Thursday, April 12, 2012

Looking at the Pentax 645N

Pentax 645N with 75mm f2.8 LS lens photographed with Olympus E5 and 35mm f3.5 macro
I remember looking at medium format digital cameras with lust in my eyes and wishing I had a spare $20,000 in my pocket.  I had even used the much esteemed Leica S2 for a day and found myself more excited than my daughter with a new Justin Beiber CD.  Gear lust is in us all even when we (and our bank accounts) wish it would just go away.

Given that I simply don't have the money for a medium format digital system (even though I've tried to convince myself it made business sense) I started looking at film systems as an alternative.  I have been scanning my 35mm film negatives for a while now and the workflow is fairly straight forward.  Given my usual attitude that film scans look good in their nearly natural state, the post production work is actually less time consuming than from my digital work.

After looking at several camera options for medium format film I settled on a Pentax 645N as my object of desire.  Mainly at the time because it was more affordable than Hasselblad options and the lenses had a reputation of being very sharp.  Plus, should I ever be able to justify a digital camera, the Pentax 645D was a good and 'affordable' choice that my lenses could continue to work on.

Given my style of photography (using off camera lights) I knew I wanted a sync speed above the x-sync native to the camera (1/60th) so I chose the 75mm f2.8LS lens as my first (and so far only) lens.

The 75mm lens (equivalent to 50mm on 35mm) allows me to use the sync port on the lens barrel to achieve sync speeds up to 1/500th of a second.  When you dial the shutter speed on the lens itself it overrides the shutter in the camera and uses the one in the lens.  This all happens automatically.

The sync port on the lens as well as the shutter speed dial (set here to 1/500th of a second)
The camera itself is very intuitive to use.  If you've ever handled a modern DSLR it will come very easily to you.  On the top of the camera you have a shutter speed dial, exposure compensation dial, metering mode selection, a switch (you can just barely see it on the top of the back of the camera in the image below) to select autofocus area and single or servo focus modes.  

The viewfinder is shockingly bright and large if you are used to those found in a DSLR.  While there are only centre point autofocus areas, the viewfinder allows for very easy manual focus even if your eyes aren't the greatest.  There is a focus confirmation beep and/or light when you are manually focusing.  If you choose certain Pentax lenses (not mine) you can have autofocus with the 645N.  Just make sure it is one of the Pentax 'FA' lenses for 645 if autofocus is important to you.

If the sync port on the lens and lens shutter allowing you to sync at high speeds is important to you, there are only two choices available.  The 75mm LS lens like I have and the 135mm LS lens which I don't have but am actively looking for.

Available for the camera are both 120 and 220 film backs both of which I have.  The advantage of having the 220 which is less common is that you get more shots per roll than with the 120 (33 versus 16).  I have preloaded the 220 and had it ready to swap out for my 120 when using the camera and that worked well.  The film back can be bought with a storage box to make that easier.

As far as film goes, this camera is easier to load film on than the 35mm is for my Olympus OM.  After one or two tries you'll be a pro at it.  I found a YouTube video that was very good here for a quick guide.  It's in Japanese, but if you don't speak the language it still works as a demo.

To use the camera, everything is very straightforward.  Just make sure you dial in the ISO of the film you are using and the camera will meter for you very accurately, or use a light meter if you prefer. The aperture gets inputted on the lens ring which I like a lot and the shutter speed is on a big dial on top of the camera or on the lens if you have an LS lens and wish to use the lens shutter. Otherwise just leave it on 'O'.

The camera itself feels much like a full-sized DSLR in your hands.  The shutter button falls naturally to your finger and there is a dial there to select timer or multi-shot modes.  The little LCD monitor on the top counts your frames and displays your ISO.  You can also select whether the camera beeps at you audibly or not with focus and turn the camera on and off here.  The batteries are in the hand grip and it takes 6 double A batteries to power the camera.  I use rechargeable and find they last maybe 6 rolls or so including time for the camera to sit around in my cupboard.

Once you complete your film roll, the camera autowinds it for you and you simply switch it out.  I have been just dropping the film off at the lab for develop only process and then bringing it home to scan it.  The cost is about $6 per roll for development and the film itself costs between $4 and $8 per roll to buy.

Using my Epson V600 and included medium format film holder I scan them to tiff files.  The files are huge when scanned.  So huge in fact that Lightroom can't open them, at least on my 3 and half year old iMac.  Photoshop however handles them fairly easily for whatever reason.  That changes my workflow somewhat, but it isn't too bad.  I do some basic contrast and film scratch (sometimes) cleanup and export to a jpg.

Illford Delta 100 film
The first thing you notice is the extreme detail of the image once you scan it.  If you've nailed focus and zoom in on the scan file you'll see incredible things that you don't see with most digital files including my 5DmkII at 21 megapixels.  The other thing you notice, and will have to get used to is the rapid falloff to out of focus areas even shot at smaller apertures.  It's a bit like getting used to a full frame 35mm sensor when moving from a crop sensor.  This can be good or bad, as sometimes you fight for enough depth of field and other times you fall in love with the magic of sharp focus surrounded by blurry goodness.

The latitude you get on the highlights with film is also a real treat.  Being able to pull back detail out of over exposed images is very nice, and isn't possible with my digital cameras.

Fuji Reala 120 film
I had to fight with myself a little at first as the feel of film captures me so hard that I tended to romanticize it and would fail to do even basic edits on the images.  Now I've learned to play with the contrast and perfect the scans to my tastes.  I've gotten past the initial magic.

I've also gone out and bought all the equipment and chemicals I need to develop the black and white film at home.  The process is simple, but I haven't done it once yet.  Mostly I think because at $6 per roll for developing at the lab it hasn't been worth the effort.  I suspect that once I start doing it though I won't go back.

For me this whole journey into medium format film has been both challenging and peaceful.  That may seem like a contradiction, but it's true none-the-less.  Wrapping my head around a different post production workflow was somewhat hard, but the biggest challenge and also the greatest pleasure has come from slowing down while actually shooting.  

Having only 16 shots on a roll, manually focusing and taking time to compose images carefully has really been a chore and a joy.  Not instantly knowing if you nailed the shot has been both exciting and nerve wracking.  

Nailing a great result, even from just one image on a roll, is exhilarating.  

There are certainly benefits to using medium format cameras, film or digital.  The detail and quality of the images is extraordinary.  The falloff of focus can be super amazing as well and the quality of a larger 'sensor' can't be denied.  With cameras like the new Nikon D800 out now, you might wonder if it is even worth it.  I'd ask you that if they crammed 36 megapixels on a four thirds sensor would you give up your full frame 35mm?  You just can't escape the sensor (or film) size.

The Pentax 645N isn't going to replace my digital work.  It isn't even going to be used as much more than a fun diversion.  I'd love to bring it in on the occasional paid portrait session at some point, but I admit it is more of a personal pleasure than a practical need.

And photography doesn't always have to make sense.  Sometimes it is just about finding tools and methods that bring joy to you and help you create the art you see in your head.  Medium format has helped me find that joy and creativity that at the time I felt I was missing from my digital small sensor work.  It has slowed me down, made me focus and helped to reconnect me with the craft.

Is it for everyone?  Well I'm not sure.  Don't let the intimidation factor of using a large film camera stop you though.  The Pentax, and cameras like it are fairly easy to use.  The price shouldn't deter you either.  The camera I have can be found for between $150 and $350 used and lenses are a bargain compared to what we are used to spending on even average quality digital ones on the market today.  Given that you aren't likely to be shooting hundreds of images the film and development costs aren't huge either.

What you really need to ask yourself is if shooting medium format film will be satisfying to your creative side.  It isn't really in the end about gear lust.  It's about finding the right paint brush.  For me, when I'm in the mood, the Pentax 645N is exactly the right brush.


Trevorb said...

Really enjoyable read. Something about old gear just makes me want to shoot more. I am hoping to purchase this camera this year or next. Thanks again!

Neil Gaudet said...

Thanks for the comment and dropping by the blog Trevorb. I hope you enjoy the Pentax when you get it. I have really enjoyed it as part of my collection. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts once you've used it for a while.

Neil Walton Photography said...

Hey Neil where do you get the film for the 645? ANd why the 645N and not the 645Nii?

Love the photos it takes and it is on my wish list as well.


Neil Gaudet said...

Hey Neil

I have bought film for the camera from Lens and Shutter in Victoria as well as in bulk from B&H. I've been told that Beau Photo in Vancouver also sells it. I drop off for develop only at London Drugs.

As for why not the 645N II. Well as far as I know the only difference between the two is that the 645N II added mirror lockup, a feature I didn't need. So I was able to save some money. I could see you needing that though. Both cameras have autofocus with the autofocus lenses.

It's a really nice camera, I think you'd enjoy it. I saw a used one at kerrisdale camera in Victoria last month. Not sure if they still have it and not sure if it was the N II.

Odino said...

nice review
I am choosing a 645 camera and I am attracted by
the pentax but also by the Mamiya 645 pro so
you tell me why you preferred the pentax over the Mamiya?
So for the peace of my mind I will stop surging and surfing
�� many thanks