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Pentax 645D - Start of a New Era in Medium Format Digital

by Nick Devlin

The Long Road Back

For many landscape and nature photographers, the Pentax 645 and 67 film systems were the best thing going in medium format.  Expressly built for field-work, these cameras were tough and versatile, offered the largest range of lenses, and were priced well below much of the competition.   Pentax was the business.  Then digital happened.  The Canon 1Ds redfined photography overnight. Within months, film sales dropped, and the sales of film-cameras fell off the end of earth.  Once venerable brands like Contax and Bronica died – blew away in the digital dust.  The dark cloud of the digital question gathered over Pentax as well. 

In the early years of the digital revolution, one of the Pentax 645's strong suits became its undoing, namely the lack of interchangeable backs. The first attempts at medium format digital (or "MFSLRs" as I will call them) all involved grafting digital capture instruments onto the back of existing film camera platforms, and hoping for the best. The Pentax 645's insert-system didn't allow this option, requiring a complete re-design of the camera involving an integrated sensor.  By all accounts, Pentax gamely pursued this re-design process, but got caught by the bow wave of the mid-decade megapixel race.  An 18MP 645 protoype was announced at the Photo Imagaing Expo in Toyko in 2005, but the camera never materialized. Meanwhile FF 35mm pixel-counts gallopped past the 18MP marker.  At PMA in 2007, Pentax announced a 31MP 645D, but again the camera did not reach market. In the meantime,  35mm solutions did, reaching the 24MP marker.   With this history, cynics could be forgiven for raising a skeptically cocked eye when Pentax announced a 40MP incarnation of the 645D in 2009.

All but the most die-hard Pentaxians despaired. 

Pentax, however, got the last laugh, finally turning the camera from vapour-ware to reality this spring.  At 40MP, it sits right on the current plateau of the MFSLR world, lining up at eye-level with the Hasselbad H4-40 and the PhaseOne P40+.  But this is no mere "me too" entrant into the class.

So, has Pentax done it?

Ok, let's cut to the point. You all want to know if this is the real deal - an MFSLR for the masses?  In a word,  yes. There are a few caveats, but the core capability is there, in a terrific camera body. The 645D can match the IQ standard in its class, which is very high indeed.

A defining camera

But beyond the basics, two things make the 645D a defining camera.  The first is price. At  $10,000 US, it sets a new standard in medium format affordability. "Affordability" is a pretty rarified concept at this level of the industry, but given the number of people willing to shell out nearly this much for a Nikon D3x, the 645D has all but closed the price gap between MFSLRs and top end DSLRs. I predict that it will also put the cat amongst the pigeons within the medium format industry, in ways that might have serious consequences for a number of the players.

The second feature which makes the 645D so significant is its flawless integration of a state-of-the-art DSLR controls and electronics into an MFSLR.   The ergonomics are, to me, stellar.  This is the most usable SLR (of any format) I have had in my hand for years.  

There is a catch. There's always a catch or two.  In this case, it's not a surprising one.  From my early testing, not all Pentax legacy lenses will perform to the exacting standards of the sensor. Moreover, I have had some peculiar problems obtaining sharp photos at close-to-infinity distances on repeated occasions.  This problem may be specific to one of my lenses, but may also reflect a problem Mark Dubovoy identified in his slightly controversial review of the Leica S2, namely an inability of the AF system to focus the lens in fine enough increments at certain distances to achieve acceptable IQ with the vastly diminished tolerances of digital.  

Lastly,  I have also experienced a minor but deeply aggravating mechanical failure, which might not be fixable without a return trip to Japan (ah, the pleasures of living on the bleeding edge!) 

In other words, some question marks remain, but the guts of what we have are good. 

So let's get into it.

Rainbow, upstate NY, October 2010
Pentax 645D, FA 80-160mm, ISO 200

In the Hand

In the hand, the 645D is the MFSLR Revolution.  The body melds perfectly into my grip, and feels just like a high-end 35mm dslr.  The only difference is the larger mirror-box protrusion, which gives the camera more bulk than a D3x or 1DsIII, but at a very comparable weight. To say that the 645D is a scaled-up version of the K-7 is technically acurate, but fails to describe the feel of the 'Big Brother'.  While the essential control configuration is the same as on the top-end Pentax prosumer cameras, everything from the size of the buttons and dials to the tactile feel of the inputs is different – and better.  The controls are smooth and positive and just plain feel good. They are both the right size and, for my hand, in the right place.  The K-7 is a competent camera, but it feels like what it is.  Its feel is also consistent with its price. (This is not a criticism, as this is true of all brands in that market segment).   Personally, I dislike this feel, which is why I don't own any of these cameras.

The 645D also feels like what it is. Except in the 645D's case, that is a $10,000 professional camera.  Whereas the controls on the K-7 are a bit plasticky and kind of cramped (hey, it's a tiny camera), the 645D's controls are well-spaced and feel like quality. While that's an elusive concept, you know what I mean.

If you're getting the picture that I like how the camera is laid out, you're right.  After using both the Phasemiya and Hassy cameras, I can finally say I have found an MFSLR that is a pleasure to use.  By comparison, both of the 645D's prime competitors are, to my tastes, poorly designed compromises and significantly less comfortable in the hand.  Did I mention that this camera feels good in the hand? This is the first MFSLR that I actually makes me want to use it. (* I have not used the S2 beyond holding it for a few seconds, so it is excluded from this statement). 

The pleasure continues at eye level. The finder is terrific.  If you've spent any time squinting into an EVIL camera, you'll understand the acronym a whole lot better after sampling the 645D. This is a return to the good old days. As an eye-glass wearer, I can see the whole screen, and information area below, without even pressing my eye to the cup.   Superb.  To my tastes, the finder of the 645D is preferable to that of the current Phase camera, which employs a grid etched on the focusing screen to delineate the 'reduced' sensor size.  I understand that that camera is also built for use with the full-frame P65, but I prefer to see what I get and get what I see if I'm using an SLR.   

Bulk and weight

The 645D is a big camera, especially when any of the zooms lenses are attached.  You get noticed walking around with it over your shoulder. With a standard lens mounted,  however, the camera is not a lot bigger than a pro DSLR. Weight is not a problem. Perhaps because of its state-of-the-art battery system, the 645D does not feel particularly heavy, and I was able to carry it over my shoulder (with a 45-85mm zoom attached) for nearly 8 hours without any real discomfort.

The initial reaction of most people who handled it was 'wow, this doesn't weigh nearly as much as it looks like it's going to weigh'.  That's because it doesn't.  Also, because it sits so well in the hand, that the weight largely disappears during use. 

Dave Farkas has criticized the button-cluttered look of the 645D as compared to the undeniable elegance of the Leica S2.  He's right, of course, the S2, like all Leica cameras, is in itself an object d'art. That said, for me the 645D seems like the preferable control idiom.  It is so far ahead of Phase and Hassy that it's not even funny.  But as against the S2, it's a matter of taste.  I have spent very little time with the Grande Leica, and hope to have one for a brief test soon, so I will keep an open mind.  But for now, suffice to say that the 645D is a joy to use during actual photography. It's designer won't be getting any recruiting calls from Apple, but who cares? An iPhone will never replace my Blackberry as a text-communication device, no matter how sexy it is.  The same reasoning holds with the 645D. I kind of like how it looks, and it works great. 

picture of back of 645d

Control Layout 

There are a lot of buttons and dials on the 645D. Normally, this is a trend I dislike. But with the 645D, I have found the control layout almost perfect because (a) most controls do just one thing; and (b) those things are all useful. Virtually every significant camera function has its own control: AF mode, AF points, AF actuation, metering mode, drive, M-LU, ISO, exposure compensation, etc.  Pentax's designers have made really good use of the  645D's expansive real estate.  When menus are involved, they are big, bright and easy to navigate. The only manual I have is in Japanese, and I can't imagine why I would ever need it, except for advanced tasks such as developing RAW files in-camera.

The 645D features a dizzying array of expsoure modes, including one which allows the user to set shutter and aperature with the camera matching ISO within set parameters. This is actually surprisingly useful, as is the ISO priority program mode, which is handy for street shooters. There are a myriad of user controls, whereby one can select which dial controls what in each of the exposure modes. In all of them, exposure compensation can be put right on the back dial, where it belongs.   AF can also be moved to a dedicated AF button at the back, which falls perfectly under the thumb. Very nicely done.

The way the controls operate is also very intelligent.  For instance, if you want to switch from continuous shooting to self-timer, you simply press the "DRIVE" button. This brings up four boxes on the back LCD, each of which represents one of the drive modes. You then press the button once more to move to the mode you want to select, and that's it.  You don't have to hit some infernal "ok" or "enter" button to register the change.  You just go back to shooting.  

A small rant

There are good cameras, and there are bad cameras. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the files they produce. In 2010, every camera on earth can take a better picture than 98% of photographers will ever need. But almost none of them make it easy or pleasant. Instead, they make it nearly impossible to simply, quickly and intuitively perform basic photographic functions. It's thanks to "feature creep" , the insidious sickness inflicted on us by the software industry, and replicated with soul-crushing vapidity in contemporary cameras design. To wit, I give you Exhibit A, the "Direct Print" button.  

To my mind, it is the quality of physical handling when performing core photographic functions -- things real photographers need to do on their cameras while taking real pictures - which separates good cameras from the rest. For instance, something like the ease, or agony, with which a photographer can change the drive mode from single-shot  drive mode to self-timer matters to me more than a half-stop of DR. Seriously. This is the stuff that matters. Does the camera drive me crazy whenever I pick it up, or does it become an extension of my hands. Does it facilitate my capturing what I see before me, or get in the way? 

On this criteria, the 645D scores top marks. It could be 20% or 30% behind its competitors in "IQ", and I would still prefer it. Why? Because when I am 'In the moment' - that magic state in which a marvelous image has presented itself – the camera needs to disappear from the process.  The pipeline from my eye to my flash memory card must be free of obstructions. The 645D comes closer to achieving that than any SLR since my original EOS-1 (circa 1990) or my beloved Fuji 690.  

In the digital age, we are both blessed and cursed with complex cameras. They are unavoidable. But what separates the wheat from the chaff is whether that camera exudes that complication, or is a salve that minimizes its impact on the photographer's  work.

When more camera companies understand this, the industry will move forward.  Those who fail to understand it risk not surviving to move ahead at all.  

Rear LCD

Ok, let's talk LCDs.  So you drop $40K on a camera, you expect to get a screen that's at least as good as, say, a Samsung smartphone, right? Wrong. With the notable exception of LEAF, MFSLRs have had impardonably atrocious LCDs for far too long.  Good LCD screens cost nothing, and make everything better. The 645D has a sumptous 3" LCD. Nicely done. The screen content also rotates with the orientation of the camera. Also nicely done. 

Perhaps the most notable feature of the LCD is that it can be turned into an electronic level at the touch of a button.  This feature allows one to easily level the camera on both axis.  This is a great tool for landscape shooters, and one which I find myself using constantly.

Mirror and Shutter Mechanisms

The Pentax 645 NII was well known as a very smooth camera. Pentax added a mirror lock-up control, almost grudgingly, since they asserted that the mirror mechanism was so well damped that MLU wasn't needed. Digital, of course, ups the image ante by an order of magnitude, so MLU is critical for critical work.  Pentax has indulged us by creating a dedicated MLU control. The designers, apparently being photographers themselves (gasp!) have programmed the 2-second self-timer mode to automatically lock-up the mirror at the start of the count-down. (Note: this involves actually thinking about how photographers use self-timer.  A 2-second delay is too short to get into the picture, so ipso facto the photographer must be using it for purposes of vibration minimization, so let's add MLU.  By contrast, the only real reason for a 12-second delay is to sprint over to Aunt Mable's embrace for the exposure, so MLU is less evidently necessary and can be left to the photographer's discretion. Wow, thank you!)

 In any event, both mechanisms are indeed very smooth. I could detect no mirror-induced softness in images shot in the 1/15th danger zone.

Batteries

Now I'm just torturing you talking about batteries when all you want to know about is image quality. Deal with it.  You'll be buying and using batteries long after the IQ debate around this camera is dead and gone. The 645D uses the same cheap, pedestrian D-LI90 as is found in Pentax's prosumer bodies. These puppies cost $39 bucks at B&H. $19.99 if you buy the no-name knock-offs. (If you find yourself agonizing over whether to spend that extra $18 on the battery you are about to insert into the very heart of your new $10,000 camera, I would suggest professional psychological counselling. But you'd probably find it a bit too pricey and just end up talking your best friend's ear off, so I won't bother.)  

Battery life is astonishing. On my first charge, I shot 481 frames with the 645D over a cumulative period of about 9 hours.  The camera was "on" the entire time, and I chimped heavily.  The cameras did not die at 481 frames, but the battery light was indicating that we had reached the danger zone. Suffice to say that this is impressive.  It is even more impressive when you realize that the rear LCD stays on much of the time when you are shooting.  This is state of the art power-management.  The day of the $250 MFSLR battery is over.  Competitors, take note.  

The size of the battery is also a plus. At less than half the size of most of its competition, I could fill a pocket with these (and not break the bank), but with this kind of battery-life, you don't even have to.  Ten out of ten.

 

Shadows, West 39th Street, NYC, October 2010
Pentax 645D, FA 45-85mm, ISO 400

Auto Focus

The 645D is the first MFSLR to offer multiple focussing points (11 in total). The camera has a dial dedicated to selecting the focus mode: auto, centre, or user selected.  The focus points can be controlled using the four-way controller on the back of the camera.  This is one of the first cameras I have used where the focus point can practically be changed with the camera at eye level.  The only disappointment is that the focus points do not extend further outside the central area.  As such, their usefulness is less than it could be. Still, this is big improvement over the status quo. 

Focus speed and sensitivty is very good.  While I have not been able to do any directed comparison, my sense is that the Pentax AF is presently the best of the bunch, edging out the S2 narrowly, if at all.  Until a more detailed comparison is possible, suffice to say that the AF is good. **This is subject to the caveat below regarding focussing issues.**

The new 55mm SDM lens is the only lens in the Pentax line-up which is ultrasonically driven (as opposed to old-school gear-drive).  While the AF is buzzy on the older FA lenses, it is still as quick as anyone could require on an MFSLR.


Image Quality

So let's talk turkey: what can the 645D really do when the photons hit the chip? Well, when all the stars align, the 645D delivers every bit of the stunning level of detail we expect from MFSLRs.  The internet is no substitute for viewing a print in one's hand, so you will have to take my word that, in print, the images produced by the 645D are excellent.  I output all of the images accompanying this article on my Epson 3800 to at least 13x19.  All of them display a visible difference from how the same images would look if produced by a 35mm (or smaller) camera.  They look like MF prints. While this is hard to quantify, it is an amalgam of resolution, lack of noise, and subtlety of tonal transitions.  

That said, at this size of print it was hard to tell the difference between test fames shot on the Leica M9 and the 645D. At 100% view on screen, the images matched in accutance, but the 645D rendered far more detail - no surprise there.  A print would have to reach into the 24" range before this difference manifested on paper. Without giving away the results of a mini shoot-out that will appear here in the next couple of weeks, the same cannot be said for a certain main-stream DSLR.  As  between "AA" free CCD sensors, however, the size difference is simply that - a size difference.

Colour out of the camera is nicely saturated, but not exaggerated in any way. I find myself using a lot less "saturation" and "vibrance" in Lightroom with 645D files than with other cameras, though my sense is that Phase files have a just perceptible edge in the "richness" of colours. Even at very high ISOs, the files have a very wide colour gamut, as the frame below illustrates. On the other hand, the files take a lot more sharpening to hit what I consider their "sweet spot".  I have a profound aversion to over-sharpened prints. Save crispy for the chicken.  But that's not what we're talking about.  In LR3, I have found that the files look best with a base sharpening setting of around '50', whatever that means.  This doesn't imply that the files aren't sharp, just that they need/can withstanding more aggressive sharpening to look their best. 

Fall Hydrangea, Toronto, October 2010
Pentax 645D, FA 120mm, f4, ISO 1600

Noise / High ISO Performance

The acceptable amount of noise in an image is an intensely subjective taste. At base ISO, the 645D produces a very clean image. At 400, noise appears, but is limited to the shadows for the most part, and is neither objectionable in its form nor resistant to elimination. Even at ISO 800, I found noise to be mostly a non-issue.  Is there some? Yes. Does it clean-up almost effortlessly in post-production?  Yes. More to the point, I am not sure I would choose to clean it up much.  The noise is (allow me to don my Nomex suit), somewhat more 'filmic' to my eye than with a lot of CMOS based cameras. By way of comparison, my Leica M9 produces a similar quality of noise, though my impression is that the 645D has the edge in quantity of noise.

For me, even at ISO 1600 the image is excellent.  While I would not shoot landscapes at these speeds on any camera (except if looking for a certain feel in black and white), I find the 645D entirely usable as a street-shooting camera at ISO 1600. To try to put these noise descriptions in context, a well exposed file at ISO 1600 can be printed to 13x19 without hesitation. The noise is not often an issue in a file with texture in the subject.   To put this is context, an ISO 1600 snap-shot portrait of a friend, shot at ISO 1600 in the same diner pictured below, looks like it was shot on Tri-X, expertly souped in a low-granularity developer....and I mean TXP 120, not 35mm.  The performance is really exceptionally good.  I would shoot a double-truck spread at ISO 1600 without hesitation, provided I was able to get a solid exposure (i.e. the majority of the detail falling at or above the mid-line of the histogram). 

In fairness, I have had a few captures, mostly in marginal light with a monochromatic subject, where the noise hit an unacceptable level at ISO 1600.  I suspect that this was a case of trying to dig a file out of a single channel when there was just not enough data there to achieve sufficient tonal separation. So yes, the 645D has limits.  The Nikon D700 can sleep a little easier tonight.  

But to answer the key question, Pentax has indeed produced an MFSLR capable of satisfactory, professionally usable performance up to ISO 1600. This is big news for the wedding crowd, who often want to shoot in low light. Personally, I would prefer not to rely on a cameras like this in situations where hand-held shooting is pushing shutter-speeds down into the danger-zone for vibrational degradation, opting instead for fast-glass on the M9, but the capability is there.

Another barrier has been broken.

Below is a hand-held image shot in a diner on the 45-85mm zoom lens.  You can mouse-over for a 100% pixel view of the image.  As you can see, the text on the side of the coffee pot is clearly legible.  There is noise in the black plastic handle and the coffee itself.  Bear in mind that these are zone 1 values in an ISO 1600 exposure, and that this blow-up would be the equivalent of a 24" print at 300dpi. Make up your own mind, but consider that minimal noise reduction has been applied (I prefer noise to 'schmearing') and that the camera also managed to hold detail in all but the very brightest specular highlights in this shot.  In other words, the noise you see would be on the shady side of the black bear's ass at dusk.  A custom noise-reduction plug-in might well improve the image even further. 

 

Diner - Toronto, 2010 [Mouse-over for 100% view]
Pentax 645D, FA 45-85mm, ISO 1600

Dynamic Range

I have not yet conducted a really careful test of the dynamic range, but it seems entirely satisfactory in ordinary use. This anecdotal finding is corroborated by DXO's analysis of the camera, which suggests it is in the top-tier of cameras for DR.  What I have not yet had to chance to do is shoot a side-by-side frame on the 645D and a Canon 5D MkII, and perform a real post-processing torture-test to see if one file fragments before the other. In my experience, the advantages of increased DR and bit-depth only really show up when the file is pummeled in either LR or Photoshop. I hope to do this test and report on the result in the next month or two. In the meantime, potential buyers can be satisfied that the 645D performs just fine in this area. There are no obvious compromises.

Time has also precluded me from really determining whether there is any advantage to shooting at the downwardly "extended" ISO of 100 (the camera's native ISO being 200).  My intuition tells me you can't go wrong with more photons, but I suspect that this isn't correct for a myriad of technical reasons I can't bring myself to care about.  In any event, I have noticed no obvious image degradation by shooting at ISO 100 instead of 200.    

Sunset in Greenwich Village, November 2010
Pentax 645D, 45-85mm, ISO 800

That Olde Medium Format Look

By now, most of us will have had the chance to look at a file from an MFSLR in which all of the variables have come together to realize the full potential of these remarkable imaging instruments.  The jaw drops just a little when we pull one of these up at 100% and suddenly find the smallest details coming to life.  That, for many landscape and nature photographers, is the high that keeps us going in search of MFSLR nirvana. The 645D can produce files of that quality.  But, as with all MFSLRs, it is not easy.  In all of my early shooting with this camera, I have been reminded of the lesson learned which each previous experience I have had with MFSLRs.  Namely, these devices are merciless mistresses.  The smallest error in focus, the slightest vibration, the wrong kind of leaves on the tree, and the image will not be up to snuff.  But when all these variables come together, angels sing.  

The most obvious place this happens is in studio, where the split-second exposures of electronic flash drive the wind and vibration gremlins out of the room.  It's not surprising that commercial photographers love their MFSLRs. In the field, however, it is much harder.  For myself, I have come to see using MF digital in the field as akin to the commitment involved in using 4x5 film cameras.  Yes folks, it's that hard to make it work well. 

But when it does, mmmmmm, mmmmmm, mmmmmm.

The following aesthetic abomination is thus presented for your pixel-peeping pleasure...

Gratuitous Pixel Peeping, November 2010
Pentax 645D, FA 75mm, f8, ISO 200

 

               

Believe me now?


Lens Quality

Pentax makes good lenses. They always have.  For this reason I was none too worried about the performance of the older (not all that old!) FA series autofocus lenses.  For the last few years, this tantalizingly broad selection of glass has been available for a song on the used and new-old-stock market, as they-of-little-faith unloaded their 'obsolete' equipment.  When one considers that  a new Phase 75-150mm costs about $4,000, and a 30-90mm Hassy lens will set you back almost $9,000, the three-figure selling prices of lenses such as the 33-55mm, 45-85mm and 80-160mm were all too tempting.  I even picked up a 75mm f2.8 for $175.  My understanding is that Pentax will bring most of the line back to market, though at prices which will be similar to Phase and Hassy.  

The verdict on these lenses is both good and bad.  The 75mm is stupidly sharp at all aperture to about f13.  The 45-85mm is very good when stopped down (as a Leica user, the concept of 'stopping down' to a working aperture was something I had to re-learn), and the 80-160mm is good, at least at the shorter end of the range.  

The nifty 33-55mm, however, suffers a bit.  While Pentax showed a very impressive sample print shot with it by one of their photographers, my sample is weak.  This may be due to it having led a hard life before reaching the halcyion shores of digital, but I suspect that there is a reason why no other company has been able to produce a zoom lens in this range for use with digital sensors without considerable cost or trouble. This is a shame, because on the 1.3x crop factor sensor, the 33-55mm provides an ultra useful range.  I will send my lens in a CLA, and report back on whether it becomes better friends with the 645D.  To be clear, I am not saying the lens isn't capable of decent shots, it is. But in the corners at the wide focal-lengths, it does not match the sensor's abilities.  

Now, to be fair, Canon pretty much took over the professional 35mm digital world without a single wide-angle that was worth dog-spit in the corners, so who am I to criticize Pentax?

The new 55 SDM "digital" lens is also very good. Pentax is rumoured to have a seriously wide-angle companion to it on the way, which is welcome news as well. That said, to be taken really seriously in the segment of the market which affords cameras such as these, Pentax will have to announce and implement a road-map of fully digital-worthy lenses.  In the meantime, I hope to test a number of Pentax's fixed-focal length telephotos in the weeks and months to come, and will update this review when I have the chance to do so.  

Focussing precision

Mark Dubovoy recently raised some serious hackles here by suggesting that most MFSLRs' focus accuracy left something to be desired. I think he's on to something.  I have now had a significant number of shots of static landscape subjects, focussed at 200-600' from the camera, optimally exposed on a stable tripod, at a prime working aperture, in which absolutely nothing is sharp - i.e. in focus.  All of these instances were with the 80-160mm at near its longer end.  I thought it was just me, but my friend and fellow contributor Mark Segal showed a recent series in which he had exactly the same results from his Phase 75-150mm.  Mark Dubovoy's article alluded to his experience being let-down similarly by the Hasseblad system, and, upon going back into my archives, I found a number of shots which showed the same problem.  

So what's going on? I have neither the technical expertise nor the data-set to answer this question yet, but I doubt the last word has been said on it. I have made Pentax aware of my findings, and look forward to hearing back from them.

A specific lens problem

Despite having been purchased new in the last year, my 80-160mm has another quirk.  Sometimes, it hunts for focus, but cannot lock.  This always takes place at 160mm, and only at 160mm.  It seems to be some sort of communication problem between the camera and the lens.  Whether it is firmware or hardware, the lens needs service. Pentax has also been made aware of this problem. 

Chinatown Veggies, Toronto, October 2010
Pentax 645D, 45-85mm, 1/320th f6.3  ISO 800

An annoying mechanical fault

About a week after the 645D arrived, I began to notice the rear control dial acting strangely. Whichever way it was turned, it would increase the value being effected, often in multi-increment leaps.  Over time, the problem has gotten worse, to the point that the rear-dial is now essentially unusable. Want to get to ISO 1600 in a hurry, or +5 stops exposure compensation? This is your ticket.  Otherwise, not too good. Fortunately, the 645D is so user-configurable, that I have simply put ISO on the front dial in Program mode, and switch it there, but shoot most of the time in physical aperture priority using the aperture rings on the older FA lenses.  This is a passable work-around, but obviously the camera is mechanically defective and needs to be repaired.  Pentax Canada and USA have only just ordered their toolkits for 645D repairs, so it is unclear how and when this will get done.  Service is a very significant component in the pro-level camera equations.  More to come on this in future updates to this review.  

At this point, I have not heard of any other users encountering this particular problem, so unless my inbox is flooded with reports of similar problems, I will assume it is unique to my camera.  These things happen. Make 5,000 of anything, each with thousands of parts, and something is bound to break.  Still, this is very unfortunate. I have to say that the defect caused me some real cognitive dissonance, given the quality build-feel of the camera.  Time will tell how reliable the 645D proves to be.

Water and weather sealing

That said, the camera obviously has to be built to a fairly high standard of quality given that  it is water and weather-sealed (with the new 55 SDM lens). I have been caught in the rain with the camera twice already, and it was a real relief, if not somewhat disconcerting, not to worry about the camera over my shoulder as I got soaked.  The weather-proof nature of this camera may be one of its biggest selling point for outdoor shooters, because, as well as we treat our gear, it's bound to get wet.  Often, the best light is right before, or right after, a storm blows through.  The similar sealing on the K7 works very well, so I expect the same of Pentax.  Kudos to them for knowing the needs of their core market and addressing it with a feature that can have been neither cheap nor easy to implement.   

Shop Window Symphony, New York, November 2010
Pentax 645D, 75mm, f2.8 1/500th, ISO 200

Medium Format as a Street Camera?

While there is an obvious tension between saying that MFSLRs require optimum technique and conditions in all facets of exposure to reach their full potential, and the notion of using the 645D for street shooting, I found that the user-friendliness of the camera made this entirely possible. The M9 is hardly at risk of being replaced, but the 645D is a very competent tool for travel or ethnographic photography.  Just as with modern DSLRs, one can set the camera to match the ISO to a preset shutter speed, and go to it.  The resulting files are luscious. I look forward to using the camera in this way a lot.


This is but the beginning

In the weeks and months to come, the 645D will be tested in-studio as well as head-to-head with a couple of its main competitors. A lot more lenses need to be put through their paces as well.  Hopefully, Pentax will also respond to the concerns voiced to them.

So, when can we all shoot with it?

The 645 is supposed to come ashore in North America and Europe in December.  If Japan demand is any barometer, the camera will be in short supply for a long time. 

For those too impatient to wait for the promised winter launch in North America, the jewels of Japanese technological wizardry can be delivered to your door through a number of re-sellers. I can recommend White Rabbit Express, whose president is an avid photographer.  His, or a number of similar services, can source and ship you a camera in a matter of days, at a price very similar to what you would pay domestically.  Of course, the risk is that you will end up with a Japan-only warranty in case anything goes wrong.  White Rabbit will facilitate warranty repairs, but getting the camera to Japan and back is your own problem.  

Conclusion....and what's to come

The 645D has changed the landscape of medium format digital.  Pentax has given us the best handling MFSLR at the lowest price thus far. Image quality is excellent, and the high ISO is very usable.  The Mamiya DF and Hasselblad H bodies have suddenly started to look very long in the tooth.  All is not perfect, because Pentax really needs to release a full line of digitally-optimized lenses.  The 55mm SDM is but a start, and a few question marks hover over the quality of their 'legacy' lenses.  

All in all, however, Pentax has done a good job. The 645D is a photographer's camera.  And that's the highest praise there is. 

 

UPDATE: 

Shortly after this review was published, I received an email from a photographer in Sweden who has experienced exactly the same dial-failure with the 645D. One is a fluke, two is a pattern. Perhaps by coincidence, I also learned from three different sources around the same time that the first shipment of 645Ds had reached Australia and Canada, but was recalled literally from the dealers' hands due to some sort of defect identified by Pentax.  It appears that replacements are anticipated shortly, so this does not appear to be a systemic issues (a la M8 IR sensitivity) and may just be batch-related, but who knows. I am glad Pentax is taking QC seriously, and look forward to more information becoming available on this.

November 14, 2010.

 

FURTHER UPDATE:

The 645D has started to arrive. I have confirmation that a small shipment reached a number of stores in Canada this past week, and I'm sure the same holds true for the Auz/NZ, the EU and the US. I'm very much looking forward to hearing from other early adopters as to their experience with the camera.  

This is good news, because it indicates that the recall of the first wave was due to some limited batch-fault.

I am doing a couple of small studio shoots this weekend to test the camera in the native habitat of the MFDSLR photographer, and also to try out a wireless tethering solution. While I'm still generally pleased with the camera, I am having some curiously variable results in testing lenses. I really want to nail down whether this is due to pilot error, environmental factors (ie: wind vibration), camera vibration (not the leading suspect right now), or something in how certain lenses get along with the camera. If it's the latter, I would like to know if it can be cured by using the fine focus adjustment controls, or can be cured by Pentax somehow.   All of these issues concern long glass, which I know is optically excellent, so I want to get to the bottom of this. The availability of  lenses such as the 150-300mm and 300mm f4 and f5.6, as well as older lenses, like the gorgeous manual focus 200mm f4 - which I virtually stole off ebay for $179 bucks last week in Mint condition, compared to a the new AF 210mm lenses from the competition which run over $3K --   are things which makes the system very attractive, so I we all want to know that they work reliably and repeatably in the ways we need. 

Since the body I am testing will be having a Japanese homecoming for repair of the rear control dial in the very near future, I may dispatch it with a number of lenses as well, to have the 645D gurus wave their wands over them. 

All of this non-photography photography has also got me thinking how easy it is to get sucked into the gear vortex.  Heeding that caution, I hope to just get and shoot something worth shooting again in the next couple of weeks.  I hope everyone else out there can as well! 

November 21, 2010

 


 

 

Nick Devlin

Nick Devlin is a barrister and photographer in Toronto, Canada. He works as a Federal Prosecutor, specializing in major drug and terrorism cases. With almost twenty years behind the lens, Nick worked extensively as a photojournalist and pro sports photographer before turning to the law. Presently, his main visual interests are urban landscape, portraiture and travel photography.

November, 2010

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