Having 24 hours to review the Pentax 645Z I have discovered that appearances can be deceptive. Initially you have the impression the Pentax is a bulky looking Digital SLR. However, after getting hands on, it truly is a medium format game changer. As a medium format photographer familiar with Hasselblad’s and Phase One bodies, it took me a few hours to get used to the functionality of the Pentax.
There is an understanding medium format photographers develop when they first start out. You have to deal with a poor and inaccurate autofocus, dust, dirt and grime can become a problem, ISO performance even on newer digital backs is pretty poor, performance of frames per second are very slow; yet you learn to deal with it. The exceptional image quality medium format cameras provide make up for all these factors. This is what I expected when I picked up the Pentax, yet I was pleasantly surprised. The Pentax 645Z showed me everything a medium format should be, through being everything all its competitors are not.
Shooting with the Pentax felt like shooting with any Canon or Nikon camera I’ve used. It felt quite like a Canon 5DS. The design is simple innovative and the body just feels right. The way the Pentax captures images felt just like any other DSLR camera. The 645Z captures outstanding images without feeling like a camera. I can only describe it as a workhorse, it’s not as stylish looking as a Hasselblad but it is just as good, if not better on the results.
The autofocus is super fast. In the past I have found the autofocus on medium format cameras to be sluggish, yet the Pentax 645Z is a breeze. It was shocked me when I used the camera on a London portrait sitting with a high ranking military official. Prior experience with medium format led me to believe that I was to expect slow, inaccurate and poor performance in all lighting conditions, but especially in low light. The Pentax performed extremely admirably in basically all situations. Bright light, heavy levels of contrast and shadows, the Pentax took all settings in its stride. Better yet, there is no need for an autofocus assist beam, making portraits much more pleasant for your sitters on the other end of the camera. In short, it felt like a standard 35mm DSLR.
Dust, dirt and grime won’t be a problem for you as the Pentax is weather sealed. Medium format camera owners find themselves ever watchful of damage, due to the ruinously high cost of replacing their equipment. The Pentax throws those worries out of the window. You can shoot in fog, rain, snow, through dust storms, and on the beach without ever worrying that your camera is in any danger.
I found the battery lasts a very long time, and there is only one. On some medium format cameras, not only do you have to deal with very poor battery life, but you have to deal with it twice. Some brands require both a battery for the body and one for the back, doubling the amount of recharging you have to do and weighing down your bag with spare batteries, neither of which can be used interchangeably. The 645Z functions like a DSLR, and from quite a long portrait sitting I didn’t have to replace the battery once.
ISO performance is shockingly impressive you will find most photographers don’t shoot above a certain ISO range for fear of losing quality. This tends to be around 3200 or 6400, depending on the model and can even dip to around 1600 for the most photographers. Shooting at these ISO ranges on medium format is normally laughable, especially on CCD sensors but even still on newer Digital backs. When shooting with the Pentax, I found that the ISO performance was amazing through ISO 3200, and even more than usable in this photographer’s opinion at as high as ISO 12,800. For the cleanest looking photos, stay under 1600, but for images that matter more about context than flawless quality (such as photojournalism or weddings), you can expect a lot more from the camera. I did notice when shooting at higher ISOs, the sensor started to colour shift towards blue. It’s nothing serious, but something to keep in mind.
You can capture three frames per second, It’s nothing to shout about when looking at all cameras available on the market, but when compared with other medium format options, 3 frames is downright lightning fast. Now to dynamic range when purchasing a medium format camera this is what you look out for. The camera can be told to shoot to both Adobe DNG as well as standard Pentax RAW. In both situations the files are pretty much identical when uploading them into Photoshop or Lightroom. The post processing power you get with the Pentax 645Z is probably the major reason you’ll want to shoot with it, because what you can do is truly amazing. Images are crisp and sharp as well as enormous and detailed. The dynamic range is wonderful, offering multiple stops up and down in shadows and highlights. You can dramatically alter the lighting in a photo and it won’t look out of place. The claimed 14 stops of dynamic range are indeed present, and they’re truly wonderful to behold.
The build quality feels solid and robust, the grip feels great and the interface is fast and responsive. The rear LCD tilts, functionality is pleasant and welcome. Though the body of the camera is rather heavy it doesn’t feel unnecessarily cumbersome. The 55mm lens I shot with felt at home on the body and provided me with high quality crisp images I hoped for. Nothing really encompasses the true soul of the camera. The Pentax feels like It’s working with you, not for you or against you. It feels like it’s trying to help you create the best possible images.
Looking at its price point it’s so affordable compared to what we are used to seeing out of Phase One and Hasselblad. In fact, it’s amazingly inexpensive when you look at how much you traditionally have to spend on medium format. If medium format is going to continue to exist in a world where the 35mm sensors or smaller keep getting better, then price points like the 645Z have to be achieved. Pentax has the right idea, and it’s amazing that you can start from scratch and have a host of lenses all for less than the cost of a single digital back from either Phase One or Hasselblad.