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Pentax 645Z Review – Updated May 5 2014

UPDATE: May 5 2014

I wanted to post some commercial shots I’ve completed and I am able to release with the 645Z to date. My experience with the camera is quite positive. The responsiveness of the focusing is very good. Even though the focus points are clustered near the center having a variety allows me to compose in camera without focusing and then recomposing. The lack of leaf shutters is a complete non issue in studio where I control ambient as well as the strobes. The files of course are simply luscious. I have no complaints whatsoever and am using legacy lenses for all of my work with the 645Z. It’s so interesting now when I use something other than the Z, my clients all whisper, “Why aren’t you using the new camera? We LOVE the files! Have we fallen out of favor with you or something?” LOL

_PEN3488

Original shot pre graphics application

MFL

My Fair Lady publicity shot reversed to accommodate graphics.

01DX1124

My Fair Lady pre graphics. (several theatre companies are doing MFL this season!)

Image on a billboard with my model sitting next to it. Photo Credit for picture of billboard and model: Austin Scott

Image on a billboard with my model sitting next to it. Photo Credit for picture of billboard and model: Austin Scott

_PEN3118

Season Brochure Cover shot

Final cover with graphics applied

Cabaret combo

Cabaret publicity shot and final graphics treatment

Jacques Brel publicity shot

Original Post

I want to get several questions immediately out of the way:

  1. Will the 645Z make you a better photographer? NO
  2. Will the 645Z make you better at lighting? NO
  3. Will the 645Z help you source better subject matter? NO
  4. Will the 645Z help you to get authentic expressions out of your subject: NO
  5. Will the 645Z improve your visual imagination? NO

Ah that feels better. From the days when photography was a hobby and I reveled in those quiet moments developing my own film and placed those magic strips of negatives into my enlarger to develop my prints I always coveted Hasselblad cameras. I used a lowly Roloflex medium format and Minolta 35mm film camera for my portraits. Hassy’s were well beyond my financial means, even back then. The LOOK and FEEL of medium format film cameras were something very special.

So when digital cameras emerged my first one was a Kodak VGA 640×480 camera with a MASSIVE 640kb CF card. So let me fast forward to today, 2014. I make my entire living as a full time national publicity and performance photographer. No, I don’t have the luxury of having a spouse with a day job and benefits, so in my world, if I don’t work, well I don’t eat…simple as that. And boy do I love to eat!

Up until December 2014 I have shot almost exclusively with Canon gear, a 1DX, a 5DIII as my backup camera and a Fuji X100T. I’ve never been that happy with my 5DIII because I find the noise performance and dynamic range is inferior to the 1DX. But because one of my clients is a national symphony and I’m asked to photograph live performances, the 5DIII comes in handy because it’s relatively quiet, much more so than the 1DX. And when I need absolute silence from a shutter the Fuji X100T with its new electronic shutter is the right tool in those circumstances.

Even as a full time pro, I’ve always longed for a medium format digital camera. But the prices of both the Hassy line and Phase One just didn’t make sense for my work. I have colleagues who shoot with both and their experiences with focusing issues (center point focus only) made me shy away from ‘the look’ of medium format, especially given mid five figure prices.

So in 2010 when Pentax released their first MF camera, the 645D I was truly intrigued. At 10k it was ‘affordable’ and made financial sense for my business. But after reading some reviews about noise in anything more than base ISO and similar poor focusing issues I decided to stick with my 35mm workhorses. Had some of the local rental houses offered the 645D to rent, I would have tried one, but I could not find a rental house offering Pentax’s 645Ds at that time.

In late 2014 I began in earnest to investigate their new 645Z model which uses the same sensor as the Phase and Hassy, which is manufactured by Sony. A CMOS sensor rather than the CCD models used in most MF cameras which offered better noise performance and more focusing points. Ah but what about lenses? At the time of the Z’s release only three ‘modern’ Pentax 645 lenses were available and none of them tickled my fancy from a focal length perspective. So I did what most of us do, searched and read through forums and that is why I’m writing this review.

I’ll rant for just a bit. Put bluntly I hate forums. I find that most of the trolls who write on forums don’t want to be helpful, they simply want to be right. And for anyone who’s had a spouse or partner who has to be right...well you get my point. Plus it’s always interesting that those same trolls can pontificate for paragraphs about technical aspects or “if they’d just do this or that, I’d buy one” yet seldom if ever produce any body of work….or work that is any good. So what’s a prospective buyer to do? Rent! I had a planned vacation so I rented a 645Z and purchased a used smc FA 80-160mm f4.5 lens off eBay. In truth buying a used lens for $468.00 was cheaper than renting a lens for 10 days. And since I have a ton of Canon L glass along with some of Sigma’s Art and Sports lenses, 500 bucks is a damn bargain!

Avila Beach coastline

Avila Beach coastline

I’m NOT a landscape photographer, but when on vacation it’s damn relaxing to be one. No gallery of people watching as I’m tethered to a computer. No hair and makeup folks interrupting my work flow. No marketing directors watching my every move. What it did allow me to do was to see how the camera would handle, what the image quality in the files looked like and get a good general feel for if I wanted to make the plunge to MF. After reading some of the reviews from photographers who I respect I was fully prepared to alter my own in studio work flow by using a tripod. I am a hand held shooter in studio, it’s just my personal preference. But each of the three men I polled use a tripod. To be fair it’s how they’ve worked with 35mm cameras as well.

As I write this I have now conducted five separate in studio client sessions with the 645Z and my single lens. Prior to going on vacation I attempted to micro adjust my lens purchase to the camera. I was thrilled to find that no micro adjustments were necessary. Just to be sure I sent some of my files to another pro shooter who is a TRUE pixel peeper. His primary work is in product photography for medical instruments. He’s the kind that focus stacks images to ensure they’re absolutely sharp from front to back. He was not only impressed with the sharpness and detail, but absolutely astounded by the lack of lens diffraction. The files I had sent him were shot at f25 to f32. He called me to make sure I had not altered the EXIF data! Hahahaha.

Each of the images in this gallery were shot hand held. No retouching has been done. Correction for lens calibration and white balance only. Black and white conversion was done in Silver Efx Pro 2

Moving from one manufacturer’s menu system to another is not for the faint of heart or those with old minds. I encountered this when I first purchased my X100. Buttons are not where I’m accustomed, menus are different…ugh. But change is good and if you’re willing to read the damn manual and become familiar with a new system, it’s worth the effort.

I was also concerned that many of the studio shooter sighted the absence of leaf shutter lenses for the 645 series was a real concern in studio. But in reality my studio camera has always been the 1DX whose sync speed is 1/250th, yes twice the Pentax’s 1/125th, but not a big difference, at least not to stop action. And a very large part of my client base are dance companies. I use Einstein strobes exclusively. Why? Because of their IGBT control and t:1 performance, or put simply the tail of light falloff is very short. And THAT is what freezes the action. 1/13500th of a second is damn fast, so I don’t depend on my shutter speed to freeze tips of toes and fingers moving like crazy or dresses spinning. You can read more about IGBT and t:1 HERE

Now that does not address cutting down ambient light outdoors. But in those cases I use a variable ND filter that ranges from -2 to -8 stops. Yes it does cut down the light efficiency of the strobe, but in that case I simply up open up the aperture and/or increase the watt second output of the strobe.

All of these shots were done hand held without a tripod. Although I cannot yet include some of the action shots (client NDA agreements) I took using Pentax’s action focus mode (AI Servo in Canon speak,) I was AMAZED at the accuracy. No it won’t ever replace my 1DX for full on dance or production sessions, but the tracking of the subject was very good. And yes the focus points are clustered toward the center of the frame, but they are wide enough to allow me to compose in camera using the outermost focus points.

Just as important is the responsiveness of the shutter. I had anticipated that I would miss some of the changes in human expression because I feared the 645Z would not respond quickly enough from one shot to another. Granted, it does not have the shot to shot performance of the 1DX, but I never found myself cursing because the shot to shot performance was slow. I’m not talking about how many frames per second the 645Z shoots, but simply pressing the shutter and then pressing it again. It has good performance in that regard.

How’s the focusing? In a word, good. As fast as the 1DX or 5DIII? Nope, but didn’t expect it to be. I was a bit concerned because other reviewers have sighted focusing as ‘an issue’ but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. Legacy lenses are motor/gear driven unlike more modern USM drives. So my FA 645 80-160mm drive is slower, but not that slow. I have the camera set to focus priority so when it locks it’s an accurate lock. For sports…nope, for normal movement I say yes, especially in studio. I have yet to try it with full dance movement, but I will try it in those instances, just to see how it performs. I will say that I have yet to miss an expression change because of slow focus.

Hand held shots. Like in all of my in studio examples, these shots were taken hand held. If you’re wondering about the weight of the camera, remember I’m accustomed to lugging around and hand holding a 1DX. The 645Z seems to be about the same weight so it’s an non issue. The camera and lens are well balanced as well.

I am currently awaiting my order for Pentax’s Image Transmitter 2 software for tethering. During the time I wait my clients looked at the small JPGs transmitted via an EyeFi card to my iPad. Optimal? Nope. Better than showing them on the back of the screen…yes. You can shoot in native Pentax RAW, PEF or DNG files. Be aware that if you use a card larger than 32gigs the card formats to exFAT rather than FAT32. (I use a Colorspace UDMA backup as part of my workflow. I had to upgrade to their new UDMA2 unit using beta software due to the exFAT format.)

The files. Well they are simply delicious. That MF look and more importantly the feel. There is a depth to MF files that I’ve always coveted. The dynamic range is incredible. Shadow detail is amazing, skin tones are as if the person is right in front of you. In short, they’re photo files you want to touch, smell and feel, they’re that tactile in nature.

Is this camera for everyone? Nope, but neither is any camera. Would I pick it for my only camera? That really depends on what you like to shoot. Travel camera? Hum….depends, but probably not. What Pentax has done is given pros a viable option for medium format. The value of their system is undeniable. I’ll leave the arguing about what system is better to the forum trolls, those who have to be right. The 645Z is the camera I’ve always wanted in medium format. Luscious files, great handling and an incredible value.

So yes, it was a no brainer to purchase the 645Z. I now own another legacy lens, the Pentax smc 645 FA 45-85mm f4.5 to round out my system. My only other plan is to purchase one of their new leaf shutter lenses when it is released in a focal length that fits my work.

UPDATE December 22 2014 – Cinderella Publicity Session

Today I had a second opportunity to use the focus tracking feature with the 645Z. Unlike my other recent sessions I am not tied to an NDA, so I am able to share some of those images. I originally had very low expectations for this mode of focusing for two reasons. I was using a legacy lens and medium format rigs are not known for focus tracking. Yes, my 1DX is incredibly accurate at this task, but a medium format with a gear driven lens? Naw…. To my surprise and delight the focus tracking for studio work is truly remarkable! Because I normally have the talent move during a session it was not unexpected when I had them approach, retreat and hop. This gallery contains all of those movements. Yes there’s one portrait in there too, it was just too tempting to ‘not’ photograph such a lovely young woman. These were all taken handheld with the 645Z using a Pentax smc FA 45-85mm f4.5 lens.

19 thoughts on “Pentax 645Z Review – Updated May 5 2014”

  1. Hi Mark – I just got a 645Z and impressed with its performance – I have the DFA 90mm macro.
    I notice above you specifically mention the Einstein studio flash…..I was looking at buying the Broncolor Move
    but had not considered the Einsteins….faster/better duration?
    You used the 80-160FA for the studio portraits too?
    Thanks & Regards, Ian Moore (in UK)

    • Hi Ian. I had not been familiar with the Move, but just read the stats and it looks fantastic!. Their listed t: performance and recycle times look fantastic! 1200ws is also killer. Pricing…well for that amount of performance it looks like not a bad price. Let me know how you like them. The Einsteins have comparable flash duration/recycle times for less cost. But I always believe each of us perceives our own value in a different way. I think that choosing either would be great depending on your own needs. Happy Holidays to you!

      • Hi again Mark – I eventually bought the PRIOLITE strobes from Germany which will synch with the 645Z up to 1/4000sec shutter speed! The company is setup by a guy who was boss of Hensel Germany for many years.
        Just launched they are a breakthrough with no need for an LS lens – will also work up to 1/8000sec on Nikon and Canon – you just need separate controllers for each camera brand. Rgds from England, Ian

  2. Great review Mark, and lovely work. Your experience with the “Z” mirrors mine. I have a test copy of IT2 from Pentax, and I have found it to be entirely workable. Not as fast as Phocus or C1, but that’s bc the camera insists on processing the file internally before it transmits. If they ever fixed that in firmware, it would be fully competitive. I will be doing a write-up on Luminous Landscape in the next little while, because one has to be a bit careful about the settings to make the transfers work well.

    Cheers and happy holidays!

    – N.

    • Hi Nick and thank you. How timely about IT2, my copy is due to arrive today 12/24 so I hope to test it to see how fast it performs compared to my interim solution of using an Eye Fi card to Shuttersnitch on an iPad. My personal benchmark for quick tethered transmission is my 1DX wirelessly transmitting medium sized JPGs to a laptop through the WFT-E6A and using Canon’s EOS software. It’s damn near immediate. If the IT2 software with a USB 3 wired solution is about the same speed as my EyeFi performance, I may stick with the EyeFi because then I won’t have to be wired to a laptop. I’ll be adding that to my review as well. Thanks for the head’s up on the settings. I’ve read through the PDF manual in preparation on receiving the software. Happy Holidays!

  3. Very well done.
    I was looking for a new V system, from Hasselblad, but if pentax offer a better solution i will love to consider this.
    I’ll rent it. test it, and share the info too.
    I own the 640 Einsteins too, so that I will not worry.
    My concern is that I love to shoot at 400 Shutter out site, I used to do it with my Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, but I don’t want to spend that much in a system like Leaf or Phase one.
    Again thanks so much.

    • Hi Eduardo and my apologies for not responding sooner. Been traveling quite a bit for work. My opinion is if you are not shooting fast action in high ambient light such as outdoors the 645Z will work well. Now if you are shooting fashion and contemplate wind blowing garments then you may have an issue with motion blur on those items. In those instances where I feel I MUST use the 645Z and bring down ambient without concern for motion blur I use ND filters to knock down sunlight. Normally one Einstein at full power easily overcomes the ND filter’s light degradation and in those cases where I need more light, I use another Einstein. 1280ws is a ton of light and it’s VERY rare when I have to use two as a key light. Hassy, Phase, Leica, Leaf, Mamiya are all superb systems however for my client base I cannot justify the cost/feature differential for my work. I’ve found the 645Z a remarkable tool and a real game changer for shooters like myself. Take care.

  4. Thanks Mark for this great post! I’m too looking into getting into Pentax’s system despite having some Zeiss lenses for the a7s we use for video. The logical step is to get an A7R and/or wait until the expected refresh mark II comes out but am still drawn to this medium format camera 🙂 You mentioned 2 legacy lenses you have–the smc FA 80-160mm and 45-85mm. What prime lens or one lens is a *must* that you have to pair it with?

  5. Any luck using the Rovelight from Adorama? If only there was a way to use that strobe’s rather unique way of producing HSS, perhaps the 645Z in certain situations could get pass its max 125th sync speed. Pentax has produced an amazing camera and I for one would jump on it if I could sync at higher speeds for outdoor ambient work. Thanks for all the great info you have been providing on the Pentaz 645Z.

    • Hi Gregory, unfortunately the Rove won’t work in HSS with the 645. In order to use HSS it requires a trigger which can work with the camera’s pre flash output. No one makes one yet for the 645.

    • Greg since my last comment I purchased a Priolite HotSync 1000ws strobe which does perform Hypersync with the 645Z. The unit is very expensive and I am not satisfied with the banding caused with Hypersync. I’m hoping Godox produces a trigger for Pentax.

  6. Hi Mark,

    You do great job!
    i also use 645z, and for portraits I think the best is 90mm macro and the 150mm f2.8, the 90mm macro is very sharp.

    i also have tethered using it2, and it works, very convenient. I use it with windows8, i have yet to test it with mac.
    i hole it won’t be a problem as I really fall in love with the 5k new mac… you should see the files the 64yz produce on that 5k display…Amazinggg..

    i am not a pro, as I am an architect proffessionally, i do photography as a hobby, and also have several other systems like sony a7m2, olymp em1
    and em5m2, and plan to buy a fuji, maybe waiting for the xt2.

    the lenses I have for 645z are the 55kit lens, 28-45, 45-85, 90macro, 150, and 150-300, the sharpest are the 90mm and the 28-45..
    but the 55 is also good.. the 150mm give beautiful bokeh

    thanks Mark

    antono

  7. I found your review really helpful. I also appreciate your observation that so many people on forums want to be “right” rather than “helpful.” That is so spot on.

    I’m wondering whether the Pentax 645z would work for aerial mountain photography. I photograph from my plane in Alaska (with the window) open using my Canon 5dMark3. The air is generally smooth, but since the plane is flying 100mph, I have to shoot at 1/320th or 1/500th to make it sharp. I’m usually a quarter mile or so away from the mountain faces I’m shooting, but I still sometimes have focus issues. Do you think the Pentax would work from a fast-moving platform like that?

    • Thanks Bob. I write these to help folks so your feedback made me glad I take the time to do them. Gosh I think you will be very pleased with the 645Z for what you’ve described. I can’t really describe the difference between a 35mm and medium format other than the ‘feel’ of the image. If I could shoot everything with my Pentax, well I would!

  8. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for this awesome review!

    I just got my 645z and came across these PTTL triggers by ACON r930p. They are made by a relatively unknown Chinese company and by all accounts these triggers are able to transmit and receive PTTL signals when used with pentax flashes.

    It fools the 645z into thinking that it has a pentax flash in the hot shoe thus allowing the shutter speed to go beyond 125/s. The r930p can trigger strobes via flash cables.

    My question to you is, would the rovelight rl 600 or similar strobes have enough of a slow flash duration to achieve HSS when triggered via a PTTL trigger like the ACON’s.

    Would love to hear your thoughts!

    Cheers!

    Ian

    • I had heard of Acon’s but after writing to the maker I found that they would not function for the 645Z. I am currently using Priolite for HSS with the Z. I’m sure that in the near future other light makers will include Pentax for HSS.

  9. Dear Mark, Let me thank you 1k for the time and comprehensive explanation of your experience with 645z.
    I just got one and is in my hand. I have read your review several time and you and other folks experience made my go for it.
    In your review you mentioned something that I couldn’t understand the difference it goes lie this:
    “Be aware that if you use a card larger than 32gigs the card formats to exFAT rather than FAT32. (I use a Colorspace UDMA backup as part of my workflow. I had to upgrade to their new UDMA2 unit using beta software due to the exFAT format.)”
    I bought 2 cards 128GB each and they are as the link follows:
    SanDisk Extreme PRO 128GB UHS-I/U3 SDXC Flash Memory Card with up to 95MB/s- SDSDXPA-128G-G46
    https://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B00NP63Y4K/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

    To be honest I couldn’t understand what is ( FAT32 vs exFAT )
    please could you help me into that knowledge and how to solve?

    Regards

    Fatlind

    • Hi Fatlind and congrats on your purchase. I hope you find the 645Z as wonderful as I have. I would not worry about FAT32 vs. exFAT because for me that had to do with the remote backup device I was using, the ColorSpace UDMA 2. It has nothing to do with the operation of the 645Z itself at all. Have fun with your new rig!

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