30+ Years in The Making
Very few cameras have the model longevity of the Pentax 67. First introduced in 1969, the camera was little changed until 1998 when it was updated to the 67II. This new version is compatible with all lenses and most accessories of the previous version. But, it is a significant advancement to the breed.
I now own a 67II, and arriving at this point has been a bit of an odyssey. For those interested — here's the story, along with my impressions of this latest model. This isn't intended as a full review, but rather a discussion of why I purchased the Pentax, where it fits into my photographic arsenal, and my early impressions from testing as well as it using it in the field.
In the late '70's I worked for a while as the manager of a large retail photographic store (Rutherford Photo), which catered to professional photographers in Toronto. We sold a lot of Pentax 67s, and though I never owned one myself I used them often, and became quite familiar with their use. I was a Hasselblad user then, and am primarily a Rollei 6008 user now, but I always found the 35mm-style handling of the Pentax to be enjoyable.
Making The Switch
Pentax 67II and 55~100mm f/4.5 zoom. Provia 100F
I recently put together a Pentax 67 system for use in doing landscape photography. My Rollei system, as good as it is, has a few drawback for some types of shooting that I do, in addition to being too heavy for extensive hiking. Primary among these drawbacks is an aversion to getting wet (the camera, not me), but more importantly that it uses rechargeable Nicad batteries. On a hiking or rafting trip, when away from an AC outlet for several days at a time, and in harsh weather, I need a medium format system that's less battery dependant and a bit less finicky around water.
For about a year until recently (late 2001), I used a Mamiya 7II. I only used it on one major shoot — my 8 day Master Class, house boating on Lake Powell and hiking the canyons of the Escalante River arm. Somehow I never really became bonded to the Mamiya. Several things got in the way, including what I feel is the inappropriateness for me of a rangefinder system for landscape work; a maximum 150mm focal length at the long end, and some focusing problems with that lens.
I therefore sold the Mamiya system and purchased a Pentax 67II. I found that the Pentax, though bulkier and heavier than the Mamiya, is for me a much more suitable camera for landscape work. I find the weight penalty to be a worthwhile tradeoff to be able to work with an SLR when doing this type of shooting.
In Hand — Not
The Pentax 67 has been a popular upgrade for 35mm photographers for decades because it looks like it should handle just like a 35mm SLR — but a big one. It's big and it's heavy but it handles well. Potential purchasers should note that though it looks like it should be mostly hand-holdable like a 35mm camera, it isn't. Yes, you can hand-hold it, but only with normal to short lenses, and only in very good light or with fast film.
Let me put this in perspective. With a 100mm lens (roughly normal focal length for 6X7cm), most user can hand-hold at 1/250 sec — as much as two stops slower than would be possible with a 35mm SLR. This is for critical work, not snapshots, but then this isn't a snapshot camera. Basically, this, like almost all medium format cameras, is a tripod camera — a heavy tripod in this case.
Here's another example. With a 300mm lens and 1.4X extender, a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second, and with the camera mounted on a light weight Gitzo 1228 carbon fiber hiking tripod with an Acratech ball head, there is so much shutter-induced vibration that the shot is blurred. This is shown in the frame below and its accompanying enlargement. Please note that this photograph was taken with the mirror locked up and with the use of a cable release! The sharpness destroying vibration is from the large focal plane shutter. A light weight tripod just doesn't cut it with this camera.
By way of explanation, what's happened here is that the shutter has bounced, as all shutters do. So, there have effectively been two exposures. One during the opening of the shutter and the second during the closing, at which point the camera had essentially rung like a bell thus causing the second image.
Pentax states in their manual that the tripod should weight more than the camera. I'd say the tripod and head should weight at least twice as much as the camera and lens combination for ultimate rigidity. (One trick reducing vibration when using a lightweight tripod is to attach a bungee cord to the tripod at the apex, below the head (Gitzo tripods have a hook there that serves the purpose) and then put your foot through the stretched cord and plant it on the ground. This is a better solution than hanging a camera bag from the hook, since the bag can swing, causing its own problems.)
The problem I experienced requires some further explanation. The Pentax has a large rapid-return mirror. At slow shutter speeds (below 1/125 second) and especially with long lenses, it should be locked up. This is SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for all medium format cameras, and should be even for 35mm cameras. Mirror shock is a real sharpness thief for critical work.
Fortunately the Pentax 67II has a very conveniently located mirror lock-up knob, just a finger's reach from the shutter release. But, as just discussed, there's also the problem of a massive focal plane shutter. Once the shutter speed drops below about 1/30 second there is the possibility when shooting with long lenses of vibration induced by the massive shutter wrecking sharpness, not just from the mirror.
I can't give you an exact quantification of what shutter speeds and lens combinations are needed to bring this on though between 1/60th and 1/4 second are likely to be the worst culprits. As seen above, the contributing factor was the use of a much too lightweight tripod and a very vibration prone shutter speed of 1/10th second. (I was curious to see if my hiking tripod and head could be used with this system at extremes of focal length and shutter speed. It can't! Not without the help of additional tripod stabilization, as discussed above.)
As part of my lens testing I next took this photograph of hydro towers the following day. Same set-up — (300mm lens and 1.4X extender with mirror lock-up) except this time the exposure was at 1/60th of second, not 1/10th, and more importantly I was using a much larger and heavier Gitzo 1349 CF tripod with an Arca Swiss ball head. It made all the difference in the world. The enlarged section is of one of the insulators, second down on the right of the central pylon. Perfectly sharp right to the grain level. Again, this is best a tripod mounted camera, especially with long lenses and slow shutter speeds. (The 300mm + 1.4X extender turns out to be an eminently usable combination. More tests and real world examples to come).
While this photograph was shot as a technical test, when I made a large print to evaluate it I was struck with what a strong image it was on its own merits. The contrast of the horizontal clouds and the vertical towers works well. A look at the enlarged version shows this better than does the small image above.
The Pentax has a large current lens selection available and because the camera has been around for more than 30 years there are a vast number of second hand lenses available in all markets.
I initially chose four lenses to put together a relatively compact hiking system. These are the 45mm f/4, 55~100mm f/4.5 zoom, 200mm f/4 and the 300mm f/4 EDIF telephoto, along with a 1.4X extender. These four lenses, with 1.4X extender and the camera body, comfortably fit in a LowePro MiniTrecker, my preferred small backpack for hiking, still with reasonable space for film and filters.
I had been warned off the 55~100mm zoom. No one had any criticism of the optical quality of the lens, but some said that it was way too bulky. My dealer had one in stock, and in comparing it to my other choices it really was not as bad as some had made it out to be. Possibly it's because I'm used to the very large and heavy Schneider lenses on the Rollei, but the zoom lens' weight and size simply weren't an issue for me. Initial use shows it to be an extremely crisp lens with no obvious flaws. In fact, results from all four Pentax lenses under a loupe, and in 13X19" prints, appear to be fully the equal of those from my Rollei Schneider lenses.
December, 2001: I have added the Pentax 600mm f/4 telephoto for wildlife work.
February, 2002: I have also now added the Pentax 400mm f/4 ED(IF) telephoto for wildlife work (and subtracted the 600mm).
The Good Stuff
Metering: Though the Pentax is sold as a body only, and it does take a waist level finder, the AE/TTL prism finder is a must. This finder has three metering possibilities — Center Weighted Average, Matrix and Spot. The Matrix metering is especially good. The Spot metering is concentrated on the area covered by the center focusing circle.
Viewfinder: The viewfinder image is exceptionally bright and clear. Much brighter than the prism finder for my Rollei 6008. I find the groundglass image on the Pentax very easy to focus, even with the relatively slow f/4 and f/4.5 lenses.
Shutter: The Pentax has an electronically controlled shutter with speeds from 4 seconds to 1/1000 second and a A position for aperture priority automatic exposure. There is a B setting, and also a long exposure setting that permits very long exposures (such as for astrophotography) with almost no battery drain. Under normal use the two CR123A lithium batteries should last for about 500 rolls of 120 film (250 rolls of 220). Flash sync is an abysmal 1/30second, because of the large focal plane shutter. This is not a cameras best suited for mixed daylight / flash work, though leaf shutter lenses are available if awkward to use.
120 / 220: The camera can take both 120 and 220 film with a simple shift of the pressure plate. There is an external indication of which film is currently loaded, and when the film is first loaded the LCD panel shows whether 120 or 220 film is present. 10 frames are recorded on a roll of 120 and 21 frames on a roll of 220.
LCD: There is a small top-panel LCD which displays the ISO of the film that's set and also the frame count. If the film is not wound-on it also displays an arrow as a reminder. As mentioned above it shows whether 120 or 220 film is being used when film is first loaded. The LCD also displays a low battery warning as necessary, and flash status.
Mirror Lock-Up: The mirror lockup lever is right next to the shutter release button. Easy to use even when the camera is tripod mounted. You're unlikely to use it when the camera is hand-held, though this is possible because of its positioning. The mirror lock up also triggers Meter Lock when activated.
Meter Lock: There is a small button on the rear panel next to the eyepiece that locks the exposure for 20 seconds. This is very handy if the spot metering mode is used and then the subject reframed.
Eyepiece Diopter: The AE metering prism has an adjustable eyepiece diopter. I regard this as almost a must in any camera that I use as I sometimes use cameras with my glasses on and sometimes with them off. A dial-in diopter setting makes this easy to do. Clip on or screw-in diopters are an annoyance and are easy to loose.
Exposure Compensation: There is an exposure compensation dial offering +/- 3 stops of compensation in 1/3rd stop increments. This is visible in the viewfinder display.
Custom Functions: The viewfinder normally shows the number of frames exposed. One of the custom functions that a Pentax Service Center can program is to change the frame counter into a F stop display. Makes more sense to me. Wish this were user settable though.
The Bad Stuff
There really isn't much. This camera has evolved over the years to the point that if one accepts its basic design premise, it's as close to fully evolved as one could wish.
Hot Shoe: There isn't one. I miss not being able to mount a bubble level on the camera. A flash needs to be attached with the available wooden grip in any event.
Shutter Bounce: As mentioned above, because of the large size of the focal plane shutter, with speeds in the range of 1/60th down to 1 second, when combined with long lenses and less that robust tripods this combination can lead to blurred images. Just the nature of the beast.
Slow Sync Speed: A sync speed of 1/30 sec does limit daylight fill-flash possibilities and can lead to ghost images in some situations. Again, the nature of the beast.
Film Latches: I've read some online comments by new owners that the Pentax is hard to load. My experience is that it isn't much different than many other 120 cameras. The film spool release on the Mamiya 7 is superior, but the ones on the Pentax are easy to become accustomed to. Not a big deal.
No LCD Illumination: This is not that big a deal either. The main information on this screen is the frame counter, but since this is duplicated in the illuminated viewfinder display, working in the dark is still possible. But, if you have Pentax change the Custom Function so that the viewfinder display shows the F stop rather that the frame counter then there's no way to see the latter information in the dark without a flashlight.
No Electronic Release: The camera has an electronic shutter, so how come no electronic remote release? This would be a very welcome addition, especially for astronomical work.
Awkward Long Exposure Release: Though the camera having a long exposure capability that doesn't drain the shutter's battery is welcome, it is very awkwardly placed. This is a control that will be used primarily in the dark. But, it is very subtly shaped and located in a hard to reach position.
90% View: The meter prism is almost a must with this camera, but be aware that it only shows 90% of the full frame recorded on film. For a 100% view you need to use either the folding hood or the rigid magnifying hood. The downside of these is that they are unsuitable for vertical framing.
A Photographer's Camera
Branches & Moon — White Sands
Pentax 67II and 200mm f/4 lens. Provia 100F
With a camera which has only had one major model change in more than thirty years it's easy to imagine that it's an old-fashioned design. Far from it. In its latest incarnation the Pentax 67II has virtually every technical feature that one could want, with the exception of autofocus.
More to the point, unlike some camera which seem to have been designed solely by engineers (and were), the Pentax definitely was designed and enhanced over the years by people who are photographers as well. It doesn't take much time testing one or using one in the field for a few days to convince you of that.
Here's one example. The latest 300mm f/4 EDIF lens comes with a lens shade that bayonets backwards onto the lens for storage. Nice, but not special. What is special is a small sliding "window" close to the bayonet. At first I was puzzled as to its purpose. Then I realized — it's to allow you to reach into the front of the lens, while the lens shade is on, so as to be able to rotate a polarizer. What a neat idea! No other lens that I've ever seen has this.
Speaking of lenses, and as mentioned above, because of the longevity of this model there are a huge number of lenses on the used market. This is a good thing, but also be aware that Pentax has constantly been improving their lens line, often without fanfare, and usually even without an announcement. More recent lenses are generally superior to those from 20 years ago, though not always.
Viewfinder F Stop Custom Function
Having the viewfinder of a camera display the shutter speed and F stop currently in use is important to have. The 67II shows the shutter speed, but the second position is taken up with a display of the frame number.
If you've read your 67II instruction manual you may have noted that there is a custom function that can be set by a Pentax service center to change the display from frame number to F stop. I've now had this done to my 67II and here's what it's all about.
Firstly, the surgery typically takes a day or two and costs about U.S. $40. When you get the camera back you now have the option of having the viewfinder display either the frame number or the F stop in use.
When you mount a lens you need to let the camera know the maximum aperture of the lens being used. You do this by turning the aperture ring to the maximum opening (fully counterclockwise). Next, press both the ISO and the Meter Lock buttons on the back simultaneously. The frame counter on the top LCD will temporarily become an F stop indicator, and using the Film Speed setting slider on the top panel you set this display to show the maximum aperture of the lens being used. Let go of the buttons and you're done.
The viewfinder now shows shutter speed and F stop. If you'd like to display the frame counter instead again, just perform the button combination above and set the top display to "--" instead of an F stop. You can do this at any time.
Note that you need to perform this button legerdemain every time you change lenses. It's a bit of a drag, but I find having the aperture setting displayed in the viewfinder to be worth the hassle. And frankly, I'm surprised that this function isn't standard with every Pentax 67II. It should be.
645NII as Backup
In addition to the Pentax 67II there is another medium format camera in the Pentax lineup, the Pentax 645NII. After considering purchasing another 67II as a second body for backup purposes I purchased instead the brand new 645NII. The reason for this is that it is much small and lighter, has motor-wind and even autofocus confirmation when using 67 lenses.
Yes, 67 lenses. With a simple Pentax adaptor any Pentax 67 lens can be used on the 645 with full auto-diaphram and open-aperture metering. Read my full review for more on this fascinating alternative.
Pentax AF500FTZ — and Daylight Balanced Fill Flash for the Pentax 67 and 645