Pentax is expected to announce over the next few days whether it will release its 645D medium format camera outside of Japan. The announcement will come only days after Pentax presented the camera to selected press members including BJP
Earlier this year, Pentax announced initial details of the 645D, including that it will feature a 44x33mm 40.1 megapixels sensor designed by Kodak, a Real Image Engine built by Pentax, and the new SAFOX IX+ autofocus system with 11 sensor points. The camera handles 14 bit A/D conversions, has dual SD/SDHC card slots and a trapezoid-shaped glass prism viewfinder.
The announcement had come after several delays. The 645D was first announced in July 2005. A year later, Pentax said it would introduce the new camera at the 2007 edition of PMA. However, the camera was a no-show. Up until this year, it remained unclear whether the 645D would actually be produced.
Pentax tells BJP the delays came as the firm was "carefully evaluating market trends to perfect the 645D. It's also because we concentrated all our resources on the development of K-series digital SLR cameras for a while."
Now, as the camera is released this week in Japan, Pentax has been studying plans to bring the medium format camera to other territories. BJP understands that senior management at the firm is meeting today to decide whether the camera will get an international release. If successful, the 645D could reposition Pentax as an important player after suffering in the stores over the past few years - Jessops, last year, dropped the brand from its stores.
In Paris today, Pentax moved to promote the product's strengths - specifically its low price and ease-of-use compared with other medium format camera systems.
The 645D, which sports a 44x33mm 40.1 megapixels CCD sensor developed by Kodak, will cost ¥850,000 in Japan - roughly equivalent to £6400 in the UK. Pentax says it was able to reduce the price by "setting our main target at advanced amateurs," which allowed the firm to "mass-produce the 645D and eventually lower its price." Furthermore, "the compatibility with the existing 645 system, such as lenses, also contributed to the 645D's lower price, as we could minimise the cost of developing new lenses and accessories.
In fact, the camera's name comes from its compatibility with existing 645-system lenses and accessories - the 645D's image size is smaller than that of film-format 645 cameras.
Upon closer inspection, the 645D sports legacy features found in the Pentax K-series. The medium format camera, for example, uses the same battery as the K-7, as well as the same PRIME II imaging engine. Pentax adds that the camera's software is also "basically the same," which BJP was able to confirm when previewing the camera at the Forum de la HD event in Paris.
BJP's Olivier Laurent with the Pentax 645D, fitted with a 400mm lens (produced for the film-based 645 medium format cameras).
The camera feels light in comparison to other medium format cameras - the camera, body-only, weighs 1480g. Handling is intuitive to Pentax shooters used to the K-series controls. We were able to test the camera with the Pentax-D FA 645 55mm f/2.8 AL [IF] SDM Aw lens, which will be released alongside the 645D.
The camera's overall performances are, so far, impressive, with quick image processing capabilities - the camera's image sensor has four readout channels and features a 14-bit A/D converter - and a clear optical viewfinder offering a 98% field of view.
The 645D also features improved autofocus performances, which have been upgraded from the K-series of DSLRs. "The newly-developed SAFOX IX+ has been incorporated as the AF module in order to assure the extra-high-precision autofocus essential for medium format cameras," says Pentax. "The optics in the AF module has been entirely redesigned to improve the autofocus accuracy [...] In addition, a light source detection sensor has been incorporated to assure high-precision autofocusing with a wide-range of light sources."
In fact, the camera's 11 focus point is a welcomed addition in a range of the market that is most-commonly used to single focus points.
The 645D also features a magnesium-alloy body, which has been made dustproof and waterproof thanks to 70 seals.
However, the camera lacks a shake-reduction system, which Pentax says isn't practical with large image sensors. This omission is also responsible for the camera's lack of auto level compensation and fine image composition adjustment features.
The 645D also doesn't offer live-view and movie recording functions, which isn't a surprise as no medium format camera makers have been able to offer such features so far.
The medium format camera also doesn't sport a low-pass filter, which may results in false colours. However, says Pentax, since "we put a priority on resolution in landscape photography, we decided to eliminate the low-pass filter."
In fact, Pentax, which refuses to label the 645D camera as it's flagship model, is targetting mainly landscape photographers - whether enthusiastic or advanced hobby photographers.
While the targeted audience may seem limited, it's no surprise that the Pentax 645D isn't a game changer for professional photographers - mainly because of its lack of newly-developed optics. Sure, the 645D supports a wide array of 645 film lenses - which are perfectly handled by the camera's body -, but its success among professional medium format photographers will reside with future lenses and firmware upgrades.
In fact, Pentax says that although it expects some competition from high-end 35mm-format DSLR cameras from the likes of Canon and Nikon, it doesn't "see any particular cameras as direct competitors."
But, Pentax is committed to developing further lenses, it claims, which, similarly to the 55mm model, could be weatherproof. "Since the D FA 645 series demands an extremely high level of optical performance, new lenses cannot be launched as frequently as K-mount lenses," says Pentax. "We do, however, plan to gradually increase the lineup."
Now, as the 645D is released in Japan, Pentax will be closely monitoring the camera's sales numbers. Photographers will also look for the first independent reviews - so far Pentax has restricted access to image files as it says the camera still awaits a final firmware update before release - BJP, for example, was not allowed to bring back image samples when testing the camera in Paris.
However, Pentax could have a hit in its hands. Despite some shortcomings, the cameras is easy to use, intuitive - even for novice - and affordable. In fact, the 645D's price could be its greatest asset, allowing a whole bunch of photographers to make the jump to medium format. Despite some price cutting practices from Hasselblad and other medium format camera makers, the realm of 40+ megapixels images has been, so far, limited to photographers able and willing to spend more than £12,000 on new kit.
But, photographers outside of Japan will still have to wait for word from Pentax on whether the 645D will make it out of the land of the rising sun. The decision, says a Pentax spokesman, is being made as we write.
Check back on BJP-online.com for further developments.
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