This is a non technical review of the Pentax 645D from a user’s perspective and not a professional camera reviewer (or a writer). I’m hoping it will be useful to those interested in the camera and those who actually want to use the camera for taking pictures instead of discussing the merits of digital medium format vs smaller formats or comparing images of dollar store props scattered around color charts and bottles.
First, some background: As someone interested in an actual print, I often times encountered images at various exhibitions I initially admired online that left me disappointed in terms of final printed presentation. When I started to photograph some years ago, I quickly noticed that the image quality I was getting from my Nikon scanner scanned 35mm slide film, or my 6MP Nikon D100 did not have the same look and feel as the images I was seeing my photographer friends produce with medium format cameras, especially for the subject matter I was mainly interested in.
I also want to make it clear that by image quality I don’t mean image content. There are plenty of iconic and powerful images out there that would not be considered high quality prints.
As a result, I began to experiment with pushing what I had (and could afford) to the limit. From using fine grain transparencies, tripods, fine grain developers for my black and white film and relatively expensive lenses, I ended up purchasing my first medium format film camera on the used market, a TLR Mamiya 330C with a 80mm lens. It was love at first sight and some of the prints I was able to make both in my darkroom and from scanned negatives ran circles around what I was able to achieve before.
As time went on and technology kept improving, I had my eye on what digital cameras had to offer in terms of a price/performance ratio. While I have no dedicated affiliation to film or digital capture, I have always found it difficult to color correct my negatives and transparencies compared to what I could do with my digital camera, so I always kept an eye on what the current developments were.
Digital at that point could already approach the quality of my medium format film capture but at a huge premium. I paid about 800 dollars for my medium format camera while a 22MP digital camera was going to be thousands – a price I was not wanting to commit to yet with the amount of shooting I was doing per year.
One year the art gallery of Ontario had an Ansel Adams exhibit and, being familiar with Ansel’s work from reading his books on black and white film techniques, I decided to go. What I saw was another level of quality that I did not anticipate and about a week later I was purchasing my first 4×5 view camera. 4X5 was definitely my kind of tool. The quality was unmatched by anything digital at the time and the ability to use movements and shift the plane of focus was a huge bonus for landscape work. A year later I upgraded my used Bush Pressman 4×5 to a brand new Ebony camera and have not looked back since. Large format photography has a lot of benefits and I enjoy shooting with the format to this day.
After shooting in Europe, the USA and Canada with the 4×5 a few things that bothered me about film from the beginning started to bug me even more. I noticed that I wanted to shoot more color subjects in addition to black and white and I wanted the ability to shoot faster and cheaper. After all expenses are paid, color film with processing turns out to be around 6 dollars per shot and, even when trying to be selective, it does add up. Add to this the size of the film holders, film boxes and the time it takes to change film in the field and you really start to crave the convenience of digital capture for most of the subjects that don’t actually require a view camera with all the movements.
On most of my recent trips I have been taking a small Micro Four Thirds kit that could fit alongside my 4×5 system consisting of 3 lenses and two bodies (a GF1 and a GH2). More and more of the shots I end up keeping have been coming from the small cameras and because the aspect ratio of the image (4:3) closely matches my 4×5, I can print them on the same cut sheets without having to crop.
During the last trip to California I missed some great opportunities because the light was moving too quickly; by the time I was able to set up my view camera, the scene had already changed. Spending all the time and money to go to amazing places only to miss key moments is discouraging to any aspiring photographer.
Most of the images I end up shooting on the Micro Four Thirds system end up being used for this blog, some of the ones I don’t hate after a couple of weeks end up as prints but the absolute limit, even with good technique is a 15×20 print at normal viewing distances, nothing even approaching the sharp 30×40 I’m used to printing from my large format system.
So what about the Pentax ?
One of the most compelling products to come to market in a long time is the Pentax 645D. In a marketplace where medium format digital costed tens of thousands of dollars, only wealthy hobbyists and professionals actively selling their work could contemplate purchasing a digital medium format kit.
With only two major players (Hassleblad and Phase One/Leaf), both using sensors from 3rd party suppliers and no other competition, photographers wishing to make large prints were stuck using 4×5 film out of necessity and not necessarily because of it’s creative and aesthetic options.
The Pentax 645D system has been designed for outdoor photographers in mind, it lacks some of the studio shooting features of the other systems (such as tethered shooting or flash sync speeds over 1/125th) but gains features such as weather seals and improved ergonomics resembling those of standard DSLR’s.
The lens choice is limited at the moment as Pentax is still developing a line of digital lenses designed specifically for the system with only the 55mm f2.8 currently available and a 25mm F4 coming in 2012 after being delayed in it’s initial production run. However, there are plenty of older Pentax 645 and 67 (with an adapter) lenses out there that work with the system.
I purchased the body and 55mm lens at Headshots in Toronto after being allowed to take the camera out for some testing for the weekend. Andrew at Headshots was very accommodating and a pleasure to deal with, so if you are shopping for a digital medium format system I can’t recommend him enough.
If you want to know more about pricing or get a detailed list of features, there are plenty of gear review websites that go into the specifics. All in all, this is the only 40MP medium format system that can be purchased for under 20k with a couple of lenses or even less if you can find some used Pentax glass.
The most important aspect for me is image quality. Can the Pentax 645D match the prints I’m used to getting from 4×5 film? The answer is a definite yes. Not only is the image grain free in common film problem areas such as skies, but it exceeds what I was able to capture on slide film in terms of dynamic range. For color work, the files produced by the camera are a lot easier to control and balance, so reviewing images from a shoot is a pretty quick process compared to scanning film at 10+ minutes a shot and trying to get the colors to a pleasant state. Below are some sample images as well as crops from the 1:1 files that would be used for printing. Please keep in mind that unfortunately the jpeg compression on the web degrades some of the micro texture and fine details of the files.
For best results, the camera should be on a tripod with mirror lockup on (for which there is a dedicated switch on the body). Shooting with a 4×5 camera hand held is not really feasible due to exposure times and the lack of a viewfinder, so tripod use is a requirement and not an option. I wanted to test the Pentax in an environment where shooting with a large format camera or with a tripod would be more difficult, so I decided to go to Havana and take it for a spin both hand held and on a tripod at night.
Havana is a lively place with narrow streets that make setting up a tripod during the day difficult. Often I had to watch my back for cars or bicycle taxis trying to get past the crowd. There is not a lot of room on the pseudo sidewalks, so setting oneself up with a view camera and blocking pedestrian traffic would be rude at best.
Thanks to other photography loving tourists I was not the only person with a large camera. My initial concern was being too noticeable with a strange looking camera body around my neck, but after having carried the Pentax for a few hours I found it not to be a problem. With the body coming in at 1480g and the 55mm lens weighing 416g, the camera is not a lot heavier than a fully loaded Nikon D3x with a lens. However, despite the manageable weight, it’s not the type of equipment one would casually stroll around with for long periods of time without the help of a comfortable backpack.
Regardless of the format I’m shooting, the way I like to work is to always have a small camera around my neck such as the GF1. It’s a great camera for casual shots and getting a feel for a scene. If there is something compelling that warrants more photographic love, the bigger camera comes out.
The samples below are all hand held and can produce pretty large prints if desired. The mirror shake of the camera seems to be dampened pretty well by the body and even if some resolution is lost due to camera shake, the effects are far less visible than they would be on a smaller sensor. The camera feels very comfortable in the hand and is very fun to shoot with. It’s easy to forget that each image is essentially a 4×5 quality file because of how the camera handles.
The auto focus on the camera works well, so does the metering in most situations. I did find myself adjusting the exposure compensation once in a while as the built in meter seemed to favour under exposure in a few situations where I wanted to expose more to the right of the histogram. The handy green button on the back of the camera resets the exposure compensation back to -0- without having to step back down with the scroll wheel. The same is true for ISO and other settings that get adjusted away from their defaults.
My biggest complaint would be the speed of the previews. Image writes are manageable and I was able to shoot relatively quickly without having to stop and wait for the buffer to clear, but pushing the preview button initiates a file read that seems rather long (5 or so seconds). This is especially problematic if there is a lot going on and one needs to check the image quickly. I realize 40MP raw files are huge but I believe other DMF systems do a little better in this regard.
Fortunately I don’t look at the preview images often and have auto preview turned off to save on battery life (it’s on by default). Speaking of batteries, the camera uses regular Pentax K7/K5 batteries which are pretty cheap so there is no need to purchase specialized cells at $300+. I only took one extra spare battery and never had to use it after a whole day of shooting, your milage may vary.
Longer exposures on a tripod
At night, Havana is not a very busy city besides some of the areas where tourists congregate, so shooting with a tripod is a lot easier due to fewer people getting in the way of longer exposures.
The longest shutter speed the camera will do without switching to bulb mode is 30 seconds. It also seems like the dark frame subtraction routine does not activate until the camera has to go over 30 seconds in bulb mode. I purchased the remote trigger Pentax sells for 39 dollars with the intent to do some longer exposures, but even at f11 with the sensitivity set to 100 ISO, I never managed going over 30 seconds to get a proper exposure with the illumination present on the streets. I will do some long exposure tests that go beyond 30 seconds and update this post with some samples.
The images I did shoot that approached thirty seconds are surprisingly noiseless and have a lot of information in the shadows. I generally avoid shooting HDR’s, but the camera makes exposure bracketing very easy. A dedicated button enables the feature and one of the scroll wheels allows setting the number of shots (up to 5) and the level of exposure compensation (up to 3 stops in 1/4 stop increments). You can also specify exclusively over or under exposures. I find this feature handy because there are many scenes that don’t require both over and under bracketing. In fact, for some of the shots I was only doing a two stop under exposure to capture a little bit more texture on walls that were getting too hot from street lights. The single shot bracketing feature is my favourite because I don’t need to push or hold the trigger multiple times to bracket. Once mirror lockup is engaged, pushing the trigger will shoot multiple exposures without mirror slap causing pixel alignment problems later on.
When shooting black and white or color negative on my 4×5, highlight detail in high contrast scenes is retained surprisingly well for one shot. I still have some issues with the way digital capture handles the transition towards over exposure, but the Pentax did not seem to suffer from any strange fringing or chromatic aberrations around areas of over exposure like some other digital cameras I have seen or owned. In practical terms, one can under expose the image to retain the highlights and lift the shadows up without a lot of noise creeping in on the final print. While not ideal, it’s another option before resorting to combining exposures or full fledged HDR capture. Bellow is an example of extreme under exposure and how much data there is in the shadows. This is definitely not something that can happen when shooting JPEG’s.
While portraits are not my primary interest, I always enjoy pictures of people. I never tried the Pentax in a studio setting (something I still mean to try), but did end up taking some informal portraits with it while walking around the street or with friends and family. In the past I tried to experiment with some portraits on the 4×5 camera and it’s very hard to get a good expression with only one shot and a brief pause while the film holder is being flipped.
The great thing about the Pentax is that it’s a lot easier to catch an off guard expression due to the speed of the camera compared to other large format cameras. It’s definitely not the burst shooting for a lucky frame approach that some of the sports DSLR’s cater to, but I don’t mind that. Some people would definitely have a problem with that, but none of the MFD’s do burst shooting at a level that approaches the faster Nikon’s or Canon’s anyway.
My initial impression of the camera is great. It’s very fun to shoot with and it’s often easy to forget that each file is the equivalent or better in some cases to a 4×5 scan that is a lot more difficult to obtain. With the huge cost of film and processing gone, the opportunities for more experimentation are endless. The full weather sealing on the camera provides extra opportunities for image gathering in pretty extreme conditions which I intend to test in the upcoming winter months.
Hopefully this has been useful for anyone who is looking to get into digital medium format. My intention is to update this page with more samples and observations as I continue to use the camera.