Pentax 645Z Review
I've decided to write a review about the Pentax 645Z which I've been using now for over a year. At the time when I bought the camera I felt I was taking a massive leap of faith, partly because I was switching over to a completely new camera system and partly because I didn't feel there were a great deal of proper reviews out there. Often the problem I find with camera gear reviews is that they are carried out by online gear sites that follow a standard set of tests, focusing mostly on the technical aspects of the camera with a few shots taken in a back garden/local park or a one day trip to some nearby scenic spot. They don't tell you what it's like to take on a 2 week trip and be used extensively, and they don't give you a review from the point of view of a landscape/wedding/etc photographer but instead tend to be quite generalist.
So while this is a review, I'm not going to go into all the functionality of the camera, or all the technical aspects, because I'm solely a landscape photographer and can only give my opinion based on how I use the camera.
Why I chose this camera
For most of my photographic life I've been a Canon dSLR user. They are great cameras, real workhorses and robustly made. I've dragged them over 10 day hikes in the Himalayas, driven them across dusty Mongolia and stood in the freezing cold winds and rains in Iceland and they've never failed me. But in the background I was always drawn to film cameras, and along the way I picked up a medium format film camera. Its frame ratio was square, and it was very slow to use which meant I had to be prepared to invest proper time in taking shots. Something about the image ratio and the slowness stayed with me and when I became a full time photographer I decided to move away from the standard 35mm dSLR format as a way of changing my approach to photography and started researching digital medium format.
It didn't take too long to realise that they came with a hefty price tag way beyond my means, and they also didn't seem suited to landscape photography. I wasn't going to be owning a digital Hasselblad or Phase One any day soon without selling my house. I then came across the Pentax 645Z. It had the same sensor as some of the newer Hasselblads/Phase Ones, was fully weather sealed and came in at half the price of the cheapest 'Blad. So after reading a limited amount of reviews from people who actually used the camera I decided to buy one and have now been using it for over a year, so here's my take on it.
One year on
So I've taken the camera to the Faroes, Shetland, Iceland and various trips around Ireland. On all these trips I've thrown my kit in a backpack and hiked across hills and fields and rocky coasts and used it more often than not in wet and windy conditions. It gets thrown around and treated as roughly as my Canon gear; this is not like other MF digital cameras which until recently were better suited to the studio. So what are my impressions after using it?
Firstly, the images that this camera can take can be beautiful. I say 'can be' because cameras aren't magic boxes, the best camera in the world is useless if used badly. The main thing I like about the images is the 3:4 ratio of the sensor. Over the last while I've thought a lot about how image ratio plays a part in composition and how photographs are 'read' by the eye and I've often felt that the common 2:3 ratio of SLRs based on 35mm is a little too long and narrow. Unlike a camera which captures everything in its field of view equally; the human eye focuses on individual points, and darts around the scene, jumping from one point to another and essentially 'reading' the scene. As such, if an image is too narrow the eye has to move a lot to take in the whole image; if the eye is drawn to the top right corner of an image, the bottom left corner is far away and falls into your peripheral vision. More often than not I will crop an image to either 1:1 or 4:5 ratio. If I do this on a photo from a 35mm dSLR I lose up to 33% of the image. Whereas the 3:4 ratio is much closer to 4:5 and 1:1, so loses less of the image in cropping. This square crop below still leave me with a 38mp image.
The sensor is also much bigger than a 35mm sensor, almost 70% bigger. Being a 51mp camera, this makes a huge difference to image quality. By increasing the pixel count of a sensor, you're cramming more and more into the same space, the downside of this is that it generates more noise. The Canon 5Ds and 5Dr cameras are 50mp cameras, but the image noise is far worse than the 5Diii 22.3mp. Spread those 50 million sensor pixels over a much bigger area and noise is greatly reduced. The 2% crop of the image below is taken directly from the raw file with no noise reduction.
The image files produced are a chunky 60mb and take a bit more processing power to manipulate on your computer. But it's worth it, as the files retain incredible detail. Smooth tonal transitions minimise posturization, and great retention of shadow and highlight detail allow for recovery of under exposed and slightly blown highlights (although it's always best practice to get the exposure right). The sample crop below is an under exposed image with exposure adjusted 4 stops in Lightroom
Moving from a Canon 5Diii the first big difference is the size. Coupled with the beefy 28-45mm lens, the Pentax is almost double the weight of my 5Diii with a 24mm prime. However, I haven't really found the extra weight to be a problem. I only hand hold my camera while scouting out a shot and the design of the body allows it to be held firmly just like any other dSLR. One of the things I like about the camera is the extra tripod support on the side. I often use my camera in portrait view and being able to position it solidly on top of the tripod instead of tilted 90 degrees to the side makes it feel much more balanced. In a way the extra weight can be an advantage, it takes a pretty strong wind to shake this camera (unlike my lightweight Hasselblad 500cm which can easily be picked up in a wind; the downside to using an ultra light carbon fibre tripod). The image below shows the 645Z with 28-45mm lens sitting beside a Canon 5Diii with 24mm lens.
Despite the bigger size, I found that the buttons are well placed and easily accessible. A few of the features I particularly like are the dedicated mirror up switch, the position of the DOF preview button and the pullout view screen, all of which I use for almost every shot. I always manually focus my shots and my preferred method relies on using DOF preview in conjunction with the digital display on the screen to maximise my DOF (a way of achieving hyperfocal distance without looking up charts or a calculator). As for the pullout screen, I find this very useful and not just a gimmick that only seems to be used on lower end cameras. I'm not sure why Canon don't feel the need to implement this on their pro cameras but I really like it. It allows me to see the screen when the camera is positioned very low without having to crouch down. I also like that the electronic spirit level is visible both through the eyepiece and in Live View, great for always ensuring a level horizon.
Recently there has been a shift towards mirrorless cameras, with the idea that mirrored cameras are a thing of the past. I still prefer the traditional mirror system for several reasons; to look through the viewfinder I don't need to turn the camera on, this saves a lot of battery power, my wife has a mirrorless camera and the battery doesn't last anywhere near as long. Also, I feel that looking at a digital screen separates me somewhat from the scenery, as camera sensors just don't have the versatility of the human eye and looking at a digital representation of a scene just isn't the same for me.
One of the other most notable things about the camera is how slow it is compared to much cheaper pro dSLRs. I'm not too concerned with the sluggish 3fps frame rate as I never have any need to shoot more than 1 frame every few seconds. But the delay between taking a shot and it being displayed on screen for review may be a little slow for some. Most of my shots are long exposures, so waiting a few more seconds for the output doesn't bother me, and, as with shooting film, I find that the slowness of the camera makes me put more effort into my shots to get them right first time, as I don't want to have to keep retaking them to correct issues.
The autofocus isn't anywhere near as good as most pro dSLRs. Due to the size of the sensor the AF system is weighted heavily to the centre of the screen and isn't anywhere near as quick as other cameras. Again, this isn't something that affects me as I manually focus anyway. I did come across this review of the 645Z by Chris Giles, Chris uses it for portrait and weddings which is an area that good AF is key, so I can only assume that the AF system must be decent enough and that the 3fps speed isn't really an issue.
The camera contains a host of other functions and buttons that you would expect on a dSLR. Program Function wheel, buttons for changing AF mode, autobracketing, video recording etc but I don't really use any of these. I leave the camera on either Manual or Bulb mode and either use a handheld meter or Live View for working out exposure.
One of the things that I find strange on professional cameras is that manufacturers often include functions that a professional wouldn't use. There are a bunch of options on the camera for post processing files, but I don't know what photographer would actually do this. The P mode, anyone spending this much on a camera shouldn't really be using this.
Something I feel this camera (and others) is missing is the ability to overlay different crops over the Live View mode. It would be nice to have the option of seeing 1:1, 4:5 etc ratios during composition. But overall, I really have no complaints about it, the key things for me are the images that come out at the end, and how easily the camera lets me achieve these.
Over the last year my photography style has changed immensely, long gone are the days of taking a quick shot. Now everything is slow and deliberate, and this camera has fitted in nicely with that. I treat this camera much like a film camera and use it mostly on full manual. The quality of the images produced are incredible, particularly in areas of fine tonal transition; there's a silky smooth quality that I love.
OK, as far as cameras go, it's pretty pricey, especially when you look at the cost of some of the lenses designed specifically for it. But there is a good range of second hand lenses out there from the older 645 system for pretty cheap that produce great results. However, the end results speak for themselves. The image quality is superb and the camera has a nice feel to it, allowing me to get into a good workflow on location. For me, it was worth the extra investment.
If you have any questions about this camera feel free to use the comments below or get in touch with me direct.