I had the opportunity to borrow a Pentax 645z medium format digital camera for a week, thanks to Pentax and the nice folks at Bedford Camera in Oklahoma City. They sent it with a 90 mm F2.8 lens and said “shoot it for a week and let everyone know what you think”. Roger that.
First off, my review won’t be a technical bit by bit review. Those are available at a variety of web sites including DP Review. Instead, my review is going to be from the standpoint of a busy editorial and commercial photographer based in Oklahoma. Not New York or California or even Chicago. But right here in middle America, where we drink beer, ride horses, root for our football and basketball teams, drive tractors, and search for oil and natural gas. My review is focused on usability and suitability for the work I do for magazines, web sites, and commercial clients.
Let me bring you up to date if you don’t regularly follow my blog. Earlier this week Pentax, through my local dealer Bedford Camera and Video in Oklahoma City, loaned me a Pentax 645z medium format digital camera, along with a Pentax 90 mm F2.8 lens. No restriction, no requests other than to shoot with it and blog about my results and opinions. I get it for one week. During that week I have six editorial jobs and one commercial job to shoot here in Oklahoma.
Now because I am shooting for magazine clients who want to be the first to run the pictures, I can’t show you the pictures from the actual assignments. I have taken a few pictures before and after the assignments which I can show.
First up, I really like how the camera feels and operates. That is very important to me. As a busy commercial and editorial photographer in Oklahoma, I get a lot of assignments and don’t have a lot of time to learn a new camera system. I picked the camera up at 2 pm and was shooting client job at 6 pm with it. Not as my primary camera mind you, but for some extra grab shots once I had the assignment “in the bag”. I shoot a lot of environmental portraits. Luckily so far this week my subjects have been patient and offered me plenty of time in front of the camera. Sometimes I only have a few minutes to get the job done and I wouldn’t have time to fiddle with a new camera, but this week my subjects have been much more relaxed and not pressed for time.
It is important for me as a busy photographer that a camera handle well. I need easily accessible buttons and dials to change important, regularly used settings. I HATE digging around in menus to change settings on a camera. I want to be able to quickly push one button say for ISO and spin a dial to change my ISO, rather than fiddling with an ISO setting on a touch screen. Same goes for white balance, aperture and shutter speeds, focus points, metering pattern, exposure compensation (although I shoot manual exposure 98% of the time). Those settings need to be easy to find and quick to set. Luckily the Pentax 645z offers clearly labeled buttons and dials to change this oft-used settings. The buttons are in different places than my Nikon’s but I can learn those locations and if I used the camera often I would learn the location of the buttons. For now I have to hunt around a bit but that is just familiarity with the product and will get better over time.
De-couple autofocus from shutter (aka back button focus)
I also like the ability to customize the camera to my shooting style. For example, like most professional photographers, I prefer to uncouple the autofocus feature from the shutter release button and instead use a button on the rear of the camera to focus while using the shutter button to fire the shutter. Often it is called “back button focus” although I feel that is a bit misleading. With the Pentax 645z the rear AF focus button is in a slightly different place than my Nikon cameras and doesn’t fall as quickly under my thumb, but with use I will figure out where the rear AF button is located and become familiar with it. So good move there by Pentax. It did take me a while to find this setting in the menus, since it is NOT located under “Shutter” customization in the menu system. Instead it is located under a strangely labeled AF2 menu. You go to FOCUS (makes sense) and you have the option of choosing AF1 or AF2. I had to poke around to discover that AF2 setting turns off focus on the shutter and only focuses with the rear AF button. Problem solved.
Reversing front and Rear Dials
Another thing that frustrated me at first was the front and rear command dials were reversed from my Nikon cameras. That is fine if you are a bass-ackwards Canon shooter, but Nikon has the world figured out and does their command dials right. I ended up digging through the menus on the Pentax 645z and found where I could reverse the command dials – shutter on rear command dial, aperture on the front – just like God and Nikon intended them to be. Problem solved.
One of the nicest features for me was the huge, big, bright viewfinder. If you are used to always shooting with a 35mm camera, you will be amazed at how much brighter a medium format viewfinder is. And the Pentax doesn’t disappoint. I absolutely LOVE the viewfinder in my older Pentax 6×7 camera and the viewfinder in the 645z is nearly as good. A bright viewfinder makes manual focusing so much easier. I mostly use auto-focus, and the Pentax 645z had a nice autofocus system (not as good as Nikon but still pretty good) but it is nice to have the ability to easily and quickly override autofocus or just confirm the subject is in focus. And when shooting at 50 megapixels, anything out of focus is clearly visible. When I first started shooting with my Nikon D800e I learned that higher megapixel counts means that any flaw in your technique is easily detectable. That is even more true with the Pentax 645z. You gotta make sure the camera is in focus and nice and stable to maximize the quality of the image, and the big bright viewfinder certainly helps in that regards.
The Pentax 645z handles like a dream. The grip is fantastic. The camera and lens is a bit heavy, but not all that much heavier than my Nikon D3s with a zoom lens. All the controls fall right to place (although the back button focus is slightly different location than Nikon) and the dials are clearly marked. I was up and shooting with the camera literally in just a few minutes. I later customized the camera to my liking but right out of the box the Pentax was easily to use and hold.
Tilting LCD Screen
I didn’t get a chance to use the tilting LCD screen, but I can see that feature, coupled with live view, being something that would make getting a low shot much, much easier. I believe all pro cameras should have a tilting LCD screen.
I wasn’t really wild about the menu system in the Pentax 645z. Several menus were represented by icons rather than words, and navigating the menus I felt was quite clumsy. I especially didn’t like the fact that to exit a menu I had to hit the MENU button rather than the back button on the toggle switch. I would use the toggle button for up, down, and to go deeper into the menus, but to back out of a menu I have to hit an entirely different button? Common Pentax, go buy a Nikon camera and see how they do menus. Replicate.
The image quality is exactly what I expected – excellent. I think most any pro level camera will produce outstanding images with good glass. These are 50 megapixel images with a big sensor size so just outstanding quality. It seems to have decent low light capability. I shot a few pics at ISO 12,800 and as you can see below, they are very good. I also like the option of storing images in Adobe DNG format, which is non-proprietary. One worry I have is shooting RAW images that years from now cannot be read. I am not too worried about that problem with Nikon or Canon, but Pentax? Maybe. But I think by keeping the images in DNG format it is more likely SOMETHING will read them in the future.
A wide dynamic range is where the Pentax 645z really shines. Holy cow. I took several pictures that I thought “no way is the camera going to capture both the highlights and shadows of this image.” Even looking at the image on the LCD screen I would think “never recover those shadows.” But I would look at the histogram and see that yes, there was still plenty of dynamic range in the image and I wasn’t even close to clipping the shadows. I found a feature in the menus that allowed me to overlay the histogram on top of the image and got where I would shoot this way. I could confirm if needed that the image would fit within the dynamic range and know I had a good photo without even looking at the actual photo. I could later bring the DNG file into lightroom and recover an amazing amount of shadow detail without clipping the highlights. So the key to shooting the Pentax 645z effectively is to watch for the highlights and make sure you don’t clip those, then check the histogram to make sure you didn’t crush the blacks – seldom would a picture do that except in the brightest of sunlight.
Based on my week of shooting, I would easily proclaim the Pentax 645z sensor as the best I have ever used, bar none, especially when it comes to dynamic range.
Take a look at this photo. If you click through twice you can pull up the full sized JPEG image. When I took this photo I was thinking “no way the Pentax can handle this dynamic range.” Even on the LCD screen it looked like the grass and the combine were way too dark to recover detail in the shadows. I exposed for the sunset but thought this photo would be unusable. I switched to my Nikon Df and a flash to grab the photo, and used flash to fill in the foreground, which I thought was going to be way too dark. I get back and pulled the image up in lightroom and I notice there is a surprising amount of detail still in the shadows. I did a bit of work in Lightroom and WOW, I was amazed at how well this photo turned out from the Pentax 645z. It was WAY better than my Nikon photo of the same subject and much more natural without flash. This photo is a great example of the huge dynamic range of the Pentax 645z and specifically the Sony CMOS sensor used in the camera. Nice job Pentax, nice job.
To help expose for the highlights, I was able to turn on highlight notification, also known as “the red blinkies”. In other words, blown highlights would flash on the LCD panel in the picture. I am used to this from shooting video cameras and it is a very welcome feature in a still camera. While not technically “zebra stripes” it functions the same way and quickly shows me when the highlights of the image are blown. I loved this feature and it would allow me to quickly adjust my camera settings so as not to blow the highlights. With well over 10 stops of dynamic range from the 51 megapixel Sony sensor, that left plenty of room for shadow detail in the photo.
I was unable to use the Pentax 645z with my flash system so I didn’t get to test it much. During one of my assignments I tried connecting my Pocketwizard to the Pentax but couldn’t get it to work, and didn’t have time to troubleshoot it at the time. Later I played with flash at home and got everything to work. I was a bit disappointed in the fact that maximum flash sync speed of the Pentax 645z is only 1/125 second. That is going to be a major problem shooting outdoors, especially shooting action sports with mixed ambient/flash lighting.
I was afraid that dealing with 51 megapixel images was really going to slow down my workflow. Dealing with 36 megapixel images from my Nikon D800e is not all that fast. I do have a very fast computer, gigabit network and a fairly fast 20 terabyte NAS server so that certainly helps. I was surprised however that Lightroom seemed to import and render the Pentax files much faster than my Nikon files. I wonder if that was because I shot in DNG format? Not sure, but I do know that handling these large files was really not any slower than dealing with my D800e files. Once imported into lightroom they handled just like anything else. I would not want to be an event photographer trying to deal with these large file sizes, but for my type of shooting they work just fine.
Now for my summary of the Pentax 645z. It is an outstanding camera. Period. Very, very nice. The image quality is awesome, just as I would expect in a medium format camera. The dynamic range blew me away, much BETTER than I expected. I was surprised at how well the camera handled. It handles about as easy as my Nikon D3s or D800e and the weight is really not much of a problem. I LOVE all the manual controls on the camera. For me, manual external controls allow me to work faster and more efficient, and most importantly, allows me to concentrate on my subject and not on the camera settings.
Is the Pentax 645z worth the money? Absolutely. It is a great camera system and the sensor is unbelievable. If you are in the market for a medium format camera, I would highly recommend taking a close look at the Pentax 645z. If you are a pro photographer and want to shoot with a camera that your client’s don’t own, something unique that allows you to stand out and hopefully charge higher prices, the Pentax is a great system that is quite affordable when compared to other medium format digital cameras.
Would I sell all my Nikon gear and get a Pentax? No, not me. I shoot a lot of outdoor action photography and the light weight of my Nikon gear is important to me. I have a huge investment in Nikon glass and flash that just doesn’t make sense for me to replace. I need the ability to jump on a motorcycle and spend two weeks riding dirt trails while capturing images for my clients. That is just not a practical option with the Pentax. Heck, I don’t even take my Nikon D3s on those jobs, instead opting for my Nikon Df and a couple of primes and a flash. If I was shooting mostly portrait work from my truck then the Pentax would be high on my radar. I shoot inside airplanes, from cranes high in the air, from electrical utility poles, from horseback galloping across a wide open pasture. My work as an editorial photographer in Oklahoma and surrounding states means I shoot a wide variety of stories and need the flexibility and portability my Nikon system offers. And I have never had an editorial client complain of image quality from my Nikon gear.
Would I spend the money and ADD the Pentax to my current Nikon gear? That is very tempting. I would love to add the Pentax 645z to my current arsenal of gear. I would use it for all my environmental portrait and studio work, yet still use my Nikon’s for outdoor action work. But I would have to spend upwards of $15,000 to buy the Pentax and a brace of lenses, and right now there are other places I would need to invest that $15K to get a better return. If I picked up some clients that really needed medium format quality and were willing to pay the price for the imagery, then I could better justify the cost. But right now I don’t think the Pentax would make me any MORE money and hence wouldn’t pay for the investment. Maybe in the future?
If I was a wedding photographer would I choose the Pentax? Absolutely. If I shot weddings I would target high end weddings and would want high end equipment to separate me from all the other wedding photographers. Just like weddings photogs used Hassleblad in the past to differentiate them from amateur photogs with 35mm gear, a wedding photographer using a Pentax 645z system would certainly stand out from the crowd and help justify a higher price. The dynamic range would be outstanding and the high quality prints and albums you could produce would be unlike anything else. Yea, if I was a wedding photographer I would take a very serious look at dumping my Nikon/Canon gear and switching to Pentax. Very serious.
If you need medium format quality then be sure and take a close look at the Pentax 645z. It is a dream to use, very affordable as far as medium format cameras go, and produces outstanding images. Enough said.
As I mentioned above, these were just grab photos in between jobs this past week. I shot six assignments and used the Pentax 645z on most of them, at least for a few images. However, because they are for editorial clients to be published in the future, I can’t show those images so you only get these grab shots from in between assignments.
I shot the photo of my friend and fellow pro photographer Rick Cotter the first evening I had the camera. We were at a pro photographer meeting in downtown Oklahoma City. The ISO was set at 12,800 and absolutely no noise reduction was used on the image. This is basically the way it came off the sensor. Very nice.
After the meeting I walked to my truck and grabbed the picture below hand-held around 10 pm with a long 90mm lens, also shot at ISO 12,800. F3.2 at 1/125 shutter. No way any other medium format camera looks this good without camera shake well after dark with a 90 mm lens. This would be a tough shot for my Nikon cameras.
This photo below of a grain elevator in Homestead, Oklahoma was an easy photo. I just pulled over my truck, grabbed the camera, and click. A recent story I wrote and photographed about grain elevators had me looking for good elevator shots to add to my growing stock photo collection.
I stopped by my client’s shop at Tombo Racing and grabbed a few photos around his race bike shop. No flash, shooting indoors. I used the macro feature of the excellent 90 mm F2.8 lens to grab some detail shots of his race bikes, all handheld. Click, boom, done.
One the way home from an assignment in Osage County north of Barnsdall, I stopped at this well known antique store and grabbed a quick picture at sunset. I didn’t have much time to compose the picture and was more interested in seeing the detail the camera could grab. This certainly isn’t an award winning photo and something I would normally never show, but I wanted to share the details of the photo for this review. Click through twice on this image to see a full sized JPEG image and the excellent detail rendered by the Pentax 645z.