Mad men. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

I recently shot a friend’s wedding on a digital medium-format Pentax 645Z, and wondered– what would it like to be to shoot street photography with it?

The viewfinder rocks.

Cindy in my friend Alexander's home. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Cindy in my friend Alexander’s home. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

First of all, the reason why I love the Pentax 645Z is the viewfinder. The viewfinder is the most massive optical viewfinder I have ever used– which simulates seeing the world at almost a 1:1 ratio, just like my human eye. What this means in a practical sense: when I bring up the camera to my eye, I continue to see the world like I did before I brought the camera up to my eye.

The irony of shooting with a massive digital medium-format camera is this:

There is less obstruction between me and reality.

In other words, the reason why the Pentax 645Z is so big, is because it allows for the ‘Lens Reflex’ mechanism to help you see the world through the massive viewfinder. Therefore, I feel more connected while shooting and taking pictures.

The most beautifully-sculpted camera, ever.

NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

The Pentax 645Z is big, heavy, yet well-balanced. Personally, I was able to walk around with it all day, shooting the streets of NYC with little fatigue. Why? I generally held it in my hands, which was a lot less tiring than hanging it around my neck all day.

And the thing is– by constantly holding the camera in my hand all day, I saw more opportunities. Technically speaking, I kept the camera in ‘P’ (program) mode, at ISO 1600, and center-point autofocus. Whenever I saw a good moment, I just brought up the camera, and shot.

The lens I shot with was a Pentax 55m f/2.8 lens, which is roughly a 35mm ‘full-frame’ equivalent.

Small JPEG

Suits. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Suits. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

I shot all the pictures in small JPEG which is around 5,300 pixels by 4000 pixels — more than enough for me. And the reason why I shot JPEG– I set the JPEG setting to ‘reversal film simulation’ — and I like the look. I also prefer shooting smaller JPEG for the smaller file sizes, and also less time for the pictures to load when selecting (editing) them.

I loved the look of the picture on the Pentax 645Z. The color rendition is smooth as milk and honey — and for almost all the pictures, they were straight-out-of-camera JPEG. I even tried applying presets, but hated what the presets did. I preferred the epic dynamic range of the pictures, which reminded the smooth rendition of color 35mm film. To me, the biggest benefit of the camera is this:

I can just shoot JPEG images, and barely post-process the pictures. Just a little of exposure-compensation afterwards. Most of the time, I don’t even need to do that. Which means, less time post-processing, and more time shooting.

Easier workflow

Man cleaning display. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Man cleaning display. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

One thing I loved about shooting 35mm film was the ability to just shoot, get them developed and scanned by a lab, and just using the JPEG scans I got — without having to post-process the pictures.

For the RICOH GR II, I really like the ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset I made (for RAW images), to make a nice-looking gritty black and white image. Yet– I still haven’t been able to make digital color pictures I really like. Digital medium-format has been able to give me the color-pictures that I like looking at.

“Don’t mind me, I’m just a tourist taking pictures.”

Two women having a conversation. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Two women having a conversation. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

In terms of shooting the Pentax 645Z on the streets, most people ignored me. Because it is such a big camera, I think people just assume I’m another tourist. I generally did was this when shooting– get close, and just start clicking, and when someone made eye contact, I just kept shooting, and didn’t drop the camera. I would then pretend like I was shooting something behind them.

Other instances, when I wanted to shoot a ‘street portrait‘, I just started to chat them up, and ask for permission to make a portrait of them. Nobody responded any differently with me shooting with a massive camera, than with a small camera.

Which made me realize this:

It doesn’t matter how big or small your camera is– what matters most is your confidence while shooting street photography.

In other words, I always thought that I could overcome my fear of shooting street photography by getting a smaller, more discreet camera. In reality, no matter how small or low-key my camera was, my inner-fear of shooting street photography always held me back.

Man with glasses crossing the street. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Man with glasses crossing the street. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

Therefore, buying a new camera won’t make you a more confident street photographer, or a better street photographer. However, buying a different camera for street photography will make your pictures look different, and will change how you shoot a bit differently.

Suit in the bathroom washing his hands at whole foods. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Suit in the bathroom washing his hands at whole foods. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

For example, on the Pentax 645Z in street photography, I didn’t use a flash. I usually shoot almost exclusively with a flash on the streets with the Ricoh GR II, but didn’t with the Pentax. Why not? Because– setting up the flash settings on the Pentax 645Z is a bit slower than the simple pop-up flash on the RICOH GR II. And also, I found I actually prefer the smooth look of non-flash pictures on digital medium-format. I practiced shooting flash with the Pentax 645Z, and actually found the images to be too harsh and too sharp for my personal liking.

Pentax-Ricoh is where it is at.

Woman laughing. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Woman laughing. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

I’ve shot with the Fujifilm GFX 50S in Bangkok, and liked it a lot. Yet, the autofocus was quite slow, and I generally don’t trust first-generation products. The Pentax 645Z is the successor of the older Pentax 645D — which means, the ‘Z’ edition has probably refined the camera enough, to make the camera more stable, and robust.

Also strangely enough, I forgot how much I missed shooting with a ‘through the lens’ optical viewfinder (like a DSLR). I like how I can see the edges very clearly– which helps me frame more precisely. Also, shooting with an LCD screen now feels too laggy — I prefer the ‘real time feedback’ of the optical viewfinder.

Try it out for yourself

Skyscrapers. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Skyscrapers. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

Now, the million dollar question is, ‘Should I buy a digital medium-format camera for street photography?’

Personally, I really like digital medium-format for street photography. Having a heavier camera makes you hustle and work harder on the streets, and makes your shooting more intentional. Also, if you shoot color, the color rendition of digital medium-format is far superior to any other sensor– because of the additional subtleties of the dynamic range, the smoothness of the images, and when you photograph people on medium-format, they just ‘pop’ more, and look more ‘3d’– because of the additional depth-of-field, and the sharpness and detail of the pictures.

Cindy sleeping. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z
Cindy sleeping. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

The best ‘bang for the buck’ digital medium-format camera is the Pentax 645Z ($5500 on Amazon) or BHPHOTO. I recommend the Pentax 55mm f/2.8 lens (I recommend getting it used on Amazon for less than $1000, or brand-new for $1,100 on BHPHOTO).

Another option if you want to experiment, the older Pentax 645D is available used for less than $2600 USD on Amazon.

New York Public Library. Pentax 645Z
New York Public Library. Pentax 645Z

I personally think that digital medium-format is the future of photography. Why? I don’t see digital medium-format superior for the megapixels, but for me — the pictures look more real. Whenever I photograph people on medium-format, they pop more. And as a photographer and artist– I am trying to immortalize my fellow human beings in pictures. And whatever equipment that can help me make that possible, it is worth it to me.

Man with hands in prayer. Wisconsin, 2017. Pentax 645Z.
Man with hands in prayer. Wisconsin, 2017. Pentax 645Z.

Of course, ignore all my advice. This is just what my experience is like. Yours will totally be different.

So if you’re interested in digital medium-format photography, just try it out for yourself. If you don’t like it, you can always return it within 30 days. Personally I really like it, and feel excited again about innovation in photography.


Digital Medium Format Photography

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