The Pentax 645D medium format camera
Pentax has finally joined the 645 digital quadrille, following a long period of flirtation with medium-format users, which included fluttering balsa-wood eyes from a locked glass cage at Photokina two years ago, where it was shown as a prototype. The sales staff were utterly inscrutable in their deferential Japanese way. And no wonder – nobody, least of all the peons on the front line, knew whether it would ever come to pass. But here it is – the 645D – and it marks something of a breakthrough.
Although it is intended to be largely familiar to anyone who already uses Pentax 645 film models, this is a real crossover camera in the way it combines high levels of manual control with an extensive menu-driven user interface, which is very clear and logical, and reminiscent of the best professional DSLR cameras.
It has a 44×33mm sensor, approximately 1.7× larger than full-frame 35mm competitors, which has a 40-megapixel resolution delivering files of 5,440×7,264 pixels. There are three levels of JPEG compression available, or raw files can be captured in Pentax’s own file format (PEF), which besides using the company’s own software, can also be opened directly with the latest version of Camera Raw (and hence, CS5). When opened as 8-bit TIFFs, the file size is ±113MB. Alternatively, the camera can be set to use the Adobe .dng format, which I applaud, as images can be imported directly into Lightroom, matching my own workflow.
This is a surprisingly chunky camera. Not awkward or clumsy, but distinctly heavy – solid in the way of the Leica S2. With the standard lens and battery, it weighs a whisker under 2kg, which results in great stability in the hand. Aided by an excellent grip, which works equally well in portrait or landscape mode, and abetted by the sweetest shutter release and mirror movement of any 645 digital camera I have used, firing it inspires great confidence. I found I was getting sharp shots at 1/30s, which, with the passage of the years, is becoming rarer.
There is no vibration control in the new 55mm f/2.8 standard lens, which has been specifically formulated for the rigours of digital capture. Pentax promises very high resolution from it, and in this short trial, it certainly seemed to deliver in the centre of the field. Autofocus worked well and fast, and proved very centre “centric”, like most other 645 systems.
For the moment, this is the only completely new lens formulated for the camera. Other focal lengths are supplied from the existing range of SMC 645-series interchangeable lenses. With X synch available at a modest 1/125s, some lenses with leaf shutters would seem desirable in the near future.
There are two SD card slots that can be configured to shoot either in sequence – switching when the first one is full – or be set to record raw files and JPEGs simultaneously. In addition there is a “raw panic button” that overrides all the camera’s settings – a great idea. Battery life seemed just about adequate, but a couple of spares would be a necessity in real life. There is a mains power unit available for use in the studio, but it was not available to test.
I found that writing data to the memory card was agonisingly slow. Although the camera is able to shoot sequences quite quickly, you’ll need a thermos of coffee to keep you awake while you wait for the buffer to write it back to the card.
Shooting a sequence of four frames as fast as possible, it took 31 seconds before the first was displayed on the rear screen. You will certainly need to invest in the fastest possible SDHC cards – and big ones, too. Using a 133× speed SD card (not the world’s fastest, but no slouch either), it took 11 seconds to write a single raw file to the card. (A 2GB card stores ±22 raw files, or 77 large JPEGs, while a 4GB one can handle ±39 raws with an embedded small jpeg.) I noticed that shots made at ISO 1600 were bigger on the card than those at 200 settings (varying between 62 and 42MB).
Among the multitude of other interesting features, the camera has a built-in spirit level, which can be displayed on the rear LCD or in the viewfinder (or both). It is absolutely invaluable for landscape panoramas and architecture. And the collar surrounding the shutter button, when pressed to its fullest extent, will stop the lens down for a depth-of-field check immediately before shooting. Despite there being no instruction manual available, I took to the camera like a duck to water, and found my way around it pretty quickly, although I’m sure there are many features I didn’t get to use in my short review.
High ISO - Shot handheld with the 55mm standard at 1/60s and f/9, it delivered a pleasing result at the highest setting of ISO 1600. Image © Adam Woolfitt.
A true performance assessment must await a full review, but my initial reaction is that the camera works well, and I was very impressed with the files I shot – even at its highest ISO setting of 1600. Yes, there is some noise at 1600, but it is much more like grain than aggressive Technicolor snow, and if sharpened discreetly, it adds a rather filmic look, as well as making handheld or low light shooting feasible.
I tried to trick the camera with a Moiré test on heavily patterned fabric and gold-thread embroidery, but it passed with flying colours. In a brief examination I saw a hint of a problem in the deepest shadow areas on some camera files, which I would like to address later in a full review.
Pentax always promised pricing would be competitive, and it is at £8999 +VAT for the body or £9999 +VAT with the 55mm lens. But now Hasselblad has dropped its prices again, it’s no longer a cutting-edge difference. There are deals everywhere, so it’s an exciting time for anyone buying into the medium-format market. Pentax has yet to name its UK dealers, but Park Cameras and SRS Microsystems are taking pre-orders.
For more product shots and test images, read BJP's November issue now in newsstands.
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