were an eye opener. Using those large, metal and bitingly sharp lenses was a joy. Yet it was a brute. So I moved to wearing the hair shirt of Large Format instead (thanks to Joe C!)

Nevertheless I kept my eye on Pentax, it's demise and subsequent merger with Hoya and then purchase by Ricoh in 2011. I have always had a soft spot for the brand and several years ago purchased a 67ii with an assortment of lenses.

Sadly it didn't quite bite me as it had back in 2003. The quality of digital had moved on and I frankly I had become seduced by the ease of the digital workflow. Rumours circulated that Pentax/Hoya/Ricoh would be introducing a low priced (relatively) entry into the full frame market. This quickly moved to being a medium format sensor, formally the exclusive realm of medium format backs. Intrigued I followed the story for 5 years until 2010 when the the 645D was launched. The online world, particularly landscape, portrait and studio photographers were significantly interested in this development. Did Pentax finally have a good value winner? Not exactly.

 



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  • Mediumformat Phil

    Guy, I too have taken the plunge and invested in the 645Z, and again have only had a few hours shooting with it (I am an amateur so work gets in the way, and the last week or more has been dreary with flat lighting, not too conducive for getting out in the mornings). However, I totally agree with your thoughts and have been completely won over by the camera. I have amassed a motley selection of lens including the 35mm A, which is so sharp it will cut you if you are not careful! I will need to invest in a new tripod now, as my existing one is just not up to the job in reality. The camera may be a sizeable investment, but worth every penny as far as I am concerned, and soooo much cheaper than the immediate competition.

    • Good for you! Which lenses did you select? Yes a suitable tripod is key though I think that as long as you aren’t using more than 120mm then you will be able to get away with something quite light.

      • Mediumformat Phil

        I have currently the 35mm A, 33-55mm FA, 45-85mm FA and have just swapped an 80-160mm A for a 80-160mm FA, as the manual focus one was so heavy, albeit really sharp. All except the newer tele-zoom where from Ffordes, the latest from eBay. I am looking to get the 25mm FA when funds permit, but the tripod purchase will be first. I realised I was tempting fate with my existing tripod and with my new acquisition.

        I see you are doing focus stitching, which I will try, but to my eyes there seems to be little diffraction issues until around F22 on the 35mm and 33-55mm zoom. (I haven’t had the chance to try the other zooms).

  • This looks really exciting Guy. My own tests with the Phase One IQ250 suggest to me that this sensor is indeed a wonder to behold and use. Look forward to seeing it in our forthcoming field-work session very soon… Lets hope this means, for those who invest in one, an end (for now) to worrying about the next camera upgrade.
    Joe

    • “an end (for now) to worrying about the next camera upgrade.” Yes I think for the top end that’s me for a very very long time (notwithstanding an A7r II!) Years. I suspect that with the 645z it’s a case of the inability of the user (me) to extract the best out of the sensor which will be the stumbling block for a while.

  • Bruce Cairns

    Thanks, Guy, for an excellent article and for the time and trouble you’ve put into it. I’m considering this camera for my business, which includes photographing paintings for artists and making large prints – often 36″, and the other day a 155×106 cm. Quote a lot of resolution is needed!

    You and I have a very similar history – medium format, specifically Pentax 67, and then large format (I think we made the LF move at around the same time, about 10 years ago, and through the same influences!). Unlike you I bailed out from Canon 2 years ago, when my business 5D Mk II died and prompted a serious decision. Would Canon come out with a high resolution DSLR soon, or should I change to Nikon for the D800? For artwork photography, resolution is very important, and I decided not to hang around. I bought the D800 and made the far bigger investment in Nikon lenses. I’m glad I made the decision, especially with hindsight as to Canon’s continuing lack of a high resolution sensor, and the D800 is a superb artwork camera.

    Of course having the D800 means that I have a narrower resolution gap than you when looking at the Pentax, but it is definitely attractive. The more resolution you can get for paintings the better (but for various reasons I have decided against a scanning back). There’s often a significant crop involved, whether the painting is square or rectangular, meaning chucking out a lot of megapixels, so starting with 50mp for the full frame is a lot better than starting with 36.

    I’m hesitating for two main reasons. First, I’d love to have camera movements for my landscape work, as with a Techno and Phase back, and the lack of tilt/shift lenses with the Pentax would be disappointing. Second, 80 mp is a lot better than 50mp for art photography. However, I can’t currently justify the incredible cost of an 80mp back, non fixed-body camera and lenses in business terms! But how will PhaseOne react to the competition from Pentax, and will their prices come down? Will more used 1Q180s start to come onto the market at realistic prices now that the market is changing with CMOS sensors and competitive pricing? What will PhaseOne do (if anything) to try to trump Pentax, or will they remain aloof on the basis that they have a partially different target market? The only way to find out is to wait and see, and because the Nikon is working well for me I can afford to do that.

    I agree with you and Joe that at last the Pentax seems to be a camera that will present a long term investment, without worry about the next upgrade. We never had that concern with LF, did we? Once you had decided whether to go woody or tinny and had the lenses you needed, that was pretty much it. We knew Velvia would always remain the same (***cough***). Using the Pentax long term will give you that same familiarity with the kit and consistently excellent (potential) results.

    I’ll follow your updates with great interest, and thanks again.

  • Thanks for sharing the information and writing the article. I bought my Pentax 645N with the 45-85, 80-160 and 75 FA lenses brand new in the late 90’s. I still use the kit on a regular basis and it works like new still. This is one aspect of the film cameras that I have always loved and appreciated, unlike the digital SLR gear that seems to be replaced on an endless treadmill. If it makes film and you like the prints, then it is suffice…. no pixel chasing.

    I have always enjoyed my 645N and had no idea the lenses would ultimately be able to be leveraged on the digital 645D and 645Z. I rented the 645D recently for a month to see how I liked the camera. I have always been a little biased to the CCD sensor vs. CMOS because it creates a mystical type look to my eye similar to film and the CMOS (medium format backs or SLR’s) seems to be more sterile. I really enjoyed the 645D, but can definitely see how the other features such as the expanded ISO range, articulated screen, and live view could be a huge benefit.

    For now, I plan to keep using my Fuji 690GSWIII, Mamiya 7, and P645N for my nature and landscape fine art work because I create b/w and color darkroom prints. I still expose a lot of slide film for my personal use. It is my retirement plan. If I am fortunate enough to get too old to get out and photograph, I will hold all those medium and large format slides up to the window light and remember those days… no computer or RAW convertor required.

    I will likely rent the 645Z to give it a try just so I know the capabilities so if and when I ever what to use digital, the 645Z is likely the camera I would buy.

    Take care

    Tim

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