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
I want to get several questions immediately out of the way:
- Will the 645Z make you a better photographer? NO
- Will the 645Z make you better at lighting? NO
- Will the 645Z help you source better subject matter? NO
- Will the 645Z help you to get authentic expressions out of your subject: NO
- 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!
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.