(Ed.note: This is not a technical review – that has already been done brilliantly elsewhere (here, here 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.

 

Pentax 645z in the lansdscape

It was dated before it was launched really. The price was high’ish at $10,000 for what you were getting. There were (and still are to an extent) some realistic concerns about the viability of the 645D as a proper platform. Pentax introduced a new 55m (multiply by 0.8 to arrive at the 35mm equivalent focal length) lens to coincide with the 645D launch. In 2012 a specialist wide angle 25mm and a 90mm (with shake reduction, still a first in Medium Format) macro appeared. Legacy glass from the venerable film Pentax 645 existed, yet strangely no new stock of these were made available for the USA market.

There is and was also lack of professional service centres which was also a concern to customers in the USA. This is however now being addressed

By the time Pentax was in a position to start providing any meaningful stock of bodies, Nikon appeared with the D800 in 2012 and sales tanked. As for me, well in all honesty the 645D was just too rich in price and not rich enough in terms of features.

However Ricoh’s acquisition of Pentax was a substantial affirmation that they believed in the brand and its direction. Rumours began circulating (again!) that a 645D replacement would be coming to market. Something had occured to me whilst doing my research into medium format – this area takes years to bring a new product to market. The constant cycle of new new new which exists in DSLR or smaller formats just does not exist. Consequently I new that I had time to save up the pennies and start buying glass. Oh boy is that glass good and (was) exceptionally cheap.

So here we are in 2014. 4 years on from the 645D and the Pentax 645z has been made available for sale. 9 years effectively for 2 cameras to be brought to the market! This time around it felt like a proper product launch and when the specs were announced I was extremely interested. Though it did coincide with my mild flirtation with an A7r.

Why am I interested?

That’s a very good question and tricky to answer. However I will attempt to come at it from a Landscape photographers perspective. I am used to carrying around 15-20Kg of Large Format camera gear – but I have fallen out of love with the hair shirt. Looking over my images I have never fully embraced the use of full compound movements in a way in which say David Ward has. I was using the Technikardan like a large point and shoot…with tilt! The demise of Quickload probably didn’t help – faffing around with film changing tents – erm no.

  • I want to print my images so I have digitise! I dislike the digitising process – flatbed scanners are “ok” but it’s not an easy workflow. The idea that a chrome is the final product is completely wrong, especially now when Cibachrome printing is rare and the realm of experts.
  • Most of all I just don’t have the time to keep up with the craft of using a LF camera. It takes constant practice, otherwise it’s very easy to burn a lot of money, time and effort and end up with nothing.
  • However I like large cameras – they are tactile objects. I don’t mind the weight at all. Usually they are simpler to operate and you can easily use gloves! (Small cameras have their place and I thoroughly enjoy the XT1.)
  • I enjoyed the slowing down and the approach that Large Format taught me, I find I speed up the smaller camera gets! I am quite happy to acknowledge that digital makes the capture straightforward (though obviously that is just the start) yet I have been left wanting with the sensors in my Canon gear.
  • I am loyal to Canon – though I have no real idea why. Yet I have been waiting and waiting for them to reply to the D800/810 and I am sure they are about to (Photokina has come and gone though.) Well I have been thinking that since 2012. (Ed. note – not convinced that the latest Canon 50mp will deliver exactly what I am looking for – they are full frame models of the 7DII and that sensor is still long in the tooth)
  • I don’t usually photograph longer than with a 200mm and I find anything wider than 24mm pushing what I consider “nice” to look at. I use perspective control occasionally and generally with a standard focal length lens in LF (150-210 etc.)
  • I don’t intend to photograph sports or wildlife. I will be retaining my other platforms for other types of work.
  • So we arrive at me wanting a digital camera with a great sensor specifically for landscape photography. I want something that can provide rich detailed files, which I can confidently print large (A2+.) A camera that responds to the careful craft of Large Format with the luxury of digital. A device that I can depend on when the weather sets in (I love photographing in the rain.)
  • The A7r came very close. Yet I wanted to invest in a system for the long term (that’s the key here) and I am not totally convinced that the first iteration of anything is something to buy into (645D…)
  • So medium format back and technical camera then? Sadly not.The Pentax 645z makes perfect sense – to me for my needs at least. Well on paper. The biggest omission I can see for me is the lack of native perspective control lenses that fit the Pentax ( I am aware of the ways around this with focus stacking or 3rd party Frankenstein lenses. More on that later.)

Yummy details

We all like lusting over specs and the camera has more than it’s fair share. However I am not going to get into minutiae. There are a few that do stand out though

  • A native 4:3 ratio. I find this to be incredibly important from a composition perspective. My LF experience has taught me to compose in a portrait orientation and I find the 3:2 of a DSLR just too narrow. Indeed it has been noticeable that since using the DSLR more for landscape work, that most of my images are horizontal. One could crop the 3:2 to a 4:3 ratio but for my 5DIII I am loosing very precious MP. The same does apply of course to the D800 etc. Having the ability to compose the image on the Pentax 645z in the way that I want too without compromise is fantastic.
  • The sensor (oh my) is a CMOS version made by Sony and featuring in Phase One and Hassleblad cameras. Testing on the Pentax 645z has shown that the ISO is clean and useful all the way into 6400. Not much use for landscapes you say…unless you factor in how wonderful it would be for aurora work… or indeed being able to increase the shutter speed when it’s windy. High ISO does indeed have its place in the landscape and I am glad I can use it with confidence. I would like an ISO 50 though
  • Live view: true useful live view that we are accustomed to in DSLR land. With the added twist that it can rotated 180 degrees…just like a LF camera.
  • A 3.2 inch flip out LCD screen – on a medium format camera…really!
  • Mirror lock up – on the outside of the camera (which can in two presses be linked to the 2 second timer.)
  • On the outside virtually every single possible button you need to be able to use the camera…no digging in fiddly menus.
  • Double SD cards for in camera backups.
  • Two tripod lugs – no L plates needed.
  • Water sealed (worth watching.)
  • Finally the price. The Pentax 645z not an inexpensive camera and everyone has a price they are willing or able to pay. I suppose as I own the camera I will justify it! A comparison of sorts could be helpful in showing what one is getting. The Canon 1Dx launched at $6,799 – a very different camera but (at the moment) the top of Canon’s line up and one which many photographers use in the field. I do wonder what they will do when Canon does introduce its higher MP camera…could be an expensive change over. I also wonder what Canon will charge for the privilege. Let’s look at the world of medium format. The 645z comes in at $8489. The 50MP IQ250 launched at $34,990…camera body of your choice and lens on top. A helpful comparison between the two can be found here. For me I wanted a system and will never be able to afford the modularity that the Phase offers. The Hasseleblad h5d-50c is listed at $27,500 on B&H…body only. To me it appears that the Pentax 645z is giving an enormous amount for the price and that represents good, long-term, value. A few things to consider is, that if you are a studio photographer or shoot with flash outside, then Phase and Hassleblad leaf shutter lens selection and higher sync speed knocks the Pentax 645z out of the park. Two things I don’t have to worry about though. Tethering is also supposed to be coming this year to the Pentax 645z (It has now arrived)

Show me show me

I thought I would add in some unboxing shots of the Pentax 65z and then make some initial observations.

The first think that struck me was how very Apple the packaging is (isn’t everything!) Sleek and minimal. In many ways just like the contents. Couple of interesting items were the extra large eye-cup (very much needed) and the “owners card.” This entitles you to two years worth of free sensor cleaning and general health checks with a Pentax service centre. That’s a nice addition, though I wont be carrying it around in my wallet. A single battery is a bit penny pinching – thankfully there are lots of 3rd party providers on the usual sites. One thing to note the battery does come with very minimal power, so you will have to charge it first before you can dive into the camera!

Pentax 645Z Unboxing

 

My immediate reaction was it doesn’t have that new car smell (referencing the price) but it does feel exceptionally well crafted in ones hand. The hand grip is deeply recessed and it allows a full fingered grip. It is very well balanced and the extended depth of the body allows my left hand to easily support the camera underneath. It weighs 1.5kg, compared to an un-gripped 5DIII (c.900g) or a gripped 5DIII (1.6kg.) This camera, with a standard prime lens, can be hand held. After all I used to use my 67ii handheld! It is the same width and height as an un-gripped 5D (each 4-5inches), which means that when planning space in your bag all you have to take into account is its additional length (an additional 3 inches to a total of 6 inches) – a consequence of the larger mirror box. The camera is smaller than say a Phase 645DF without a back on.

Pentax 645Z Unboxing

Moving on to the body itself a few things stand out. Generally manufacturers scrimp on the latches for battery covers and memory card slots; Not the case this time as these feel very robust. The mirror up button is in a very convenient position at the very front of the rhs of the body. The rear LCD is large and bright. The D-pad next to it, in contrast with, say, the XT1, is large and the buttons are raised. The viewfinder is large and very bright – it makes looking into my DSLR seem rather cramped. As I mentioned before the large rubber eye-cup is important as without it my eye-lashes kept getting in the way when pressing against the viewfinder

Pentax 645Z Unboxing

In the images below I have attempted to show a little more detail on the flip-out LCD screen. It extends out quite a reasonable distance from the camera, though it does not rotate if the camera is used in portrait orientation, which is a real shame! Mind you do any of them? Coming from a high end DSLR this was for me a case of “but why.” However the use of these has been brought home with the XT1 (with which I show as a comparison.) They are so effective when having to photograph at head height (crowds) waist level (discrete street photography) or indeed when on a tripod. The fact that this feature is now on a medium format camera shows that Pentax has really tried to pack as much as they can into the camera. The centre right image shows me trying to angle the camera down into the top of a pine tree. Such was the angle of the ground, tripod head positioning etc that being able to articulate the LCD made focusing and absolute breeze. It pulls out of the back of the camera very easily.

Speaking of focusing, Live View is fantastic. Zebras – yes, zoom in wherever you wish – yes 16x zoom in – yes (though not necessary! Show all the information you want or show nothing – yes. Best of all, coming from LF is the ability to rotate the live view 180 degrees. Fantastic! A few presses and voila – compositional nirvana. I wonder if a firmware fix would allow it to be inverted left to right…all I would need then is a loupe, a dark cloth…some Velvia…oh no I have been there before.

Pentax 645Z Review Guy Aubertin Photography

 

Lenses

The lens range for the  Pentax 645z is very extensive for medium-format.

To convert from 645 to get the equivalent 35mm focal length then just multiply by 0.8. The lens ranges from 20-480mm (in the 35mm) There are a large variety of prime lenses (including two leaf shutter lenses) a few zooms and 2 tele-convertors. Extension tubes can be used and there is also a 6×7 lens adapter.

3 types are available with the following designations:

A – these are legacy (1980’s), manual focus and manual aperture selection. These are beautifully made and incredibly well priced on the used market. Unfortunately there is no recording in the EXIF data of the RAW file of the focal length used. There are also no automatic lens profiles in Lightroom.

FA – slightly more recently (1990’s) these are auto focus and auto aperture selection. There are some slight differences between these and the A class lenses including weight, minimum focus distance, dimension and the optical construction. These are also well priced on the used market but can also be bought new.

DA / DFA – launched with the 645D optimised for digital, silent focus and weather sealing. The 3 lenses that fall into this category are expensive. The latest lens ( a wide angle zoom) sells for about £3500

Between them all there are 32 lenses – some are easier to get hold of than others. I have purchased all of my lenses used from eBay and Ffordes here in the UK. Prices are, at the moment, fantastic with the most I have paid being £260 for a lens from Japan.

The web is a wonderful place and I have spent much time browsing and researching based on the experiences of others. Some pertinent links are here and here with a repository of reviews for all of the lenses here. Is there a difference between the optical quality of A and FA lenses? Not that I have seen and certainly not for landscape. The one exception would be the 35mm where the A is rated substantially higher than the FA , due to the greater filed curvature in the later lens. Manual focus is such a breeze on the  Pentax 645z that using A lenses is simple.Pentax 645Z Review Guy Aubertin Photography

The lens line up I have gone for is below

0006-lenstable

This line up covers my preferred subjects. I am debating adding a 300mm lens (in italics).

Lens road map

This is for 2015. Pentax seem likely to replace the 45-85 and 80-160. I suspect they will be very expensive!

Pentax 645 lens roadmap

It is important to remember that the field of view is different on the 645z versus say 35mm. The native 4:3 aspect ratio also makes a difference. I have yet to find the 35mm A, for example, too narrow – it is about as wide I would like to go comfortably and I find it similar to the 90mm in Large Format. That’s just as well as it is probably the most useful wide angle available. The new Pentax 25mm DFA is the only other wide optic but that comes with a significant problem in that filtering the lens with grads is not immediately possible. Custom mounts are being made but are hard to come by. Plus the rather substantial price tag.

The one glaring admission for me is a native perspective control lens. Sufficient depth of field in near/far compositions is a real issue. Diffraction after F16 is (potentially, subject matter depending) a problem as well. In the meantime where the subject allows I am starting to use focus stacking. As an aside Hasselblad lenses can also be used with an adaptor.

Fitting it all together

The lenses I have listed, the camera (with two one 64GB card for RAW files and 1 32gb card for jpegs) and my Lee Filters (though with 13 stops of dynamic range these may well be used less) all fit into a large ICU that then fits into my Fstop Loka. I have added in a few 3rd party extra batteries, though battery life is very good. An aftermarket IR shutter release and a bubble block (still a traditionalist and I find it much faster than flicking buttons on the camera for its levels to appear.) I have also added one of the Skyeskyns sheepskin chamois that Doug mentioned in his article

All together this is a very compact and reasonably light package to carry around. Reducing the lens selection to the two zooms and the 35mm brings the whole thing in at a little over 4kg. Compared to my LF kit or even my 35mm gear this is amazing.

In terms of tripod heads, you can see from the pictures that I am using the rather enormous Manfrotto 405. It is overkill for sure but such a joy to use. The large plates do make the controls on the left hand side of the camera difficult to access and aesthetically they do spoil the lines of the body itself (!). However I have a Markins Q10 on order and some suitable plates.

Images

I have read that sometimes a new tool can be a push into expanding ones creativity. Certainly this camera is giving me the metaphorical push to get out and photograph. It demands a careful approach: m/up, timer, locking everything down, shading the lens, careful focusing and just paying a lot of attention. Apply all of these and the sensor really does deliver. I have never been an ardent pixel peeper. Never used MFD or anything close. I have taken the 100% hyperdrive into 5D III images and have gotten used to mushy details.

The files from the 645z are such a massive jump that 100% viewing now becomes a “WOW” moment. It takes a long time to crawl across a 50mp image. The detail is astonishing. Grass and leaves come alive. Raindrops on far away pieces of bracken….

Yet I am now having to re-learn how to process images. The 14bit files are so full and can take so much “abuse” that extracting and refining is forcing me to re-think Lightroom. For example the RAW files are quite stunningly neutral. I mean really flat. The canned Adobe Standard that come with LR are awful. I have recently found a rather wonderful company that makes profiles for the  Pentax 645z (and a lot of other models) for the very low sum of $10. They make an incredibly good starting point for image development and really do make greens come alive.

The resulting files have a beautiful painterly quality to them. So much so that I am starting to move away from my standard Fotospeed Platinum Baryta towards the Smooth Cotton 300. That medium (!) just seems to work better with the files. Softer, more subtle.

By way of an example here is a reasonably non-descript image. This is a LR developed image that has been sharpened – so it’s a real world example of a file. It’s a focus stack of two 13second exposures, shot at F16 ISO 100 (I could have used a much higher ISO but old habits…) It will print at 34×25 inches using a 240dpi…

 

Pentax 645Z Review Guy Aubertin Photography

For your viewing pleasure 100% crops starting from the image. I suppose my take, after going “ooooh” are that the details being resolved are things that I never actually saw. The fact that you can make out water droplets in image 3 is mind blowing really given the distance from the camera.

Pentax 645Z Review Guy Aubertin Photography

Images taken with the Pentax 645z

Having now worked with the Pentax for a year here are some of my experiences in detail

Closing thoughts

Where to begin.  I can honestly say that it is a joy to use. It has a more features than I will ever need but it has them all in just the right places. It has been designed with photographers in mind. It features arguably the best sensor on the market at the moment and it will cure any GAS that you are likely to have. This is a long term purchase and with a shutter rated at 100,000 actuations I am hopeful that it will give me many years of image making. It has addressed almost all of my personal requirements for a final move from Large Format. That’s not to say that I won’t miss that practice but the flexibility and benefits that the Pentax 645z brings cannot be overlooked.

It is a fantastic landscape photographers camera and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. One thing to note: the 645D is now dramatically falling in price. Andrew Nadolski gave his views in a previous issue and if you don’t want the latest and greatest it is now worth a look. It has a CCD sensor so live view is out but it may just be what you are looking for to take a step into medium format digital. If you are almost interested but don’t quite have the funds then…start buying lenses! The used ones are unsurprisingly disappearing quickly. New copies cost almost 30-50% of the value of the body…

This post first appeared in Onlandscape Magazine – for fantastic and informative fortnightly content delivered to your web browser, please consider taking out a subscription

Images of the camera in use

 Updates Feb 2015

  • I have now used the camera in the rain, snow and hail. Never missed a beat in the 1600 frames I have exposed.
  • I now use the Manfrotto 410 with a custom conversion to an arca plate system
  • I use an Fstop Loka. Originally started with a large shallow ICU but it’s not deep enough either for the body or the lenses to stand on their ends, so I switched to a Large Pro.
  • I don’t find defraction a problem and am happy to use F16 if needed.
  • If using live view ensure that you switch out of before taking an image otherwise you use two actuations
  • For the 200mm lens I use the 12sec timer
  • I have replaced the 80-160A with the FA version, purely on the basis that the front of the lens rotates on the manual version. This is a pain for filer placement and composition changes.
  • I decided not to buy a 300mm but have opted for 1.4x instead
  • When printing I switch off output sharpening in Lightroom

Updates Nov 2015

  • The sensor hates over exposure. I always under expose by one stop and bring back the detail in processing – I have recovered up to 5 stops in extreme circumstances. Noise free shadows!
  • I still find the bulk of the camera re-assuring
  • It has fundamentally changed the way in which I photograph