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Pentax 645z: Hitting the Bullseye on Which Target?

Get Pentax 645z at B&H Photo.

The Pentax 645z is supposed to ship sometime in June. It is one of a new crop of medium format cameras utilizing the latest Sony CMOS sensor (44 X 33mm). Hasselblad and PhaseOne have cameras with that sensor, but Leica S cannot use it (3:2 aspect ratio for Leica S).

I expect initial demand for the 645z to be high, what with the 645z price a fraction of the Hasselblad and PhaseOne offerings. In this regard the 645z is a screaming deal. Still, a realistic system price with the 35mm and 90mm and 55mm lenses is about $20K with a few extras.

Given Live View made possible by the 645z CMOS sensor (new and welcome functionality for medium format), achieving critical focus (use a good loupe) is all but guaranteed. Image quality in terms of the sensor itself should be gorgeous (and it is/was with the current 40MP 645D CCD sensor). Bullseye on price and sensor quality.

Some key points about the 645z:

  • Image quality from the sensor ought to be outstanding. Whether it really offers more detail than the 40MP CCD sensor in the 645D remains to be proven (e.g., I am hard pressed to show that the CMOS 24MP Leica M240 offers any more detail than the CCD-based 18MP M9).
  • Lens selection of really good lenses is extremely limited if indeed any of them can match Leica S glass. I hope to see whether the new (and expensive) 25mm and 90mm lenses impress, but the vast majority of lenses tested on the 40MP 645D are “good enough” but now they have to deliver to a 51 megapixel sensor, up from 40MP.
  • No EVF, which for my aging eyes is a usability hassle in multiple ways. Optical viewfinders are good for framing and shooting with AF, but are no substitute for a high-res EVF. The EVF in the Sony A7R reminds me of this every time I use it; as a practical matter it solves so many issues, including a leveling overlay.
  • Well implemented mirror lockup, but no electronic first curtain shutter (EFC shutter). Vibration of the shutter can be a killer of image quality, but with a lot of mass, the 645z has quite a bit of safety margin (inertial mass). Still, longer lenses can be problematic, as shown in Blur from the Shutter at 300mm in my review of the Pentax 645D. It’s not realistic to think that focal lengths below 300mm are free of any concern, but the safe zone is unclear, and the new sensor has higher resolution, making it more sensitive to smaller movements. I do not understand what the technical limitation is to implementing an EFC shutter on any/all cameras.
  • It’s a Big Box. A question every potential buyer must ask: do I want to lug a Big Box camera around? Plenty of shooters will do so because of the megapixels and image quality—specific task-focused reasons. But the very size restricts its versatility, including practical ones: try shooting it in some places (“sorry no professional cameras allowed sir”). Compare that to a 36MP Sony A7R: what if we had a 56MP Sony A9 with an EFC shutter a year from now? Do you wand to spend $20K when a system 1/4 the size and weight could be coming in a year or so?

Back to the 'target': given the persistent popularity of DSLRs, the Pentax DSLR approach may well be the right market (ILC DSLR). But with the camera market in a contraction phase, standing out is critical: Pentax is already a distant 4th or 5th, and might garner considerably more attention by delivering a world’s first medium format mirrorless system with state of the art lenses optimized for that sensor. Call it a Sony RX1R with a MF sensor. It would sell like hot cakes IMO, and could be a lot cheaper too. Because while I’d love to have a 645z around (if I could afford one), it would probably trend to disuse simply because of system bulk.

The Big Black Box from Pentax (645z) with one of the smallest lenses

Robin D writes:

I used to love Pentax ( I started with a Spotmatic like many others) and still do but I became fed up with the mundane if well-built lenses they have produced for the past 10 years. Your previous reviews of the 645 and the K3 demonstrate that disappointing legacy with the proviso that there is so much to love about what they do and the image quality they produce. But seriously given how good the Ricoh GR lens is why does Pentax persist in producing second rate glass?

One hopes that Ricoh can make a difference, because despite the mediocrity of many of their lenses the 645 does, in my opinion bury the D800e for image quality, so one would expect the 50 MPX sensor to extend that advantage. And as you perhaps imply a move up market might be the right course for them.

You raise a very interesting concept of a MF mirrorless camera, and given the size of the A7 triplets there is no logical reason that such a camera is any bigger than a current DX sized DSLR. You often comment on the attraction of denser pixel packing on a full frame sensor. I have to admit I am not in favour of it on DSLR cameras. For any sort of action it’s a waste of time and for portraiture there are heaps of issues IMO around persistently accurate focusing. For Landscape, yes, there are advantages but when one gets to MFT type density there limitations in Dynamic Range and noise. The D800 has the best DR I have come across and I wouldn’t want to see that eroded.

But a MF sized sensor in slightly larger OMD type body using the same pixel pitch as the D800. My mouth is watering.

DIGLLOYD: I have not tested the new Pentax 25mm and 90mm lenses. They might well be excellent, given the pricing.

Sensor technology keeps getting better; I'm not suggesting compromising dynamic range down (I’d like to see it hit 15 bits though few lenses could even do that). The appropriate camera for the wrong job is always needed, e.g., for action use a camera with high frame rates and lower pixel counts and/or a camera that offers 3/4 or 1/2 half-res sRAW with even better quality from the well implemented downsampling. As for focusing, that’s just a failure by the industry to to eliminate phase-detect autofocus, which has reached the end of its useful life with high-res digital and fast lenses. Contrast-detect AF is the end game, and getting there fast. Even without advances in precision (the real issue for CDAF), you don’t lose quality by having the same mis-focused image on more pixels; you just get the same image on more pixels, which can be downsampled for better results, all other things being equal.

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