Pentax 645D Hands on - The Visual Experience
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I had the possibility to play with the new Pentax 645D, the so-long-awaited-accessible medium format DSLR. I have to admit that I was surprised to find with it in Italy: looks like I had the venture to deal with the only model currently available in my country.  Still a “preview” model, so with a lot of potential improvements will hopefully come especially for firmware.

First touch

Never used a Pentax before. A long track with Canon (D)SLRs and with Medium Format film cameras. The camera is bulky but well designed. Buttons are where one may expect them to be and the overall feeling is very solid. The camera is sealed when used with the stock lens (a 55 mm F2.8AL). The grip is well made and the camera is easy to handle. The viewfinder is bright and large even if I found the plastic around a bit tedious to use and disturbing perhaps for the fact that I have very big eyes. Top screen is very similar to the one of top Canon dSLR I normally use. Menus are a bit messed up, and information is a bit crowded, but software can be improved. There are a lot of info on the screen and sometimes it’s not very intuitive to grasp where to find what you need. 
The lens feels a bit “plastic” for the feeling that it returns, i.e. in focusing. Being accustomed to high-end Zeiss optics the feeling is to deal with something a bit fragile and delicate. Focus is OK for a MFDSLR. Not very fast but quite accurate. Files can be written on two SDHC cards in DNG and in JPG format.


The shutter has a nice sound, not so loud as my Rollei 6003 but still well related to a camera of this size. I shot in “P” mode saving files in JPG and in DNG. Writing on the cards takes a lot of time. If modern Diesel cars were so slow as the first Diesel model of the 80s, then I would have thought that D in 645 stands for DIESEL, not for DIGITAL. Metering was always very accurate.

Average time to write a file on a fast SDHC, both JPG and DNG? 20 to 30 seconds. But still the camera has enough buffer to keep you shooting 1 frame per second. I shot 10/12 images and waited “forever” before seeing an image out of the camera.
Well: a single DNG is around 50 Mb and it’s related JPG around 15 Mb…. Lot to write but hopefully this time can be a bit improved in a feature version of the software and with more performant cards. At the time of the test I had only a Sandisk extreme III wich is really slower then the new IV, so I am pretty sure that better results could be achieved with faster cards.

Quality out of the camera

Pentax 645D, 55mm f2.8 AL, 1/80 f13 ISO100, no sharpening, no post processing, DNG out of the camera

No Sharpening, image out of the DNG

The output of this camera is great. Images have that kind of superb 3-dimensionality often not found on 35mm DSLR. Texture and details are great.

Details of the bottom part of the image, after a smart sharpen in Photoshop

The JPG are a little bit “aggressive” in terms of sharpening but DNG (standard DNG, read by any kind of RAW processors) are really nice. Who would use a Jpg froma a camera of this class? The DNG sharpens very well, and I have noticed that ISO100 is a bit better the ISO200, even if the latter is the default. The absence of a low pass filter in front of the sensor makes the images a bit prone to moire artifacts (see next images). And this is really what you expect from a camera like this. I was only using the 55mm lens and can say that, even with the low perceived quality the lens is pretty good, with lack of cromatic abberration and other amenities. A great bonus is the possibility to use the big bunch of lenses build for the 645 even if they’ve been built before the advent of digital and their performance should be checked on a case-by-case basis. These lenses are also pretty inexpensive if you search a bit on the Bay. Pentax has recently released the 25mm f4 ultra-wide (19.5 mm in 35 mm format terms) that, to me, is the perfect addition to this camera giving the most interesting photographers niche it is addressing: landscapists. Did not had time to try but looks like the FA lenses seem to perform very well especially the FA 35mm, FA 33-55mm, FA 45-85mm, FA 80-160mm, FA 45mm, D-FA 55mm, FA 75mm, FA 150mm.

Pentax 645d, 1/160 f4 ISO 200, some basic adjustment in PS

Pentax 645d, detail of the previous image, center part of the frame

Pentax 645d, other detail, and relatively small DOF @f4

Who is it for?

I was mainly shooting models in a controlled environment with a couple of strobes. The camera performance, in terms of responsiveness, is in line with some older Hassy backs: shoot, wait, shoot again. But, if with older backs you normally don’t pass the studio door, with this pentax you can venture outside. The weather sealing is an additional reason to push you out but the main reason is that you feel you’re with your bulky Dslr, a bit shower in focusing, but delivering stunning results. This is why I believe a landscapist is the perfect companion of this camera. Wide angle lenses, good quality, time to spend and no hurry if your card get written in 20secs. As I normally do architecural photography there is still some piece of equipment I love (i.e. the Canon 17mm TS L, really an unique lens) that is not available for the Pentax. There are other T/S alternatives but it’s a path that should be tried. Big missing, Kodak CCD sensors do not allow live view which is a super feature for accurate focusing with manual focus lenses, expecially at night.

Would I switch over?

I should be able to test again, and for a longer period, the camera in an environment that is more in line with my photography style. I currentyl still shoot film when I need great quality prints and the 40 mpixel are surely appealing for large prints, over the limit of 19 inches. Tested up to 30″X40″, and the quality is fantastic with amazing details. I assume the possibility of prints 39″ X 52″ that can be sharp upon close inspection after proper processing. 36+ Mpix dslr are already a reality and hence the competition is going to get fierce again. The price tag is indeed very interesting so a second round of testing with my subjects is for sure in the agenda.

Massimo Cristaldi

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