Pentax 645Z Review
The Pentax 645Z is a remarkable camera. Not only has it improved greatly on the acclaimed 645D in terms of image quality and features, but it's managed to do this at a lower launch price ($8499 in the US). This price tag is extremely competitive as shows Ricoh's commitment to the Pentax medium format system. In addition to making the camera more accessible to serious enthusiast photographers, the low price tag also means that the 645Z currently is the most affordable medium format body in the 50-megapixel market segment. As a system, it's not very far removed price-wise from professional full-frame cameras, either.
Pentax/Ricoh engineers have been able to make the 645Z so affordable by having parts commonality with the current Pentax APS-C flagship, the K-3. The two cameras share many key components, including the PRIME III CPU, metering and autofocus systems, LCD screen (plus the new tilting mechanism), and firmware.
In addition to keeping its price low, the parts commonality makes the 645Z unique in other ways, too. For example, it's the first medium format camera to offer video functionality, and photographers used to shooting with smaller formats will feel very much at home with the 645Z's traditional user interface and mode dial. Full weather sealing in the body as well as all digital-era lenses also gives the 645Z an unrivaled degree of versatility while out in the field.
Even a great camera can't be perfect, of course. Below we offer a few criticisms of the 645Z.
The 645Z holds a considerable advantage over smaller formats when it comes to image quality, so if you're upgrading from a full-frame or APS-C system, you will almost certainly be pleased with its files. The 645Z certainly isn't a no-compromise camera, however, even if you're upgrading for something with an inferior sensor. Unless you are accustomed to shooting with medium format cameras, one of the first things you will notice when holding the 645Z is its size. The size of not only the camera but also the lenses will make just about any kit considerably larger and heavier than what smaller formats can offer, and you must be prepared for this. Since it's based on a film-era body design, the 645Z is actually a bit larger physically than it needs to be, even without losing the mirror. While shooting with the 645Z system out of a car or building is still fairly convenient, lugging around more than a lens or two on hikes or longer trips can become very taxing. You will also almost always need to have a (very sturdy) tripod for best results with the 645Z.
To the right: a smaller hypothetical version of the 645Z
without the internal air gap originally designed to house a film holder during the film era
Another point to note is that the 645Z, while better than the 645D in burst mode, is still not what we'd consider a "high-speed" camera for fast-paced action photography. Finally, the medium format Pentax lens selection isn't nearly as diverse as what's out there for the K-mount. Therefore, we find that the 645Z is best-suited for landscape photography, and to a slightly lesser extent, studio photography. Unlike the 645D, we further find the 645Z to be great for nighttime photography. Passionate users may also employ the camera for travel photography and hobby use, and while the 645Z can certainly deliver for these applications, we feel that smaller formats could do a better job on average for the previously-mentioned reasons.
When it comes to professional studio use, the very nature of the 645Z does give it a few drawbacks. These might not be a deal-breaker for some, but we feel that they are worth mentioning. Compared to big players like Hasselblad or Mamiya, the Pentax medium format system struggles a bit when it comes to accessories and compatibility. For example, Capture One does not support the 645Z's files. Current wireless tethering features are extremely limited, and you have to pay extra for the wired Pentax tethering software (Image Transmitter 2), which is expected to start shipping worldwide by the end of 2014. To the best of our knowledge, no third-party tethering solutions are offered. Another issue is the lack of current-generation leaf shutter lenses, which Pentax hasn't produced since the manual focus era. In addition, the selection of modern Pentax medium format lenses is limited (but growing); only 4 lenses have been launched since the film era. As of mid-2014, Pentax 645 film-era autofocus lenses are finally available for purchase via authorized retailers in the US, but their list prices exceed used prices by a very large margin.
With that said, the 645Z pulls ahead of other medium format cameras with its class-leading ISO range, burst framerate, and high-resolution LCD screen, just to name a few. Thus, whether or not this camera is right for you will depend entirely upon your requirements and priorities. Our only other complaints about the 645Z are small things, such as the fact that the firmware still doesn't let you select the primary SD card slot directly, and the fact that the 645Z's JPEG engine and video mode could use some improvement (and feel more like consumer solutions).
The Bottom Line
To be fair, the issues we've found with the 645Z are like a drop in the ocean compared to its strengths, which we're sure you've come to appreciate after reading our review. So, to wrap things up, we'll conclude that the 645Z is the most impressive Pentax DSLR that we've seen to date. It delivers superb image quality and fast overall performance, and it has successfully addressed many of the concerns that we had with the 645D. The level of detail in the 645Z's files combined with low overall noise simply blew us away. The 645Z's tilting LCD is a true blessing both in the studio in the field, and its new live view mode makes precise focusing a breeze. Its updated interface improves functionality, and for the most part, everyday usability as well. This camera comes pretty darn close to being a "slam dunk" for Pentax, and customer demand supports this claim. The 645Z was in very short supply when it first started shipping in July, and supply has only recently caught up with demand.
While evaluating the 645Z, we had the opportunity to sample various lenses, including all of the current Pentax DA/D FA 645 glass. While we won't be talking about any of the lenses in depth, if we had to pick a single lens to pair with the 645Z, it would be the DA 25mm F4. This ultra-wide lens (comparable to the DA 15mm F4 on APS-C) is razor-sharp and thus a perfect fit for landscapes, which are the 645Z's domain. Our next-favorite lens was the D FA 55mm F2.8, simply because of its relatively-compact size, low price, and good image quality. See our lens database for user opinions on other 645 lenses.
Pros and Cons
See below for the Pentax 645Z's strengths and weaknesses.
+Exceptional resolution and low noise
-Heavy and bulky
Who is it for?
Landscape photographers and studio professionals who want the highest possible image quality at a relatively affordable price.
Landscapes, studio portraiture, product photos, macros, stars, low-light tripod photography
Not so hot for:
Action photography, hand-held shooting, travel, anyone concerned with compactness
Our rating categories have been adjusted specifically for this camera as we do not feel that factors such as video performance or autofocus, which are typically a key part of our DSLR ratings, play as important of a role in the 645Z.
Where to Purchase
As of late 2014, the Pentax 645Z is readily available at retailers worldwide. In the US, it is available from B&H Photo, Adorama, and the Pentax Web Store for $8499. Lenses are sold separately. The former two stores offer free overnight shipping within the US.
If you own the Pentax 645Z, tell us what you think in the comments section below, or add a user review to our camera database!
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