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12-17-2015, 03:56 PM - 24 Likes   #1
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Review - The 645 System for Landscape Photography

1. The Question

“So what does it look like when a nature nut obsessed with large prints gets his hands on the 645 system?”

I think we all wondered about this question. Because, let’s not fool ourselves; the 645 system has always been
for landscape photography. It is not there to be cuddled. It is meant to be covered with flurries in the high Sierra,
beaten by hail in the stormy Grand Canyon, and blasted with sand showers in the scorching Death Valley.

It took five years to build my photography around these expensive chunks of metal and glass, and I think now I
can say a thing or two about them.


2. (More Formal) Introduction

I always thought the 645 system is primarily designed for landscape photography. Having been an old-timer
with the 645N II in a worn-out bag and a heavy user of the 645D and the 645Z since they were first introduced
into the market, that perspective never left my mind nor was ever challenged. Since hauling a 40-pound pack
on a regular basis for backpacking trips in the Sierra cannot be good for my beat up joints, I might have some
suggestions for future improvements, but all of these cameras and lenses stood the tests of the most
unforgiving terrains and elements so far. So I thought there must be a review from who knows a little bit about
landscape photography.

It’s not only the camera but also the photographer that has seen changes over the years. My fixation with the
‘a photograph must be a single exposure’ ideology, stuck in the head for quite sometime especially during the film
days, has seen noticeable compromises, as I’ve learned more about the differences between the way the human
eye sees the world and the way cameras do. And when I was educated more about the physical limitations that
any high-resolution photographic system is subjected to, I decided to take that painful path that embraces new
digital techniques. So this is also a piece about exploring new ways to best utilize the photographic system’s
potential.

Here I wanted to share some of the images that I photographed recently, as a way to examine the capabilities
of the Pentax 645 system; especially the new 645Z and some of the key optical pieces that have found space
in my bag. As the prime technical objective of my work is to produce large prints of the highest quality, I thought
providing some insights into the pixel-level quality, also not in its raw form, but in the final phase of the images
after all processing is complete and just before being fed into a Giclee printer, would be useful.


3. What’s in the Bag

- 645Z
- D-FA 25mm
- DA 28-45mm
- FA 45-85mm
- FA 80-160mm (occasionally)

- Memory cards (Sandisk Extreme Pro 95mb/s)
- Remotes (like chinese ones better than the Pentax ones)
- Lee 4X6 GND filters and home-made filter holder (only for seascapes)
- Polarizers and ND filters
- A modified inspection mirror (attached near the focus window of a lens)


4. Technical Details

Almost all images are produced from multiple shots with different exposure and focus settings. For those who
are not that comfortable with that notion, here is a simple fact; the human eye doesn’t work like a camera at all.
It constantly captures pieces of the real world and our brains stitch them up and turn into what we call a memory,
an artificial reconstruction and also often incomplete rendition. Each little piece is of different brightness and
placed at a different distance, but our eyes do a tremendous job covering almost over 20 stops of contrast ratio
and infinite depth in a heartbeat. So in order to see the way our eyes do, something has to be done.

The extent of this multi-exposure / multi-focus process depends heavily on the scene. To give you a point of
contact, ‘Echoes of the Silence’ utilizes almost 18 shots, as it represents the worse case scenario for landscape
photography; a large depth of field and a high-contrast backlit lighting condition. On the other hand, ‘A Night with
the Lights’ only(?) needed three mostly to extend the depth of field, as the light was tamable and the nearest
objects were still good tens of feet away. ‘The Highland’ is a single exposure image, that’s what I like about
photographing with a telephoto lens sometimes; the odds are you don’t have to worry too much about depth of field
(well not always, sometimes it gets even worse).

The Sony 51.4MP sensor, just like any high-resolution medium, is prone to optical diffraction, and it becomes
noticeable at any aperture smaller than f/10. If you stop down for increased depth of field, say to f/16, your
effective resolution is not that different than using a 24MP camera (the same thing can be said about large format
film cameras too. If you stop down too much, that negates the very purpose of going big). On the other hand, at
a wider aperture, diffraction may be minimized, but the corners deteriorate quite rapidly due to optical aberrations.
So for most images in this review, the aperture was kept at f/10.

There certainly are some exceptions. When the image includes elements that cover some depth and change
rapidly (waves in seascapes), I resort to smaller apertures. When a sun-star plays a role in the pre-visualized
image, I occasionally stop down to include the desired effect. When I am dealing with stars and the moon, I open
up to let more light in.

I know the newest trend in landscape photography is oriented heavily towards overuse of shadows and Orton
effects to make the images appear more dramatic, but that style has not really spoken to me personally nor is
well suited for print-oriented photography like mine (printers do not handle shadows very well).


5. Photos

Total eight images are presented as examples, and nine different 800px X 800px 100% crops are provided for
each image. All of these images are photographed with the 645Z. Please note that these images are optimized
for canvas prints and therefore sharpened quite aggressively. There are some artifacts because of the level of
sharpening and also the Bayer construction of the sensor, but based on trial and error, we figured it works better
that way for prints.

(1) Echoes of the Silence (2015)
D-FA 25mm / Eastern Sierra, California

(2) Winter Thirst (2015)
D-FA 25mm / Lake Tahoe, Nevada

(3) A Daydream (2015)
A 35mm / Grand Canyon, Arizona

(4) Windows to the Desert Winter (2014)
DA 28-45mm / Canyonlands, Utah

(5) And a River Runs Through (2014)
DA 28-45mm / Yellowstone, Wyoming

(6) The Highland (2014)
FA 80-160mm / Mt. Rainer, Washington

(7) The Grand Stage (2015)
FA 45-85mm / Grand Canyon, Arizona

(8) A Night with the Lights (2015)*
D-FA 25mm / Banff, Alberta
*night photography

To see the 100% crops, just click on any image in the following link.
(I have no intention to promote my website, it just is a better way of getting images organized.)

Hark Lee Photography

To me, the final verdict is quite simple and as predicted. The 645Z is a great camera with amazing DR and low
light capability. The DA 28-45mm is fantastic and outperforms the rest. The D-FA 25mm follows very closely but
it’s got some issues with field curvature and chromatic aberrations (CAs). The FA 45-85mm, FA 80-160mm, and
A 35mm are all great performers, but their days are numbered for any future high MP sensors.


















6. Breakdown

These are things that I learned over the years.

A. High-resolution Photography

(a) The current 51.4MP sensor, when used properly, can make prints with amazing details easily up to 45 X 60
size (about 137.43ppi).
(b) Fully utilizing a 80-100MP sensor will be a real challenge, but it doesn’t hurt to have more (at the expense of
more computing power and storage, but personally I’d rather take the resolution).

B. The 645Z compared with 35mm full frame

(a) The 645 system still holds an edge over any 35mm full frame system in resolution.
(b) With the 51.4MP Sony sensor, the 645Z offers better low light performance than most of the high-resolution
35mm full frame cameras in the market.
(c) The 4:3 ratio works much better for vertically composed images.
(d) The 645 system needs to offer a better ultra-wide angle solution. Even the 25mm feels limited sometimes.
(e) Much bigger and heavier than any 35mm full frame systems.

C. The 645Z compared with the 645D

(a) Much faster operation overall. With the 645D, you need to be patient, but the 645Z feels just right and smooth.
Buffer and writing speed are also greatly improved, enabling responsive interface for the photographer (reviewing
images, checking exposure, histograms, etc.) even in a continuous, high-speed shooting situation (for example,
bracketing five exposures with constantly changing focus under fast-changing light condition)
(b) Vastly improved dynamic range and low light / noise performances.
(c) Shutter / mirror vibrations are reduced significantly, crucial in high-resolution photography.
(d) Articulated screen is a very useful addition for low or high angle shooting.
(e) Live-view is incredibly useful. Especially for accurate focus and exposure.

D. Lenses

(a) D-FA (DA) 25mm

- It is a valuable addition, even when you have the DA 28-45mm. The extra wideness is very useful. Often
I find myself using the 25mm more than the 28-45mm.
- The lens exhibits noticeable field curvature and CAs. Multi-focus shooting can mitigate the field curvature,
and the CAs can be fixed relatively easily in post-processing.
- The lens offers great resolution, but I doubt the corner performance will hold up very well when the sensor
resolution is increased beyond 60-80MP.

(b) DA-28-45mm

- It performs very well with the 645Z, offering fantastic corner-to-corner sharpness through out the entire zoom
range.
- Copy-to-copy variation is quite significant. Please test your lens before purchase. Tested about 3 samples, all
perform differently. The most inconsistency comes from the corners at the wide end (28mm).
- Awfully heavy and big, feels almost over-engineered. SR is almost completely useless for landscape photography.
I can see how Pentax wanted to appeal to the studio crowds with this, but my knees and back are paying the price.

(c) A 35mm

- Early observations (when tested with 645D) indicated that this performs better than the FA 35mm, which showed
more field curvature.
- It still performs very decent with the 645Z, but compared with the DA 28-35mm, high frequency details are subpar.
- Copy-to-copy variation seemed quite minimal, based on 3 different samples I personally tested.
- I don’t see this will make a good lens for the future sensors with higher resolution.
- Still a valuable piece for backpacking trips due to its weight and size.

(d) FA 45-85mm

- Still a fantastic performer. The performance at 45mm is almost comparable to the DA 28-45mm.
- Copy-to-copy variation seemed quite minimal, based on 4 different samples I personally tested.
- Will need to see some updates for 80+MP sensors.
- The best performance-weight ratio of the bunch.

(e) FA 80-160mm

- A great lens at a reasonable price. Overall performance with the 645Z is decent.
- At this focal range, very prone to vibrations. Needs sturdy support.
- Needs to be updated for future 80+MP sensors.


7. Suggestions for Future Development

Here are some things Pentax can do to make it better.

A. 80-100MP sensor

Practically, this will be ultimate resolution for the 645 system. All kinds of logistic challenges to go beyond this;
lenses need to be sharp corner to corner at f/4-5.6 to avoid diffraction and near-to-far focus will require tens of
different layers and extensive post-processing, which means it’s almost practically impossible to utilize this level
of resolution. One way to address this issue is to go with non-bayer, Foveon-type sensor. This will increase the
resolution by a factor of about 1.5 at the same level of diffraction.

B. Ultra-wide angle

Be a prime or a zoom, please make one. Personally, anything close to 18mm (14mm on a 35mm full frame) can
be really useful.

C. Mirrorless

I know it will look funky with the current flange-back distance, but I am up for whatever can shave off a pound.

D. Downsized lenses

Please keep the lenses light. Offer non-SR and not-so-fast variants designed specifically for outdoor photography.
The current system is almost unacceptable for any serious hiker. You will need to add about 20 lbs to the base
weight to carry 645Z + 25mm + 28-45mm + 45-85mm + Gitzo 1 series carbon tripod.

E. Live View

Zooming is fine, but moving to a particular part of the frame is not so smooth and too slow. This considerably slows
down the focusing process in live-view shooting.

F. Automated multi-focus shooting

Multi-focus shooting and focus stacking in the post-process are becoming an essential technique in many
applications. Implement an algorithm to do this. Please allow an option to be used in conjunction with exposure
bracketing; also let the photographer customize what focus range should be bracketed and what not.

G. Focus windows

Additional windows on the sides (or bottom) of lens barrels will be a great addition, so that the photographer has
complete information and control of focus at all times (you can’t check the focus when your camera is higher than
your eye-level). More precise and finer ticks will be very helpful as well. If there is a way to do this electronically
(show a number that precisely displays the current focus distance on the live view feed), it may be better.

H. More custom modes

Three custom modes (U1-U3) are amazingly useful, but one can use one or two more.


8. Acknowledgement

Personally, I am a consumer of practically zero brand loyalty. I take whatever is best for the job. My take is, a
preconceived notion of any company does not really improve my work in any useful way.

Given that, I want to thank Pentax and it’s engineers that have made these great products possible. The 645 system
held up my photography for the past five years, and it saved a number of images that might otherwise have turned
out quite differently. I am an engineer by training and I know how difficult it is to develop these low-volume, high
quality products and keep them afloat. And they have done an excellent job over the years.

Though I still do not call myself a fan (because that kind of rhetoric or mindset often hinders objective assessment),
I sincerely want to thank Pentax for the unconventional devotion to image quality, because it resonates deeply with
the principles I hold as a photographer. And I think I really need to say these things. Because I see something more
than simple business plans in these beautifully strange products.


Last edited by harklee; 12-24-2015 at 02:23 PM.
12-17-2015, 04:06 PM   #2
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Thanks for sharing the review - certainly makes me drool.

Wonderful sample images really show what MF can do. Well done.
12-17-2015, 04:09 PM   #3
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Great review and a very interesting insight into the world of medium format - something I know virtually nothing about. My fave images of that set are Daydream, Grand Stage and Night With The Lights - stunning.
12-17-2015, 04:16 PM   #4
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences! Although I don't use a medium format camera (K-3) the way you describe your workflow does give a very good insight in how to achieve better landscape photo's. That is valuable information, regardless of sensor format. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention your photographs; they are stunning. Well done!

12-17-2015, 04:19 PM   #5
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Excellent post and my hope someday is to shoot images like those. Heck I'd settle for being 10% as good. Wow. I own (and use) a 645 & 645n and hope to get to the 645z someday. Wonderful insights.
12-17-2015, 04:49 PM   #6
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Great insight and fantastic images

Your set up and work makes me drool. As I am pondering letting go of my beloved K3 and the Three Amigos, here comes the ultimate tease!

Great work.
12-17-2015, 04:58 PM   #7
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Maybe the best review that I ever read. Comprehensive but short. And pictures...ohhhh, these pictures....

Many thanks for all.
12-17-2015, 05:34 PM   #8
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I came for the review, I stayed for the photos. Amazing. Even better on your website.

12-17-2015, 05:56 PM   #9
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I'm mesmerized by the review and its photos! Thank you
12-17-2015, 06:12 PM   #10
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Thank you for sharing! That was helpful and inspiring. You work is fantastic and I am in awe of your work. All of your photographs are absolutely beautiful. Thank you for hauling that heavy equipment to all those wonderful places. I know there is so much work to create those beautiful pictures. It is a job to get to the scene and then have a scene when you arrive. Great work and thanks for sharing. I hope to have a medium format one day.
12-17-2015, 06:47 PM   #11
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Harklee:

Thank you for taking the time to write this and post your wonderful images. I have all the equipment you list, other than the 25mm, and agree with all your observations.

I found this statement unusual and in agreement with my experience:

"I sincerely want to thank Pentax for the unconventional devotion to image quality, because it resonates deeply with the principles I hold as a
photographer. And I think I really need to say these things. Because I see something more than simple business
plans in these beautifully strange products."

I have been a Pentax owner since 1972 when I purchased a Spotmatic. I have observed over the years that the company had a devotion to the image, for me it started with the 8 element Super Takumar 50mm f/1.4 and continued through many other lenses for 35mm, 645 and 67 (an 800mm ED 67 lens was not produced to make money).

When Hoya acquired the company, something was lost. Ricoh appears to value and assume the legacy of Pentax as a unique brand, let's hope their outstanding products and devotion to the image continue.

Tom
12-17-2015, 06:52 PM   #12
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Hark,

Thank you for an insightful and quality review of the Pentax 645 system.

The quality of your images speak for themselves.

Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge and experience with Pentax Forum users - it is this sort of information sharing that makes this Forum such a useful and unique place.

Ross
12-17-2015, 08:06 PM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by harklee Quote
One way to address this issue is to go with non-bayer, Foveon-type sensor. This will increase the
resolution by a factor of about 1.5 at the same level of diffraction.
Could the Pixel Shift system seen in the K-3ii provide a similar benefit (used to fill in complete color information for each pixel rather than to increase the resolution even further)? Since your style of shooting already requires multiple exposures and a tripod anyway...
12-17-2015, 08:33 PM   #14
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A wonderful read and as I scrolled down to the images, I was simply blown away by them.


I really liked how everything is presented in a tempered and considered way and not those bravado "my kit is best" "gushing kid with a new toy" type user impressions that is all so common nowadays.
12-17-2015, 09:11 PM   #15
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The Highland

The Highlands is far and away my favorite though all are stunning works of art. Thank you for sharing these photographs and your thoughts on the system you used.
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