Pentax has been promising a digital iteration of their film based 645N medium format camera for several years, and now finally it’s here. The biggest surprise though was the price of around 950,000 yen or around £10,000 ex VAT (the price has since dropped considerably, please see below). Even then, the 40-megapixel model was to be released for the Japanese market only, and it seemed unlikely that it would ever be officially exported out of the home market.
The low price caused ripples through the market, as witnessed by the introduction of the competitively priced Mamiya DM models featuring Leaf Aptus II backs in the summer, and the recently announced Hasselblad H4D 40, a similar 40-megapixel model with a similar size sensor at £13,199 ex VAT. Leica must also be concerned; especially as the Pentax 645D uses a slightly squarer format but similarly sourced Kodak-made 44x33mm sensor to their exquisite but uber expensive 37.5 megapixel S2. And, like that model, the Pentax also adopts a similar fixed sensor design, meaning the whole camera has to be replaced when it's time to upgrade.
There, for the most part, the similarities end, while the Leica S2 was designed with the ergonomics of a 35mm SLR and 3:2 format sensor the Pentax 645D looks, and feels like a traditional medium format camera with the features of an SLR. That's not to say the handling is clunky, far from it, the ergonomics are excellent and the operation and features are strikingly similar to that of their new high-end K5 DSLR.
The outer is made from magnesium alloy over an aluminum chassis and it's superbly rigid but without feeling unduly heavy or ungainly. The ergonomics are very good indeed, and overall handling is very similar to the outstanding Mamiya 645 DF. Neither adopts interchangeable prisms naturally, but the Pentax has some advantages over the Mamiya. Most notably perhaps the construction allows the factory complete control over the precise alignment of the sensor during manufacturing. There are other less noteworthy advantages too such the single lithium rechargeable battery rather than the two power sources of the Mamiya. Not only is the body environmentally sealed, so is the first of a new range of lenses; the D-FA 55mm AL [IF] f/2.8 SDM AW (All Weather), the equivalent to a 43mm (in 35mm format) with the slightly cropped sensor.
This uses a built-in AF actuator, and while not as fast to focus as a 35mm AF system it’s pretty rapid and accurate. In addition to the electronic interface for the SDM type AF lenses, the 645D features a built-in AF motor using the screw type mechanical coupling. Unlike the Leica, then, the 645D can also call on the older 645 lenses; they’re all compatible, according to Pentax, including one with a central shutter. Unfortunately, there aren't any shift lenses in the system, but independent manufacturer Hartblei offer a tilt-shift 45mm f/3.5 TS-PC Super-Rotator suitable for architectural use in Pentax 645 mount.
First snowfall, 2010. Pentax 645D and 55mm f/2.8 at f/4.0, ISO100. There's an enormous amout of detail in a shot like this despite being taken under poor light, hand-held, and one stop down from maximum aperture. For an accurate colour rendering, please use a browser like Safari.
The 645D has 11-AF points, like their DSLRs, but they’re grouped centrally rather than spread-widely like some of the pro-DSLRs. This is perfectly acceptable though, and is unlikely to be a concern for most professional users and certainly not an issue for the intended market. The sensor has a self-cleaning system, using vibration of the UV/IR filter; a first for a medium format camera and a welcome addition and it has a well-damped mirror (with mirror lock-up) though the shutter may well be a source of vibration. It feels like it, though I couldn’t detect any real influence in sample shots over the relatively short period I had with the camera for testing.
The screen to the rear is a real highlight; it’s the same 921k-pixel panel found on the makers DSLRs, and the best of any medium format back. It lacks the touch-screen abilities of the Leaf backs but it’s used a highly informative data panel too, of which can also be used to make various selections from.
I’m not convinced by the use of dual SD slots for memory. File sizes are in the region of 50-70MB for RAW images, depending on the subject, and download speeds of the best SD cards don’t come close to the best UDMA enabled cards. What’s more, not having compatibility with the latest SDXC specification is an additional oversight, though one that could be rectified easily enough with a firmware update.
Another shortcoming is the lack of tethering support, which may just be a deal-breaker for the studio-based user. Though again, it shouldn’t present too much of an issue if Pentax want to work with Adobe to provide tethering with Lightroom. Using an Eye-Fi Pro card works reasonably well for Jpegs, providing you’re not in a rush but it still takes a minute or two for RAW files in ad-hoc mode. Images are certainly well detailed, the sensor in the Pentax 645D lacks an anti-aliasing filter, which will certainly account for an increase in absolute resolution. And, noise levels are very well-controlled better than others at high ISO settings for the same resolution; even ISO1600 is useable for certain images, such as slightly gritty portraits for instance. With just one or two caveats then, the Pentax is very compelling choice for those on a budget, and even for those who aren’t particularly, and are looking for tough yet highly-refined medium format camera for location shooting and occasional studio use.
Excellent colour purity and superb large and small structure contrast is typical of the Pentax D-FA 55mm AL [IF] f/2.8 SDM AW (All Weather) standard lens. It's the equivalent to a 43mm (in 35mm format).
For more information please visit www.pentax.co.uk, or www.pentax.com.
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Shop for the Pentax 645D here at Adorama (it won't cost you more). Shop here for the FA 55mm f/2.8 AL [IF] SDM AW lens.
Wex Photographic (or Warehouse Express as it used to be known) is selling the camera complete here (special order).
Jessops (UK) are also selling the camera complete, please follow the link here, reduced from £9,999.95 to £8,999.95 inc VAT.
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