There's usually one camera that's so different or so good that it's the camera that changes the direction of the industry. Even if only a little bit.

This is a prediction. Just a prediction. I am data-free about how this camera is currently doing in the marketplace but I think it may hit a tipping point and change the commercial field of photography in 2015. Here's why: The overwhelming majority of professional photographers in every field of commercial and social (weddings and portraits) photography are basically using some version of the two most popular pro cameras of the day; the Canon 5Dmk3 (or mk2) and the Nikon D800 (or 800e or 810). Almost to a person they depend on three primary lenses; the 14-24mm (16-35mm in Canon), the 24-70mm f2.8 and the ultra-ubiquitous 70-200mm f2.8. The upshot is that the quality and even the composition options available to each practitioner are homogenous. Routine and over used. 

While a photographer may have a "magic mix" that they apply in post processing the cameras dictate the aspect ratio (yes, people could crop but most slavishly follow the camera's lead...) the files sizes and the basic color palettes. There are a few outliers who shoot on Leica rangefinder style digital cameras and of course a smattering of Fuji and Olympus users but the number of professionals shooting on bigger than a Nikon D800 camera file size cameras can probably be counted on just a few hands in any market outside of NYC, London and Paris. 

But there are reasons to use medium format cameras. The bigger sensors mean that longer lenses must be used to get the same field of view and that means you get a different look to the images as focus falls off more quickly and visibly. The bigger sensor also allows for bigger pixels which can mean more dynamic range and greater appearance of acutance and sharpness. Finally, the bigger sensors now seem to start the resolution revolution at about 54 megapixels and given better quality pixels as well the cameras provide both a different image style than the sea of 35mm style cameras and they do so in a way that kicks ass. Figuratively. 

So, medium format good and different. But what is it about the Pentax that makes it even more different? A game changer? Two vital things: 1. The price is amazingly low. A camera body only sites right about the big Canon and Nikon cameras in price and delivers image quality they'll never match. Ricoh (the owners of Pentax) set the price at about one third the going price for a medium format digital camera body of this capability. If I were Phase One I'd be doubly freaked out because there's hardly a difference in resolution or image quality between their $40,000 camera and the 645Z at $9,000. 

But aren't the Leica, Hasselblad and Phase One cameras better? Don't they have better sensors?
In a word, no.  The whole market in MF went upside down this year when Sony released (and made available to all the major players) their very, very good 54 megapixel chip. For the first time MF cameras broke from the CCD imagers to embrace CMOS imagers and this in one fell swoop gave MF users access to noise free ISOs over 800 for the very first time. Uniformly, across brands. The imager is by all accounts a really great one that provides state of the art (excepting Red One sensors) dynamic range coupled with low noise and very good color rendering. But the catch for the premium price player was that ALL the competitors have the same sensor and so they are now rushing to find meaningful marketing differentiators in order to preserve their pricing structure. 

Pentax basically kicked the price support pillar out from under everyone else when they priced their camera. And they seem to have a head start in fine tuning the color response of their whole system. Couple that with a biggish market of used Pentax 645 lenses at low prices, all of which are usable on the camera. Finally, the Pentax also does video. Really good video. And, as you might imagine, with a long, fast lens on the front of the camera the video will start to resamble (as far as the manifestation of optical effects) what we have only seen in 70mm cinema film. Wow. This is all crazy. 

Now, I understand that the last six years of amazingly crappy economic turmoil has taken its toll on the photographic community in general and many will be reticent to spend money in the Spring period of the recovery but my take is that it will happen. Many of us will return to the paradigm that existed in the film days. We'll have our Nikons and Olympuses for the smaller, day to day jobs and the jobs that require mobility and speed but if we want to lock up the higher quality clients we'll need to step up and retool in the same fashion, with medium format gear that does stuff smaller cameras can't emulate. At this price point the real bleeding edge is long past us. One can now piece together a workable system for about $15,000 if we hunt down some of the good used lenses and supplement with primo lenses in the most important parts of our photography. For instance, as a portrait photographer who is also called on to be a generalist I'll be looking for a standard Pentax 645 zoom lens from the film days for group shots and wider lifestyle stuff to begin with but I'll make sure to get the current 150mm f2.8 AF lens for my single portrait shoots. That's the standard for the kind of stuff I like to do most and where I think the strength of the camera is for someone like me. 

Am I ready to leap? Naw. I'm mostly happy with the smaller gear for right now. I'd like to throw more money into marketing before I make the jump. I'd like to quietly query some of my bigger clients to gauge their desire for me to upgrade. But once it seems practical this is the logical direction to go. And I know I'm not the only photographer trying to making a living in a competitive market who is thinking about this right now. 

I have an architectural photographer friend who jumped into the Leica Medium format system last year and his clients have seen a difference and responded with more and better bookings at higher price points. He's made back his initial investment. He's a good role model. A bit closer to the bleeding edge but a role model nonetheless. 

When people begin to taste a bit more economic comfort brought on by a quickly recovering economy don't think for a moment that they won't want to up the stakes and lock up the high ends of their markets. Only this time it actually makes economic sense.

Another sure sign of the imminent embrace of cost effective MF via the Pentax 645Z? My local bricks and mortar camera store, Precision Camera, has them in stock and reports that sales are, "brisk."  Something to think about at the end of a good year. 

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Anonymous said...

you mentioned your architectural photog friend who switched to Leica S. I shoot architecture, would like to move back to medium format, but don't see an answer there (short of a phase back on a technical camera) to the shift lenses I have with canon. How did your friend get around this problem?

Kirk Tuck said...

There are some choices. He's had a variety of lenses like the 55 Schneider PSC adapted. Kamiya made a decent 50mm shift and Leica makes a great 120mm. I'll make a point to ask him for a list.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the info, best regards, jim leynse

Anonymous said...

Yes, it does seem like a logical course, and during the past 18 or so months there indeed have been some subtle yet noticeable signs of change in the scenery. MF cameras are nothing new of course, but looks like they are now making a comeback in the 'mainstream' (of professional photogaphy). The pricing of the Pentax 645z surely helps in that, too.

The trend is not really a surprise, but more like yet another full circle completed, or yet another pendulum swing completed during the past 20 years.
Another part of that trend is the sinking sales of enthusiast and prosumer cameras onto a more realistic level, once again. Until 2013 or so the sales of enthusiast level dSLRs and even compact system cameras have been unnaturally high.

In 1995 many pros in the mainstream used Mamiyas, Hasselblads and a few other brands for the 'serious' and higher margin work and 35mm SLR's for everything else. Come 2015, and things are slowly starting to look familiar again.
Partially thanks to Ricoh/Pentax and the new affordable MF camera. It will get other similarly priced offerings eventually, and that trend will change the game.

The 645z is not ideal for some studio work because of its focal plane shutter but in general it was a smart move from Ricoh/Pentax. I hope they'll keep up their momentum in the MF field.

Mike said...

I was actually thinking about picking up a used 645D next year. I figure I can be all-in on a new system (1 body, 2 lensese) for under $4K. Maybe overkill for the street photography I do but could be fun.

Mark Davidson said...

Sigh... I know in my heart that this camera will not make my work better but I would love to test the theory.
Thanks for a great year of your thoughts. I am looking forward to seeing what you get me thinking about next year. Have a great holiday.

neopavlik said...

I might take a run at that 645Z in 2017 or 2018...depending on finances and depreciation.