Review of the Pentax 645Z and Digital Medium Format Photography

Eric kim selfie. Pentax 645z

Selfie in mirror with Pentax 645Z

Eric kim selfie. Pentax 645z
Selfie in mirror with Pentax 645Z

I shot with the Pentax 645Z and Pentax 55mm f2.8 lens for a month, and here are my thoughts on digital medium format: yes, it is worth the hype.

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Suede Brooks fashion shoot. Pentax 645z

First of all, whoever says that you can’t tell a difference between digital medium format and other cameras is lying to you (or blind). I personally cannot tell a huge difference between crop sensor and full frame digital cameras, but for digital medium format — it is a completely different beast.

eric kim medium format pentax 645z4 fashion
Suede Brooks fashion shoot. Pentax 645z

First of all, when you shoot with a flash, the skin tones are phenomenal. It looks hyper-real, not in terms of the sharpness, but the softness and suppleness of the skin.

Downtown LA, 2016 #pentax645z

Also, I see an interesting three-dimensional (3D) effect with digital medium format which I cannot replicate with any other sensor. The people just seem to pop out of the frame, and it makes people look more real.

street portrait eric kim medium format pentax 645z2 purple
ELEVATOR STREET PORTRAIT with Pentax 645z

Also, you see more detail. Like in this street portrait I shot of this woman, you can see all the text in the newspaper, you can see the detail in her jewelry, which makes the picture more interesting to look at:

Street portrait. Downtown LA, 2016
Street portrait. Downtown LA, 2016

Massive optical viewfinder

Shirt by window. Pentax 645z
Shirt by window. Pentax 645z

One thing I didn’t expect to enjoy so much— the massive optical viewfinder.

I have been shooting mostly with RICOH GR II and the lcd screen, which I enjoy for street photography. I don’t think an optical viewfinder is “better” than an lcd screen — just different.

Shooting with an optical viewfinder that massive in the Pentax 645Z blew me away. The optical viewfinder is so massive, that it actually looks and feels like you’re looking at reality.

For example, when I use a small DSLR, I hate how the optical viewfinder makes everything look smaller than it actually is. But with the massive optical viewfinder of the Pentax 645Z, everything looks “as big as it really is in real life”. That is why the Pentax 645Z is so big— not for the sensor, but for the boxing or casing to hold the single mirror lens reflex (SLR) mechanism.

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

Now, the benefit of using a massive optical viewfinder: you get lost inside it. You get lost inside the photo shooting process. You get more “in the zone”. Once you raise your viewfinder to your eye, the outside world goes quiet. No more distractions. Only you exist, and what you’re looking at through the viewfinder. It’s as if reality slows down.

Woman in airplane. Sunset over NYC. Pentax 645Z
Woman in airplane. Sunset over NYC. Pentax 645Z

Weight and size

Mad men. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

To be frank, I recommend most photographers NOT to shoot with such a big and heavy camera. Why? It is big and heavy, and will discourage you from carrying it around, and taking pictures. To be honest, most photographers I know already have an issue of not shooting enough. And the general maxim, which holds true is:

The bigger, heavier, and bulkier your camera is — the less often you will carry it with you, thus taking fewer pictures.

I think true happiness in photography is the joy of shooting new, and more exciting pictures. Anything that prevents you from shooting new pictures is bad. Therefore, if you have a problem carrying around a heavy and big camera, don’t buy anything bigger than a RICOH GR II or small mirrorless camera. Or just use your phone.

Red nails woman holding phone.
Woman with red nails. Nyc, 2017

But, because I’m a masochist and was curious about the experience of shooting digital medium format, I just carried it with me everyday, wherever I went. I generally clutched it under my left armpit, like holding a football (or a small child). This was much easier than holding it around my neck (I would get neck and shoulder pain). And much easier than holding it in my hands all day (which caused wrist pain).

Family in front of H&M. NYC, 2017
Family in front of H&M. NYC, 2017

Colors and textures

I shot the Pentax 645Z on small JPEG, with the color film simulation JPEG mode. Why? RAW files too big which means too much time to load on the computer, and slows me down. And I preferred the look of the “out of camera” JPEG images, compared to when I processed them in RAW.

Cadillac logo on blue car. NYC, 2017
Cadillac logo.

To start, the colors are truly phenomenal. I can honestly say, after seeing digital medium format colors and textures, I don’t really personally see a reason for me to prefer color film — if my desire is to get aesthetically pleasing colors (for myself).

I’ve always been dissatisfied with the way color pictures rendered in digital. Color digital pictures, on crop sensor cameras I’ve used, and full frame digital cameras I’ve used— never looked “good enough” to me. For me, digital medium format color looks “good enough” for myself— even just the JPEG images.

Pink texture in wall. NYC, 2017
Pink texture in wall. NYC, 2017

I don’t like to post process color pictures on the computer. To me, it is too much stress and time trying to make the colors look the way I want them to look. With these Pentax 645Z JPEG images, I was very happy with the way they looked… so no need for screwing with them in post processing.

Blue and green urban landscape. NYC, 2017
Blue and green urban landscape. Nyc, Pentax 645z

Therefore my picture-selection process was easy. I used the Pentax 645z LCD screen to review my images, I copied the pictures I liked from SD CARD 1 to SD CARD 2, then I stuck the SD card 2 to my iPad SD card reader to my iPad, then I imported the pictures to my iPad (using the default Apple “Photos” app). Then from the iPad, directly uploading to Dropbox, and the “media library” of this blog. If I wanted to adjust the exposure, I’d use the default Apple photos app. I never needed to add contrast or saturation —already looked good. As a side note, I’ve been experimenting with the new Lightroom CC app on iPad, and it’s pretty good —will review that in a future post.

I am not one who likes sunset pictures, but damn— look at this sunset picture I shot from my cousins apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Straight out of camera JPEG picture. If this isn’t good colors or “image quality”— I don’t know what is:

Sunset. Fort Lee, New Jersey 2017
Sunset. Fort Lee, New Jersey 2017

Loudness, size, and stealthiness

Now, the funny thing — a lot of people are afraid of shooting street photography with big and loud cameras. Personally, I had no issues. Why? I’ve discovered — *&it really doesn’t matter what size camera you shoot with, it is all about your own courage and confidence.** I think by shooting street photography with the Pentax 645Z, I was able to prove to myself, “I am a damn confident street photographer.”

Woman with Star of David. NYC subway, 2017
Woman in New York Metro. NYC, 2017

The camera is really loud. It goes CLACK CLACK! Whenever you shoot two pictures.

The camera is also very big, and attracts attention. When you hold it, it does make you look “very pro”— because nowadays, it is common to see small DSLRS on tourists. But the size of the Pentax 645Z attracts attention from EVERYONE — including photographers (I had at least 3 photographers approach me asking if it were a medium format camera), and other people just staring at it like, “Damn, that is a HUGE camera”).

Anyways, you are not gonna be stealth with this camera. The sheer size attracts eyeballs.

But in real life, I didn’t have any issues making pictures. Nobody stopped me because my camera looked “too professional”. Also when shooting street photography, I had no issues of people yelling at me or whatever. Funny enough, I probably had fewer upset people shooting with this camera— to be precise, ZERO people got angry at me shooting street photos of them with the Pentax. I’m not sure whether it is because:

  1. Because the camera is so big and professional looking, people leave me alone (because people respect professionals and leave them alone). Or,
  2. The camera is so big and massive, it makes me look more like a random Asian tourist, therefore people leave me alone. Or,
  3. I’m just a more confident street photographer, and therefore people just leave me alone.

I did all my shooting with the Pentax 55mm f2.8, which is roughly a 35mm “full frame equivalent”. Which means, I got close to my subjects. These pictures were shot around .7-1 meters, or 1 arm length away:

NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

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

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

The secret to being stealth: when you’re shooting pictures, keep shooting. Each of these scenes and people (done candidly without permission), I shot 10-15 pictures of them. After shooting a picture, I kept the viewfinder up to my eye, and kept clicking. And then afterwards, I pretended like I was just shooting something behind them.

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

Dynamic range

Ceiling clouds. New York Public Library. Pentax 645Z

“Dynamic range” is the ability of the camera sensor to capture the gradient between the dark (shadows) of a scene to the bright (highlights) of a scene.

The benefit of a digital medium format sensor: more dynamic range.

For example, if you photograph a person, with the light behind them— can you see the light on their face? Or will their face be totally dark?

I think these two pictures show the power for digital medium format sensors to capture more dynamic range, in challenging lighting situations:

Street portrait. Woman with chain necklace. NYC, 2017
Street portrait. Woman with chain necklace. NYC, 2017
Korean veteran. American flag. NYC.
Korean War veteran. NYC, 2017

Also, I like shooting digital medium format because it is more difficult to “blow out” the white highlights of a scene. I hate the look of “blown highlights”. With digital medium format, you can point your camera at very bright lights, and still capture the detail in the bright or white highlights:

Red petal leaves. Mark and isi Wedding.

Lamp shade. Madison, Wisconsin.

Red and car. Urban landscape. Madison, Wisconsin.

Red, yellow, blue, green.

Eric with espresso. Madison, Wisconsin.

The benefit: I was able to shoot natural light pictures, where the light was a bit harsh… yet, I was still able to make pictures which looked aesthetically pleasing to me. It also meant that I was able to shoot pictures and not sorry about having to fix the pictures in post processing. Often with smaller sensors (APS-C and full-frame) requires me to always pull back the “highlights” slider to recover detail in the highlights. Not necessary for digital medium format, with then Pentax 645Z:

Cindy by water. Madison, Wisconsin.

Cindy eric hand. Madison, Wisconsin

Blue shadow. Madison, Wisconsin.

Blue window and reflection.

Cindy in front of colorful mural. Madison, Wisconsin


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

New York City skyline

Cindy sleeping. NYC, 2017. Pentax 645Z

Conclusion: Is digital medium format worth it?

I think digital medium format, and especially the Pentax 645Z is the best “bang for the buck” system out there.

I think Fujifilm is genius— they bet on avoiding the already-saturated full-frame market, by focusing on smaller sensor (APS-C, like Fujifilm X100-series and XT-series) and the digital medium format (their Fujifilm GFX).

My idea of the future of photography: either buy a digital medium format camera, or just use your phone.

Cindy eric hand. Madison, Wisconsin

Personally, I find the biggest benefit of digital medium format is having to spend less time post-processing your pictures, and more time and effort shooting pictures. I personally prefer the aesthetics of digital medium format color pictures over any other digital sensor. I also personally don’t see myself shooting that much more color film pictures, seeing how awesome digital medium format photography is.

ERICKIM x RICOH GR II x ERICKIMSTRAP
ERICKIM x RICOH GR II x ERICKIMSTRAP

I still have found the “holy grail” of digital black and white photography in the RICOH GR II and ERIC KIM MONOCHROME 1600 preset (shooting in RAW). Also, in terms of a daily shooter, I prefer carrying around my RICOH GR II and ERIC KIM STRAP.

I returned the Pentax 645Z after a month with it, and I really enjoyed the camera, experience, and learning more about digital medium format. I plan on doing more testing and experimentation with digital medium format photography— I see a lot of exciting new futures with it. The new Fujifilm GFX series is exciting, as well as the new compact Hasselblad digital medium format X-D series.

Poetry, painting, music, sculpture, architecture. Library of Congress ceiling

The price for digital medium format is still quite high and out of reach for most folks. The best value digital medium format body is the older Pentax 645D system, which is quite affordable compared to other new digital medium format bodies. But as time goes on, digital medium format will keep getting cheaper and cheaper, and be more accessible — just like the prices of digital slr cameras keep going down, and the price of full frame digital cameras have gone down.

Is digital medium format right for you?

But to be very clear, several things to note about digital medium format photography:

  1. Megapixels are overrated: The average photographer will NOT need that many megapixels. Personally, I prefer having smaller image sizes and files. Less stress of backing up, and uploading pictures. And unfortunately, internet speeds haven’t grown as exponentially fast as file sizes in digital technology. More megapixels, more problems.
  2. Digital medium format won’t “inspire” you to make new pictures. Buying a new digital camera — or whatever camera or system, or format, won’t inspire you to make new pictures, or be more “creative” as a photographer. It will certainly change how your pictures look and perhaps your aesthetic pleasure from looking at your own pictures.
  3. If you’re on a budget, always better to invest your money in experiences, travel, workshops, books, education, learning, seminars, and anything that will motivate you to make new pictures.

Remember, the point of life isn’t to be a good photographer. The point of photography is for you to life a better life.

BE CREATIVE EVERY DAY,
ERIC

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Digital Medium Format Photography

ERIC KIM x FUJIFILM GFX
ERIC KIM x FUJIFILM GFX