Medium well done: Two takes on the Pentax 645Z
The professional's perspective:
By David Wentworth
|David Wentworth is a commercial and editorial photographer, and owner of FLUTTER Studios in Seattle|
Goodbye, Nikon? So long, Canon? Perhaps..
Just so you know, I am not one to jump on every tech bandwagon that comes rolling along. I work regularly with an almost 3-year old Nikon D800, occasionally a Canon EOS 5D, and when needed, I’ll make a trip to the rental house for a Hasselblad H5D medium-format.
This system (or rather 'systems') has suited me well, however, the tradeoff between having at hand the incredible image quality and in-studio capabilities of a medium-format camera and the flexibility and responsiveness of a DSLR has been bothering me, and there has been this lingering voice chiming in more and more saying “you need to buy that Hasselblad.. that $30,000 beauty.”
Until now, to me, that was the obvious next step. But the Pentax 645Z has just about changed my mind. It’s almost as if my three go-to systems have been beautifully fused together, creating an extremely powerful, yet mid-priced machine.
This being said, there are some issues that should be addressed.
|1/125 sec, F4, ISO 100
[photo by David Wentworth]
The ability to sync lens shutter speed above 1/125s with strobes is essential for many photographers who, like myself, work with movement in studio or bring their lights outdoors. Usually, I can get away with 1/250s sync that Nikon offers, but not always. That’s when I head to the rental house. Most medium format systems offer lenses with leaf shutters for exactly these situations. Pentax needs to offer some lenses with the leaf shutter, which would have the capability to sync strobes at a faster rate (often upwards of 1/600s) allowing photographers to have more control of their lighting scenarios and depth of field settings. Pentax does not offer a leaf lens right now, so, at this point, with the 645Z, you’re stuck syncing strobes at 1/125, or turning to a competitor if you need those fast sync speeds.
Being able to tether the camera to a computer work station is another essential for many who may have their eye on the 645Z. Though the camera’s tiltable 3.2” LCD monitor is a lovely and very useful thing to gaze upon, more often than not, I need to see my captures on a large monitor, and be able to make and save adjustments to Raw images while I am still shooting. This is a must have on commercial shoots, whether it be product, on-figure fashion, or portraits, as there are often many people on crew who also need to see what is being created in real time. CaptureOne Pro is my go-to in this area.
CaptureOne gets the job done quite nicely with Canon and Nikon files, but is designed by and essentially made for PhaseOne medium-format digital backs. I hope I am wrong, but I’m worried there may be some reluctance from PhaseOne to offer support to such a strong competitor as the 645Z, especially when it is priced around $20,000 less than offerings from their current line-up.
So, Pentax, you will either need to develop your own Raw processing software with tethered support, or work out a deal with CaptureOne to support your files. Okay, GO!
|1/250 sec, F2.8, ISO 800
[photo by David Wentworth]
With these concerns in mind, though, the image quality of the 645Z is outstanding. CCD apostles flame away below, but to my eye the CMOS sensor on this camera can produce a file just as luscious as its $30,000 competitors. There’s a good reason MamiyaLeaf / Phase One and Hassleblad have all just introduced cameras based around 50MP 44 x 33mm CMOS sensors. Bump the ISO up on the 645Z to 6,400, or why not 12,800? You won’t care, because your file will still look incredible, and it frankly just blows the older technology out of the water.
The latitude in the DNG files is ridiculous. On one occasion when shooting portraits in my studio, the camera or lens did not sync correctly with the strobes. Camera settings were 1/125, F4.5 at ISO 100. The resulting file was black as night and would have been useless if it had come from some of the cameras I’ve previously used. However, here I was able to push the underexposed DNG file by 5 stops with the exposure slider in Lightroom, and with additional curve adjustments was able to pull out a perfectly usable, magazine cover ready image. I realize these situations are rare, but if I am on an assignment making a portrait with one of those people that say “five shots and I’m outta here”, this is the camera I want in my bag.
|1/30 sec, F4, ISO 800
[photo by David Wentworth]
The best thing about the 645Z though, without a doubt, is the ease with which you can take this camera into the field. Sure, attach the 90mm lens and it comes in a bit heavier than the Canon EOS 1DX with a 24-70mm F2.8, but surprisingly not by much (5.7lbs vs 4.7lbs). And I’ll gladly take the trade-off. To me, the ability to hand-hold a medium format camera and capture an incredible looking file at f2.8, 1/500, at ISO 3200 in diminishing daylight is a game changer.
Nikon says it's not afraid of the 645Z. Not so sure about Canon. As for our other medium-format standbys, the 645Z is breathing down your neck.
The enthusiast's perspective (or: "do you think that scruffy guy stole that expensive-looking camera?")
By: Sam Spencer
The Pentax 645 Z, while not enjoying a particularly exciting name (then again does any camera?), still makes one's eyes widen and mouth water. It isn’t the Pentax name, it isn’t the Z, it's what we all know this camera contains. I won’t waste any of your time quoting facts and figures (you can get that here).
For months I watched Flickr groups slowly drip out shots from this relatively attainable medium format kit. Then I drooled as Ming Thein showed us what happened after he pressed the shutter button. I nearly fainted at some of the details and sharpness others were getting out of their shots. I had all the headlines memorized by the time I first held the behemoth that is the 645Z (I’m not speaking figuratively here, this is a BIG camera).
Then, the 645Z was in my hand. Actually, flip that, my hand was IN the 645Z. Oh yes. Watch out world, the power was all mine... I felt the weight of its specs through the depths of that wonderfully massive grip. I imagined this fantastic world of shots I was going to be producing while I waited for the grey Seattle skies to open up and give me the ok.
Naturally - this being fall - they didn’t. Still, hoping for just a bit of blue, I took the Z out for a walk around Greenlake. It was time to start shooting with one of the biggest, baddest cameras of this year. I hopped out of the car, unpacked the mammoth, and slapped on the 55mm 2.8. And then...
Oh no... I'm terrible.
What I found was that this incredible camera wasn’t going to produce good photography by itself. It wasn’t going to let me passively walk in to a situation hoping to make a little bit of art out of it. I couldn’t just wander about with it and let set and setting determine what picture I was taking. The 645Z doesn’t like that. No, you have to be deliberate. The photo has to be in your head as an end goal, and only at that point does the 645Z become the tool to get the job done.
So what happens when you give the 645Z to a suddenly very photographically-insecure bearded hipster strolling around a park? Nothing good.
In my mind I was hoping this camera was going to carry the weight of the old medium format cameras on its shoulders and bring it closer to those who miss it most; the people who ran out of money shooting 120 film. I hoped to look through the viewfinder and feel like I was looking at the ground glass of my old Rolleiflex again.
In reality, the viewfinder doesn’t feel that much bigger than any full-frame SLR. Desperate, I switched on focus peaking, dropped it down to waist level, tilted that handy little screen up, and still the magic just didn’t happen. I was hoping it would be as easy to focus as an old Pentax 67. Only a total fool would think they can accurately manual focus this thing. It is sampling such an astonishing amount of detail from each scene that focus has to be absolutely accurate.
I was hoping for the lovely bokeh and subject/background separation I used to enjoy with the Mamiya RZ67, but the sensor of the 645Z isn't as big as a 645 film frame. Plus, I found shooting wide open all the time with 50 megapixels of detail to capture isn’t a great idea. unless you're very confident about your focus.
|While this man did give me permission to take his portrait, he still seems a bit intimidated by what to a non-expert might look more like an X-ray scanner than a camera.|
The first thing that happens is people react. Not in a good way either. It may have been my appearance, but I like to believe it was really the size and completely unfamiliar shape of this thing that was giving me problems. There is no way to raise it to the eye without everyone around knowing you are going to take a picture. Its appearance forces them to do something that they usually won’t do when some ninny is pointing their phone at a scene. They stop, notice, and then wonder why you’re taking a picture in the first place. "What are you taking a picture of? Why does it require such a huge stinkin’ camera? You some kind of pervert? You don’t look very trustworthy, or rich, did you steal that?”
If they’re unfortunate enough to find themselves within the viewfinder’s four walls, they stare straight down the damn thing’s lens like they just saw their own fate reflected in its glass.
So, it’s not really a wanderer’s camera. And you'd be a fool to try photojournalism with a 645Z. It evokes too much of a reaction from people. It isn’t subtle. It isn’t quick to focus. It isn’t accurate with focus either. I’m usually not one to admit physical defeat when it comes to cameras. I’ll sacrifice my wrist or back if it means I get the camera and lens combo I want, but the 90 and 25mm lenses are genuinely too much camera to hand hold. It’s a shame, because they’re both something pretty special.
The 75mm is a much lighter lens than the others, but it wasn’t made for the 645D or the 645Z, and has AF issues because of that. Plus, it’s not very sharp wide open, and guess who mostly shot it wide open? The 55 is the only choice for using AF, but it being somewhere in the neighborhood of a 40mm equivalent makes it, based on my own preferences, either not long enough or not wide enough most of the time.
|Shooting wide-open on the 55mm gives nice shallow DOF.|
Once I set this camera down on a tripod, things started to work out. I found while shooting David Wentworth’s headshot (at the top of this page) that when you stop that 90mm lens down the details and sharpness it yields on that great plain of pixels is quite satisfying. We both were pretty shocked when we had the chance to view one of the DNG files on a screen. David, because he was seeing details in his own face that he normally never knew were there, and me because I stupidly tried shooting with manual focus and most of my initial shots were backfocused.
When my co-worker Rishi and I were chasing high DR landscapes is when I really felt the 645Z coming in to its element. After each shoot I’d pull up the files and feel like I was still out staring at the scene. Details that cameras usually lose in deep shadows can be pulled back towards the light with hardly any detail lost. A 645Z file is a big lump of clay. It can be molded to give it a better than real life look.
|Landscapes are where the 645Z really shines, providing more than enough detail and flexibility in post-processing for major boosts in shadow detail without a serious noise penalty.|
Then, finally, I shot our studio scene with it. For now, it stands like a titan amongst the other plebeian cameras (except you, mister $80,000 Phase One back). For now, it is all alone as a “consumer” Medium Format DSLR. It can’t really be faulted for not being the fastest focusing quickest responding camera ever, because it’s first. It’s doing something that no camera has done yet - delivering medium-format image quality with unbeatable dynamic range, at a reasonably price.
Actually, scratch that. It’s only “reasonable” by comparison to its peers with similar sized chips. Stack it next to the best of the current crop of consumer DSLRs (ignoring photojournalists' favorites the Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4S) and its still DOUBLE the price of those bodies. Without the massive lens selection. And slower controls. And twice the weight.
I loved my time with the Z. I loved that it took my inflated idea of myself and my own photography and smashed it to tiny bits. I loved how it was a camera-shaped trump card out in the normal world. I loved the idea of being able to print something measured in feet, not inches. I loved that it was different. Yes, it was a pain in the butt sometimes and I don’t think I’ll use anything I shot with it in my portfolio. But, I think it made me better by making me worse, if that makes any sense. Plus, not every shot I took with it was awful, it’s just that my hit rate dropped dramatically. The 654Z is a high-quality camera that demands a lot from its operator.
Ricoh's engineers should enjoy their time at the top. For now, the Pentax 645Z stands unchallenged between high-resolution 35mm-format DSLRs and much more expensive medium-format system cameras. How long it remains alone is an open question. Personally, I can't wait for another manufacturer to seriously challenge the 645Z in this space.
I’m drooling just imagining the possibilities...