I added the Pentax 6×7 by to my collection in mid-2015, an addition so embarrassingly large that I kept the addition hidden from my girlfriend for a couple of weeks. Since getting the 6×7, it’s gone from being a dream come true (even if the dream was only a year or two old) to being an unstoppable workhorse and my primary camera.
I’ve been back on the film for about six years after about that long on the dark side. I’m a digital journalist when I’m not photographing, and being immersed in that world has a strong influence on my photography. I tend to focus less on people than on places and things, but I can’t help but hoping my work tells a story.
The Pentax 67 series was made for over 40 years, and while the earliest 6x7s (1969-76) lacked the mirror lockup function, my 1982 model has it. A slightly improved model was released in 1989, dropping the “x” in the name to become the Pentax 67, and in 1998, the final version — a major update to the design — debuted as the 67II, remaining in production until 2009.
The Pentax 6×7 has unlocked something in me and helped me grow as a photographer and storyteller. To that end, I’ve been exploring the Eastern Plains of Colorado in search of stories to tell. This article covers a Saturday in October 2015, when I set out from Denver to see about documenting some towns east of Colorado Springs.
I packed the 6×7 and some lenses, and took a couple bricks of Ilford Pan F Plus. Pan F initially impressed me in my Nikon F2, but it really shines in medium format. As I perfect my developing technique with HC-110 at 1+63, I’m finding that it’s relatively easy to get exceptionally smooth and even grain from Pan F, with excellent contrast. I don’t think the latitude is quite a match for Kodak’s Plus-X or Ilford’s HP5+, but it’s still very good. The slow speed is a blessing in daylight with the 6×7’s fastest shutter speed at 1/1000, giving me lots of freedom with depth of field I don’t enjoy with faster films unless I add a neutral density filter.
I also keep a couple of Moleskines and a number of Duracell 28L lithium batteries in my bag, because I find they don’t last terribly long. Batteries last longer with the unmetered prism, but I’m impressed with the metered prism, and batteries can be had fairly inexpensively in 4-packs. I can get 2-3 days (or 20-30) rolls out of a battery if I make sure to keep the meter off and the shutter release locked between shots. I also take the battery out at home.
The Pentax 6×7 is a heavy beast, but I’m a big guy and that doesn’t really bother me. I’ve seen reports that the weight adds stability that makes up for any vibration the giant mirror might cause as it moves, and I believe that’s true. I’ve hand-held photos at 1/8 that still came out sharp.
My first stop was Elbert, Colo., a ranching town near the edge of Denver’s sphere of influence and home to a number of late-19th-century buildings. I had a little trouble getting the camera started for the day – once in awhile it happens that you have to replace the battery, cycle the mirror lockup and film advance a few times, and generally fiddle with it to get it going. After that, it’s rock solid. I’m fairly sure this finicky behavior is unique to my 6×7, not inherent in the model – it probably needs a CLA.
The 6×7 is essentially an oversized version of a typical 35mm SLR, and it’s easy to pound out frame after frame when the mood strikes. The size can be intimidating, but the format is much more comfortable for me than boxy competitors like the Mamiya RB67.
I moved on to another small ranching and coal mining town in Elbert County — Fondis — that’s shown on my 30-year-old highway atlas. You’ll find it if you Google it, but it isn’t labelled in Google Maps. Only a few buildings remain, but they’re full of character and the partly-cloudy skies complemented them well.
Further on, I explored Ramah, Simla and Matheson — towns I’ve visited before and wanted to see more of — and poked around in Rush, Yoder and Ellicot. The big, black 6×7 is almost indistinguishable from modern professional DSLRs at a distance, which can be both a blessing and a curse.
It’s hard to use discretely — as much for the noise as the size. I don’t mind its hearty KA-CHUNK one bit, but it once was enough to unsettle some horses I photographed.
I’m a wide-angle lover, so the 45mm f/4 SMC Pentax lens is my fairly constant companion. I have other lenses and use them, but I love the perspective I can get with this superwide lens (about the equivalent of a 20mm lens on a 35mm camera). It’s also one of the more lightweight P67 lenses.
Functionally, the Pentax 6×7 works great for me now that I’m used to it. Loading film took practice, though. It’s a process that requires some precision, and both hands. It’s not actually difficult once you’re familiar with it, but it takes some finagling to line up the spools. If I don’t have a flat surface to set the camera on, I generally have to balance it on my camera bag or ask any companion I might have with me for help.
The film advance doesn’t lock when it cocks the shutter — you can keep operating it endlessly, and each time it seems to scoot the film forward just a tiny bit without affecting where the next frame will start. If you advance it out of habit (and I did at first) you can end up with overlapping frames. If I could change one thing about the 6×7, it would be this.
The cloth focal plane shutter needs to be exercised occasionally or the giant second curtain can get a bit lazy, and the 6×7 seems a little more reliant on regular CLAs than any of my 35mm SLRs. My first 10 or 15 rolls had some blown frame edges, but it cleared up after the shutter got used to working again.
The shutter release lock isn’t easy to operate — which can be good or bad depending on whether the camera is in your bag or in your hand.
The camera requires a good battery to function in any way, which is something I’m not thrilled about. It’s a concession I’ve made willingly for the stunning negatives the camera produces, and how well it fits my photographic style and artistic vision.
Everything else about the 6×7: the giant viewfinder, easy film advancement and surprisingly accurate light meter — and the fact that it can safely be used in self-defense — is just what I want it to be. I’ve seen a few DIY wooden grips added to the right-hand side of the body (as opposed to the large wooden handle available from Pentax for the left-hand side) which I imagine might improve ergonomics by whatever tiny fraction is possible, but I’ve also heard they make reaching the shutter release button more difficult. I’m probably not going to attempt to make one.
I can’t reveal too much just yet about the project I’ve been working on with the Pentax 6×7, but it hasn’t let me down yet except when I’ve run out of film — 10 shots on a roll is somewhat limiting, but it’s my job as the photographer to know when I’m running out.
In the end I visited 8 plains towns and shot 10 rolls that Saturday, and from those 100 frames I’m quite satisfied with several dozen — a keeper rate I’d never achieved prior to getting to know the 6×7. After waiting out some traffic in Colorado Springs I got home with just under 400 miles on the odometer, mostly on dusty and quiet county roads.
I’ve been nothing short of thrilled by both the camera and its results. Given that the majority of the system’s lenses don’t open up past f/4, focus isn’t difficult to achieve — but even at f/5.6, the 45mm’s depth of field can still appear impressively shallow. The sharpness and richness of the photographs this system can produce is, I think, visible in the few outtakes I’ve included here.
If I had it to do again, I can’t say I’d change a thing — though I may add some! I’ve found the 6×7 kit nearly perfect as I have it now, but I might want a few more filters and a waist-level viewfinder. And maybe a teleconverter or longer telephoto. Just because I’m happy doesn’t mean my GAS is cured…
To anyone who enjoys using an SLR but wants the extraordinary detail of the big 6×7 centimetre negatives, I can’t recommend the Pentax system enough. As different as it is from most other medium format cameras I’ve used, it seems to bring the best of the usability of a 35mm SLR to the world of big negatives.
~ Daniel J. Schneider
Pentax 6×7 technical details
|Camera name||Contax S2|
|Camera type||35mm Single Lens Reflex|
|Manufacturer||Asahi Optical Co., Ltd
|Manufacture dates||S2: 1992-2000
Note: the S2b was identical to the S2 but used a center-weighted average meter, alternate external flash and different finish)
|Format||135 format film|
|Lens mount||Contax/Yashica MM mount|
|Lenses||Ranging from 35mm fisheye to 1000mm mirror lens and zoom lenses. 20+ in total.|
|Viewfinder||0.82x magnification and 95% field of view
LEDs flash indicator, over/under exposure warnings and shutter speeds
Fixed eye-level pentaprism + w/ diopter adjustment
|Shutter||Mechanical focal plane, vertical travel, metal shutter
B, 1 sec - 4/000 sec
X-Sync 1/250 sec.
Self-timer: mechanical with 10 sec delay
|Accessories||8x optional diopter lenses
FU4: horizontal split-image micro prism (standard)
FU3: 45 deg split-image microprism
FU5: Matte screen
FU6: Grid mrkings
|Metering||SPD cell spot meter
EV 4 - 20
ISO 12 - 6400
|Flash||Focal plane (1/250) and X-Sync PC connection|
|Power||1x LR44 / SR44 (1.5v)|
|Weight||565g (without battery)|
134.5mm x 89mm x 51mm (W x H X D)
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