Nikon D800E vs. Pentax 645D

Conclusion

User preference often plays a role when it comes to deciding which camera is right for you, and things are no different when looking at the Pentax 645D vs. the Nikon D800E.  Available lenses, accessories, and backwards-compatibility all have to be considered with cameras of this caliber.

As you'll see below, however, the Nikon does have an edge in many areas over the Pentax, not only because of the fact that it's not a medium-format body, but also because of the surprising performance of its sensor.

Pentax 645D and Nikon D800E

Pricing

These are the US MAP prices for the two cameras as of December, 2012.

Pentax 645D: $8799.95
Nikon D800E: $3299.95

Given how the professional camera market works, it is unlikely that any significant rebates will be offered as long as these cameras are available new.  Retailers are instead offering discounts by bundling free accessories or giving reward points.

Pros and Cons

Each camera has its merits and its quirks, and we provide an overview of this below.

Pentax 645D

Nikon D800E

+Sturdy dual tripod mounts
+Excellent build quality
+Backwards-compatible w/645 & 67 lenses
+Studio-grade image quality
+Higher resolution
+Weather-sealed
+Very bright, large viewfinder
+Simple, intuitive interface
+Handy Hyper Program mode
+Large, easy-to-press buttons
+Dual-SD slots
+Easy-to-read top LCD
+Dust removal
+Pentax & community tethering software
+GPS accessory available
+Electronic level
+Good battery life w/standard battery
-(Unecessarily) Heavy and bulky
-Limited ISO options and noisy at ISO 1600
-Modern lenses are very expensive and scarce
-Cannot leverage the fastest SD cards

-Large mirror practically requires MLU
-Generally limited to studio/tripod use
-Not for sports/action/continuous shooters
w/ only 1.1FPS
-Overpriced by today's standards
-Sluggish playback/instant review performance
-No live view
-Slightly more moire (see field tests)

-Viewfinder doesn't offer 100% coverage
-Only one lens (90mm macro) offers Shake Reduction
-Dated internals recycled from APS-C cameras
-AF only covers a small portion of the frame
-Comparatively low shutter life specification

+Amazing value
+Broader lens lineup
+Versatile, can be hand-held
w/ VR lenses if needed
+Built-in flash
+Studio-grade image quality
+Better dynamic range and less noise
+Fast overall performance
+Weather-sealed
+Video mode and live view
+100% viewfinder
+Dual CF/SD slot
+Dust removal
+Top-of-the-line 51-point AF
+Optional Nikon tethering software
+GPS accessory available
+Electronic level
(superimposable in viewfinder)
+Fast USB 3.0 interface
+Supports wireless/network connectivity
via accessory

+Relatively compact
+Up to 100 JPEGs in continuous mode
-Darker, smaller viewfinder
-Lenses mount backwards (sorry Nikon)
-Live view blacks out when files are being saved

-Shorter battery life w/o grip
-Slower playback than lower-res
Nikon cameras
-No stabilized wide prime options

-Some primary shooting controls
hard to reach/change while looking through
the viewfinder, such as ISO
-User interface needs minor improvement

-Slow 4FPS continuous shooting
makes it a sub-optimal choice for sports shooters

Who is it for?
Professional photographers who primarily shoot in a studio setting and want the highest possible image quality at a relatively affordable price.  Also, landscape photographers currently shooting with lower-resolution cameras. Professional photographers who don't primarily focus on action photography yet want the highest possible image quality.  Also, those on a tighter budget.
Best for:

Studio work, landscape photography, macros

Studio work, weddings, landscape photography, photojournalism, event photography, product photography, low-light photography

Not so hot for:

Action photography, hand-held shooting, low-light

Professional action photography, enthusiasts concerned about Moiré (get the D800 instead)

Ratings

Our rating of the 645D sees an update since 2011, given its price drop and the launch of the D800, among other changes in the industry.  We have also added additional image quality rating criteria for the purposes of this review.

Pentax 645D - Overall

Ergonomics 
 10
Build Quality 
 10
Performance 
 5
Handling 
 7
User Interface 
 9
Resolution 
 10
Noise 
 8
Dynamic Range 
 8
Auto Focus 
 7
Versatility 
 4
Value 
 6
Overall 
 7.6 (Good)

Nikon D800E - Overall

Ergonomics 
 8
Build Quality 
 10
Performance 
 8
Handling 
 9
User Interface 
 7
Resolution 
 9
Noise 
 9
Dynamic Range 
 10
Auto Focus 
 9
Versatility 
 8
Value 
 9
Overall 
 8.7 (Very Good)

Conclusion

Given its surprisingly-good image quality and comparatively low price, it seems that the Nikon D800/800E has taken away many of the advantages that the Pentax 645D held just a year and a half ago.  The Nikon D800E lets professionals and enthusiasts alike enjoy extremely high-resolution photos without having to step up to a medium format camera.  Granted, you won't get the most out of your D800E without premium lenses and a sturdy tripod, but the fact that the D800E can be used for so much more than highly-controlled stills is what makes it such an appealing camera (not to mention its affordable price tag).  The D800E is truly an impressive camera- it's not perfect, but it performs exceptionally where it counts, and it certainly represents a new beginning for high-resolution full-frame photography.
Nikon D800E and Pentax 645D
 
The Pentax 645D continues to deliver very impressive resolution, and it outperforms the D800E slightly in this respect.  Its large buttons and intuitive interface make it a easy to use, though some may get discouraged by its slow instant review and playback performance.  The pricing of the 645D places it out of reach of enthusiasts and professionals who are on a budget.  The lack of live view in the 645D is certainly going to be a setback for many, but we do expect Pentax to launch a successor to the 645D in the coming years given their dedication to continuing their medium-format lineup.  We hope that this successor not only features live view and improved in-camera performance, but also a higher-resolution sensor that will move it definitively out of the D800E's ballpark!  We love the 645D, but it's starting to show its age, making its high price tag increasingly harder to justify given the launch of the D800E.
Is medium format doomed?  Given the rapid evolution of imaging sensors, we don't think so: a larger sensor will generally always be able to capture the better image when matched against a smaller sensor from the same era.  Only time will tell how Pentax (and the medium format market) will respond to the great performance of the Nikon D800E, which represents how much full-frame cameras have evolved in so little time (the first Nikon full-frame came out in 2007).  However, one thing is clear: the kind of resolution that was once only available through medium format cameras is now accessible in a much smaller and much more affordable package!

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