Medium Format Digital, Here We Come. Hello Pentax.

Now we've got something to talk about.

In recent years I despaired of the chance that we'd ever have an inexpensive but powerful medium format digital camera that would bring back to we portrait photographers the thing we always crave: the long lens on the big sensor. I don't really care about total resolution but I do crave the equivalent of that big piece of medium format film. Now, after stumbling through the endless permutations of 35mm sensor sized cameras we finally have an entrant into the field that seems to check all the boxes I wanted and a lot more. Introducing the Pentax D645Z. My one complaint? I'd gladly trade ten or twenty million of those Sony pixels for a bigger, fatter sensor. One with more real estate for optical effect.

I won't go through all of the technical specs. Those are all over the web. But I do want to hit on the cool ones, from my point of view: The camera has a big sensor. Nearly 50% bigger than the sensors in the Nikon D800 or the Sony A7r. Yummy. Let's put a 110mm f2.0 lens on the front of this and see just how nice a portrait we can make. And now, all the lesser specs: The camera is advertised as weatherproofed. Yawn. It shoots pretty quicky. Okay. It uses a 51 megapixel CMOS sensor from Sony. Wonderful for those rare times when 16 megapixels are not enough (reminder: buy more hard drives....). ISO goes to a trillion. But rationally, it'll be great to have a medium format camera that produces relatively clean files at 1600-6400 ISO. It takes current and legacy Pentax 645 lenses. Cheap ones as well as expensive ones.

Will we all rush out to buy one?

I'm pretty sure a lot of people will. Especially professionals who are desperate to introduce some sort of differentiating value proposition for using them (with said camera) instead of uncle Bob who just happens to be a really good photographer, owns a D800 and dabbles in Profoto strobes. This will be the last ditch attempt to make gear the barrier to entry. I know I'll buy one once the dentists and cardiologists and hedge fund managers get tired of theirs and push them onto the used market in the under $5,000 range. May take a year or two but something else is sure to come along and dislodge the newest and freshest miracles of the present from the first wave's attention....

What's the lure? Again, for me it's not about the high ISO or the massive files it's all about being able to use longer lenses on a bigger sensor to get a kind of portrait that we used to get back in the film days. Does this mean my love affair with m4:3rds is already over? Not hardly. It'll take a while for the Pentax D645z to become Kirk-Affordable in the used market and not everything I shoot is a limited depth of field portrait. In fact, more and more of what I shoot seems to dovetail with the look and feel of the smaller cameras. 

But I do think that Pentax/Ricoh is doing something remarkable and disruptive. They join the two majors in the medium format digital racket in using the same Sony 51 megapixel chip. And I'm going to bet it's only a matter of time before Leica jumps on board as well. But the disruptive aspect is the selling price of the Pentax camera. It's less than $9,000 U.S.  It's about a quarter of the asking price of the Phase One product and probably some similar gap with the Hasselblad product. 

Is there some massive difference in the quality of the lenses? Having shot the Pentax in its film incarnation as well as the Hasselblad and the Phase One in their digital permutations I doubt that there's much difference at all between them. Certainly it will take a microscope and some patience to see the difference. For most working pros who actually need the big megapixel count and all the other bells and whistles the Pentax may actually be the most compelling choice because of their vast experience in digital with 35mm style cameras.  They have at the ready autofocusing modules, matrix metering modules and a twenty year history of making great autofocus in small and larger cameras. 

The original film 645 cameras had a reputation for being more reliable than Swiss trains and the handling was always superb.  The only differentiator between the four brands of medium format current still standing and staggering around might be from Leica who really can make lenses that are visibly more drool worthy. But whether that advantage is worth three times the price of the Pentax remains to be seen. 

I will predict one more thing: The Pentax will have the best flash performance of the group. They always have. 

My next camera? I'm tossing a coin to choose between grabbing for that GH4 or picking up another miraculous Sony RX-10. I'll take the path of least painful resistance. 


  1. I love my Bronica SQA. That, and m43, cover all the photography I do.

    Affordable medium format digital would be lovely. And I have a soft spot for Pentax lenses. Will look forward to seeing what you can do with one.


  2. This dentist uses an Olympus E-1 with an old Vivitar 55mm macro and OM system ringflash for clinical pictures. But I do have a Ricoh/Pentax, the current GR (the equivalent of a 'Q car'.

    But format does matter especially the look of the lens. Down the road from us is Beningborough Hall, (North Yorkshire, UK) and it is linked with the National Portrait Museum in London. Currently there is an exhibition of Royal portraits at Beningborough. The massive portrait of the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, 6' 6" by 5' 0", was shot on 10x8 by Thomas Struth and no other camera/lens combination could have made that image. The lighting and look defines it.

  3. Bring on the Pentax D67...my lenses are waiting...


  4. Very interesting product, thanks for your as-always sound consideration of it's pros & cons etc. Interested to know why you made no comment on dynamic range. To my mind, this is the single biggest area for improvement in digital photography yet it gets the least attention. The Sony A7s is the first camera to really address it...

  5. If it is just the sensor size you want, with the arrival of the 645Z a 645D should be a pretty inexpensive proposition with its lovely 40MP Kodak CCD, should be sub $4k by the time the Z hits shelves, maybe less.

    Also, from memory it is about 70% bigger sensor than 135 format DSLRs, it's about a 1.3x crop of film 645.

    The new one adds a lot of features, not just the high ISO sensor, but if creamy low ISO images with a big sensor tickle your fancy, then the 645D will be a bargain.

    My only question Kirk, is why do you think this will be disruptive if the 645D (only slightly more expensive) wasn't?

  6. Ahhh, while I do love Pentax I can't hold my breath for this one. I was hoping though that with the popularity of "strobism" that they would have pushed the flash sync up a touch but the specs I've read say 1/125th same as the 645d. Is 1/250th that much more difficult on digital medium format? I don't remember Pentax having any leaf shutters on their lenses though it has been a while since I've looked. That said, too much of my business is video these days so I'll just have to wait for the gh4's to arrive. It's rough though all the lenses I ordered are sitting in the office and I have nothing to use them on.

  7. I thought for sure you would jump on this when it was announced. Because its the first Medium format with Video. I don't know if it line skips or crops the sensor, but it has 1080p video for you.

    But then I remembered its an OVF not a wonderful new EVF and figured you just might pass :)

  8. The P645 is definitely a handsome beast and the boys at Phase 1, Hassy and Leica must be having fits about the price. BUT!!! Just to be perverse .... what would a Mamiya 7 style body with the 50MP sensor be like? Hmmmm .... Mamiya may be missing a bet.

    John W

  9. It looks great to me. I wonder what the rental rates will be on something like this...


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