Pentax 645Z Review
I’m going to jump straight in and assume you know the rough specs, but if not you can find out the ‘data’ here (USA) and here (UK). Technically orientated tests can be found at Imaging Resource and a more user-based test here at Luminous Landscape.
I am also going to assume you know quite a bit about cameras, because nobody walks into their local department store and picks up a 645Z for tomorrow’s holiday snaps (I assume). Its a camera for serious photographers coming from other cameras and looking for something extra.
Part 1- Introduction and Concept
This part is all about the prospect of the Pentax 645Z as a field system along with the thinking and decision making process underpinning an expensive decision. Often we hope a purchase will deliver in various ways and there is a lot to absorb in the run up!
So what IS this 51MP camera for?
There are many ways to look at this. To some, it is a high resolution but enormous camera that seems impractical for the field; for others it is a mobile and flexible auto-focusing studio camera that can be used handheld in a way that others cannot. Perhaps ‘super-sized 35mm DSLR’ is another description you will have heard?
Despite being difficult to pigeon hole from a utility point of view, there is no doubting that this is a very well specified, relatively large and heavy (by full-frame standards) camera with an absolutely world-class sensor (as featured in Phase One and Hasselblad cameras at more than three times the price). It has quite possibly the best high ISO image quality of any sensor in the world, resolution that is well into Medium Format (MF) territory, a DSLR inspired chassis/grip and interface and a price tag only just north of flagship Canon/Nikon DSLRs, yet a country mile below the MF competition.
I would argue that the difficulty in defining what it is – and by extension its real competition – is a testament to the all-round capabilities and flexibility of this Pentax flagship. However, when we buy cameras, we tend to consider the alternatives, so comparisons are inevitable. While in some respect the natural comparison is with the likes of Hasselblad and other medium format cameras sharing the same sensor dimensions, it also needs to remain competitive and viable in the face of formidable 35mm cameras, such as the Nikon D810, Sony A7R and of course the latest Canon 5Ds and 5DsR. These cameras have been gnawing away at MF territory for some time, so for the ‘person moving up from smaller formats’, the Pentax must produce meaningfully superior image quality simply because it is both larger and more expensive. For the existing MF user, its only going to be of interest if it offers handling benefits and genuine value compared to medium format competition, while meeting image quality expectations. It is my view that the camera achieves both of these goals very handily, but it is still not going to suit everybody’s needs.
Now I will talk about my own thought process when I considered the viability of this camera for me, because I cannot second-guess yours. It is personal and subjective, but some of it may ring true for you too:
I was looking for the following qualities:
- A significant improvement in achievable image quality for landscape/environmental photography vs. 35mm/FF. This takes a great sensor plus lenses. By ‘better’ I simply mean that I wanted to be able to produce larger prints that would meet the highest quality standards.
- Good handling and intuitiveness that would allow me to work fluidly and without coming out of the zone to ‘operate systems’.
- Very compatible with hand-held shooting. If its a tripod only camera, no thank you. I’m not that photographer.
- An affordable ‘system’. Hasselblad and Phase One are out of my price range.
- Lenses that would match the abilities of the sensor, or exceed them (so they are suitable for future generations of body. This has proven a challenge for Sony (FE mount), Nikon (D800 release anyone?) and only Canon looks moderately prepared for their 50MP 5DS and 5DSR, after investing heavily in lenses while their sensor tech has languished.
This is a tall order, because even some of the most respected MF systems cannot easily meet all these goals! If it were to compromise handling, or have annoying menus, I would frankly rather print smaller and use something that made the process of taking photos enjoyable, or at least not painful!
Other factors that I considered:
- I am used to using cameras with Sony CMOS sensors, so the fact that it has this in common with other cameras I own was admittedly appealing.
- The way I work tends to be quite fluid, I often like to leave the tripod in the car and so the superb high ISO performance and the availability of stabilized lenses also appealed to me. In short, I was looking for a camera that would not require a paradigm shift in how I work, but would still make me want to carry the extra weight over my A7R.
- The availability of legacy lenses to fill gaps in the line up without costing an arm and a leg. This would soften the start up costs.
- Reviews universally say the 645Z is amazing. The only question seems to be, ‘where does it fit in relation to real world needs?’
Concerns that I had:
- How good would the legacy lenses really be? Are users just flying the Pentax flag when they use a 30 year old 150mm manual focus lens on their 645Z and proclaim ‘its amazing’… or perhaps comparing it with their 12MP DSLR from 2006? There are few online resources giving an idea of, say, how well a 645Z plus 28-45 @ 45mm might compare to a Sony A7R with 35mm FE Sonnar attached, for example. This worried me a bit. I wanted something solid.
- Would quality control of Pentax digital lenses (‘DA’) be good, bad or ugly? I had zero interest in going through the process of sending back several copies of a lens, each costing thousands!
- Customer Support & Service is reportedly not the best from Pentax. Cameras wing their way back to Japan for repair! but hey, Leica is not exactly Speedy Gonzalez in that department either. Glaciers move faster. I wanted to see Ricoh investing more into Pentax, giving me the sense that I won’t be marooned with the last Pentax 645 like I was with the wonderful Bronica RF645.
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