A few decades later, I embrace medium format

Readers of this section of my blog will know I’ve recently rediscovered some old friends, including my Polaroid OneStep, my old Kodak Duaflex II, and finally, the Minolta XG-1 I used in photography class back in high school, <cough> years ago. This week, I made a brand new friend: a Pentax 645 medium-format film camera.

I saw the 645 at Englewood Camera, one of the few camera stores left in town, when I was browsing used lenses for the XG-1. (I ended-up getting one of those, too, but that’s for another article.) Both with the old MD lens for the Minolta, and with the Pentax, one of the great things about old photo gear is that, by and large, it’s cheap. Although by all accounts, values are on the upswing for film camera gear given the (very) slight resurgence in interest in the medium.

Back in 1997, B&H Photo in New York was selling the base Pentax 645 outfit for over $2,000* which would have put it massively out of reach for me. Today I can have a beautiful camera in outstanding condition for a fraction of that price, and I can tell you this much: I already enjoy it as much as I would have had I paid that and bought it new.

Other than the Duaflex, I’ve never shot anything but 35mm or 110. (OK, I had a Disc camera as well. And my Polaroids.) The Duaflex shoots on medium format as well, but with a fixed focus, fixed aperture, and fixed shutter speed, I’m not sure you can fully appreciate the 6cm square negatives in all their potential glory.

Medium format has always been the film — back in the film days. I still remember attending photo shoots for places I worked over the years (as a marketing guy) and seeing pros using Hasselblads. (Oh, that shutter sound!) It was entirely out of reach, so I controlled my photo lust. Until now. Now, it’s the right moment to make-up for lost time.

You can see the dent in the lens here. This is after repair, which I’ll cover in a future post. Click to enlarge.

Englewood sold the 645 with a pair of lenses, the standard 75mm and a wide angle 45mm. While the camera body was perfect and even still has the plastic dust caps for the X-Synch socket and film wind knob socket, both lenses had a single ding (each) right on the front, rendering it impossible for them to accept a filter. I decided I’d buy it anyway after the salesman said they’d concluded there was no way to repair the lenses economically; the cost would be more than the lenses were worth. That sounded sort of like a dare, so I accepted. I did manage to talk them down on the price a tad bit, and to throw-in a roll of 120, so I walked-out feeling pretty stoked.

Englewood also had a Hasselblad 500c outfit that I was briefly considering. The idea of owning a genuine Hasselblad was making me tingly, but I decided the price tag put me off, and the future cost of ownership (e.g., additional lenses) was also somewhat off-putting. It’s also not clear if my current film photography fascination will continue, so best to be reasonable.

One thing the Hassy had going for it is the format itself. It uses 120 film, but takes 6cm square images like the Duaflex. The Pentax 645, on the other hand, takes photos at 6cm x 4.5cm — hence the name “645.” That means less image real estate, and while I prefer the square images and getting as much image resolution as possible, again, the price justified the compromise. Getting 15 shots per roll vs. 12 is another consideration given that the processing costs remain static.

As I write this post, I’ve been taking plenty of pictures with the camera, but don’t have anything back from the lab yet. (Stay tuned for a future post on that.) But from a shooting perspective, it’s a joy to use; delightfully robust and sturdy, when you have this camera in your hand, you know you’re holding onto something. I love the feel.

A manual didn’t come with the camera, but these are readily available online as scanned PDF files. Ken Rockwell* said in an article about this camera that its manual was useless, and while I wouldn’t go that far, let’s just say that whoever wrote it doesn’t speak English as a mother tongue, and they weren’t that proficient in it as a second language, either. It’s a confusing mess, and it’s outlandishly badly organized to boot, making matters even worse. But, I still gave the entire thing a read the evening before buying the camera, just to get a sense of whether I wanted to follow-through on the purchase.

In any case, the manual succeeded in making the camera sound far more complicated than it actually is. Setting the mode was simple enough, although I’d have preferred dials (like the time 645N) vs. the weird LCD screen and button navigation system.

One of the more confusing aspects as an aperture priority shooter** is that there are two ways you can do it on the camera, and no distinction or explanation is made in the manual; they’re just both presented, both called the same thing, and you’re left to sort of figure it all out. The two methods are:

  • You can set the aperture ring to “A” and then select the correct (unnamed) mode, selecting the f-stop with buttons.
  • You can set the aperture as desired with the aperture ring and use a different (also unnamed) mode setting.

In both cases, of course, the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed based on the meter. Either approach will get you where you want to go, but I prefer twiddling an aperture ring and seeing the f-stop visually that way, vs. being forced to use obtuse menus and buttons.

That said, the obtuse menus and buttons are not complicated, and switching between the modes I need has rapidly become second nature with just one roll of film shot. While final judgment will have to wait for actual photos from the lab, so far, I find nothing to hate — and so very much to like.

More experienced photographers and reviewers have had some complaints about the 645, some of which were corrected in the later 645N. They include:

  • The ergonomics of the grip. Many apparently hate it, but frankly, I’m fine with it; I like the feel, and it provides what I ultimately want: A good, firm, safe grip on the merchandise.
  • The loud shutter. First off, it’s just not as loud as others have made it seem, but yes, the motorized film advance isn’t whisper quiet. Just the same, I find it satisfying to hear the camera do its thing, especially after shooting digital for so many years. It reminds me slightly of a Polaroid, the motor, anyway.
  • The coarse exposure compensation. To be candid, I’m just not an experienced enough photographer to worry about exposure compensation fineness. The way I meter and take pictures (generally with aperture priority, metering the shot how I want it**) is the same with this camera as it is with my XG-1. We’ll see how this works in practice as I start getting images back, but for me personally, I can’t see this being a massive issue.

In summary, I love the camera, I’m thoroughly enjoying shooting with it, and I can’t wait to get some processed film back. Look for an update when the first roll returns.

* That price comes courtesy of Ken Rockwell in this article. I can’t vouch for its veracity, but I’m sure Ken didn’t just make that number up.

** To be clear, I don’t always shoot aperture priority, it depends on the lighting. I will generally meter off the subject or desired part of the scene while in AP mode,  adjusting the f-stop where I want it, and then change to manual to set the shutter speed if the lighting conditions demand it. Maybe everyone does it this way. Clearly I need to talk to more photographers, or read more blogs.