Pentax 80-160mm A (Optically, this lens is the same as the later FA version): I wasn’t expecting great things. My copy cost me £130 and is in excellent condition, but what you see on the outside often has no bearing to its optical quality. I find mine to be incredibly sharp at 80mm up to about 140mm, but there is a noticeable reduction in performance in these last 20mm. If you are using it for landscapes, this is not a lens that will impress you upon critical inspection if you are shooting at f8 and wanting perfect edges. I find mine performs beautifully at f11-f13 at 80mm, but by 140mm I really need to be at f16. At 160mm, edge performance really does drop off at f11 and it is visibly weak at f8. I have found that, as a general rule, I shoot everything at f16, apart from when I am at 80-100mm when I will allow myself to open up by one stop. I need to use the lens more to get the best idea of what apertures are best when, but at f16 the files are super sharp and I have nothing to complain about. I have noticed a bit of decentering with my copy. Nothing serious, but at the long end some slight softening creeps into one of the corners. It is minimal at f16 and, to be honest, you’d need to be sniffing a very large print (with fine detail) to notice, so I will stick with this copy of the lens until such time as Pentax releases a DA copy.
Contrast is lower with this lens than the two above. Colour is less saturated too, but these things are not an issue for a B&W shooter like me. For colour shooters, I think you will find you can work around it fine in PP, but a more modern lens will certainly nestle better with the higher contrast and more saturated models in the FA and DA ranges.
So, what a bargain! The lens may not milk everything the sensor has to offer, especially at the long end, but it produces files of a standard that exceeds what I can make from the A7R and the Sony G 70-200 f4 OSS FE and I paid nearly ten times less for the lens. Handling is OK and they do change focus if you point them nose down (gravity), but at all but the steepest angles focus remains where you left it so I only noticed it a couple of times. I daresay there are better copies out there than mine, but there are surely worse ones too. But overall, mine seems to fit nicely in with the ‘consensus opinion’ for this lens.
Another portfolio image:
Conclusion & Recommendations, Wrap Up & Waffle
I was not expecting to like this camera as much as I have. I hoped it would be a dependable tool that would deliver technically superior files, which would hold better quality at very large print sizes and this it has done. However, along the way I enjoyed using it. I found it intuitive. I found it well-thought out, well-executed and these qualities combined meant that I very quickly bonded with it as a tool that helps me get the job done. Even the weight, which with the 28-45 is a hulking 3kgs, diminishes in light of its excellent handling and the results you can produce.
Certainly it is not for everyone. If you are not making prints of 30” and beyond, it holds limited benefits. If you need super-speed and light weight, don’t walk, but run in the opposite direction. However, if technically perfect 40” prints that can withstand close inspection is your game, this camera perhaps offers the best put together package for achieving this for the vast majority of users. I say the majority, because if you are a portrait or strobe/action photographer needing fast synch speeds typically found on leaf shutter lenses, there may be better options out there (unless existing Pentax 645 and 67 leaf shutter lenses suffice). The same goes for architectural shooters, because the 645z has no available tilt and shift optics. For scenic shooters, landscape photographers and perhaps even wedding and environmental portraitists, I suspect the Pentax 645Z is not only the best medium format tool for the job, but by far the cheapest.
But what about the format? Do we even need such a camera in light of the Canon EOS 5DS and 5DSR, not to mention the stunning Sony A7R II?
Firstly, dealing with the Canon 5DS, the Canon cannot remotely compete with the 645Z on dynamic range and, in my experience, I have not used any Canon wides with the same performance as the Pentax 28-45mm DA. Tests by technical reviewers do still show the Pentax ahead for resolution, which make sense considering the larger, lazier sensor. I would take a great 36MP Sony sensor over the 50MP Canon any day of the week, because of the huge dividends the much higher DR of the Sony sensor when it comes to post processing and shadow noise control (particularly for a B&W shooter, where files tend to get bent around a lot more in post). For this reason, the 5DS does not appeal to me. But the A7R II does….
…. the Sony A7R II is not all that far behind the 645Z, but if 4:3 is your preferred format, the Sony drops to about 38MP, which may not be a million miles behind, but still isn’t quite the same either. The bigger issue is how the range of FE lenses will resolve on the even higher pixel density of the new 42MP BSI sensor. I have no doubt that the 55mm FE Sonnar will be astounding and really milk the sensor, but the wider angles (even the 25mm Batis) may not be quite in the league of the 28-45mm, but time will tell. Certainly, the 16-35 f4 OSS does not come close to what the Pentax combo can produce, albeit with the Pentax lens only going as wide as 21mm, rather than 16mm for the Sony. My instincts tell me that the Pentax will retain a general image quality edge overall for another generation of FF camera beyond the A7R II (the 645Z sensor remains 70% larger) and to close the optical/sensor gap, FF manufacturers will need a lot more lenses performing to Zeiss Otus levels. And then there is the level of weather-proofing and physical robustness, where the Pentax is altogether more impressive. This won’t matter to everyone of course.
Is there anything else that sells the Pentax? Yes, I think there is. I prefer the look of the files, period. It reminds me a little of what happens when you put less clinically sharp lenses on a larger format of film. You get a gentler rendering that is easier on the eye and this is what I see with the Pentax, even with the modern 28-45 DA and 75mm DA. Sure, they are still darned sharp, but they do not have the scalpel-like look that the Sony A7R and Zeiss combination can have. It’s a little more ‘organic’. Now, I am not going to suggest this should tip anyone, but it’s there, to my eyes at least. I just like the files. I like how they hold up in post. I like the noise control. I like the colour. They please my eyeballs and for me the explanation need go no further than that.
So what is 645Z ‘ideal territory’? I think it is what I did with it in Iceland: short to medium distance walks from the car, pointed at scenics or people in scenics. Were I to be going a considerable distance on foot I would not dream of taking the 645Z. The Leica Monochrom or Sony A7R would go with me instead, but when the weight does not matter, there is no doubt I would rather be shooting with the Pentax 645Z than any of the others. I did not buy it with Iceland in mind. I bought it knowing Iceland would be a good fit, but knowing it is perfect for what I will use it for in the coming two years and you’ll have to wait to see what that is.
Will the 645Z be superseded? Sure it will. Soon? Probably not. The next generation of Pentax 645 will likely be 60-70MP… BSI sensor perhaps…. with on sensor stabilization maybe…. multi shot mode for additional resolution, perhaps? But… the 645Z already gives us breathtaking large files that are a clear cut above the A7R and the likes of the D810 and it will take a very special application to need more. I fully intend to gradually build my lens holdings, some of which will be those occasional focal lengths that I will be able to afford to buy, because I will be buying second hand 10-30 year old lenses! This makes the building of a truly comprehensive kit very achievable in a way that I could not even contemplate with new Phase One or Hasselblad H-series optics. Of course I like this, just as I like the idea that I will have plenty of lenses that will cost a few hundred pounds, which is handy to know when you drop them in a lake, or 12 feet down a rocky embankment. It also means you can have them in your car, or in your bag, rather than just as fantasies in your head. A full 645Z kit is far more achievable, but there is no pretending its going to be cheap. Cost it out, however and I suspect that by adding a handful of the best A and FA lenses in there, it will cost little or no more than a comparable Sony FE outfit including the better Sony-G and Zeiss optics needed to come even close in performance.
Am I in Love? No. It’s not that sort of camera. It’s not an old school Rolleiflex, or Hassy, or Leica (even though the 645Z is so good to use in the field). But then again I don’t care that it’s not a fondler’s camera. When I look over some of the Iceland files at 100% and absorb the tones I have been able to achieve, shake my head and utter expletives when I visualise them as large prints…. loving the camera that took them doesn’t really come into it. I’m in love with the results and that’s perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay any camera.