Pentax 645Z: Attainable Excellence

July 2016 issue

Pentax 645Z: Attainable Excellence

In 2010, with Hoya in control of the Pentax brand, the Pentax 645D medium-format digital camera became available and was met with decidedly mixed reviews. With the acquisition of the camera side of the Pentax brand by Ricoh in 2011, the company announced plans to move aggressively into the consumer side of the electronic imaging business. The release of Pentax branded APS-C and the new full-frame Pentax K-1 digital SLRs fulfill this plan, as does the introduction of the successor to the 645D, the Pentax 645Z.

In the days of film cameras, the Pentax brand was always a little bit of an oddball. My introduction to the Pentax brand was the Pentax 6x7 that I used as an assistant. It was a big, heavy, overgrown 35mm-shaped medium-format camera in an era of boxy Hasselblads and Rolleis. My boss used it because the superb Pentax lenses delivered image quality nearly the equal of the 4x5 cameras we usually shot with. At the time, the Pentax 6x7 struck me as a camera designed the way a photographer would design a camera, not the way an engineering team or someone trying to please the current design aesthetic would design one.

In the few weeks that I spent with the Pentax 645Z, I came to the same conclusion. Ricoh has succeeded in producing a camera that delivers superb image quality while incorporating an ergonomic design that makes it straightforward to operate, with features that appeal to a range of professional photographers of widely differing specialties. And that’s before mentioning its price point far below the competition.

Left side view showing the tripod socket for vertical shooting.
© Stan Sholik
Left side view showing the tripod socket for vertical shooting.

Ricoh sent me the Pentax 645Z Starter Kit for this review. It consists of the 645Z body, a Pentax smc D FA 645 55mm f/2.8 AL [IF] SDM AW lens,  an HD DA 28-45mm f/4.5 ED AW SR lens, and an HD D FA 645 Macro 90mm f/2.8 ED AW SR lens in a custom fitted hard Pelican roller case. The kit also includes two D-LI 90 batteries, two 32GB SD cards, and a Pentax Advantage Platinum Membership. MSRP and street price of the kit is $15,995.95.

The 645Z body clearly breaks from design trends followed by the competition. The digital back is an integral part of the smoothly rounded body, not a separate component, the body itself fairly bristles with control buttons like many digital SLRs rather than using menus accessible through a touchscreen, and the LCD screen swings out for easy low-level or high-level viewing. Your feelings about these features on the 645Z will likely color your initial response even before you release the shutter for the first time.

Although I have used the Phase One menu-driven backs for many years, I found the Pentax design very quick to learn and operate, and I think that any user moving up to this camera from a digital SLR will immediately feel comfortable. There are plenty of menus through which to navigate in order to access various functions and settings if you need them, but the basics (other than reformatting the SD card) are immediately accessible with a button or two on the camera.

There are other features in the 645Z body not found on the competitor’s cameras. These include a tripod socket on the side for vertical (head and shoulder portraits or panoramas), a TAv setting on the exposure mode dial that adjusts the ISO for a preset shutter speed and aperture combination, and an articulating LCD screen that is bright and contrasty enough to allow you to check focus on an enlarged live view preview of the image in bright sunlight.

The large articulated monitor on the rear displays a lot of status information in the standby mode. In this instance the minimum shutter speed, the smallest aperture of the 55mm lens attached, and the maximum ISO are displayed along with other information.
© Stan Sholik
The large articulated monitor displays a lot of status information in  standby mode. Here, the minimum shutter speed, the smallest aperture of the 55mm lens attached, and the maximum ISO are displayed with other information.

Other innovative features abound. Some are borrowed from the Pentax K-3 digital SLR such as a 27-point autofocus system and an 86,000-pixel RGB metering system. Although the 27 points are clustered in the central area of the sensor, they allow more flexibility than the single autofocus point in the competition and also allow for a continuous autofocus mode and the ability to set focusing zones. In live view you can adjust focus over nearly the entire screen even before zooming in.

The ISO range from 100 to 204,800 extends into the range of professional digital SLRs and far exceeds the competition’s top ISO of 6400. Sure, you need noise reduction at the higher ISO levels, but the final result is a usable image. This extended ISO range especially comes into play when the exposure mode is set to TAv.

And I should mention that you can record full HD video at common frame rates, which I suppose is included just because it could be. So are many more functions commonly found in digital SLRs.

Also worthy of mention is the battery life, which I found excellent compared to my experiences with other medium-format cameras and backs. The 645Z uses only one battery to power both the camera and the sensor, yet I was able to capture hundreds of images, many using live view, without depleting the battery. It is hard to imagine a day location photo shoot that would require more than two charged batteries.

Innovation continues with the latest line of DFA lenses designed to meet the resolution demands of the 51-megapixel 645Z sensor. The 90mm macro and 28-45mm zoom included in the kit incorporate the Pentax SR (shake reduction) mechanism. I was consistently able to hand hold the macro, which is more compact than the 120mm macros of the competition, and a stop faster, at full (0.5X) magnification and 1/60 second shutter speed. All of the lenses in the kit incorporate a manual/autofocus switch found on digital SLR lenses and the SR lenses have a switch to turn shake reduction on and off.

What about image quality? It’s nothing short of spectacular. With a sensor that is significantly larger than a full-frame digital SLR sensor, a 14-stop dynamic range, and a 14-bit/channel color depth this is to be expected. The CCD vs. CMOS sensor wars are over, and CMOS has won. The 645Z includes an HDR setting, but it is difficult to imagine a scene where the native dynamic range of the sensor would be exceeded.

Image sharpness is related to lens quality as well as sensor parameters. The kit I received contained only the latest lenses for the 645Z and they delivered excellent results, although perhaps not to the level of the Leica medium-format lenses or the latest from Schneider for Phase One. There are many other lenses that mount on the camera going back to the Pentax 645 film days, but getting the highest image quality will likely require the latest lenses.

Image quality in the studio for commercial work is excellent, but tethered capture needs work.
© Stan Sholik
Image quality of in-studio commercial work is excellent, but tethered capture needs work.

The range of available lenses brings up the first negative that needs to be addressed regarding the 645Z system. Counting all of the lenses available for the 645 film and 645 digital cameras, the total is 14 on the Pentax website. But the range of lenses that can get the most out of the 51-megapixel sensor, are weather sealed, and that have shake reduction is definitely limited. The popularity of the 645Z, which seems to have surprised even Ricoh’s expectations, has contributed to this. And there are no leaf shutter lenses available at all. With a top shutter speed for flash of 1/125 second, a line of leaf shutter lenses are needed to catch up with those offered by the competition.

As a studio photographer, another issue I have with the 645Z is the lack of an included software application. The competition includes dedicated software for image processing and tethered capture. The 645Z does not. Pentax offers the Pentax Image Transmitter 2 application for an additional $199 that reportedly provides full control over the camera from a Mac or Windows computer as well as tethered capture. Not that $199 is an outrageous price to pay, but it should be included with the camera.

Ricoh does offer a free software download that allows tethered capture into a Lightroom watched folder, but no camera control. Unfortunately I could not make this work on a Windows 7 computer. I also discovered that camera controls are not available on the camera when tethered. To change settings you apparently need to disconnect the USB 3 cable, then reconnect to capture again.

Raw files from the 645Z are stored in DNG format, making processing in Lightroom straightforward, but generally software provided by the camera manufacturer can extract more information from image files than third-party software. Pentax does offer Digital Camera Utility 5, but it was not included in the kit I received. As with the proprietary Hasselblad raw files, Capture One does not support the Pentax raw format even though it supports other DNG format files.

I could go on for several pages detailing all of the features, technical details, and innovations in the 645Z, but the internet is awash with details, including the Pentax 645Z product page. But for me, if I’m destined to use a camera day in and day out, I want one that not only delivers outstanding image quality but also one that I will enjoy using both in and out of the studio. The Pentax 645Z seems to be one that would meet those criteria for me.

Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, California, specializing in still life and macro photography. 

Tags: cameraspentax

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