Monday, February 20, 2012

Pentax 645D first impressions

I was acquainted with Pentax cameras in Melbourne by an ex-housemate who was really into them. He had a K 10 and a nice selection of Pentax limited edition lenses. I used to take his K10 out and do photowalks with his sublime 50mm / 1.4 and 77/1.7 limited prime lenses. Unfortunately after I returned to Malaysia, I didn't really have the chance to play with  other Pentax cameras. But opportunities arise when you least expect it. Recently I had the chance to try out Pentax's first digital medium format camera -  the Pentax 645D.

This beast incorporates a 40 MP Kodak CCD sensor which is approximately 1.7 times larger than a 35mm sensor. The Prime II image sensor ensures high speed data processing capabilities for the super high quality images produced by the camera's sensor.

For starters, this camera is big and weighs as much as two bricks, so you better have strong hands to support it (with a battery and two CF cards inserted, it weighs a bone-crushing 1.48 kilos sans lens). It's also very well crafted and has the weather sealing capability of its siblings, the K-5 and K-10.

The lens which is attatched to the camera is the Pentax-D 55mm F2.8 SDM AW prime lens which is equivalent to a 43mm lens on a full frame camera. There are numerous used pentax 645D lenses which can be had for bargain prices if you look hard enough on the internet.

There's a hot shoe to mount regular flashes, but I reckon only Pentax flash guns will give you TTL capabilities.

From this angle, you can see that the 645D has two tripod mounts; one on the side and one from the bottom. its very useful I must say, especially if you're mounting your camera portrait-wise on a tripod. To the right is the compartment for dual SD cards (essential for the insanely large 50mb DNG files) and a HDMI port.

From the rear, the controls of this camera are quite intuitive, much like an SLR. Each button performs one function, and you can also customize it through the camera's menu. There's also a top LCD panel which contains all the essential information of your shooting settings.

Speaking of the camera's menu, I was dumbfounded by its sheer complexity. Perhaps I've been too accustomed to the controls on my Nikon and Olympus cameras.

Another issue for me was the relatively microscopic viewfinder compared the the camera's mass. Because of that it was challenging for me to ascertain if my images were truly sharp, or if I focused at the right area. I was informed there was a viewfinder magnifier to solve the issue.

The deep hand grip conceals the rechargable lithium ion D-LI90 battery, which is the same little battery used by the K-7. With the larger sized sensor and faster data transfer, this camera will only be able to shoot a few hundred frames. Better pack a spare battery just in case ;)

In aesthetics, the 645D isn't the most sexy looking camera, but its functional (form follows function - robert venturi).

So how does the 645D perform in real life, you might ask?

This is a typical high contrast scene in front of my shop on a good sunny day in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. If you used a camera with a smaller sensor (eg. handphone or compact camera) all the details would've disappeared. The shadows would be clipped and the highlights would have been completely washed out.

But this is not the case with the 645D. The higher quality pixels produce plenty of micro detail in the highlights and shadows. Better colour rendition can be observed because there are more gradation of each colour and more shades of grey.

You have the blow up the image on your computer screen at 1:1 to appreciate the full details. Even from this small crop, you can easily see the handphone number on the electric pole for a 'lori sewa'.

I shot this candid portrait of a friend indoors. Due to the lower light levels, I boosted the ISO of this camera to 1000. The image of course suffers some degradation, but it was not as bad as I expected. Of course if you afford this camera, you would use it for studio or landscape purposes at low ISOs for maximum image quality.

Some might ask, whats the difference of a 40 MP medium format camera when you can easily obtain  36 MP on a D800 full camera. Well, the difference is in the micro details and the ease of photo shopping the jpeg files from the 645D as compared to a 21 MP 5D Mark II, for example.

I touch up client's faces everyday due to the nature of my work. So I ran a quick test by shooting a passport photo of my colleague and attempting to touch up the jpeg file in Photoshop CS 4. To my surprise, I found that I could clone stamp the 645D's jpeg much easier than the 5D Mark II's, and the results are more natural. The detail and gradation 5D mk II jpegs are quite harsh, making it a little more challenging to photoshop.

This is another sample image shot in shady conditions. The resultant image looks more 'life like' due to the abundance of micro detail, tonal gradation, and dynamic range. Frankly, you could produce life sized prints of your subjects with this much of detail if you had a printer that large !

One gripe that I have about this camera is its autofocus. It will not be on par with your basic entry level DSLR. And with the extremely limited depth of field, you have to be really careful with what you're intending to focus on. I had several blur images more than I'd like to when I was using the 645D (which I could only observe properly when I viewed the images on my computer). And with the high megapixels , you'd better be using a higher shutter speed (at least 1/160s) for sharp images if you're hand holding the 645D !

At present, you may purchase the 645D with the 55 mm lens for RM 37,888. They'll even throw in a bag, 32 gb SD card and an extra battery for free. Its one of the cheapest entries into medium format territory. In contrast , a top-of-the-range Hasselblad medium format camera costs at least RM 100,000 sans lens!

Some may ask if this camera is a good buy. Unfortunately the answer is not that simple. If you're doing heaps of commercial work which requires high megapixels and micro detail, this camera might be for you. But if your clients aren't paying that much for your services, a cheaper alternative such as an APS-C camera will suffice, and will make much more economic sense.

I hope you've enjoyed this short first impressions review. If you're reading this and you're a sales person from Pentax Malaysia, I hope I can have another opportunity to review this spectacular camera =)




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