If you are just an old timer still shooting film, or new to the craft, photographing with film encourages one to explore and play with tactile gear and tangible materials. The sound of the mirror slap, “ka chunk”…or the smell of fresh fixer. Just can’t get that from a digital platform!
On the lower end, there is a plethora of reasonable priced, used 35mm film cameras, and on the upper end there are large and pricey sheet film cameras, some which consume 8×10” Velvia at around $12 per shot!
Sitting comfortably in the middle is a class known as medium format. If you love shooting 35mm film, but have been itching to try medium format, the Pentax 645 system is a perfect jump into a new format and a new platform. Here’s what’s covered in this review:
Table of contents
The Pentax 645 – a great “next step”
Medium format opens the door to a higher level of quality and as the name implies, the Pentax 645 uses a 6×4.5 cm negative that is 2.7 times larger than 35mm. As with other non-35mm formats, the cost of shooting medium format film forces one to slow down and to be more mindful of each shot. This slower and more contemplative style gives only 15 images per roll vs 36 images per roll for 35mm and causes one to “count the cost” as they say.
The Pentax 645 system is versatile and modern, with many of the automated features found in todays fancy DSLR’s, yet offers all the manual features of the old rugged film cameras of days gone by. In fact, the Pentax 645 is still in production today as a 50MP fixed back “medium format” digital camera. More on that later….
My journey with the Pentax 645
When my wife and I met over 30 years ago, she quickly realized that I had the photography bug. I already had a 35mm kit, had acquired a Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5, and was developing and printing in my homemade darkroom (aka windowless bathroom). So, when our first child came along in 1991, I easily convinced her to “invest” in a high quality camera to document the kids as they grew up. $1,400 and a few weeks later, we had the new and modern (at that time) Pentax 645 with 45mm wide angle and 75mm standard prime lenses.
My first few rolls were black and white, and the image quality was in fact awesome. It was bound to be a great journey for sure but unfortunately, the high cost of developing and printing from medium format film was a hurdle I struggled to overcome. As such, the kit was put away for a few years as we struggled to raise a family. Times got better, and thankfully I held on to the gear, as we migrated to more cost effective 35mm automatic cameras and eventually to a few 5MP to 8MP digital cameras.
Years later, my two daughters grew up and ventured off to college. During their spring and summer breaks, I found a renewed interest by using photography as an excuse to do some one-on-one day trips with my girls. It gave me an excuse to pull out and dust off the Pentax 645, as well as providing some great car rides where we talked about growing up as a young lady in today’s wacky world.
So, in 2012 the Pentax 645 resurfaced and I dove back into film photography in a big way. I purchased the 150mm and 200mm telephoto lenses, and started playing with color. Black and white developing was pretty easy, so I figured why not try developing color. It worked well and opened yet another avenue for exploring with the Pentax 645.
The last piece of the puzzle came as a Christmas present, the Canoscan 9000F which allowed me to start a hybrid workflow, using medium format film, developing at home, and scanning to a digital image, editing in Photoshop, and printing on an inkjet printer. The hurdle that caused a 20 year hiatus was finally solved!
These last four years have been a wonderful journey, with many trips to Yosemite, the Pacific Coast, Sedona, Eastern Sierras, and a bucket list trip to Bryce Canyon NP.
The Pentax 645 System
The original Pentax 645 was introduced in 1984 and features center weighted TTL metering, multiple automatic exposure modes, and a built-in 1.5 frames per second motor drive. Two dedicated film inserts accept 120 and 220 film, and there was one insert for 70mm roll film (now obsolete).
There are (13) “A” series lenses ranging from 35mm to 600mm, with 75mm being the “normal” lens, as well as (2) zooms and (2) teleconverters to enhance the system.
In 1997 Pentax introduced the 645N, an autofocus version of the original 645, and re-released a similar range of autofocus “FA” series lenses to accompany it. The Pentax 645 NII was released in 2001 and added a mirror lockup feature.
In 2010 Pentax introduced a digital version of the 645, called the 645D. It features a 44 x 33mm, 40 megapixel CCD sensor that is a bit smaller than the true 60mm x 45mm film size, yet still 46% larger than a full frame DSLR. This makes for a .62 crop factor which is about .8 from a full frame 35mm equivalent.
The 645D and it’s successor (below) do not continue the tradition of swappable film inserts, as both units are fully weather sealed. (One can’t switch between digital and film).
The current model, the Pentax 645Z, was released in 2014 and includes an identically sized 50 megapixel CMOS sensor, as well as a few other functionality/usability enhancements.
In the remaining text, I will be reviewing the original film version, labeled as the Pentax 645, which I acquired in 1991. It has proven to be very reliable and so much fun to use.
Luckily for us, there is a large used market for this medium format gear, and one can easily pick up a standard Pentax 645 film outfit with a 120 holder and 75mm lens for ~$400, as well as a few excellent lenses ranging from $120-$500 each.
Using the Pentax 645
Did I say how much fun it is to use this camera? After many years of using a Canon A-1 kit, this medium format kit has almost all of the same features, with slightly more weight, and superb quality.
With that said, one must know that this system uses film inserts, and not removable backs, so if changing film types mid roll is desired, you’ll need a changing bag, a second 645 body, or possibly another medium format system.
That aside, I encourage you to seek out and purchase this system if medium format is the next step in your photographic journey. Seeing the large negatives come out of the film tank is such a joy. And holding medium format slides over a light table will take your breath away (only to be outdone by seeing 4″ x 5″ slides up close!).
To get started, simply insert a roll of film and (6) AA batteries and you are good to go. The camera allows your film to be rated from ISO 6 to ISO 6400 and gives (15) exposures for 120 film, or (30) exposures for 220 film.
All the needed controls are on the top of the camera.
The on/off switch and “selecting” buttons are on the right. Film speed selection, exposure compensation, and AE mode buttons are on the left. To set ISO, simply hold the “film speed” button down, and select up or down to set the correct film speed.
Hold the AE mode button down and select up or down to set the desired mode. Then use the up and down buttons to set a desired aperture or shutter speed.
Want to go fully manual? Select the “M” mode and turn the lens aperture to a desired F stop, then select a shutter speed using the up down selectors. In the viewfinder, the LED display will show the selected shutter speed and “OK” if proper exposure has been set, or “oX” or “-X” for up to 3 stops of over or under exposure. The right side also has an LCD screen that communicates all settings.
The Pentax 645 has aperture priority, shutter priority, full metered manual and full program modes, so you are able to choose your desired mode based on your subject matter and situation. I often take the lens off “A” and simply choose the aperture I want to create a specific depth of field. The LED readout shows the exposure needed and I simply dial in what I need. And there is a stop down lever that allows you to see the actual depth of field when the lens is dialed to a custom setting.
I have an older Sunpak TTL flash and the matching Pentax module which works perfectly fine, but I don’t use the flash very often.
My results with the Pentax 645
The camera handles so well that street photography is a joy. But I must admit, my chosen subject of interest is normally landscapes, along with some historical architecture.
These last few years I have engaged in several photo projects, including the California Missions, and the historical buildings in the town where I live, Fresno, CA.
I also try to do about 4-5 trips to Yosemite every year, often seeking out-of-the-way trails and places to avoid the crowds. In 2014, I explored Yosemite during a 4-day workshop and in 2015, I loaded the 645 with several rolls of Kodak Ektar 100 and headed to the Eastern Sierras for some fall colors photography.
In 2016, I made 5 visits to Yosemite and captured all four seasons.
In May 2015, I took a friend to Bryce Canyon NP and shot a brick of Kodak Ektar 100. This is a MUST DO bucket list trip. I took 5 rolls of Kodak Ektar and a roll of Kodak Porta 800, and could have shot another brick if time and expense would have allowed!
In all cases, the 645 performed extremely well. The meter is accurate and the lenses are a joy.
The camera just feels good, and handles much like a favorite old 35mm, but heavier. The one addition I will make soon, is to add a second 120 film insert, so I can preload film and easily, and quickly swap at the end of the roll. (especially in cold weather, such as my 25 degree F winter Yosemite trip!)
Pros and Cons of the Pentax 645 system
Pros – Quality for sure, easy system to use, most film stocks are available (including Fuji Velvia 50), reasonable gear prices, and a more contemplative style, forcing a bit more attention to detail, and making one think about their visual story telling.
Cons – Weight, non-changeable film holder (mid-roll), fewer developing options (do it at home!), need to be able to scan medium format, must have (6) extra AA batteries, and no self-timer!
The final piece of advice I can give, is for you to plan on buying a better tripod when you upgrade, since the 645 camera plus a lens combines to nearly 5 pounds. I paired a set of Benro 28A legs with a Smith Victor BH5X ball head. Sturdy is better! I also got a monopod this last Christmas which helps with the weight, especially during hiking and for quick compositions.
If you manage to get one of the newer 645N versions, the older (and cheaper) “A” lenses still work, but in manual focus mode only.
All “A” and “FA” lenses will work with the digital 645D and 645Z bodies, and there are a few newer digital lenses made specifically for the smaller sensor size image circle.
…and if all that is not enough, there is a Pentax 67 to 645 adapter which allows you to use all of the Pentax 67 series lenses on your 645 camera as well! PHEW!
These next 10-15 years should be very interesting in the field of photography, with 50 megapixel mirrorless cameras already coming out and new film stocks being introduced very soon.
There may always be dual format shooters out there. But for now, I will stick to film and cherish my Pentax 645, using it as long as my eyesight allows. Then I guess I’ll have to upgrade to the autofocus version… (sad days are coming…) Maybe by then the 100 megapixel mirrorless will be $200 and I can ride into the sunset snapping away…
Thanks for reading.
~ Todd Reed
Pentax 645 technical specifications
|Camera name||Pentax 45|
|Camera type||Single Lens Reflex|
|Format||120 rollfilm (15 exposures)
220 rollfilm (30 exposures)
70mm rollfilm (90 exposures)
|Manufacturer||Asahi Optical Co., Ltd
Ricoh Imaging Company Ltd (from 2013)
|Manufacture dates||1984-1997: 645
1997-2001: 645N (AF, matrix metering, self-timer)
2001-2010: 645NII (mirror lock-up)
2010-2014: 645D (40MP digital sensor)
2014-Present: 645D (50MP digital sensor)
|Viewfinder||0.75x magnification (75mm lens)
Integrated -5 to +2 diopter adjustment
LED under/over exposure indication (+/- 3 stops)
5x focus screen options:
UE-20 Plain matte
UG-20 Section line matte (grid)
UA-21 microprism matte
UB-21 Split image matte
UC-21 Split-image microprism matte
|Shutter||Vertical focal plane (cloth)
B, 15 sec - 1/000 sec
|Lens mount||Pentax 645 A bayonet|
|Lenses||Manual focus (15)
Support for Pentax 67 leaf shutter lenses
|Accessories||Tripod "quickshoe" atapter|
|Metering||EV 3 - 21 (at ISO 100 with 75/2.8 lens)
ISO 6 - 6400 (1/3 stops)
+/- 3 stops of exposure compensation
|Exposure||Seven exposure modes:
Shutter speed priority automatic
Aperture priority automatic
TTL metered flash
Programmed automatic flash
Special mode for leaf-shutter lenses
|Flash||Hotshoe and PC socket
X-sync up to 1/60 second
|Finish||Pentax 645: Black plastic with black leatherette
Pentax 645 Japan (645J) with black, brown, gold finish and gold nameplate
|Power||6x AA (1.5v) batteries, loaded into grip.
Optional external power pack
1.32Kg (excluding batteries)
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