This Old Camera: Pentax 645N. A Practical Impractical Camera

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I have dabbled with a few medium format film cameras in recent years. Wonderful devices, but practical is not a word that jumps to mind. They kind of make no sense admittedly. If you want to use film 35mm cameras should do the job. Plenty of sharp lenses on 35mm. Plenty of great 35mm cameras. Nikon F-something, Leica M-anything, Contax G or T then number and on and on. But if you are looking for those things many like in pictures without even knowing why, like DOF, focus fall off and detail, it is hard to beat medium format film. Why not digital medium format? Go check out the prices of even years old, used medium format digital cameras at the big sites and come back. Start out with the son of Pentax 645N, the 645D, not even the more recent 645Z. I’ll wait…

You back? I know, right? Ok. As I was saying medium format film cameras.

I had been on a search for the best of all worlds in medium format film. Then I decided on a bit of all. A 645, 6×6, 6×7, and a 6×9 all at once at one point. Wrote a couple of blog posts about them for KEH’s blog (part 1 and part 2). Then came a purge and three went away since. Why?

The GW690

After the novelty of the massive, larger than Instax mini photos, negatives went away I was left with an 8 shot per roll all manual camera. Very sharp. Great lens. But it made each shot so precious I tended not to use it.

The RZ67

Was pretty awesome, but massive especially with the very accurate AE afforded by the also massive prism finder that weighed more than most cameras by itself. But the size meant it stayed at home and went over a year without use. No matter how nice the pictures that won’t do.

The Pentax 645

Was close to perfect in size and use and I enjoyed the film advance automation as mentioned in the KEH post. The odd button layout did not bother me, but the inconsistent AE did. Usually no big deal. Use a light meter. But I already had an all manual medium format camera so it went.

The Pentax 645 is now in good hands, but of this group it was the one I missed most which raised my interest in its successor, the 645N. By all reports it was a superior camera (glowing praise available here). All the goodness of its predecessor with more advanced AE and AF. What is not to like? So I decided to give one a spin. The lens of choice was the AF version of my favorite 645 lens, the Pentax 75mm f/2.8.

Sidebar: A few recommended the Contax 645 with Zeiss 80mm f/1.9, and given my love of Contax 35mm cameras that should have been it, but these same individuals also shared with me their personal experiences of how expensive they were, how prone they were to breaking (Their words, not mine. Don’t come at me Contax 645 fans.), and how inconsistent their AF was (Again. Not me.). Faster Zeiss lens or not, pass.

For starters I will cut and paste the 645 pluses from my earlier KEH post with corrections:

  • In body metering means auto everything minus AF including program mode, shutter priority mode and my favorite, aperture priority mode.
  • Economy. This camera gets 15 16 exposures out of a 120 roll!
  • Includes continuous autowinder shooting, as well as single shot autowinder.
  • Batteries. 6 AA batteries that can be bought anywhere go in the grip.
  • Small, lightweight, and will feel more familiar to many.

Same size benefit of the 645.

So not only do you gain a more traditional control layout (dials > buttons) over the 645 and very accurate AF, but you also get one more frame adding up to 16 shots a roll rather than 15.

Furthermore over the 645 you get:

  • Choice of spot, center weighted, or matrix metering.
  • Automated bracketed shooting w/ 3 ranges.
  • Single or servo focus modes or AF-S and AF-C in Sony speak.
  • Center point or center zone focusing.
  • Multi-exposure shooting. at the flip of a switch

On top of this I ordered an era correct TTL flash as recommended by the 645N owner’s manual, the Pentax AF500FTZ, that only cost me about $50.

And according to my last test roll TTL works perfectly.

Has some very useful features as well, like low light AF lamp, and bounce flash. It is massive however.

Let me state again. We now have a multi-function autofocusing, multi-zone auto exposure, medium format film camera with accurate TTL flash available. With all dials and switches set to green it is the mother of all point and shoots.

A practical impractical camera.

But if so inclined full manual control is just a twist of an aperture ring or dedicated control dial away.

Aperture priority: Rotate the aperture ring away from A.

Shutter priority: Rotate the shutter speed dial away from A.

Manual: Move both dials above off A.

ML Button: Not mirror lockup as one would think, but memory lock or more accurately stated AE Lock. Point at the area you wish to expose, press the button and recompose.

AF Lock: Half press shutter, recompose.

Continuous/Single/Timer Shot: A spin of the dial around the shutter. Old timey threaded remote shutter release capable.

You get focus confirmation in viewfinder with manual focus lenses.

You even get a +3 to -3 exposure compensation dial, dedicated bracketing switch along with others dedicated controls.

Also like the Pentax 645 and many SLRs it has a great grip with a well placed shutter button.

Along with the reasonable size it makes for a camera that is not a strain to hand hold. If you would like to use a strap I would ignore the dedicated strap lugs and use a Black Rapid like strap attached to the side tripod mount.

That is right. A side tripod mount. This leaves the camera resting rather comfortably on your side. At one point I thought one of the most ingenious tricks of the Mamiya RZ67 was the rotating film back. But in retrospect I believe the dual tripod mount Pentax 645 has it beat. Sure it would require the camera be removed from a tripod to be rotated, but I believe two tripod brackets mounted would be nearly as fast as rotating the back if less elegant. Especially when you consider how much size, weight, and complexity you are saving in the process.

Now lastly before I wrap up I will touch on the size of the resulting negative, 645, as compared to 6×6, 6×7, and 6×9. Having shot all above I do see the image difference between them. Absolutely.

But for my purposes the gain in resolution and DOF does not overcome the weight and size savings the Pentax 645N provides. Add to this the fact that unlike all of the medium format cameras listed above, none of which sporting AF and most no AE regardless of price, the 645N is barely more of a bother to use than the similarly automated Pentax SF10. And the SF10 is nowhere near as intuitive in use.

Medium format cameras are very good at many things, but impulsive photos would not be one of them usually. This camera is an exception. The shot of the tower in the gallery below was taken no look to test if AF would grab infinity focus on the fly while shutter speed was set to 1/1000s, and it did.

A practical impractical camera.

Adding to this flexibility is the fact that all 645 lenses, including the very affordable 645 lenses, work perfectly and even these manual focus lenses retain AE control. And if one day I am so fortunate as to be able to afford a digital 645 the lenses work there as well.

Downsides? I have one. You can’t change the film back mid film roll like you can on the Hasselblad and the Mamiya, but similar to the others listed. No big deal for me personally since I own or owned exactly one film back for those cameras.

This was a fun, but time consuming exercise to find the best medium format film camera for me. WIll it be my only? No. The Yashica is the bang for buck champ and is charming to use. And the Hasselblad is a Hasselblad. Every single person I have met that has owned a Hasselblad and sold it regrets that decision. Doing my best not to do the same. Each photographer is different so I cannot advise anyone else what they should do. But I can tell you that this is a great medium format camera to choose.

Update: Kept the Yashica and Hasselblad. Sold the 645N. Still a great camera. Personal preference.

In conclusion as always I end with a link to an ongoing gallery and samples below.

Happy shooting.


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