Photography

Pentax 645N Review

There is definitely something different about 2017 as regards shooting film. It’s proving quite hard to get hold of sometimes due to stock being unavailable. Anybody tried picking up some Portra 400 in 35mm recently in the UK? It’s been out of stock most places for a fair while now. It definitely seems there is a renewed interest in shooting film alongside digital. This Pentax 645N review is all about that renewed interest, the Pentax 645 option, and some considerations about if medium format is absolutely necessary. It’s a bit of a longform blog post. So settle in, close that Facebook tab, silence the phone and read on

The photos of the camera were taken on an Olympus OM2n and Fuji Pro 800Z (expired) – a bit offbeat!

The Pentax 645N (or the 645NII variant that I own) is my brick with a handle. It’s a chunky boxy 6 x 4.5cm medium format SLR that is a bit ergonomically challenged, but has developed a lot of interest in the past couple of years.

The Pentax 645NII with the 105mm f/2.4 lens – A brick with a handle!

A few years ago one of my favourite camera shops in East Sussex closed and the main reason for its demise was apparently because the bottom fell out of the market for second hand film cameras and darkroom equipment. It seemed for a long time that with nearly monthly news of another film emulsion being dropped or paired back that the days of being able to buy film were very numbered.

Back in 2008/9 I was picking up older cameras for next to nothing, darkroom equipment was given to me almost begging me to take it and make use of it. So back then I wonder how much a Pentax 645 would have cost? I will never know because I didn’t buy mine until early 2015.

In the run up to buying the Pentax 645NII I had experimented with returning film back into my professional wedding work but in a quiet way as I had been shooting digital almost all the time from 2012 onwards so I needed to get reacquainted. I tried a Bronica ETRSi, which was a very fine camera but the manual wind on and ergonomics at a wedding weren’t working for me. I had the speedgrip which really helped but still it wasn’t right.

I had been influenced to go 645 because of seeing some utterly divine work produced mostly in the USA admittedly using the infamous Contax 645 system with the Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2 lens. I looked up the pricing for the Contax and quickly decided against that, I genuinely couldn’t warrant spending £2000 on a medium format system to start with and hence went with the Bronica to make sure I enjoyed the results and I did. So that was it, I enjoyed using the Bronica and the results were beautiful so I have to buy a Contax 645 system.

Then I read Joshua Gull’s 645 system comparison – long and short of it was I discovered that the Pentax 645NII was a very respectable system that was apparently more reliable but even more interestingly used easily obtainable AA batteries. I looked at Ffordes Photographic’s website and found I could either spend around £1800 on a Contax 645 with 80mm f/2 lens, or £599 on a virtually mint 645NII with 75mm autofocus lens, boxed as well. Well, needless to say I bought the 645NII. And I’ve not looked back.

Contact 645 vs Pentax 645

Now this is not going to be a Contax versus Pentax review, I am not going to try and tell you the Contax isn’t worth it, or try to insist that there is no difference, because put simply there is a difference. But are we talking about the difference between booking a couple for a wedding or not – I don’t think so, because that’s what your porfolio is for. If someone loves your portfolio but doesn’t book you because they find out you don’t use the Contax then I honestly have to say that’s their loss, isn’t it?

Us photographers are very in tune with small differences, sometimes fairly apparent differences but the biggest difference is going to come from shooting film itself, and that will book you clients. Will I ever buy a Contax 645, I really honestly have to say no, and there’s a good reason for that, I have a mini ‘Contax 645’ that I use but more on that in a bit!

The original Pentax 645 and the 645N / 645NII updates

The original Pentax 645 is a bit of a different beast to the 645N / 645NII I am looking at here. It’s a manual focus only body but that isn’t really the biggest difference. Instead the original Pentax 645 has a very different user interface focusing on buttons and its LCD display. Usability wise it’s fine once you get used to it but the 645N / 645NII have a much more traditional user interface (shutter speed dial, exposure compensation dial) which is much easier to pick up and use.

Both will however get you the same results as a film camera is just a light tight box with controls to determine the film exposure, the quality of the final image will come from your choice of lens and aperture, and the film used. This is where the Contax 645 gets its reputation, it’s that darn awesome 80mm f/2 Zeiss lens.

One nice feature of the Pentax 645N / 645NII is that it doesn’t have a mode switch to switch between Manual, Program, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority. Instead when using an Pentax 645 A or FA lens you access these four modes as follows:

  • Manual mode: Set a shutter speed on the camera apart from A and an aperture on the lens apart from A – c’est très simple non?
  • Program mode: Set the shutter speed on the camera to A and the lens aperture to A
  • Aperture priority: Set the shutter speed on the camera to A and the lens to an aperture other than A
  • Shutter priority: Set the shutter speed on the camera apart from A and the lens aperture to A

Easy! Mine is almost always in manual by using my Sekonic L358 light meter, although I have used it in aperture priority mode for travel photos in Paris (see example photos at the bottom).

If you use a Pentax 67 lens like I do with the 105mm, you can’t use shutter priority per se as the lenses lack an A setting.

The metering is available in evaluative/matrix, centre weighted and spot metering. I have never used centre weighted but the evaluative metering and spot meter seems pretty good.

The controls on the Pentax 645N / 645NII are more conventional

There were other reasons I chose the Pentax 645N over the Contax 645 without too much deliberation. The Contax 645 sadly has a reputation for being fickle, it can and does stop working during a shoot, and the various parts of it have to be dismantled and put back on, batteries taken in and out to get it to fire again. Film flatness issues are a problem sometimes when shooting wide open. And service availability is a bit thin on the ground these days especially in Europe. Whilst the Pentax 645 is also a bit of an oddball, there are at least two service centres that I know that will service it within the UK and possibly others.

And the Contax 645’s battery usage is legendary, it drinks them, we’re talking maybe 8 rolls maximum out of a 2CR5 battery, and don’t even think about using lithium rechargeable 2CR5s in this camera, there have been issues reported with exploding batteries. Scary stuff. There is a very nice grip for the Contax 645 that will take AA batteries but that adds to bulk.

Meanwhile the Pentax 645 just seems to keep soldiering on, it uses AA batteries, six of them admittedly and in the two years I have had the camera I have only changed the batteries twice. I have found it most reliable with standard Duracell AA batteries as I encountered sporadic film spacing issues with the Sanyo / Panasonic Eneloops. Since then it works on every shoot without hitch.

The downsides to a Pentax 645 system

The one downside to the Pentax 645 series is you cannot change the film insert part way through a film like you can with most other 645 system cameras.

On the Contax, Bronicas etc. you can pop a dark slide in, take the back off, and then put another back on and continue shooting. This is ideal when you have one body and want to switch between say colour and black and white. However I haven’t really found this too much of a limitation, I have just tried to plan ahead.

You also have a very slow flash sync speed 1/60th which is a bit anaemic but a couple of leaf shutter lenses do exist.

Finally it’s not a Contax 645, it doesn’t have the same looks, and yes that Zeiss 80mm f/2.0 – it is a powerful draw. You can get a Zeiss 80mm f/2.0 adapted for the Pentax 645 mount, but it will cost you and be fixed at f/2.0 for the rest of its life. A cheaper option would be something like the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 but more on that in a bit.

The good news for the Pentax 645

From hhere onwards the news for the Pentax 645 series is really good.

What you get with the Pentax 645N / 645NII is a reliable camera which depends on batteries but thankfully just takes AA batteries as mentioned.

You will also find the system cheap compared to say the Contax 645 system. Film inserts are generally anywhere from £30-50, which compares very favourably to the £300 I’ve sometimes seen Contax film backs go for.

The lenses are also more affordable and plentiful, there is nothing to stop you using the older Pentax 645 A lenses which are manual focus.

The Pentax 645 system is also compatible with an adapter with Pentax 67 series lenses meaning you can take advantage of beautiful lenses such as the 105mm f/2.4 which will give you a reasonable approximation of the Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2’s depth of field. The out of focus appearance is a bit different but it is smooth and sharp. In fact I tend to shoot exclusively with the 105mm f/2.4 on my Pentax 645NII.

You also get the bonus of 16 frames on a roll of 120 with the Pentax 645 system, which is a whole frame more than most other 645 cameras. And that means on 220 (which means just Portra 400 these days) whole 2 extra frames, 32 on one roll!

Manual focus with the Pentax 645N / NII is easy, you have a matte screen but it is bright and easy to focus wide open. You do get an AF focus confirmation dot as well which is pretty accurate. Autofocus is nothing to write home about, it’s pretty accurate but slow and not really an action camera. The autofocus reminds me of some of the earliest Nikon AF SLRs from the mid-80s with their original Nikkor AF lenses, noisy and slow to focus. Again this doesn’t tend to present too many issues with my work as I tend to use the Pentax where there is less movement. Where I need to capture movement I will either use my Nikon F80 or revert to using digital.

The 645NII that I own is a minor update on the 645N. It comes with mirror lockup (never used it), the custom functions accessible via the exposure compensation dial and that’s about it.

Another neat feature of the Pentax 645 is it has dual tripod mounting sockets for easy portrait and landscape orientation usage, which I like as I sometimes use a monopod.

645 medium format vs 35mm

The really nice thing about medium format is of course the increased resolution for sharper prints compared to 35mm, reduced grain but also superb tonality of prints, be it colour or black and white will look rich and deep. That is why you pay a bit more for the medium format experience.

If however you believe that most of your customers will be enjoying their photos on an electronic screen (phone, tablet, computer), and at a small size it does beg the question of whether shooting medium format is necessary for your work.

Think carefully about this because your 35mm prints will still look really good up to 8×10, 11×14 is definitely usable in many cases too. For me 35mm is viable because I am less interested in sharpness, more in the feeling of a photo, a little mystery is a quality I appreciate in a photo and a print only emphasises this feeling.

This isn’t a mainstream point of view, you only have to look at the Internet which is full of people barrel laughing at people saying things like Sony is better than the Nikon because… or Canon is better than Sony because… But I am very happy to be out of that mainstream! Largely when you look at masters of their genre they will not spend much time either talking or justifying their equipment. Peter Lindbergh’s images are not iconic because he shoots with a Nikon D810 or whatever, they’re iconic because of his vision, his principles, direction and so much more than his choice of camera. And that same thing will apply to you.

Looking at photos from the perspective of enjoying them as prints or as they may normally be consumed on smaller lower resolution screens (rather than from the view because 4K exists and so do 40×50 prints therefore you camera must be capable of super resolution) is a liberation from the rat race of continuous gear acquisition.

Sure you wouldn’t want to go much smaller than 35mm for stills, and indeed a 35mm Portra 800 shot blown up at 16×20 is going to be pushing quality boundaries definitely, but if you are shooting Portra 400, 400H or heck even HP5, 35mm can look perfectly good in a photographic print. So what is your need for medium format?

If you think about it maybe 95% of the time your photos are being enjoyed on tiny phone screens little more than 4.7″ diagonally or on Facebook where the quality is largely ‘smushed’ down once it’s viewed in full. Medium format brings the best quality for print compared to 35mm no doubt about it. A Pentax 67 6x7cm negative printed up large is a wonder to behold, but is that level of detail necessary? Will the extra weight weigh you down and prevent you getting shots? Only you will know this.

The reason I bring this up is because I do strongly believe that medium format has a place, that the Pentax 645N and 645NII  are very fine cameras indeed. And when I look at a large fine quality portrait taken with Fuji 400H blown up to a 16×12″ I just think wow that looks lush! But most photos I print are in the 8×10″ to 11×14″ at the largest.

I also raise this as there is nothing worse than being on a shoot with too many cameras, especially at a wedding by yourself, weighed down or having to think too much about should I use this or that camera? And when that happens you will find moments being lost because your shoot lacks the momentum to keep say your model or couple warm and engaged, or you’re exhausted. Breaking fluidity when you decide between your various mediums and which of the 4 cameras to hand you will use can have an effect when working by yourself as I so often do.

I am speaking from my own experience here. Instead I have found myself gravitating further towards using the 35mm cameras (because they are lighter) for the bulk of my work and cracking out the Pentax 645N for those photos which need to have the greater impact of resolution and superior tonality.

For this reason I tend to keep the Pentax 645NII in my rolling case, but it’s the Nikon F80 and FM I keep handy with me at all times. The F80 because I can use all the AF lenses that I have handy on me with my D750 and the FM because it’s a glorious camera to work with, but also because I can use it as a mini Contax 645.

Mini Contax 645

Woah, roll back there, how can I use a Nikon FM as a mini Contax? Because I have the Zeiss Planar 50mm f/1.4 in Nikon fit for it. The quality of the results from this lens are very similar to the Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2 on 645 format. Depth of field wide open is similar, and the bokeh has its typically Zeiss Planar look. To some it can be a bit harsh at times but to those who like it, it has a very dreamy quality. So at a cinch I can roll around with this camera instead of the Pentax.

The Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4 can be found in Canon mounts as well, and the older Contax/Yashica (C/Y) mount version of this lens can be used on Contaxt/Yashica 35mm cameras as well as easily enough on Canon bodies with a C/Y to EF adapter.

Sure it’s not quite as good as having Contax 645 but as I say at a pinch it will give you that Zeiss look that people like, and I like it. The Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4 has a level of micro contrast wide open that makes it spectacular for portraits with nailed focus. It’s definitely not a Sigma 50mm Art lens or an Otus 55mm, but it has a quality all of its own.

And in my case I get to shoot the Nikon FM, a camera I love even more than my Pentax 645. But that’s another story for another day. Here’s an example of the Zeiss Planar 50mm 1.4 at work…

Summing up

None of this is to say that the Pentax 645N / 645NII is a bad camera. What I am perhaps hinting at is that the greatest satisfaction in photography comes from creating images, creating the moments that those images occur in, seeing prints of that creation. The Pentax 645N / 645NII is a tool, a means to an end – to have that final image.

It’s a solid workhorse which you will enjoy using. I only put the caveats above in because it’s worth considering whether going medium format is necessary for your work? If you’re anything like me I get weighed down by gear easily, and I’m not a weakling either cycling over 50 miles a week and running. Maybe it’s because I am used to bouncing around a lot, running around and the likes and the Pentax 645NII is quite a beast to be bouncing around with. I have often found bruises on my thighs from where it’s been bashing against my legs and that is not a pretty sight (but not really the Pentax’s fault)!

But when you have the time, the results speak for themselves. Medium format is going to deliver some stunning results that you will definitely be proud of, and the Pentax 645N / NII is a highly recommended workhorse that will help you to create some stunning images at a more affordable price than a Contax 645, and in an overall more reliable package.

Below are some of my favourite examples shot on Fuji Pro 400H, Ilford XP2 Super and Portra 400.

I hope this Pentax 645N review has been helpful to you.

Matteo Crescentini

April 23, 2017
Reply

Wonderful Post, I've got a 645N and I deifinitely love it! :-)

Joakim

April 24, 2017
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Thank you for this awesome review! And I'm not just saying that because I agree with absolutely everything you say in it.

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