Hands On with the Pentax 645Z Medium Format DSLR – Updated

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Update: I’ve added four test shots in original size to my Flickr page. Please note that these files are basically straight out of the camera and the model images lack the normal cleaning up I would do in Photoshop. Also, resolution is set at screen size, not print size.

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The announcement of the Pentax 645Z was akin to Nikon’s rolling out of its D800(e) and Sony’s introduction of the A7(r). All three showed guts, marked a major step forward in technology and jolted their market segment.

The Nikon was the first prosumer-oriented DSLR to pack a whopping 36 megapixels and amazing dynamic range, a feat still not matched by any other APS-C or full-frame DSLR. The Sony upped the ante by featuring that same sensor in a much smaller mirrorless body at a lower price point. Again, no other manufacturer has followed suit yet.

Ricoh Pentax then produced its own little earthquake by announcing the 645Z, a medium format DSLR boasting 51.4 megapixels on a 43.8 x 32.8mm Sony CMOS sensor that’s also the key component of Hasselblad’s H5D-50c and Phase One’s IQ250. Nothing new there, except that the Pentax costs a mere $8,500 compared to $27,500 for the Hasselblad camera and back and $35,000 for the Phase One (back only). And it adds HD video, fast autofocusing, high ISO capability and a shooting speed of 3 frames per second.

Ever since, the question has become how much longer Hasselblad and Phase One will be able to keep on charging the enormous premiums they did. But that’s for MBAs.

For us photographers, digital medium format suddenly doesn’t require a second mortage anymore. Your pockets must still be pretty deep, but if you’re invested in good Canon or Nikon gear, chances are you have as much sunken cost in that system as you would put in a Pentax medium-format kit.

The question of course remains how well the Pentax will do its job. Judging by the brief hands-on session that Ricoh Pentax organized for the media and selected photographers earlier today, it seems that the 645Z will do just fine.

Intuitive

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A lonely 645Z was lying on a table right in front of me. I picked it up, popped in a memory card, entered the menu, formatted the memory card and started shooting. Changing settings was a snap. The buttons felt just right, except that I had to get used to keeping the ISO button pressed to dial in the ISO setting. I’m used to pressing the ISO button on my Canon just once and then dialing in the correct ISO. That’s nitpicking, though. The fact is if you have ever handled a DSLR and especially the Pentax K-3, you’re familiar with the 645Z in a minute. Like on all Pentax DSLRs, the interface is very intuitive.

The camera is large, of course, since it houses a large sensor and a large mirror. It’s not too heavy for its size and it’s nicely balanced. I’m finicky about camera grips, but liked this one. The camera felt good in my hands. It’s weather resistant with 76 seals.

Focus is fast, not as fast as my Canon 5D Mark III, but pretty close with static objects. I couldn’t compare it, but it felt that the Pentax is faster than my Sony A7r. If not faster, then they’re pretty close. Shooting models, the camera locked on right away, something I can’t always say about my Sony.

Amazingly, the Pentax with its large mirror and shutter is quieter than the diminutive Sony A7r. Not that you would or could use this camera in stealth conditions, though.

I did my own bit of struggling with trying to get a good composition of a food photography still life, helped by food photographer Lou Manna. This was all done using manual focus with a 90mm macro lens. Focus confirmation worked well and was very precise. The setup felt a bit heavy for me after a while, but Lou said he generally uses the Pentax handheld and has no problems shooting with it for long sessions. The struggling, by the way, was my fault, having never taken a picture of food before and hardly ever having used a macro lens. I can’t show it here, but the detail in the strawberry is amazing at 100%.

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Shake Up

I hope to get a 645Z for review and will then further take it through its paces. Might take a while, as the camera is in high demand, according to the Pentax reps. Judging from the few shots I took today, it’s already clear the image quality is astounding. The samples here don’t do the camera justice, no web page can. Portraits are tack sharp. Colors pop. Details are rich. Files have enough room to be manipulated.

I took the camera in steps up to its max ISO of 204,800. The quick conclusion: stick with a max of ISO 6400 if you have to, and ISO 12,800 if you really have no choice. Don’t touch the rest. Mind you, ISO 6400 in medium format used to be unheard of.

This camera is sure to shake up the market. According to Ricoh Pentax, the market for medium format gear is a small percentage of the overall SLR market compared to what it was in the film era. Obviously, by lowering the price point, the company thinks it can grow the market and still recoup its investments. In any case, it can spread its R&D over multiple product lines, since the 645Z inherits much from the K-3.

In yet another sign that Ricoh Pentax is getting serious about this market segment, the company announced a new professional services program for owners of the 645Z, to be launched August 1. The program will have multiple levels. Pricing wasn’t made available yet.

It will be interesting to see what Hasselblad and Phase One (and Leica with the S series) are going to do. Of course, they have a wider range of medium format sensor offerings than Pentax, a longer track record in digital medium format and are probably less beholden to Sony for their sensors. But they’re also used to enormous margins that are now put under tremendous pressure. Whatever they do, short of going out of business, it can only benefit us photographers in the long run.

You can read the full specs and pre-order the 645Z at B&H. (affiliate link)

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