The Pentax 645z: is this my digital Dream Come True?

I thought it might be useful to hear about my experience with this game changing medium format camera, since most of the reviews I read were by men.  While I‘m not a techie and I don’t generally care about the latest gadgets, I do love good tools that are solidly built, feel good in the hands, and inspire me creatively.  I was recently at the Palm Springs Photo Festival, and thanks to the Ricoh-Pentax folks, had the opportunity to shoot for a couple of days with a Pentax 645z medium format camera.  Touted as an “impossible dream come true,” the designers earnestly claim “We hear your every desire…We expect that pictures nobody has ever seen can be taken…Can shoot superb pictures with a very ordinary use.”  This poetry continues on the inside of the box, which charmingly greets you with the statement “Our Promise – Wish to be a companion to form important moments in your life.  Always with you.”  How sweet!  So is this really my dream camera come to life?

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How does it feel to hold and use?  One thing I look for in a camera is that feels like an extension of my arm.  One that I can use and carry comfortably and intuitively.  When I first picked up the camera, I was a bit intimidated, and thought whoa this thing is a beast!  Coming from a 35 mm DSLR, the 645 takes a moment to get used to.  But after shooting with it for a while, it felt right – nicely balanced, with a well-shaped grip, and everything where it should be.  As with all things Pentax, the camera and lenses reflect a design principle of form equals function.  It is sleek and lovely yet utilitarian, it is simple to use, and it obviously had input from real photographers in the design.  You’d think that everyone would design cameras for the needs of actual photographers, but some do it better than others, and this camera is a stand out.  The necessary controls and functions are easy to access, so you don’t get lost in the menus.  I like manual everything, but I know that menus are necessary these days, and the ones on the 645z are simple and make sense.   It also has this lovely patterned matte black finish, with what look like miniature water droplets on it, and a nice quality rubber grip.

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In terms of portability, I hiked around a horse ranch one day, and up and down Indian Canyon the next, in 100 F temperatures, and didn’t feel too weighed down carrying the camera over my shoulder.  I took it to a wedding, which was down a steep hillside to the beach.  I carried it around all afternoon and evening, shooting candids.  I am rather petite, and it‘s tough for me to lug a lot of gear, but in practice I found that once you add a lens, the 645z with a lens isn’t much heavier than my Canon 5DIII.  It’s quite a bit heavier than my Fuji EX-2, which I can wear like an accessory, but then the Fuji doesn’t have near the image quality.  And it’s lighter than a Canon 1D with a lens.  Bottom line: the Pentax won’t fit in your pocket, but it’s surprisingly portable.  I found it pretty comfortable to shoot hand-held, and I have small hands.  It is possible to carry it with you, as long as you aren’t backpacking.  I was able to fit the camera and lens, as well as some personal accessories, into my small Kelly Moore B-Hobo camera bag (that looks just like a purse).  Very stealthy.

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The viewfinder is big, bright, and nice!  I can actually see to focus, and at near full coverage, I can see what I’m including in the frame.  I tend to be what Amy Arbus calls a “bottom cropper” meaning that I include the top of people’s heads but sometimes at the expense of their feet, so I need to see where my edges are.

The tilted LCD monitor is something I didn’t know I’d love until I used it. You can enlarge for focusing in live view, and can shoot from odd angles.  I don’t have one on any of my other cameras, and never missed it before, but found that this one is surprisingly useful.

The sensor is really amazing.  When I opened my first files, I kept repeating “Holy ____, holy ____, holy ____!”  The images are luscious, with a look that is something different from 35 mm cameras.

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The aspect ratio is something I particularly love.  The 4:3 reminds me of 4×5 film.  This is of course a matter of taste, but it’s how I see, and how I frame in my mind.  I’m forever cropping and content-aware filling 35mm images to get this subconsciously optimal ratio.  The 645z does it for me right in camera, and gives me effortlessly pleasing framing.

ISO 204800!  No, that is not a typo.  The image quality falls off if pushed to that extreme, but the images look pretty darned fantastic at 6,400.

The dynamic range is a what really astonished me.  A couple of times, messing with the controls, and shooting mostly manual, I shot images that were way too dark.  I thought they were destined for the trash, but on a whim, opened a few in Camera Raw, and increased the exposure dramatically.  Presto there they were – close to perfect.  No weird color aberrations, very little discernible noise, no noticeable loss of detail!  What??  Who needs the zone system?  Simply make sure you don’t clip the highlights, and you’re good.  You can bring back the shadows practically from the dead (even from stuff too dark to see with one’s eye in the original file).  I’ve read estimates of at least a 10 stop range in available exposure, possibly up to 14.  What this forgivingly wide exposure latitude means for me in practice is one less thing to worry about, so that I can focus on the moment.

IMGP0524Brooke©

Color rendition is superb.  Right out of the camera the color is beautiful, rich and haunting.  The Ricoh engineers describe designing “colors with constraints,” and “color reproduction based on memory of colors instead of uninspiring fidelity.”  I’m not exactly sure what those charming phrases mean, but if they mean gorgeous rich-yet-subtle colors, they’ve done it!

File size – these are big honkers.  Two 32 SD cards full crashed my laptop.  They are 14 bit, and take a minute to render, but you’ll forget the wait when you see what comes up!  It’s like darkroom days, and when I would do a little happy dance upon seeing the image for the first time.

Bonus Points for being weather-proofed!  I think this might be a first in MF cameras? That’s good for me, because I’m hard on my equipment.  I’ve been known to take my camera to places like Burning Man, where fine caustic dust is blowing most of the time.  It’s like being shaken in a big bag of flour.  For a week.  This camera can likely handle it. There are videos of people pouring water on it.  I’m not about to try that, but feel free.  Let me know how that works out.

There is another new to me shooting mode which is a combination aperture and shutter speed priority, called TAV, where you set both and the camera sets the ISO depending on the lighting conditions.   This strikes me as very useful for street or on the go portrait shoots, where I am moving and the light is changing constantly.  The Pentax can handle variable ISOs because the dynamic range is so broad, and because ISOs up to 6400 are really low noise.  You can also limit the range of ISO in the menu.

Seagulls©EricaKellyMartin2015

I printed a few images 13×19 and 17×22 , and they were stunning.  As the Pentax site says, print large so that you can “find the subtlety with your eyes.”

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I do have a few quibbles.

On the Pentax, there are two dedicated buttons just behind the trigger button for EV and ISO.  You have to push down on the EV or ISO button (near the trigger), and simultaneously turn the rear wheel, and while the adjustment is visible in the viewfinder, I find that I have to take my eye from the viewfinder find the buttons.  In my Canon, I can just press the shutter button down halfway, while adjusting the wheel in the back one-handed without taking my eyes from the viewfinder.  At least the Pentax has dedicated exterior buttons for these two necessary adjustments, something many cameras make you search for by cycling through the menus.

As others have noted, there doesn’t appear to be a high-speed sync.  While I use this rarely, it is a lovely option to have for outdoor portraits using flash.  I plan to see if this can dealt with by using a neutral density filter and a low ISO (so that you can use a wider aperture and thus take advantage of the camera’s delicious bokeh).  [To the techies out there – perhaps this is something that can be rectified in a firmware update?]

The auto-focus hunts in low light or low contrast situations, but then I am comparing it to my Canon DSLR AF, which is probably not fair.  For a medium format camera, the AF is pretty great, and when it hits it is very accurate.  I’m usually focusing on my subject’s eyes, and using shallow depth of field, so I need accuracy.  Also, manual focus works great, since the optical viewfinder is big and bright, as does AF in the live view mode (where you can zoom way in).

The only options for timer are 2 and 12 seconds.  Maybe someone more technically adept can tell me how to delay the shutter release for a longer period of time?  One solution of course is to get a remote trigger.  Hopefully there is one that is radio controlled.

The rear screen seems to give the image a flat look as well as a greenish tint in playback mode.  I keep thinking the pictures are turning out badly when I review them in the field. Viewed on a calibrated monitor, however, the colors are glorious.  Maybe my viewing screen needs adjusting somehow, but I found this to be the case in both the loaner camera and the one that is now mine.

As a minor point, there’s some unnecessary stuff on the camera cluttering up the menus.  Oddly, the Pentax folks state that they want you to be able to create images “without need for a personal computer,” and so put phone app and point and shoot type filters and other jpeg features directly into the camera.  I’m not a fan of this sort of complication, and feel that anyone who is drawn to this camera is likely shooting in RAW and editing their images on a computer, rather than exporting them to social media directly from the camera.

The manual is pretty darn difficult to understand.  While charmingly poetic phrases are nice on the box and website, I do not want a manual written in haiku.  Thankfully the camera is pretty self-explanatory, at least for the simple stuff.  And at least there is a useful index.

And finally…the Price.  As the Ricoh folks state, it’s “on sale at the barely reasonable price of…”  I’ve always always wanted to shoot medium format digital, but with most cameras at the price of a new car, it felt out of my range.  While this camera ain’t exactly cheap, one could at least conceivably save up for it.  By way of comparison, it’s roughly a third the price of competing MF cameras, containing the same large CMOS sensor, or conversely, about twice as much as the upcoming 51 mp Canon 5D (which has the same megapixel count, but a smaller sensor).  It is also designed so that it can use older lenses, which could save you a bit.   I’m saving my pennies for the very expensive but remarkable 90/2.8.

IMGP0598Sharon©

In conclusion, after using the Pentax 645z for a couple of days, I knew I had to have one. This camera is seriously magical.  The new sensor is big, but the magic is more than that.  It sees just exactly the way I see, it feels good to use, it is intuitively designed, it’s sturdy, and the image quality is jaw dropping.  The medium format means that the bokeh is so lovely it makes me cry.  For me, it is a fantasy come true, a tool full of possibilities, and finally the digital camera I’ve been waiting for.  Pinch me I must be dreaming!

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4 Responses to The Pentax 645z: is this my digital Dream Come True?

  1. Great review, Erica. Thanks for sparing me all the tech details that are easily available elsewhere. I like your practical evaluation of just horsing the thing around and that it didn’t get in the way of making stunning pics (love the white hat and sultry eye above…what dynamic range!) because it was “bulky” or too “slow” to maneuver. I’m on the cusp, the cusp I say, of getting one for landscape and static wildlife photography. I have the mysterious, but legendary Pentax 67 M*800mm f/5.6 that I am dying to slap on the “Z”. Stay tuned. David

    • Thank you David. I think it would be an excellent choice for landscape due to the detail and dynamic range. For wildlife, it might be a bit tougher, but you could always increase the depth of field. Looking forward to seeing your work. Best, – Erica

  2. Michael Mancilla says:

    Thank you very much for a complete,thought out review with great photographs to illustrate your points, I appreciate the fact you did not go into the technical aspects of the camera as I can get that from hundreds of other reviews. As I am an avid and passionate amateur photographer this is the first medium format camera that I can justify spending this kind of money for a hobby, I will do just what you suggested, I will save money and buy myself the last camera I’ll ever buy. Thank you again for the great review, if you don’t mind a follow-up question, what lens are you using for the portraits of the young ladies?

    • Hi Michael – I was using both the Pentax 55 and the Pentax 90 macro, both of which are stunning and were made for this camera. I also have the older 120 macro, which is nice for closer portraits as well as macro, but noisier and hunts more when focusing. I haven’t yet tried the zoom, but hoping to soon. All the best, Erica

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