The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly.
- Joseph Drago / JDrago Photography
The Pentax 645Z is Ricoh Imaging’s latest foray into medium format camera systems. Competing with the likes of Hasselblad, Phase One and Mamiya puts them amongst a very elite group of high end camera systems that professionals across the globe choose for their unsurpassed quality that consumer grade DSLR’s simply cannot achieve. If you have looked into purchasing a modern digital medium format camera you already realize that we aren’t talking about a small investment. A single Hasselblad lens can cost as much or more than top of the line DSLR offerings from both Canon and Nikon. With the Pentax 645Z price point right below $7000 and lenses from below $1000 to almost $5000 Ricoh Imaging is hoping to entice more photographers to ditch the DSLR and make the leap into medium format photography. So is it worth it to sell all of your current gear and upgrade to the 645Z or should you take out a $35k-$100k loan for one of the other medium format systems?
There are many articles on the web discussing the technical factors of the 645Z. This is not one of those articles. I just wanted to point out a few of the practical use points (both positive and negative) that someone may want to consider before they purchase any new camera system. I hope this article will give you a little insight and practical knowledge to help in your decision.
Before We Get Started…
I should probably give you a little background information about myself. I have been a long time Canon user since the mid 80’s. I started with the AE-1 Program in high school shooting for the yearbook and newspaper back in the days of film. I progressed through the Canon Rebels and made the digital leap less than 10 years ago. I have shot with the modern Canon bodies like the T3i, EOS 6D, 5D mk II, 5D mk III and the 1D X. I am what some would call a gear junky always looking to upgrade to get the best image quality I can. I currently shoot with the EOS 5D mk III and the EOS 1D X for my commercial photography business. I use the highest quality optics that Canon offers including their 50mm and 85mm f/1.2 prime lenses for portraiture, the TS-E 17mm and 24mm for architectural and advertising work and a number of their other L glass lenses to round out my work. I have been working the Pentax 645Z into my commercial photography business for a little over a year now. Through that time I have purchased their 35mm f/3.5, 55mm f/2.8, 120mm f/4 and 150mm f/2.8 prime lenses. Oh and one more thing…I shoot RAW and ONLY RAW. I have absolutely zero experience with any of my cameras shooting JPG files. I also do not have a working experience with other medium format systems.
Sony CMOS Sensor
To start let’s talk about the heart of the camera: It’s sensor. The Pentax 645Z uses the same 51.4 megapixel Sony CMOS sensor that is found in the Hasselblad H5d-50c. This is the first CMOS sensor to go into production in a Hasselblad body replacing the standard CCD sensors that are normally found in medium format cameras. Hasselblad has also started producing their new flagship H6d-50c and H6d-100c using this Sony CMOS sensor and it’s successor 100 megapixel CMOS sensor. It is rumored that Pentax has also gained rights to use the 100 mp version in their cameras as well.
To put it simply, this sensor captures AMAZING detail. The files produced are such a pleasure to work with. Beautiful, lush tones and gradients between colors and a dynamic range unmatched by any of my DSLR equipment. For those that don’t understand dynamic range I’ll tell you this much. Have you ever tried to increase the exposure levels in post processing and you see these weird magenta and cyan color bands running through the image? That’s due to the camera sensor not “seeing” and recording detail in the shadow areas. That is what low (poor) dynamic range looks like in the shadows. On the top end of the spectrum is how much detail you can bring back from blown out hot spots or white areas in an overexposed image. With this sensor there simply is no banding in the shadows. It captures the detail…period. As far as recovery in hotspots, well there is of course a limit. It definitely recovers more than a DSLR but don’t expect to recover 100% from a horribly over exposed image.
Ricoh has exceeded the other medium format offerings with an ISO range from 100 to 204,800. To this point such high ISO’s were only available on DSLR cameras and not medium format. Although, on the low end ISO 50 is achievable in DSLR’s and even lower by many medium format camera makers. While the high ISO capability is definitely a “Good” quality judging as a DSLR shooter I am not convinced that it is quite necessary as a professional grade medium format camera. I have yet to come across a time that I can’t control my lighting for a commercial client enough to shoot at or below ISO 800 and I’m not sure if I’d want to. Maybe if you are a wedding photographer shooting at night and you don’t have any strobes or your batteries have all been depleted you could lean on this feature to get you out of a bind.
The Pentax 645Z although heavier than your typical DSLR feels amazingly comfortable in your hand. Everything you need is right at your fingertips and is easily adjustable without taking your eye away from your subject. Within a few weeks of shooting I was as familiar with this camera as any of my DSLR’s. The weight is similar to shooting with the Canon 1D X but with it’s deep grip feels much more comfortable in my opinion.
Unlike other medium format cameras, the Pentax 645Z does not have a removable sensor back. Creating a medium format camera with a fully enclosed sensor much like a DSLR allows for greater protection in the elements. I would not recommend trying to use this as a dive camera without a special housing of course, but it does withstand moisture, sand and dust at least as well as (and maybe better than some) DSLR’s.
The lenses that I have worked with on the 645Z have all been top quality in terms of sharpness and image quality. Like other high end cameras, you can make micro adjustments to the focusing system to make sure your images come out tack sharp when shooting wide open. The image quality a lens produces is to me the number one trait I look for in a lens and that’s why I include these lenses in the “GOOD” section. I also list them in the “BAD” section for other reasons.
Overall and as compared to top end DSLR offerings, the Pentax 645Z and it’s compatible lenses are definitely in the realm to compete for this business. The 645Z body sells for just under $7,000 which is right around the price of top offerings by both Canon and Nikon. Lenses for the medium format system run as low as sub $700 to near $5,000 per lens. On the other end of the spectrum in the rare air of medium format photography (and comparing models with 50 mp and the latest technology) a body can run $20,000 and up. Lenses generally cost in the $3,000 to $8,000 range.
So is that affordable? For the final image quality that you can expect from the 645Z I believe it is affordable. Especially if your annual income derives a substantial portion from your photography business. If you are a hobbyist, you may not feel it is quite so affordable.
Flash Sync Speed
The flash sync speed on the Pentax 645Z is a lack luster 1/125 of a second. This is considerably slower than most DSLR’s that typically sync at 1/200 or faster. Medium Format shooters will probably be used to having Leaf Shutters that offer no sync issues up to 1/2000 of a second. Is this a deal breaker? No. Does it make you find work arounds? Yes. To shoot with a wide open lens during daylight hours you may need to use an ND filter and bounce light instead of using a strobe to fill shadows or to overpower the ambient. Most DSLR users will probably be used to such techniques while Medium Format users simply point and laugh while drinking their half-caff-mocha-choca-latte’s from the nearby starbucks.
If you are like me, sometimes you need to shoot in let’s say, “less than perfect” lighting situations. Maybe it’s a low light wedding or maybe it’s a concert, ballet or performance but for sure, lighting isn’t ideal. I have found that these lenses that I love oh so much for the image quality are seriously lacking when it comes to grabbing focus in low light. Tracking and quickly grabbing focus and maintaining focus are simply no where near the capabilities of DSLR cameras. Even working in studio…with low ambient lights…with a tripod…with a motionless subject…some of the lenses search and search and search for focus without the use of modeling lights. Lucky for us there ARE modeling lights so it’s not a huge in studio problem. For those of you that don’t work in studio for the majority of your work, your experience may vary.
The worst thing that I have found with the Pentax 645Z is that it simply cannot be used for every situation a DSLR or hi end Medium Format system can be used for. Yes, the lenses are tack sharp and the high ISO capabilities of the camera make low light shooting a possibility BUT many of the lenses I have tried do such a poor job grabbing focus in not only low light but in less than perfect light that I cannot see a practical use to replace a DSLR. Add to that, Ricoh Imaging does not offer a prime lens wider than 35mm leaving any photographer wanting to do landscape photography needing another solution. It’s like the company is saying that they don’t really care about this type of photography or it’s photographers. The same can be said for Architectural Photographers/Photography. Why would a camera company aiming their sites at professionals NOT make at least one Tilt-Shift lens or a tilt-shift converter to use with multiple lenses? Do they just not care about that genre of photography or the professionals that need to cover that genre for their clients. Again, you must have another camera solution for this type of work. What about the nature photographers that want to document the tiniest creatures and details in our world? No extension tubes, no bellows to get us in as close as we can get with our DSLR’s and other medium format offerings? WHY?
Third Party Solutions
There is an entire industry making lenses, strobes and accessories for every major brand of camera out there. There are solutions for hot sync, alternatives for lenses, extension tubes, bellows, you name it. But for some unknown reason (and beyond Ricoh’s control or influence) no one is making solutions to fill the gaps of the 645Z’s shortcomings. The only company so far that I have come across to specifically address an issue is Priolite who makes a compatible strobe unit that makes it possible to sync higher than 1/125. While this is great, I have no intention of replacing all of my current studio strobes that work with literally every other brand camera just so I can work with the Pentax 645Z for those applications. Either these third party companies don’t know about the 645Z or they just see it as such a small portion of the market, they don’t care to waste the time or money in R&D to develop products for this camera system. You can’t blame Ricoh for this, you can only blame them for having the shortcomings in the first place I guess.
In the end, it’s up to you and your needs. The Pentax 645Z is a great alternative to a DSLR for many genres of photography and is comparable in cost at the high end. Where it lacks is doing everything as good as their competition on both sides, DSLR and medium format. I really, really, REALLY love shooting with the 645Z. I shoot with it every time I possibly can both for my professional work as well as my personal work. Unfortunately, there are times I simply cannot use it and I am forced to work with another system. Am I ready to step up my game and buy into a Hasselblad, Phase One or other medium format family of cameras? Maybe not quite yet. I plan on giving Ricoh and the Pentax 645Z at least one more year to impress me by stepping up their offerings on accessories and new lenses to fill out their lineup. Hopefully they will rethink the sync speed in future versions of the 645Z and maybe even expand the ISO range even further but this time…on the low end of the range.
Disclaimer: All writings in this article are my personal opinions. I expect many will disagree with my findings. There are many more features than those listed here-in. I chose to include the features that are most important to me and my photography. In researching any camera for personal or business use, please use your own best judgment and research the products thoroughly to find what is right for you.