Pentax 645Z Review

Although the Pentax 645Z medium format DSLR has been out for a few years, I only had a chance to try it out earlier this year, during my trip to Death Valley. I have been wanting to try the 645Z for quite some time since I heard so many good things about it. With moderate format digital being traditionally out of reach when it comes to cost for most photographers out right now there, including myself, I did not really have much interest in trying out cameras that are simply because expensive as some great cars. However, the Pentax 645D changed the game back in 2010, by being the first sub-$10K medium format digital camera at launch.

Pentax 645Z Price, Deals & Discounts

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When Pentax released an updated version of the camera in the form of 645Z, and this time with a CMOS instead of CCD sensor, the company decided to reduce the MSRP of the camera even further, down to $8,500. To get rid of the existing stock of the 645D models, the business lowered the price of the predecessor all the way right down to $4K at one point, making medium format digital reach a sub-$5K price for the first time in history. Today, the Pentax 645Z can be bought for $7K brand new and you can find it for much less if you don’t mind shopping for a used one. Without a doubt, the influence of Pentax moderate format cameras has been seriously felt among other medium format camera manufacturers.

Since then, we have seen a couple of announcements that target the same specialized niche. Hasselblad has recently introduced its initial mirrorless X1D-50c moderate format camera, while Fuji also decided to jump completely up to medium file format with its GFX 50S, skipping full-frame cameras altogether. It is great to see more competition in this relatively new market today, but we must not forget that Pentax was the company that pioneered the idea of somewhat affordable medium structure cameras in the first place. If it wasn’t for the success of the Pentax 645D and 645Z cameras, it is hard to say if others would have risked moving into the sub-$10K medium format arena. Medium format sensors are still quite pricey to manufacture compared to full-frame sensors, and it is certainly not easy to sell such digital cameras to the mass marketplace. If Nikon and Canon sell a fairly small number of top-of-the-line DSLRs like the Nikon D5 and Canon 1D X Mark II when compared to other cheaper DSLRs, the market for moderate format users is even more minuscule in comparison.

So why review the Pentax 645Z today? Well, with the exhilaration of the upcoming Hasselblad X1D-50c and Fuji GFX 50S cameras, it might be interesting for our readers to see what medium format has to offer, especially when in comparison to full-frame cameras. I have not yet obtained a copy of the two new medium format cameras yet (Fuji’s price isn’t even announced, while the Hasselblad offers been delayed till November of 2016), but I’ve played with the 645Z enough to state a few things about any of it. Perhaps this review will help our visitors in understanding moderate format digital a bit better. Considering that the sensor technology between the three cameras will probably be quite a bit similar with regards to things like physical sensor size, factor ratio and image quality, many topics discussed in this review will apply similarly to all three. Lastly, I already had most of the Pentax 645Z review written a while ago, so I made a decision to get it completed and published before moving on to reviewing other digital cameras and lenses.

Review and Sensor Size Comparison

The Pentax 645Z was announced more than two years ago, back in April of 2014. As I have already pointed out, it was a big announcement back at the time, since there was no genuine competitor to the camera at a similar price point. The 645Z reigned supreme since then, making it a popular MF camera among Pentax lovers and specialists. With over 30 different lenses to pick from for the 645 mounts (16 of which are current and will be bought brand-new today) and the ability to mount older Pentax 6×7 lenses via adapters (along with other third-party options), it has turned into a pretty solid and mature system overall.

With a 51.4 MP sensor, the Pentax 645Z boasts more resolution than any additional full-frame digital camera out there (the closest in quality is the Canon 5DS / 5DS R DSLR, using its 50.6 MP sensor). Nevertheless, as you may already know, resolution plays a small part in the overall picture quality of any program – sensor size is a far more important area of the equation. Larger sensors generally have got better overall image quality due to better handling of noise, potentially better dynamic range, better shades and with the right set of lenses, can generate beautifully rendered photographs.

Build Quality

When it comes to building quality, Ricoh usually does not disappoint and the Pentax 645Z is not an exception. In fact, the Pentax 645Z is one of the best-built cameras I’ve held in my hands – it feels very solid and its build quality is indeed superb in every way, starting from each dial all the way to the tilting LCD display screen. As some say, the camera is certainly “built such as a tank” and I can certainly attest to it – I did so manage to drop it on the ground while walking (the camera took a pretty moderate hit on its aspect and back again). I was very worried about the camera, but once I picked it up, brushed off the dust and inspected it, I only saw a few small areas where the paint came off a little, revealing the hard magnesium alloy shell. Aside from that, the camera did not suffer from damage and it continued to perform as if nothing had happened. I got it with me to Death Valley in January, so I put the camera to pretty harsh conditions, shooting in extremely dusty and sometimes below freezing conditions. With its 76 special climate seals all around the camera, I never saw any dust particles getting into the camera body. The good thing is, I just had one lens to shoot with since the lenses I wanted were out of stock at the time. But it worked out pretty well since I ended up not having to change lenses when shooting in Mesquite Sand Dunes, Eureka Dunes and various other sandy/dusty areas of the park, known to be pretty harmful to both cameras and lenses (never try to wipe out sand contaminants from camera LCD or zoom lens front element with microfiber cloth – always brush those off gently first, or you might scratch them).

Handling

With regards to handling though, this is a very big and large beast – much bigger, bulkier and heavier than an average-size DSLR. When shooting with the Pentax 645Z, I had my Nikon D810 with me and I have to say, carrying both within a camera bag was quite tough. My favorite Think Tank Airport Commuter (see our detailed review) was able to accommodate both digital cameras and lenses I experienced with me, but boy, it had been tight and it was not a lightweight setup by any means! The Pentax 645Z virtually took the majority of the bag due to its bulk, making it hard to close the bag, therefore I ended up either taking out the D810 or the 645Z and holding one of the two in my own hands to make it easier.

When looking at both from the front, the size distinctions are pretty negligible – as you can see, the D810 is only slightly shorter in comparison. Actually, the Nikon D810 is actually slightly taller, thanks to its protruded top that hosts the pentaprism and the flash unit. Despite the much larger throat size, Pentax did a wonderful job with keeping leading the camera fairly small.

Ergonomics

Ergonomically, the Pentax 645Z is superb – the grasp is not only properly protruded, but there is an extra dip that goes all the way into the camera body, rendering it comfortable for people with small or large hands to hold the camera. Although you can use your right hand to carry the camera when walking around, due to the weight and the size of the camera, I would recommend to support it with the still left hand as well. I went ahead and initially attached the camera strap, but quickly finished up removing it. First, I did not want to put so many pounds on my neck (which started to hurt rather quickly) and second, I did so not want the strap to cause extra vibrations when capturing in windy circumstances from my tripod.

The camera PASM dial is normally on the left of the viewfinder, where we are used to normally seeing it. The dial provides U1, U2, and U3 preset modes and it does wonders, just like the preset modes do on cameras just like the Nikon D750. You can create each of the modes specifically for different types of shooting environments and all you do from that point on, is switch to that preset mode and you are good to go. That’s how it should be on every camera! Sadly, Nikon does not understand this and it continues to use its worthless memory bank feature on its high-end DSLRs like Nikon D810.

The Hyper Plan feature is really neat. This is the first time I see Program Mode to be actually useful. In Program Setting, if you move the front dial, the camera switches to a shutter priority setting, whereas moving the rear dial switches to Aperture priority mode. And if one wants to return to Program Mode, the green key on the back of the camera does it.

You will find two extra switches on the top of the camera. One is used to switch from AF-S (one servo) to AF-C (continuous-servo) setting, and the other can be used to change from still shooting to video shooting. Although it is nice to get a video recording feature, I personally did not use it at all and I don’t think anyone would buy this camera for its video recording features in any case. Still, perhaps it is better to have it, than not having it at all.

Summary

As you can see from this review, the Pentax 645Z served me very well during my month-long period with it. The camera truly has amazing image quality, wonderful construction, and ergonomics, excellent weather conditions sealing, long battery lifestyle and when coupled with high-quality lenses such as the Pentax 45-85mm f/4.5, it can yield exceptionally detailed images. As a landscape photographer, I have been questioning for quite some time about what medium format cameras have to offer in comparison with full-frame cameras and the Pentax 645Z gave me this opportunity. Certainly, it is an extremely fine camera in many ways and I am sure it would have served my needs well if I were to get one.

However, the camera isn’t without its faults. Aside from some minimal ergonomic nuisances (for a Nikon shooter), lack of electronic front curtain mode, rather limiting 1/125 flash sync rate for portrait work and a few small issues, my biggest issue with the Pentax 645Z is its massive size and fat. As you have seen from the evaluation above, the camera protrudes a lot more than a full-frame DSLR like the Nikon D810 and weighs almost twice heavier in comparison, which is a deal-breaker for me. Not only is it more difficult to hand-hold for me personally because of carpal tunnel syndrome on my hands, but it also makes it tough to travel with, which is even a bigger issue. For this reason, I am anxiously waiting to see how the other mirrorless medium format digital cameras from Fuji and Hasselblad will fare compared. If they check all the boxes, including picture quality nor come at the expense of heft and weight, I might look into investing in such a system for professional work. Exciting times indeed!

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