The heft leaves you thinking if you’re up to the task. The Pentax 645 Z Medium format camera is with all its glory a camera that demands at least as much of the photographer as the photographer demand of the camera. The slow workflow makes you think and visualize every photo before you shoot it.
I started out running and gunning I soon found myself looking at my shots and despite all the technological wonder of this amazing imaging machine, at least a dozen shots came out blurred and lacking anything interesting. The Pentax 645 Z requires you to take the task seriously!
Body, design and features
With a weight of a solid 1550 grams, battery and SD Card included the Pentax 645 Z feels as sturdy as it look. With top-of-the-line 35mm camera from Canon or Nikon in mind, the Pentax is a least as solid and even more so extremely boxy – The trend with even larger sensor cameras getting smaller and smaller (APS-C and even full frame) it’s nice to see Pentax ditch the somewhat hype of a smaller camera and make it as big as possible. Use it as a hammer, go ahead, but note this isn’t a camera you’ll be doing to many selfies with. Let alone the weight I don’t think anyone would ever be able to straight out their arm that much. Who does that anyway 😉
Going from the back to front the first thing you’ll see is the large 3.2″ Sharp tiltable TFT screen dotted with information. As the Pentax 645 Z is a professional photographers tool the ability to customize almost anything you’ll find on the screen is a huge plus. The screen is very sharp although I found it a tad too bright. This is a necessary easy adjustment, even with R G B sliders – how cool is that. The menus are so deep and the Fn options so many I’ll direct you to the manual to read them all. It’s almost overwhelming.
Leaving the menus alone for a second and still keeping our keen look at the back of the camera it’s nice to learn a dedicated button for almost everything you’ll ever need. Sure there’s a quick menu where you can easily scroll through the most common settings, the chances are you’ll use the much simpler and faster button press. A few buttons has a second/third feature but most are dedicated to one function. To mention a few there’s an AE-L, AF, WB, Info, Flash, Timer, ISO, Exposure, RAW, Bracketing and metering buttons to name a few. Then there’s a Photo / movie knob (Yes this medium format camera shoots 1080P video) and a much-loved mirror lockup button.
The viewfinder, aahhh this is viewfinder. In a true Medium Format fashion the Pentax 645 Z boasts a viewfinder the size of the front window in your car. It’s truly a pleasure looking through a finder that rivals that of a larger diameter binoculars. In familiar SLR style you’re find information such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO value if the button is pressed, buffer size and levelometer to make you sure all of your shots are level.
It hard to express how wonderful it is to use a GOOD optical viewfinder for a change but the one you will find in the Pentax 645 Z is better than any D-SLR ever made – Period!
The diopter is a huge chunk of a wheel you can trim so far a blind man is be able to see the information clearly. I love it and it’s going to be a daunting task going back to the Canon EOS 1D viewfinder Again.
On top of the camera you’ll find some of the aforementioned buttons, the mirror lockup knob and the matrix display where in true old school fashion you’ll see most of your settings. In teori you could just flip-up the tiltable screen but with a finder and matrix display this simple, informative,user-friendly and fast so you probably won’t. The grip is deeper than the Mariana Trench and even Andre the Giant would find it comfortable. Most women will probably find the grip too large and deep but I’m sure the trade-off would pay you tenfold in the end.
Removing the included Pentax D FA 645 1:2.8 55mm AL (IF) SDM AW lens (really Pentax, you couldn’t come up with a lengthier name) reveals the huge mirror-box. It’s like opening a lost treasure chest and I found myself starring at it and pressing the shutter just for a quick peek at the awesome 44mm x 33mm Medium Format sensor. It’s like you’re looking into something forbidding, like when you were a kid and discovered about the opposite sex. You’ll do almost anything for a peek even it’s looking into a flapping mirror inside a camera – Nerdgasm is allowed.
Speaking of sensor size it’s actually smaller than what is considered true Medium Format which is 60 x 60mm. You could call this an APS-C sized Medium Format sensor but since most of its competitors uses the same sensor lets just call it Medium Format. Compared to a full frame 35mm sensor it’s about 1.7 times larger. You want shallow depth of field this is the way to go.
If you’re talking about camera’s being a sexy man-made object overall the Pentax 645 Z isn’t it. It’s bulky, longer than wide and with a design sorely made for a purpose. There’s a HUGE Pentax badge on it reminding everyone with a mile radius that this is a Pentax camera (and probably the only one in a mile radius). The camera is much wider and deeper than the included lens and features an oversize base that can hide even the largest Manfrotto lens plate. There’s a base on the right side of the camera to in the same size. An elegant camera the Pentax 645 Z is not. And in all honesty, no Medium Format camera is, well perhaps with exception of the Leica S2 but that’s stretching it.
In use and daily operations
If I told you the Pentax 645 Z functions as well as your enthusiast line D-SLR would you believe me?
The screen is when reviewing your Photos easy to use and well suited for judging whether your latest Photo is a keeper or not. The screen is, as mentioned earlier, a bit too bright leading you to over exposing your images, that is if you relying on the screen for exposure. Luckily as mentioned Pentax allows for adjusting brightness although it’s well tugged away in the menus.
If you choose to solely rely on the screen for exposure there’s a histogram to aid your exposure.
No camera is complete without novice user functions even a Medium Format one and although the camera and it’s use goes completely against what a novice user would buy as a starting camera, the Pentax 645 Z features the almost 100% Automatic P mode. So point-and-shoot a Medium Format camera is an option if you so choose.
In all seriousness you’ll also find Aperture, Shutter or Manual mode.
In Manual mode the camera is a pleasure to use. Everything functions quick and snappy. – The days where Medium Format camera reacted slower than it took to develop film are long gone. The auto-focus feels great with promptly focus acquisition even in more difficult situations. It’s at least on par with entry / enthusiast level D-SLR. Even live-view functions with auto-focus works although it’s nowhere near what you’ll find on modern day Mirrorless or EOS 70D / 7D Mark II D-SLR’s.
As with most higher-end camera’s you can fine-tune the auto-focus if you’re experiencing front or back-focus.
Focus-tracking is somewhat okay again with tracking performance around entry D-SLR level, but chances the Pentax 645 Z would probably never be used for any type of action / BIF photography.
It’s extremely nice to learn that Pentax managed to squeeze out 3 frame per second out of this shutter and circuitry – That’s a huge amount of data!
Pentax claims the buffer is around 25 images deep, a number I never experienced but let’s be fair in call it in the same ballpark. All that data requires the fastest memory card available, if you don’t prepare to wait forever.
There’s 27 selectable AF points with the 25 of these being cross type. Cross type means in theory double the accuracy as the camera searches both on a horizontal and vertical line. In the very center of the sensor there’s three focus point with increased sensitivity when using F/2.8 lenses. It should resolve in increased accuracy and ought make sure a perfect focus every time. Conclusion is it works and it works well!
All the rest of the buttons functions instantly with no lag, the shutter button ditto. You could argue that Pentax D-SLR´ed the Medium Format camera – It’s really that functional and easy to use! If you’re a landscape photographer you’ll enjoy the dedicated mirror-lock knob that ensures a steady shot each time without any hint of mirror slap vibration.
Another feature that you wouldn’t expect to be in this type of camera it the weather sealing, both on the body, hotshoe and lens. A reason to get out and use the camera even if it’s pouring down.
To make sure you never run out of space, Pentax made two SD card slots with backup capability. Simple and effective!
The image quality is hands down the most detailed of any camera in almost any price range. The 51.4 Mpix resolution easily trumps any D-SLR and you’ll be enjoying in finding very fine detail you probably didn’t see when you took the shot. The final image has this Medium Format look that’s hard to explain and easier to show. Go ahead and grab the RAW files.
Looking at 100% crops, an exercise more important than actually taking pictures, or so it seems if you browse the internet, gives you the pleasure of knowing this is how good and sharp a Bayer sensor image can be.
The highlights holds extremely well and there’s a certain distinct film look to it with a lot of micro-contrast detail. It’s not a Foveon micro-contrast but it’s up there..
The Dynamic range of this sensor is more expressive than anything on 35mm. – While not HDR´esque is seems there’s almost no end recovering the highlight and pull out details from underexposed blacks. The highlights rolls off very smooth, something you’ll only see on medium format and the levels of grey to white feels endless. In the studio shooting model or fine details Medium format is king.
In the past you would be hard pressed going past ISO 400 in the CCD based Medium Format cameras, but just like Nikon found out CMOS is vastly superior to CCD in terms on high-ISO (gain) performance, the Pentax 645 Z shows impressive images even at super high ISO. Looking at the highest ISO values is more for show or fun but back off just a little and you’ll be more than satisfied with photos at and around ISO 25600.
Thank to the big sensor, high-resolution and no low pass filter the Pentax 645 Z gives you tons and tons of detail. True to medium format the colors are subtle and muted in a good way. Push them in post and be delighted with smooth colors and low noise in lower ISO’s. The camera seems to capture colors without any color-bias.
The DNG Raw files are available for download and needs a Raw converter to open. Use whatever converter you are comfortable with. You’ll find all the files on my OneDrive right here:
There’s no doubt the Pentax 645 Z was a love relationship albeit a short one. Never have I seen image quality from any kind of digital camera especially in this price range. The Pentax 645 z thrives both in low and high ISO values easily matching the D-SLR in terms of noise and beats it by a healthy margin in detail and latitude. – The Pentax 645 Z handles and feels like a fullframe D-SLR and even boasts the speed of such. AND it shoots 1080P.
In my relatively short time spent with the Pentax 645 Z I was enjoying how capable and easy it is shooting with Medium Format and I’m sad to see it go. Hands down the greatest Pentax camera ever made and in a price range for everyone who’s looking for the best to afford.