Camera Review: Pentax 645D

March 15, 2012

By Dan Havlik

I must admit that the Pentax 645D had become something of a “white whale” for me. That’s not a reference to the design of this 40-megapixel medium-format camera, which, while unusual looking, does not resemble the fearsome albino sperm whale from Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby-Dick.

But just as Captain Ahab was obsessed with hunting down his elusive pale leviathan, I grew fixated on the all-black Pentax 645D, a camera that had made the rounds at photography shows for many years as a prototype and finally went on sale in 2010. My obsession did not end there, however. The 645D was, at first, only available in Japan though there was at least one company I knew about that would import the camera for a fee.

It’s unclear exactly when the 645D officially started shipping to the United States because by the time camera bodies hit the shelves, they were snapped up by photographers, many of whom had old Pentax 645 interchangeable lenses from the film-version of the 645, which are compatible with the new digital rig. Pentax users are a devoted group and the 645D hit an attractive sweet spot: a sub-$10,000 medium-format digital camera with a 44 x 33-millimeter Kodak-designed CCD filled with 40 million pixels. (By contrast, the Leica S2, a medium-format/DSLR hybrid with a similar sized sensor, sells for $28,000.)

Pentax was able to keep the price down on the 645D by a combination of cost cutting and retrofitting on this rather utilitarian-looking camera. About ten percent of the camera’s parts are from the old film version and the 645D includes no anti-aliasing filter. Also, since the camera is compatible with both the new 645 AF lenses and most existing interchangeable legacy lenses and accessories from the original film camera from the Eighties, Pentax didn’t need to build a whole system from the ground up.

But now that it’s out, the camera is still hard to find in stores. And as for loaner test units for the press, good luck. I got on the 645D loan pool list back in 2010 and only in early 2012 did I receive a camera to test out.

(Click here to check out three full-resolution sample images from our Pentax 645D test shoot.)

Does the 645D live up to the near cult-like status it developed through years of product delays, teases and eventual availability? In some ways, it does. As for whether it deserved my Melvillian level of obsession, probably not.

But that’s actually the point of the “reasonably priced” Pentax 645D: it’s not a camera for those obsessed with objects; it’s for people obsessed with taking pictures. Here’s why.

Body Image
The Pentax 645D likely won’t win any beauty contests, but it’s certainly not the ugliest camera we’ve tested. Many people may actually appreciate its thick, chunky build; substantial handgrip; and scope-shaped viewfinder. It has a form and it’s highly functional and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The 645D may look hulking and let’s be honest, a bit homely, but it’s a surprisingly light medium-format camera, weighing in at just over two pounds with the battery loaded. The 645D’s build is sturdy, with a dust-proof, weather-resistant magnesium alloy shell over an aluminum die cast chassis that can operate in temperatures as low as 14°F (-10°C).

So along with studio photographers looking for a medium-format camera that won’t bust their budget, the 645D is aimed at outdoor photographers, who might be shooting in less than temperate conditions. In addition to the SMC Pentax D FA 645 55mm f/2.8 ($1,000) supplied to us for testing, Pentax also introduced an SMC Pentax D FA 645 25mm f/4 ($5,000) wide-angle lens that’s targeted at landscape shooters.

I tested the 645D with photographer Jason Groupp at his Manhattan studio and in chilly temperatures on the roof of the building, and we had no major stumbles getting the hang of this camera despite the lack of a manual or even a strap with our loan unit.

While travelling in Italy last summer, I shot with Pentax’s flagship digital SLR, the 16.3-megapxiel K-5, and was pleased to discover that the 645D uses almost the exact same interface and menu structure. The one significant upgrade is that the 645D adds a digital level to show how straight the camera is on both axes. Landscape shooters will appreciate this feature.

Strangely, instead of CompactFlash cards, the 645D has dual Secure Digital High Capacity slots (SDHC & XC compatible) for storing images. While this is part of a general migration away from CF to SD, SDHC, SDXC and other formats, it’s odd for a medium-format camera with file sizes that range from 60 to 80 megabytes. This is not to say there aren’t large-capacity SD cards out there—in the SDHC format, 32-gigabyte cards are readily available—it’s just that most pros we know are pretty committed to CF. But times change.

External control on the camera is extensive and well placed, which is appreciated. Buttons to adjust vital features—including ISO, white balance and bracketing—are plentiful and it was simple to change settings on the fly. There are tripod mounts on both the bottom and left side of the camera for vertical shooting. Yes, these aren’t exactly revolutionary features but it’s clear this camera was designed with the working photographer in mind.

Though it may look clumsy, the Pentax 645D is one of the more ergonomically balanced medium-format cameras we’ve tried, feeling as much like a digital SLR as the sleeker, more stylish and more expensive Leica S2.

Of course, like the S2, the 645D is a fully locked camera system, not a body with a digital back attached. On the plus side, this lets manufacturers create a more ergonomic photographic tool while incorporating nice extras such as the 645D’s 3-inch, high resolution (921,000-dot) LCD screen, which is great for reviewing images. On the down side you can’t swap in a new digital back, so you’re limited to the built-in 40-megapixel CCD sensor, which is already starting to feel a little dated.

If you haven’t shot with a medium-format digital camera before—and many prospective Pentax 645D buyers are likely to be DSLR shooters looking to move up in class—then the first thing you’ll notice about this camera is the large and beautiful optical viewfinder that makes framing your shots a pleasure. The next thing you’ll probably notice is the satisfying “thwop” sound of the massive shutter when you fire off a photo. No, this camera isn’t nearly as fast of a performer as a DSLR but in the world of medium-format cameras, the 645D was one of the quickest and most agile models we’ve tried.  

The 645D uses a TTL phase-difference 11-point (9-cross) wide autofocus system (11 point SAFOX IX+) that’s very similar to what you’ll find in Pentax’s best DSLRs. Consequently, focusing was fast and on the money. The camera’s burst rate, while better than most medium-format cameras, was still slow in comparison to DSLRs at 1.1 fps.

We found it perfectly acceptable for our purpose, however, which was shooting some promotional shots of musician/model/photographer Hannah Thiem. For photographing models in the studio or even runway work, the 645D should be fast enough. And it’s certainly quick enough for capturing landscapes and shooting outdoor photography. (Wildlife photographers will find it too slow unless they’re photographing a sleeping lion, in which case the loud sound of the shutter might wake him up.)

The only time we got tripped up was when shooting continuously for about ten seconds, which locked the camera’s buffer up for about a minute as it wrote images to the card. This was partially because we were in full RAW+ JPEG (aka Fine) mode but also because we weren’t using the fastest SD card out there. (Most of our fast memory cards are of the CF variety.) Note to prospective buyers: Make sure you upgrade your SD cards if you’re considering the 645D.

One serious downside for studio shooters with the 645D appears to have been rectified as we went to press. In early February, Pentax announced it would be offering new software that would allow you to tether and transfer images from the 645D to a computer via a USB cable. In the past, there had been no native way to tether the camera to a computer, despite the 645D having a USB port. This was a major bummer for studio photographers who rely on a tethered workflow to review images on a larger computer monitor. Of course, we haven’t had a chance to test out the 645D’s new tethering software yet but we’re happy it’s finally being offered, even if it will set you back an extra $200.

Image Quality
In terms of image quality, the Pentax 645D tops any digital SLR on the market—at the time of this writing—in terms of resolution, detail, dynamic range and color fidelity. (As we went to press, Nikon announced its full-frame 36.3-megapixel D800 digital SLR and we’d love to eventually put it up against the 40-megapixel 645D, which has a significantly bigger sensor.)

In a direct head-to-head, we’d still have to give the 37.5-megapixel Leica S2 the advantage over the 645D, mostly because of the incredible out-of-the-camera sharpness from the S2, and the minimal amount of tweaking we needed to do on those image files to get them finalized. The 645D photos need a bit more TLC in Adobe Lightroom/Camera RAW/Photoshop, to get them ready. Some photographers, however, might appreciate that Pentax leaves the files a bit loose, which gives them more flexibility.

Either way, the Leica S2 costs about $18,000 more than the 645D, so it’s really not a fair comparison. As the Pentax 645D’s name suggests, images are shot in a 6 x 4.5-centimeter rectangle (4:3), which some photographers find to be more versatile than a 6 x 6 square format. (It’s, of course, a matter of taste/opinion.)

Our portraits of Thiem posing in a range of outfits and set-ups looked splendid. Groupp has a large set of north-facing windows in his studio and he often likes to shoot just using the natural light from outside. At ISO 800, a level that medium-format cameras often struggle at because they lack anti-aliasing filters to blur noise (and prevent moiré), the 645D performed great, with a warm consistent tone and only minimal noise in the shadow areas.

Skintones were excellent even at the high ISO. The camera shoots at ISO 200 to 1000 natively, with expanded levels of ISO 100, 125 and 150 on the low end; and 1100, 1250 and 1600 on the high end, in the increased sensitivity mode.

By no means would I say the 645D is a high ISO, low-light camera but it was one of the best we’ve tested in the medium-format category. The camera really shines at lower ISOs, and the images we shot of Thiem in outdoor light on the roof using a California Sunbounce Mini to add some golden lusciousness, were gorgeous. You just can’t get this kind of color depth and detail with even the best full-frame DSLRs.

The Bottom Line
Well, I finally conquered my white whale and it was worth the pursuit. I still have mixed emotions over whether this camera was worth the wait for professional photographers. While there’s a lot I like about the Pentax 645D, including its relatively reasonable price for a medium-format camera; it’s intuitive operability and surprisingly ergonomic design; and, above all, it’s excellent image quality that puts most digital SLRs to shame, the camera took so long to come to market, certain features, such as it’s non-swappable 40-megapixel sensor set-up (as opposed to removable digital back systems), already seem dated. (Especially when you consider the new $3,000 full-frame 36.3-megapixel Nikon D800.) Also, at the time of this writing, there were only two 645D-specific AF lenses, making us wonder how much Pentax is committed to this system. On the other hand, the new tethering option and potential fiscal stability resulting from Pentax’s merger with Ricoh, suggests the company could be expanding the 645D system significantly in the coming year. We sincerely hope so. This camera is one big fish you shouldn’t let slip away.

Pros: Very reasonably priced for a 40-megapixel medium-format camera; tough but light build with a surprisingly ergonomic camera design; excellent overall image quality with good results at up to ISO 800; plenty of easy-to-access external control; accepts Pentax 645 legacy lenses; nice, high-resolution 3-inch LCD

Cons: 40-megapixel sensor resolution already feels dated; some continuing camera supply issues; utilitarian design won’t win any beauty contests; currently only two new 645D-specific AF lenses; only recently added a tethering option

$9,995 (body only);

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