PENTAX 645 REVIEW
I bought my Pentax 645 in the spring of 2007 as a budget way of exploring medium format photography. I had earlier purchased an old TLR, Czech made called the Flexaret for about 50 dollars and though the big 6x6 negatives/slides are impressive I found the lack of autoexposure, stiff and difficult focusing, and reversed waist level finder too serious handicaps for any practical use. I was also unimpressed with the image quality but in retrospect that was most likely due to the smaller depth of field. I tend to choose large apertures and fast shutter speeds because I hate camera shake. I still have the camera because I find the build and design to be interesting and impressive in a conversational piece type of way. Not to say the camera couldn't be used successfully to create quality images but for me it wasn't worth trying. I knew I wanted something more modern and usable to continue trying out MF. A camera with autoexposure for sure and easy to focus. My first choice was the 645 format point and shoot Fuji GA645 because I've read good reviews plus it's autoexposure and autofocus with manual overrides for everything. Also for MF its small and light. I saw one on KEH for under 400 and decided to think about it and by the time I decided to go for it someone had bought them all! Hesitation is a killer. So I went back to browsing KEH and was surprised to see that the original Pentax 645 SLR was available for under $300! With a normal lens even! So I ordered one.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The first thing that surprised me when I got the camera in my hands was the size and weight of it. Granted its small by MF standards (I'd say it's mini compared to 6x7 SLRs) but in today's world of pocket digicams this is a camera that people will notice because of it's size. My other cameras are a digicam Fuji E550 and plastic 35mm SLR Canon 300(Rebel) and its substantially larger than them but not much larger than a pro 35mm SLR and you're getting that big piece of film with it. If you are a pro or want to look like one this is no problem because people will give you respect when you pull a camera of this size and all black but I prefer to be candid so it's not ideal in that sense. The build is top notch, everything is black alloy and functions well. In use though the camera is great, I really love the big viewfinder, show it to anyone with a dslr and there jaw will drop because this is niceeee! The choice of using push buttons instead of dials for changing values I don't like but it works fine. This is a SLR which is my favorite style of camera and it's manual focus and the big clear viewfinder with microprism together with the smooth focusing lenses is a joy to use. Honestly it's a camera that I just enjoy to pick up and focus with as a way to view the world. The lens it came with was the standard 75mm (~45mm equiv) f2.8 which I then added a 55mm (~33mm equiv) f2.8 as a wider and therefore more usable carry around lens for scenery and landscape. Both lenses are built beautifully with smooth focusing that is perfectly spaced, you never have to spin the lens too far to focus but it's still easy to make precise adjustments. Fully loaded camera plus lens probably weighs around 3lbs so I wouldn't want to keep it around my neck all day. In reality that is the main problem I have with this camera and the reason I use it rarely is that I don't feel the quality improvement is worth the increase in size, weight, and film expense. Granted I like to shoot classic b&w film and to see some grain!
I've only shot less than ten rolls so far with the camera so perhaps it's premature to pass judgment but here is how I see things now. I have shot color negative film either Fuji Superia 100 or Kodak Portra 400 VC and have made prints sized 12x18in. With this camera making sharp grainless enlargements is a snap, it's positively easy! The 400 speed film had just a hint of grain at close inspection and the 100 smooth as silk, nothing. The quality of the images is great the only thing to watch for is that dof (depth of field) is smaller than what 35mm or dig gives you so of course only the in focus areas will be sharp. This of course can be used to advantage as portrait shooters most certainly know. When I compare the pictures I've made at this relatively small size to the others I've made with 35mm and digital I can see that it is slightly better quality but the difference to me is small, it's subtle. In other words I'm not convinced it's worth it. Perhaps this will change when I run some rolls of b&w through it and make some prints. Another disclaimer is that I'm not comparing prints of the same subject, just prints of the same size of different things that I've decided were worth printing out, hardly a proper test of image quality I know but in a sense maybe a test of real world usability? I'm doubtful that even b&w will make a worthwhile advantage because using a sharp modern film, TMAX 100 springs to mind, with a sharp lens I've made satisfyingly sharp prints at this size with the fine grain just becoming noticeable. In other words it looks great at 12x18 which is the largest size I usually print to because it's the largest size the new minilabs can do. I feel that anything that looks sharp at this size will look sharp at any size because as it gets bigger you will have no choice but to stand farther away to see the whole print together. You can always rub your nose against it later looking for grain but only us photo-geeks do that :) To summarize the image quality is great but I'm not convinced that the jump is worth the limitations such as extra size and weight, more expensive, etc. Perhaps the days of MF have come and gone with modern sharp and low grain films and of course digital. Although it is comforting to know that at least today in 2007 there is no digital camera that can out resolve the 645 (using one exposure) for under $7000 approx.
Today I'm left scratching my head wondering if the returns outweigh the costs at least for me and my style of shooting. The jury is undecided on this one so stay tuned for updates... I can recommend the camera without hesitation to anyone who thinks that it would suit their use. I hope my experiences will help people make an informed decision.
UPDATE January 2008
It seems that my earlier conclusion that the image quality improvement wasn't enough to make the camera worthwhile has been proven false after I finally scanned some negatives. I did this by sacrificing a few poor negatives so they would fit in my 35mm dedicated scanner, the old but functional HP S20. At it's maximum resolution of 2400 ppi when I examine the scans at pixel level the Pentax results are every bit as sharp as my 35mm stuff. What I conclude from this is that the linear increase of the negative size is the same as the increase in quality. For 645 that is about 1.7x meaning that you could print at 1.7x the size of 35mm and get the same quality. So if you are happy with your results at 11x14 with your choice of film, then the same film on 645 will look the same at 18x24. At the small prints I have made though (12x18) there isn't much difference between the formats I shoot, MF, 35mm, digicam. The difference however would be clear if I wanted to print large. I would like to have some higher res scans done but in reality there won't be much difference unless the negative is critically sharp. Most of my shots aren't even sharp at 2400 when you look at 100%, granted that's the equivalent of printing at 24x36 inches.
thoughts and opinions about photography from the advanced amateur perspective