Pentax 645N medium format SLR

Seeking the bigger picture

with my Pentax 645N


Medium Format - seeking the bigger picture


We are always in pursuit of the best, and in photography this is achieved by a combination of skill, lens quality and image size.  One of the perennial rules of all photography is ‘get it right, in camera, on the shoot. ‘ Post shoot photoshop work is necessary at times but never replaces the natural image. 35mm systems do a great job but as a photographer we are never satisfied, especially when we know there is something better. Hello medium format. Probably the first thing you notice when you start looking at MF cameras is price. Generally expensive  - usually twice the price of a mid range 35mm. The second is bulk, twice as big. Those are a couple of real negatives to focus on ! Ahh, but the medium format image – once you get your first MF images developed the price and bulk are forgotten. Probably so are most of your 35mm cameras. Medium format is defined by the image size, from 60x45mm to 6ox90mm compared to 35mm at 24x36mm. The more image detail recorded at capture, the greater the print size that can be achieved.  Medium format film images have a certain indefinable quality about them. – a sense of three dimensional depth, more natural and closer to the human eye. Medium Format film is either 120 or 220, the latter simply twice the length. 220 film is very hard to come by these days. The various image dimensions shot with MF cameras produce more or less frames on a given film length, For instance, my Pentax 645 produces 16 frames on a 120 film, whereas the Voigtlander 6x6 Perkeo II produces 12 frames. The Fuji 690 (6x9) prroduces only 8 frames.


Review our Developing black & white film article for some useful tips for processing 120 MF film compared to 35mm film. There are some serious differences.


Focal length lens comparisons, or crop factors between medium format and 35mm can be a little confusing but need to be taken into account when selecting  MF lenses,  especially moving from 35mmm to MF. Rather than delving into the technical and complicated angle of view calculations the simplest way of comparison are the image size differentials between medium format and 35mm. MF 645 lenses have a  0.62% larger image circle  than a 35mm lens with the 645 image being 2.6 times larger than a 35mm image therefore,  a  28mm lens in 35mm format = 45mm in 645 MF format. A ‘standard’ 45mm lens in  35mm format is equivalent to a 75mm 645 MF lens. 6x6, 6x7 and 6x9 have different lens requirements. For instance on a Fuji GW690, producing a 6x9 image, it’s fixed 90mm lens is equivalent to 39mm in 35mm terms. The Voigtlander Perkeo II needs an 80mm lens to produce its 6x6 image. As in the 35mm format the different MF camera bodies capable of lens changes have their own lens mounts designed for their native lenses. Various adapters can be utilised to use a third party lens on a particular body however some lens functions may not be available via an adapter. Research is the key.


My 25 year journey through photography started with 35mm film, moving to early digital then progressing to modern digital, then the rediscovery of film, especially black & white and it is far from over yet. Careful study of early 35mm slides shot with a 1960s Canonet 45mm F1.9 from the 60s and 70s revealed the qualities of superior lenses and attention to composition.  Some of these early slides could be proper photographs, worthy of printing rather than just snaps consigned to the box in the cellar and revealingly, the percentage that are to be prints is not great, pointing the finger at our composition and depth of field skills, not the camera. Being in film and certainly medium format makes you think about your image subject, composition and exposure settings before you press the shutter button. The percentage of ‘keeper’ images rises and those consigned to the bin decreases.  Your photography becomes more about creating an image which has purpose and meaning rather than snapping everything.


When you start to take a serious look at medium format it is soon apparent there are more than a few options and research, research, research is required. Photography is not a cheap business to be in whether you are commercial or a hobbyist. You will always be looking for the best, and the best costs. However this can be moderated by starting from the viewpoint of – what will I be doing with my medium format camera? The definition of quality comes into play here – ‘fit for purpose’. So, what am I doing? I have long admired medium format imagery but have not seriously considered it for my own work as 35mm was, and is mostly good enough, but I have got to the point now where I am just not happy with ‘good enough’. I know there is better and I want to have a shot at creating the best photographs I can. I have taken the decision to step into the bigger pond. As said at the start of this paragraph – lots of research. The brands I have turned up  are – Contax, Mamiya, Pentax, Fuji, Hasselblad, Bronica and Plaubel Makina. These are all film cameras although some manufacturers produce digital versions. Hasselblad and Mamiya (Mamiya-Leaf) do a digital back which allows interchange between film and digital on the same body. For studio professional applications it is the norm but digital medium format has 3 drawbacks – 1) super expensive gear, 2} loses the subtle quality of MF film and 3) the digital files produced per image are huge requiring hi-power computing to open the files, process and archive.


We know these digital options are out there but we are not going to consider them for our step towards capturing the bigger image. Two reasons – we love film and we can’t afford them.  The Contax 645 system is one to be lusted after due to it’s quality and the Zeiss lens options available. Phase One also have a digital back for the Contax 645 if a switch from film is ever contemplated. A lotto win would help with the purchase of a Contax system and bearing in mind that all these systems are from the 2nd, third or even fourth hand market a lower price point on entry may be wise. The Mamiya offerings become interesting as there are several different bodies and a range of excellent Sekor lenses. Going back a few decades the Mamiya 6x6 folder was popular and still is capable of good results. Finding one in sound condition is the challenge with the folding mechanism, bellows and shutter operation potential trouble.  A very low price could make the 6x6 a worthwhile punt.  My thinking is, if you, and I have made the positive decision about medium format then we don’t want to be mucking about with a non shooter. Voigtlander also offered a couple of nice MF folders – the Perkeo and the Bessa II and the same comments as with the Mamiya 6x6 apply. A beautiful , operational condition Perkeo II came into my hands recently and I am enjoying it enormously. Quite quirky and slow to use but get it right and the results are outstanding. If you are tempted by these, and they certainly  take you back to the completely manual days when hand held  light meters were needed, then a few hundreds for a good condition example is enough. Focus could be zone or uncoupled rangefinder on the Perkeo E model – very rare. The Bessa II was blessed with a coupled rangefinder in later iterations.  The Bessa II’s are mostly overpriced unless the example being considered is in pristine condition, and certainly the few which appear for sale fitted with the renowned Apo-Lanthar lens are very definitely over priced. The Bessa II's are reported as having a film flatness problem due to the image size (6x9) which resulted in focus difficulties. Back with the Mamiyas, in later years the RZ67 appeared then the 645, then the 645AFD. Also 3 rangefinders with interchaangeable lenses, Mamiya 6, 7 and 7II. The 645 series is capable of accepting a digital back which makes the system quite versatile. With a 120 film back they run about NZ$2000 which may include a standard lens. The rangefinders are considerably dearer, moving up towards NZ$4000. I took a good look at the Bronica 645 which is a very nice rangefinder camera with a suite of outstanding Zenza Bronica lenses, however the final $ were out of my budget. Similarly the Hasselblad and Plaubel Makina. If you can afford and justify ownership of these  famous  brands, go for it – you will not be disappointed. I liked the Fuji offering, especially the 690 rangefinder. Good price point, solid build and a well reputed 90mm lens, but that is the problem – the 90mm is the only lens.


I had been considering the Pentax 645 system for a while and it continued to bubble away during my overall research. The first 645 is a basic body, no auto focus and basic metering but The Pentax 645N is a huge step up from its forebear -  an SLR auto focus body  with TTL matrix metering able to take 120 or 220 film backs and half a dozen manual and auto focus lenses.  220 film is very hard to find now so we will only be concerned with 120. They are the same film except 220 is twice the roll length. The Pentax 645NII is nearly identical to the N body so the extra $ usually asked don’t represent extra value. Acceptable price point – around NZ$950 for a near new body including 120 film back, lens options – what’s not to like. Another major plus is the batteries used – 6 x AA, available anywhere. The Pentax is not particularly battery hungry. The Pentax 645 mid range manual lenses usually can be acquired for NZ$350-$400 with their auto focus FA cousins about double. If you are used to using manual lenses on 35mm rangefinders then the manual MF ‘A’ lenses will not present any problems, especially as the Pentax 645N has in viewfinder focus confirmation very similar to a Nikon SLR.


Well, the 645N has landed and it’s a beauty to behold. Yes its BIG but this is good as I am taking the bigger picture. The Pentax 645 looks like business – it has purpose and I can’t wait to run the first roll. Immediately obvious is the control setup and layout. Nothing is superfluous, unlike some of today’s digitals – that I should live so long to find out what all those buttons do!


Take a look at my short video highlighting the Pentax 645N features and ease of use.

  1. Camera controls

  2. Lens attachment

  3. Shutter firing

  4. Film loading                                                                                   Page /2