This Old Camera (Revisited): Pentax 645N

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I wrote a post about this camera some years ago. Had been on a search for the best of all worlds in a medium format film camera.

  • Great lenses.
  • Decent AF.
  • Useful auto exposure.
  • Solid build.
  • Reasonable price… for camera and lens.

I know. That last one. Reasonable price? Crazy. For medium format? Mad talk, right? But it exists.

Easier to find if you are ok with manual focus. You have the Pentax 645,

Pentax
Pentax 645

the GW690,

Fujica GW690
Fujica GW690

the GW690 III,

Fuji GW690III
Fujica GW690III

and definitely the Yashica MAT LM

Yashica MAT LM
Yashica Mat LM - Lomography 800

among other reasonable options.

But add autofocus to the medium format equation? Things start getting expensive rather quickly.

As exhibit 1 I offer the Fujifilm 645zi. A great compact medium format camera. Thought I would give it a spin, but when I turned it over its price at my local camera shop shocked me into action.

What action?

Well first I needed to go back and admit I made a mistake. There was a camera I should have never let go of.

The Pentax 645N (Link to my original post.)

Pentax 645N

Why was it a mistake?

This camera is phenomenal. It was everything the excellent Pentax 645 above was…

  • Auto exposure.
  • Auto loading and autowinder.
  • 6 AA batteries that can be bought anywhere.
  • Small, and relatively lightweight DSLR like form factor.

…and more. It adds:

  • Better control layout with proper dials replacing the 645’s, servicable but less than optimal, buttons.
Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N
  • Improved exposure controls courtesy of those improved ergonomics.
  • Exposure adjustments can be made with the Exposure Compensation dial or by manually adjusting the ISO.
  • Better looks. Hey. You can tell yourself otherwise… But it matters. Especially appreciated is the all of one construction replacing the original 645’s bolt on grip.
Pentax 645N
  • Choice of spot, center weighted, or matrix metering.
Pentax 645N
  • You get an additional exposure from every roll. 16 instead of 15.
  • Automated bracketed shooting w/ 3 ranges.
Pentax 645N
  • AF. But not just AF. Single or servo focus modes or AF-S and AF-C in Sony speak.
Pentax 645N
  • Center point or center zone focusing.
Pentax 645N
  • Multi-exposure shooting. at the flip of a switch on the left side of the camera.

In my prior review I stated, “I ordered an era correct TTL flash as recommended by the 645N owner’s manual, the Pentax AF500FTZ, that only cost me about $50.”

I was ready to order another until I remembered that I already had a modern Pentax TTL flash from Godox/Adorama. I know Pentax is famous for having full frame lenses and medium format lenses that are compatible across all generations, but could it be the same for their TTL system?

Yes. Yes it is. A film era Pentax medium format camera communicates perfectly with a modern digital era aftermarket flash. What’s more that should mean that it will work Godox/Flashpoint’s remote flash system also.

So as I said in that first post:

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.
Pentax 645N
  • 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.
  • Photo exposure data, even including focal length, prints on the edge of the negative which is handy. If for some reason you do not want this it can be turned off.
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5 (Prints exposure information on the side)
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5 (Prints exposure information on the side)
  • 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, when I had it, 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.

After all of the medium format cameras I have tried, owned, sold what is so special about the 645N that has caused me to revisit it?

Medium format cameras are very good at many things, but impulsive photos would not be one of them usually. This camera is an exception.

This shot of a tower below was taken no look to test if AF would grab infinity focus on the fly while shutter speed was set to 1/1000s.

Pentax 645N w/  Kodak Ektar 100

A practical impractical camera.

Adding to this flexibility is the fact that all 645 lenses, as mentioned, including the very affordable 645 manual focus 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.

So no issue at all for me.

What’s more this is a camera that is very consistent with AF and AE regularly nailing all 16 frames on a roll. Perfect for slide film like this shot.

16 of 16 - Provia 100F w/ Pentax 645N

While not silent I would not consider it overly loud either. This shot below was taken with no notice from Duke’s finest. Did not hurt that this camera acquires AF very quickly in good light and manages to AF successfully in low light conditions also.

16 of 16 - Provia 100F w/ Pentax 645N

I mentioned reasonable price before. How so?

That Fujifilm 645zi at my local camera shop was going for $1,500. Great camera, but limits me to the included lens’ focal range (55-90mm) and aperture (f/4.5-6.9). I was able to pick up the Pentax 645N, AF 75mm f/2.8 lens, and AF 80-160mm f/4.5 lens for less.

Pentax 645N
I am planning on “This Old Lens” posts on both of these lenses.

I will add that a film camera can be no better than the available lenses. And the 645N gets solid marks here also. Have heard nothing but good things about the lenses for this camera. I can vouch for the three I have tried.

SMC Pentax-A 645 150mm F3.5 (Manual Focus)

Pentax 645
Pentax 645

SMC Pentax-A 645 75mm F2.8 (Manual Focus)

Yongnuo YN360
Pentax 645

SMC Pentax-FA 645 75mm F2.8 (Autofocus)

Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N w/ Lomography 800

SMC Pentax-FA 645 80-160mm F4.5 (Autofocus)

Pentax 645N
CInestill Df96

Result? A solid performing film set up with full automation for considerably less all in than some 35mm film cameras that lack many of these features. I would call that a solid value.

Pentax 645N

In conclusion here are a few more product shots…

Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N
Pentax 645N

…and here are some recent samples photos…

Lomography 400 - Pentax 645N - 75mm f/2.8
Lomography 400 - Pentax 645N - 75mm f/2.8
Lomography 400 - Pentax 645N - 75mm f/2.8
Lomography 400 - Pentax 645N - 75mm f/2.8
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5
Pentax smc FA 645 80-160mm f/4.5

…along with a link to an ongoing gallery.

Happy capturing.

-ELW

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