Shadows and Detail: A love letter to the Pentax 645z

ETHICS STATEMENT: I have not been paid by Ricoh/ Pentax for this post. The camera has been supplied to me on a long-term loan by B&H Photo and will be returned once this is up. I am saving up for one for myself and any purchases of the camera via my B&H links throughout this post help in a small way to get that goal. In fact, all affiliate links on this site cost you nothing but help meet the costs of running this site. For more on my ethics statement please click here. 

COPYRIGHT INFO: ALL RIGHTS RESERVED PHILIP BLOOM

IMGP4291-2
Taken with the Pentax in Vanuatu in the South Pacific whilst shooting CNN’s “The Wonder List”

Can you love a camera? After all it’s just a tool. The answer is: yes of course you can. Not love like “soul mates” everlasting I want to marry you and have your babies type of love, more like a best friend kind of love. This is what I have for the Pentax 645Z, and it’s not even mine!  You could take camera love a bit far and spoon it all night I suppose but that would be a bit weird! 🙂

This is less a review and much more a collection of my thoughts and feelings about this utterly magnificent camera. I am far from an expert on reviewing a camera’s ability to take stills – I will leave that to the pros. My speciality is of course video cameras, moving images, but this camera is too special to me to not do a post on. It’s not a perfect camera (then again what is?) but in my personal experience it’s simply the most incredible camera that I have ever taken photos with.

So don’t expect anything in-depth technical wise with this camera or even its features. I am going to share with you some key wondrous things about it. This post is sharing my amazement and some of my images. For an excellent detailed review check out the Luminous Landscapes one here. 

I can categorically say that I have never enjoyed taking photos more than I have with the Pentax 645z. Using this camera inspires me to take more photos than I would ever normally do. I now even use it when I would normally pull out my iPhone first, thanks to the Eye-Fi card in slot .8 where the JPEGS go, so I can easily transfer to my phone and share these epic 51mp shots on Instagram! 😉

It’s all B&H Photo Video’s fault. I asked if I might be able to try one out, and when they managed to get hold of one on a short loan I instantly fell in love with it and have been asking for an extension of the loan every time it is due back 🙂 It will have to go back at some point. That day will be sad day and one of mourning for me.

Initially I was only going to borrow it for my trip to the Galapagos for filming on the series I am shooting for CNN “The Wonder List”. All the places I am going to are so incredible, it’s been amazing to have been able to hang onto the camera to capture these places in stills with the Pentax, whilst filming this series.

Check out the trailer to the show below.

DSC05642
DSC05631 Picking up the camera from B&H photo back in October

DSC05635
DSC05638

So this is a post about stills not video, even though this camera does shoot video (more on that later). I am an amateur photographer but a professional filmmaker. Although I most definitely am a more prolific photographer than I am a filmmaker…every day I take a lot of photos, dozens really. I don’t make that many films!

What defines me as amateur is of course that it’s purely done as a hobby, I don’t get paid to take photos. I get paid to shoot video, I get paid to direct, to edit, to make films. That’s my profession, and I am lucky as it’s something I adore.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a photographer not a filmmaker! I ended up doing moving images as a career based upon advice from a photographer who said digital was going to change the landscape for professional photographers for the worse and I should look at video instead! So, 27 years after that conversation here I am talking about why this digital medium format stills camera is groundbreaking and produces images that I can’t quite believe when I bring them into Lightroom. Hurray for age of digital!

Of course, stills cameras and video cameras these days share a lot, and true convergence is getting closer and closer. This isn’t that camera at all. What it does have is a number of things which make this truly remarkable and make me want to go into cryogenic suspension until a video camera comes out that performs so astonishingly as this! Right now, I find it really hard to take photos with other cameras, as I know that when I get it right with the Pentax it will be the best photo I can currently take with modern technology and more importantly…it will be beautiful!

There are going to be many images in this post and if you click on them it will enlarge them. Many of these photos are also available for download for strictly personal non commercial use via my flickr page here.

Screenshot 2014-11-25 07.04.06

IMGP1378
Photo taken with the Pentax in the Galapagos
IMGP1740
My lovely cat Noodle
IMGP0589
Iguana in Galapagos

Now, this is not what you would call a cheap camera. At $8500, this is a professional’s camera, or an amateur with lots of money (or lots of credit card debt!) but it is still cheaper, by a long way, than any other medium format camera out there. In fact, to have a medium format digital camera at this price is truly groundbreaking. It was only 18 months ago that I got into medium format film photography properly with various cameras, and one of the ones I bought which I loved was the Pentax 645n, although there are photos of me shooting medium format when I was very little!

I took reels and reels of photos with the film Pentax medium format, until I realised I was spending way too much money and went back to 35mm film which was far more economical (in film terms) even though I loved the quality and look of medium format.

Self Portrait with the film Pentax 645N
Self Portrait with the film Pentax 645N
Early pic of me (on left!) shooting medium format stills.
Early pic of me (on left!) shooting medium format stills.
Photo taken with the film Pentax 645N
Photo taken with the film Pentax 645N
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right
Pentax 645z on left and the film 645n on the right

So let’s start with the key reason that makes this camera so groundbreaking. That is the sensor. It’s a big sensor.  1.7x bigger than a full frame sensor. 4x bigger than APS-C.

What does that mean in practice? Well it is of course capable of a shallower depth of field if that’s what you want. You won’t get those crazy fast speeds of 35mm lenses. Pentax lenses don’t have anything faster than F2.8, although on medium format this will give you a much more shallow depth of field than you would than F2.8 on 35mm full frame. In practice it’s fast enough!

maxresdefault

51.4 Megapixels is a lot of megapixels. More isn’t always better, as low light performance can suffer if too many pixels are squeezed into a small sensor. With this being medium format and that much bigger than 35mm sensors, it can take more pixels without suffering too much with low light performance. More on the low light later.

This is a Sony CMOS sensor and has been taken up by other competing medium format digital cameras, much more expensive ones. I have never used these, so I can only talk from my experience and a little bit from what I have read. The Mamiya, Hasselblad, Phase One and Leica medium format digital CMOS cameras are all massively more expensive than the Pentax, making them exclusively for serious professionals with lots of dosh! A colleague who has used some of these and the Pentax said the price difference is absolutely not reflected in performance and the Pentax is better in many ways than they are. Now these are not my words, so all I can go on is what this camera is capable of. There is little chance of me using any of those other cameras, as at prices of $25k+ they really are not something I would ever use.

sensor1-Pentax-645Z

 

Picture courtesy of Bill Weir
Picture courtesy of Bill Weir

DSC05640

PB_BH_Banner_02

What I wanted from this camera is to be able to use this camera like a DSLR, and that is exactly how I have been using it.

Before this CMOS sensor came along, we were talking max ISO of around 400 max, and with cameras which have heavy mirrors like this you also need faster shutter speeds than smaller sensor cameras. With mirrorless cameras like my Leica M240, I can take photos at shutter speeds of around 1/6th of a second. Here I try not to go below 1/100th of a second when handheld. That eats up light of course, so I do sometimes go slower with the shutter. As long as my subject isn’t moving and I am dead still, I get cracking results. Of course a tripod helps enormously but I have really just been using mine for long exposures, which have been a huge amount of fun with this camera!

Here are 3 I did in the Lake District when Lake Windermere was incredibly calm one evening.

IMGP3451

IMGP3462

IMGP3466

Most of the photos here are taken with the lens I was given with the camera, the  Pentax 55mm f/2.8. The 55mm is equivalent field of view to about 43mm on a full-frame camera. It’s a great lens and the autofocus works well. This is important, as focus is so critical to nailing that detail for incredible cropability. Not that you want to crop all the time, but if you are shooting with a prime you don’t have much choice! I do actually have quite a few other lenses.

I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my photos, and quite often when on the road use my Macbook Air which doesn’t have a retina screen. Only when I zoom in do I see the clarity of the photos taken. When using a my retina Macbook Pro or when at home like I am now, my LG 34″ 21:9 screen, do I see the incredible detail this camera can pick up. It was this that I first wanted to see.

You can save the files in the Pentax raw format or what I use, DNG. They are roughly around 60mb a still. These are beautiful 14 bit raw files of a massive resolution of 8256×6192, so the size isn’t surprising. I use fast transcend cards from my A7s, and it performs pretty well. If you want to take rapid photos, you can take about 3 a second. Still impressive for a medium format.

Before this camera came along, my favourite stills camera was the Sony A7r with its 36 megapixel sensor. The reason I prefer it over, say, my A7s which is way superior for video, is that ability to crop. The A7s has around a 12mp sensor, so really any composition changes need to be done optically as much as possible, but with the A7r if you nail the focus you can crop a hell of a lot.

I still love the A7r and do us it for stills a lot, but when compared next to the big and beautiful 645z, it suffers. That’s saying something as the A7r stills are incredible.

Both of these cameras have no anti aliasing filter, so you get exceptional detail. At times I have noticed a little moire in images, this is not surprising at all, as we can see moire with our own eyes. Just take a net curtain and fold it over.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

There is a big difference in the size, though, of these two cameras and that shouldn’t be forgotten. I can be a lot more stealth like with the A7s (even though it has a shutter almost as loud as the Pentax!) as it’s small. The Pentax is not small. You won’t be able to take sneaky photos as much. It’s heavy. It’s not an everyday walk around with you camera like the Sony is. Although that is exactly what I do.

My man bag is pretty packed these days, carrying this and a couple of extra lenses with me. I love the Pentax 35mm F3.5 as it gives me lovely wides, and the 75mm is a nice almost portrait lens and quite compact. My favourite, though, is still the 55mm, but currently I am without it, my only autofocus Pentax lens. On my last shoot for “The Wonder List” in Venice and Chamonix I was all manual focus and I missed the focus quite a lot. I ended up using live view quite a lot and punching in. I think there is an argument for me putting on a Zacuto Z-Finder and shooting a lot like this, although it’s a damn sight slower in live view mode.

IMG_4348 copy

The reason I am currently without the 55mm is it got damaged whilst filming in India. Next time I run around outside an Indian airport, I am going to pay more attention! When I hit the ground I was lucky really, I hurt my back and ankle but I had both my A7s and the Pentax round my next at the time. The Sony was unharmed thankfully. The bottom of the Pentax got scraped a bit around the edge, but the lens took the brunt. It actually kept working for another month before finally dying. It’s now in for repair and is costing a whopping £550! I do miss it!!

 

Screenshot 2014-11-25 07.04.06

DSC05649
Eric Kessler with the Pentax…the wide angle of the camera taking this photo obviously exaggerating the size of the Pentax 645z…but it’s not a small camera for sure!

IMG_4494

Here are some examples of cropping for you. Click on the image to see it full size (or save as) all for personal use only please! Some of these are on flickr with less compression. 

IMGP6166

IMGP6166-2

IMGP6166-3

IMGP6166-4

IMGP5808

IMGP5808-2

 

IMGP2455

IMGP2455-2

IMGP0392
IMGP0392-2

IMGP0524

IMGP0524-2
IMGP0524-3

IMGP1226

IMGP1226-2

IMGP1226-3

IMGP1249

IMGP1249-2
IMGP1249-3

IMGP3844

IMGP3844-2

IMGP0607 IMGP0607-2

IMGP5558

IMGP5558-2

IMGP2156

IMGP2156-2
IMGP4291

IMGP4291-2

IMGP4291-3

A great way of showing this crop is actually via a video clip….Now before I talk about that, there is an HD mode for recording video on the camera. It’s “OK”. Due to the huge megapixel count and the fact that HD only needs 2mp, there are a lot of image issues which stop me from using this mode. What this camera really needs is a 4k mode. The camera sensor megapixels are slightly higher than 8K, but if you took 16×9 sampling of 8k and down sampled to 4k the results could be astonishing. It doesn’t though and it’s a very average HD. Oh well, maybe the next model will have that. I told you it wasn’t perfect! 🙂

So there is no example of the video mode from me. There are some clips online if you do a search. Yes, it’s a let down but made up substantially by the stills mode!

You can get amazing video from it…well timelapse videos. The camera has a built-in intervalometer which lets you set lots of different parameters and can take up to 2000 frames. Now it does seem a bit of overkill using this lovely camera for timelapse, but the crop ability is again incredibly useful.

Whilst on my way back from Vanuatu for “The Wonder List” I stayed in the Shangri-La hotel as it has one of the best view of Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. I did a lot of timelapse whilst there with many cameras, and a lot of the time the Pentax was going too. I hadn’t used the interval mode until this moment and the results, despite going through slightly dirty hotel glass, were pretty impressive.

DSC05348

By using an HD timeline in Premiere, I took the rendered 8256×6192 prores video file built from the raw photos (which are a whopping 60mp each!) in After Effects and was able to go from about 18% scaled down to see the whole image (with borders left and right as the image is not 16×9) to well past 1:1 100% as the image was so sharp and detailed. The flexibility this gives you for timelapse in post is huge. Be careful though, as it will eat up your shutter actualities! 🙂

pb_670x67

8256 x 6192: Sydney Harbour timelapse with the Pentax 645z from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.

Despite the fact that you cannot actually watch a native resolution timelapse, I have uploaded one I did whilst in Chamonix in France. It’s on Vimeo, converted to HD of course there, but plus and pro members can download the prores LT 8256×6192 original version! Have fun with that 🙂 It is of course for personal use only, like the photos here.

8K timelapse from Chamonix with the Pentax 645z from Philip Bloom extras on Vimeo.

 

600x315_second_shooter

Screenshot 2014-11-25 07.04.06

So far I have really only been waxing lyrical about the resolution, but there is much to it than that. The way depth of field is rendered is just wonderful. The fall off from focused to out of focus is so organic. Very shallow depth of field shots in 35mm can have a very harsh fall off. Also, because of the much larger sensor, you are able to get this lovely look on shots at close distance that you just couldn’t with a smaller format.

Here are some examples of this lovely medium format organic depth of field gorgeousness!

IMGP6490

IMGP5982

IMGP5501

IMGP5413

IMGP3719

IMGP3407

IMGP2398

IMGP2401

IMGP2404

IMGP5401

IMGP5263

IMGP5251

IMGP5218

IMGP4538

IMGP4511

IMGP4329

IMGP3532

IMGP3485

IMGP1914

IMGP1910

IMGP1908

IMGP1717

IMGP1605

IMGP1599

IMGP1594

IMGP1882

IMGP1361

IMGP1176

IMGP0010

IMGP1159

IMGP0524

IMGP0245

Low light performance actually isn’t that bad. Although some reviews have stated using really high ISOs and getting good results, I personally don’t like going over 3200 really, but here is a photo of Vincent LaForet I took at 6400 ISO and it’s pretty good but Vince looks good at any ISO! 😉

For anyone who has used medium format to be able to shoot in available light out of a studio, like a DSLR, this is groundbreaking.

IMGP0255

 

There is so much inside the camera, so many features I am simply not touching as this is not a true review. Way too blinded by love for that!  I just want to run up to the top of a mountain (well I did that recently but not exactly running!) and shout out about the key things that make this camera the best stills camera I have ever used and my favourite camera EVER! (wow did I just say that?)

The Insane level of detail

The beautiful rendering of images and fall off of the depth of field

Being able to shoot medium format like a 35mm DSLR in available light is astonishing

and finally this…and this is a biggy…just how much shadow information it holds is terrifying!!

Below are two screen grabs from Lightroom 5. The first showing a hopelessly underexposed image. This would be junk for every other camera I know. I thought it was too…then I pulled up the exposure to almost 5 stops more and brought the shadows up 100% and my mind was blown. The photo was there and it was clean! No noise. This I have never seen before and this for me is the single greatest feature of this camera. How it holds information in the shadows is voodoo!!!

Screenshot 2014-12-10 10.14.01Screenshot 2014-12-10 10.13.50

IMGP5471

IMGP5471-2

You can download this DNG and one other to show you what I mean. Said it before and saying it again…please personal use only! 🙂

Screenshot 2014-12-23 22.16.18

It holds highlight information well too, but when you compare it to the shadows, clearly that is where this sensor and the implementation by Pentax in this camera of it is where it sings. Knowing this, I tend to hold my highlights knowing my shadow information is there. This is pretty common normally, with raw stills anyway, to hold the highlights and underexpose by a stop or so, but this photo is more than 5 stops underexposed!

Here are some more photos I took where I brought up the shadows to reveal the image!

IMGP5626-3

IMGP5626-2

IMGP5626
IMGP1670-2

IMGP1670

IMGP0550-2

IMGP0550
Highlights are held well too!!

IMGP1700

IMGP1700-2
IMGP2640

IMGP2640-2

It’s not perfect, it’s not light, it’s not small and it’s not cheap (but compared to the medium format competition it is) but it’s the greatest stills camera on the market for the money, easily (in my opinion!). It’s not for everyone of course, and it’s also overkill for many too. For me though, there is no greater image capture device out there. I want to photograph everything I see with this camera as this captures images so beautifully they truly are a moment in time frozen for ever.

The huge raw files take processing and time, I still have many to do, as I have taken so many in the past few two months, but it’s a pleasure bringing out the details that you can’t always see.

It’s just a shame it doesn’t shoot the best video too, but that would be too easy wouldn’t it? 🙂

Do check out some of these photos in all their glory on my FLICKR page and if you are looking at buying one, I am jealous. The one that has been by my side goes back in two months…yes, I am saving now to buy my own. If you buy through my B&H affiliate below, it helps me a little as I get a small percentage at no cost to you. Every little helps until I have enough to own one of these once the loaner goes back. Although it has to be said, this one I have is the camera I fell in love with, it’s been to 5 continents with me and seen things that are beyond spectacular. It will be very hard to part with her…god I hate break ups!

Screenshot 2014-11-25 07.04.06

Thank you for putting up with this utterly superficial look at the Pentax 645z. I hope you enjoy my images (below are a few more) and have a lovely Christmas or whatever it is you celebrate or don’t celebrate at this time of year…I will be photographing my gorgeous nephew and niece over Christmas…take a guess with which camera! 🙂

IMGP2843

IMGP4291IMGP4425

IMGP4468


IMGP4507

IMGP4534

IMGP4473

IMGP4779
IMGP5423

IMGP2280

IMGP2571

You may also like