I do not make statements like the one found in the title of this article lightly. I only came to this conclusion after shooting with the Pentax for the past three months, in various conditions and locations around California, weighing the opinions of photographers I greatly respect. It wasn’t a revelation that came suddenly, but a feeling that developed slowly over time. The Pentax went from being a big, bulky camera, to a wonderful tool, to something I loved. When it came time to box up the Pentax 645z and return it to it’s home at Ricoh, it felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend. A friend that, without him in my day to day life, things suddenly feel somewhat… lacking.
If you’ve ever shot medium format before, there is a general understanding of what will happen when you do so. It’s not easy. There is a learning curve. Photos will look bad for a while. You must learn to deal with poor, slow, inaccurate autofocus. Dust, dirt and grime are a problem. Battery issues abound. ISO performance, even on newer CMOS backs, is pretty poor. Maximum frames per second are slow. But you deal with it, for exceptional image quality and size. That was what I was expecting when the Pentax arrived at my door. That is not what I received. The Pentax 645z showed me what medium format should be by being everything all its competitors are not. Let me address these one by one.
The Pentax is easy, and there is no learning curve. Your photos will look amazing.
Shooting with the Pentax felt like shooting with any Canon, Nikon or Sony I’ve ever held. It felt like both a Rebel T6i and a D810. What I mean to say is, everything was simple, intuitive and just felt right. The way the Pentax captures images felt just like any other DSLR. It didn’t feel special, or finicky, or better. And that’s probably why I like it so much. The Pentax captures outstanding images without feeling like a camera that knows it’s better than other cameras. It’s not pretentious, it’s just a tool. It’s a workhorse camera that performs like one.
The autofocus is wonderful.
Look, it’s no sport shooter’s camera, but I can’t describe the Pentax’s autofocus performance as anything less than snappy, pleasant, fast and accurate. It honestly shocked me when I first shot with the camera, as prior experience with medium format led me to believe that I was to expect sluggish, 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, shadows… the Pentax took all situations in stride. Better yet, there is no need for an autofocus assist beam, making portraits much more pleasant for the folks on the other end of the lens. In short, it felt like a standard 35mm DSLR.
Dust, dirt and grime are not a problem: the Pentax is weather sealed.
If you’ve ever shot with medium format, or better yet if you’ve owned medium format, you probably understand the concept of babying the camera. It’s not something that generally can take a lot of stress, water, dust, etc. The Pentax throws those conventions out the window. You can shoot in fog, rain, snow, through dust storms, and on the beach without ever worrying that the camera is in any danger.
Battery lasts a very long time, and there is only one of them!
On some medium format cameras, not only do you have to deal with mediocre to 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 Pentax functions like a DSLR, and I’ve shot for days in a row without having to replace the battery.
ISO performance is shockingly impressive.
On most DSLRs, you will find most photographers don’t shoot above a certain ISO range for fear of losing quality. That tends to be around 3200 or 6400, depending on the model and can even dip to around 1600 for the most conservative photographers. Shooting at those ISO ranges on medium format is normally laughable, especially on CCD sensors but even still on newer CMOS backs. In shooting with the Pentax, I found that the ISO performance was glorious through ISO 3200, and even more than usable in this photographer’s opinion at as high as ISO 12,800. Going up as high as ISO of 51,200 and up to the maximum does look pretty bad, but I don’t think anyone ever expects any camera to work well that high, save for the Sony a7S. Getting usable medium format images past ISO 800 is a godsend, and getting quality images (at 100% mind you) as high as 12,800 is absurd, unheard of. 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.
Something else we noticed was that when shooting at higher ISOs, the sensor started to color shift towards blue. It’s nothing serious, but something to keep in mind.
You can pop off three frames per second.
It’s nothing to write home about when looking at all cameras on the market, but when compared with other medium format options, 3 frames is downright lightning fast.
I only have a few complaints with the Pentax, and to me they are considerably minor compared with the benefits of the camera.
1) I found the button placement, layout and the way they interacted with the menu somewhat wonky. Everything of merit is controlled on the back of the camera except ISO, which is oddly placed up near the shutter button by itself. No, this isn’t a big deal at all, but for some reason I had a hard time remembering that when everything else I was dealing with was on the back. The way the back options work with the menu is a bit odd. You can accidentally put yourself inside of a submenu while navigating, for example, autofocus area and then not easily pop yourself back out to quickly adjust white balance. I think this was a problem for me because on Nikon and Canon, if you make a menu adjustment and fire a shot, you’re automatically bumped out to the top menu of anything you were working on. Not in the Pentax. The firmware keeps you locked into where you were, regardless of what the camera is doing. I can absolutely see the benefit, as it’s faster to quickly adjust the white balance if you’re testing a shot. It’s only frustrating because of how everyone else does it, and because the Pentax shoots and feels so much like a Canon or Nikon DSLR, it’s hard to pop my brain out of that shooting formula.
2) You can accidentally change functions and have no idea how to revert them. One such example was that I was playing with some of the options, and then suddenly every photo I took was coming in upside down when I dropped them into my computer. I’m sure this is easy to fix and I sound like a dope for having problems, but I was only able to get things back to normal by just resetting the camera to factory defaults.
3) The firmware feels a bit sluggish, especially when attempting to recall photos. You also can’t quickly adjust any settings until after the Pentax is finished writing to the card. Even using super high-end memory cards, the Pentax often had a hard time quickly bringing up photos I had just taken. Though they appear immediately on the back LCD right after I take them, hitting the play button to go through the last few can take 5-9 seconds at times, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is if a client or friend is staring over your shoulder. It felt like the camera’s firmware was just sluggish, and that the processor inside the camera was perhaps too weak to handle the large files it was writing. Also, after taking a photo, you have to wait for the camera to fully finish writing to the card before you can adjust any settings. I don’t know about you, but I’m used to flicking dials constantly, adjusting exposure as I’m shooting, and that just wasn’t possible with the Pentax. It does force you to slow down a little bit, not as much as other medium format cameras, but enough to remind you that it isn’t a DSLR. Maybe that’s a good thing.
4) The video quality is downright awful. Firstly, if the camera is moving at all during capture, you are going to get some crazy wild vibration on a level I’ve never seen before in any other camera. It’s as if the sensor itself is vibrating slightly, in addition to the vibrations you get from simply walking, making hand held footage utterly impossible. This would be ok if tripoded footage looked any better, but unfortunately it doesn’t. Textures are muddy, quality feels “dated” and blacks are utterly crushed. The video dynamic range was rather bad, and it’s not something I would ever shoot with. This is unfortunate, because I believe there is quite a bit to be excited about when it comes to medium format video. The Pentax, sadly, isn’t going to be the source of that excitement. The only reason I care about this, as I would have never shot video with the camera to begin with, is that it is a major selling point of the 645z for Pentax. If the video features weren’t so up-played by the marketing, I would not hold it against the camera. Unfortunately, if it’s going to be touted as a selling point, I must judge it as harshly as I judge any of the other features.
5) The tilt screen is great. It’s beautiful and renders images well, but it being so good and the options on the menu screen looking so much like buttons, it’s a shame it doesn’t have touch functionality.
Let’s talk dynamic range, because that’s the kind of thing people go to a medium format camera for. The camera can be told to shoot to both Adobe DNG as well as proprietary Pentax raw. In both situations, the files are pretty much identical when bringing them into Photoshop or Lightroom. The post processing power you get with the Pentax is probably the major reason you’ll want to shoot with it, because what you can do is truly spectacular. 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 doesn’t look out of place. The claimed 14 stops of dynamic range are indeed present, and they’re truly glorious to behold.
From a broader perspective, I’m going to try and explain what shooting with the Pentax feels like. It’s not something that’s easily done. I can tell you that the build quality feels solid and robust. I can say that the grip feels wonderful and that the interface is responsive. I can tell you that the rear LCD that tilts is pleasant and welcome. That though the body of the camera is heavy, it doesn’t feel unnecessarily “weighty.” I could tell you that the lenses, both the 55mm and the 90mm that I shot with, were lovely to use and felt at home on the body. All of these things are true, but none of them really encompasses the true feeling, the soul of the camera. The Pentax feels like a partner. 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.
I don’t think we can talk about the Pentax without looking at its price point: it’s so affordable compared to what we are used to seeing out of Leica, Phase One and Hasselblad. In fact, it’s comically cheap 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 and smaller keep getting better, then price points like the Pentax have to be hit. 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.
- Outstanding dynamic range, color rendition and sharpness
- Weather sealed
- DSLR-like autofocus performance
- Great battery life
- Shockingly good ISO performance, usable well past what is expected of medium format or even APS-C and Micro Four Thirds
- Speedy 3 FPS shooting
- Great tilting rear LCD
- Incredible price point
- Firmware feels sluggish at times
- Both the 55mm and 90mm lenses produced noticeable chromatic aberration, and other lens options are more limited than with other formats
- Button placement and their interaction with the menu takes getting used to
- Horrible video quality
When scoring the Pentax 645z, I find myself wanting to compare it to something like a Canon 5D Mark III, 1DX or Nikon D810 or D4. And wanting to do that rather than compare it to the Phase One or Hasselblad equivalents should speak volumes on how the camera performed. It shoots images with that much sought after “medium format feel” without being encumbered by traditionally what it means to shoot with medium format. When compared to modern high-end 35mm DSLRs, it’s an amazing camera. But that’s not where we need to be placing the 645z. It needs to be placed up against other medium format. When compared to its real competition, it’s far and away the best possible option in my opinion. I could not be happier with the Pentax 645z, and more depressed without it in my life.
We give the Pentax 645z a perfect five out of five stars for absolutely blowing the medium format competition out of the water, and bringing the larger sensor size into a package that feels like a partner, not a burden.