By now, if you are at all interested in the potential benefits of larger sensor real-estate, you have likely read or skimmed a handful of reviews of the newish medium format Ricoh Pentax 645Z. Personally, I am not a gear-head, tech-nut or pixel-peeper. I’m just a hard working mixed-genre photographer. My short time with the 645Z was used in actual shoots. I picked the camera up and literally ran with it, shooting from the hip (not actually from the hip), to see how it measured up to the everyday demands that have been massaged by Nikon and Canon’s pro DSLR family. Prior to being loaned the new Pentax 645Z, I set up a roundtable of art and fashion shoots, including studio (strobes), outdoor (naturally lit), and outdoor (mixed light – natural and strobe), to see how it would perform for the everyday photographer.
As an averagely shallow person, I always judge a book first by its cover. Upon first glance, the physicality and ergonomics of the 645Z were, simply put, distracting and impressive. When I picked up the camera for the first time, my eyes were immediately drawn to the Rubik’s Cube sized box on the front of the camera as well as the downright sexy grip.
This camera was begging me to hold it. In fact, I felt like I was cheating on my Nikon when I first held it. I suspected that I might be disappointed when, inevitably I would return to a lesser grip. Actually, the basic ergonomics are surprisingly similar to a DSLR, but I quickly noted that it lacks some very important features that full frame sensor DSLRs have, such as options for a vertical grip. This was my first indication that this camera was not the well-rounded system that I needed it to be.
As I worked more with the Pentax, I was able to flush out more of these vacillating pros and cons. The LCD was another homerun for the camera, with a large 3.2-inch LCD, and a unique hinged tilt-screen that felt substantial and was both functional, and useful. The general layout of the camera buttons did not feel foreign to my DSLR trained hands and it didn’t take me long to familiarize myself with the essentials.
One of the most prominent deficits of this beauty is a direct result of the size of the 51.4 million pixel anti-alias free CMOS sensor. The 645Z is a molasses-slow beast. It is less noticeable with very fast memory cards, but normal speed cards are cumbersome, with the most annoying problem being how long it takes to view, and close down live viewing of images immediately after you take a shot. This discourages chimping, which most of us are guilty of from time to time. However, when I am building a shot, some chimping is essential whether it’s checking the image, histogram, or just changing settings on the screen. As a result, it was not the chimping itself that interfered with the flow; it was the camera that turned chimping into an endurance test. This becomes a bigger problem, because you can’t change most settings when the initial auto-image pops up, and so you wait for an eternity for the computer to write, load, and then remove the image from the LCD. It takes about 16 hyperbolic hours for this to happen.
Out of box, the camera is auto set so that the thumb scroll button also changes the images on the LCD. This stupid feature means that when the image is auto played on the LCD after you take a shot, if you want to compare that image to another, the image is locked, and you can’t scroll to the prior image. Instead, for reasons only genius camera designers can answer, this thumb scroll is locked into changing the shutter speed. This daftness tricked me over and over again, and is unbelievably frustrating when you only notice it a few shots later, after you have changed your shutter speed several times. Nikons do not have multi functional buttons, levers or do-hickeys that are set to change two important functions, and that automatically switch back and forth, depending on their mood.
This can be solved when shooting strobes with the X-mode feature, which locks the shutter speed in at its highest sync speed of 1/125s. I found this setting to be quite useful as it prevented me from the problem mentioned above, making me feel homicidal when I was shooting with natural light.
As Rod Stewart said in Lonely Island, “now back to the good part!” The 27-point autofocus works just fine. However, the points are not spread as well as most DSLRs, so you need to suck it up and get good at focusing and recomposing.
I also found the menu to be entirely too cumbersome and layered, with well used items hidden and/or laid out in a silly order, such as “delete all images” and “format” on separate pages.
When I discovered that they had included a DNG file option, I let out a large squeal of joy! Camera manufacturers should never be making their own bloody software. Nikon and Canon’s insistence that they make their own proprietary software is equivalent to iTunes writing my music for me. It’s an arrogance that makes my eye twitch.
To add to the features that assure you cannot operate this camera quickly, the memory card slots have a large gap at the entrance. As a result, it is very easy to mis-slide a card into the wood-chipper-like space. They could fit a chipmunk in that gap that could carry spare memory cards around for me for when I destroy one by accidentally jamming it in there.
There was definitely some concern on my part about how the battery life would hold up while fueling that lovely screen and large shutter and sensor, but I was pleasantly surprised. The battery held up for over a thousand shots on my 3-day outdoor art photography adventure. I only changed the battery once over the week, which included full day shoots almost every day.
During the 3-day outdoor art shoot I arranged in the beautiful British Columbia interior, I had the camera out in some serious rain. At first I was pretty nervous, and carried the camera around under my rain jacket, but as the days progressed, I became more and more comfortable. By the end, I was as confident in its robustness and weatherproofing as I am in my Nikon. On the last day I may have used the camera as an umbrella once or twice.
With a sensor this large, the files are obviously huge. This means that in addition to buying an expensive camera, you also may need to upgrade your computer. I have a very fast Mac desktop with loads of RAM and scratch discs, etc. out the wazoo. Even with that, the files at times slowed my post-processing down to a steady crawl, especially when I was running multiple programs. However, the files themselves handle great. As expected, there is tons of detail to play with, and the final image quality is truly excellent. This is really the point of it all, and the few cons of the camera are, for the most part, exactly where I expected them to be, and even those, Pentax seems to be making a concerted effort to plug. I’d heard it said before, and the 645Z confirmed it; medium format images have a quality to them that is exceptionally pleasing.
So, the final question is; is it worth it, when compared to the newest line-up of pro DSLRs? Personally, I could get used to the size. I could also get used to the weight, and the file size. I feel it is also an affordable camera, especially when compared to other medium format systems. All of that being said, and with all of Pentax’s admirable efforts to bridge the gaps, it is still not a versatile enough camera for dynamic working photographers shooting multiple genres. The slick, well-designed ergonomics, file handling, and creative lighting options of pro DSLRs are still the most appropriate cameras for what I do.
If the medium format cameras of old were metaphorical hard-edged rectangles, and pro DSLRs are attempting to be well rounded near-perfect circles, then the Ricoh Pentax 645Z medium format digital camera may be thought of as an evolving oval. Its strengths definitely outweigh its limitations, if you have a cool $10,000 lying around.
And yes, I was very disappointed with my grip when I went back to my Nikon.