Review: Pentax 645 medium format film camera

There are already multiple reviews, history lessons, opinions, and so forth regarding the Pentax 645 medium format film camera (my favorite being Todd Reed’s on Emulsive), and as I begin this piece, I’m not sure I’m necessarily going to be bringing deep, new insights to the table. But after shooting with this camera through over a dozen rolls of 120 film, I feel I’ve experienced its capabilities pretty well at this point, know some of its foibles, and have a basis to pull together some cogent thoughts. If you’re considering adding one of these cameras to your collection, read on.

A few months ago, I fed my Kodak Duaflex II with some 620 film — actually 120 film, lovingly re-rolled onto new-stock 620 spools by the Film Photography Project. The experience left me wanting to explore medium format more deeply, but I felt constrained by the Duaflex’s fixed focus, fixed aperture and fixed shutter speed. I wanted a more conventional camera experience, but with the lovely size and quality of medium format.

After reading a blog post on B&H Photo and Video’s web site, I started to look around for TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras, since the post suggested so many options. I like the TLR form and function, and it felt like a grown-up version of my Duaflex.

While the post suggests multiple TLR options, I homed-in on the hunt for the suggested Rolleiflex MX-EVS, but alas, I couldn’t find one. But as you can read here, I picked-up a used Pentax 645 from a local camera shop (Englewood Camera) after stopping-by there to see if they had the elusive Rollei. They didn’t, but a Hasselblad 500C (not shown) and this Pentax 645 were sort of calling my name:

As you can see, it was offered with a pair of lenses: a 45mm wide angle, and a 75mm prime. Both lenses were in great condition aside from small edge dents in both, preventing filters from being screwed into them. But for $500, I still felt the camera represented a decent value. (Ignore the two tags that suggest it’s $1,000 total — it wasn’t — and that further suggest the lenses were a 75mm and a 150mm — they were not.) Needless to say, it followed me home.

The camera body itself was in excellent condition. One of the lenses had a replacement front cap that was Canon branded (but covered with FPP stickers); missing were the front body cap, a back lens cap (there was only one; should be two, one for each lens), and the back body cap. Between Amazon and KEH, I ordered replacements for all the missing caps for a tiny little investment, and considered the outfit complete.

The Pentax 645 was introduced in 1984, and made for 13 years and through two minor revisions until the 1997 introduction of the auto-focusing 645N. My particular body has a 106xxxx serial, and based on the serial numbers of cameras I’ve seen online, it seems safe to assume that mine was among the later ones made, a mid-90s vintage in other words, and about 25 years old.

Now, let’s dig into some of the other details of this particular camera journey.

Lenses

This camera uses its own Pentax 645 mount that began with this camera, and lives-on today, 35 years later, in Pentax’s digital 645. Lenses for this camera — so-called “A” lenses — are manual focus. Starting with the very next model, the 645N, Pentax changed to the “FA” type, which are auto-focus lenses. Luckily, “A” lenses can be used on newer cameras, and “FA” on this camera, albeit with manual focus only in both cases.

“FA” lenses are still being made today, and I like the fact that I can go to a camera dealer and buy a brand-new lens, right off the shelf, that will fit my decades-old film camera, and not have to worry about sensor sizes or whatever else, as with EF/EF-S lenses. Those brand new lenses start at the $1,000 mark, and go up — way up — from there, which puts them out of my reach, but it’s still nice to know they’re out there, keeping the 645 mount alive.

To the best of my knowledge, there are not, and have not been any third-party lenses for the Pentax 645 mount, but Pentax made a pretty wide array of “A” lenses, and the “FA” series as well, that cover most of the bases. They also have extension tubes available, as well as teleconverters, extending the function and utility of the available lenses.

In the outfit I bought, those small dents on the lens edges bothered me — greatly. I like adding a UV filter to my lenses to help avoid wear or inadvertent damage to the front of the glass. Professional repair simply wasn’t available, and likely would have been cost-prohibitive if it was. After doing some research online, I decided to attempt a repair using a tool found on Amazon, pictured here.

I’ll save you the details, but the repair was successful with the 75mm lens — but not the 45mm. The thickness of the metal at the filter threads on the 45mm lens is much greater than the 75mm, requiring a lot of effort and working the tool back and forth repeatedly.

Exerting too much rotational force with the tool against my grip, the end-most portion of the barrel loosened. While I did manage to get the dent removed enough to get a filter on, and the lens can still be used, it doesn’t function properly; that end barrel comes loose, and requires a lot of fiddling before you can even focus it. It all requires so much extra effort when taking a shot that I’ve essentially dismissed the lens as unusable. I may get a lens tool and disassemble it, attempting a repair if possible, or learning a thing or two about lens design if not. Stay tuned on that, but I’ve essentially written it off. (If you want one for parts, get in touch and make me a lowball offer!)

The widest aperture “A” series lenses for the Pentax 645 are f/2.8. They range to f/5.6 on the 600mm lens; many start between f/3.5 and f/4.5. I’ve certainly not even seen them all, let alone used them all, but the five lenses I have tried have universally been excellent, easy to use, and have provided outstanding results. In short, Pentax makes some great glass.

Beyond the two I got with the outfit, I’ve acquired three more lenses and two lens-related accessories, all (except one) from KEH:

  • 200mm f/4. This lens represents a solid value for its focal length. In “excellent” condition at KEH, I paid just $90 for it, which is, simply put, a bargain. It’s possible to pair this lens with a teleconverter — 1.4x and 2.0x versions are available — if you don’t mind forfeiting one or two stops of brightness respectively. This lens has a simple, integrated “hood” that slides into the lens body. It pulls out easily, and does its job. The visual results I’ve achieved with this have been really nice, which only makes it feel like a bigger bargain.
  • 120mm Macro f/4. This is lens is capable of focusing as close as a bit over one foot (about 30cm) at 1:1, winning it its macro label. I got it for that reason, as well as where its focal length sits for field use, providing a nice midpoint between 85mm (see below) and the 200mm lens. As I write this review, I don’t yet have photos back from the lab taken with this lens, but will revise this post later to include them; I’m assuming the results will be as solid as with the other lenses. Given its $230 price tag in “excellent plus” condition at KEH, it wasn’t a huge investment.
  • 45-85mm f/4.5. Buying this lens ($260 in “excellent” condition) was my attempt to replace the utility of the 45mm fixed length lens I broke, and I bought it with the intent that it would become my primary lens; the default choice I’ll keep on the camera day-to-day. While darker than my 75mm f/2.8 prime, the flexibility to choose the framing from 45mm to 85mm has already proven its value; sometimes I want to move a ring on a lens, not my body, to get the shot I want. If there’s a down side to this choice, it’s the weight. The 75mm lens weighs just 10 ounces (~300g), while the 45-85mm is 29 ounces (~825g), nearly 3x more — and quite close to a whopping 2 lbs. More on weight a bit later.
  • Helicoid extension tube. This is not a lens, but I did recently purchase one as I was finishing-up this review, and will revise this later with example shots. Based on what I’ve been able to frame and close-in on with it so far, it’s pretty cool, and I suspect the shots will support that impression. If you like macro photography, it’s highly recommended, and it wasn’t hugely expensive in “excellent” condition.
  • 2x teleconverter. I’d bought one of these from KEH a couple of months back, but the one they shipped was defective, and I had to return it. Since they had no others available, I waited, then took advantage of a recent trip to New York City to stop by B&H, who had more than one. At this writing, I’ve used it, but don’t have photos back yet.

I continue to debate buying the 80-160mm zoom for flexibility, but honestly, with the lenses above, it feels like I have that range more or less covered; you get into the longer focal lengths, and it just seems like another 20mm in any direction isn’t really providing much value — other than the variability you get in a zoom lens.

I might spring for the 1.4x teleconverter at some point too just for extra flexibility; we’ll see. But I suspect I’m pretty well done with optics for the Pentax at this point.

Other Accessories

Rounding-out the kit has happened as opportunities have arisen, but one that wasn’t an option was getting a strap for it. I opted for the OP/TECH USA Super Pro Strap, Design B version. This version of the strap has fittings that fix to the lugs of the Pentax 645 perfectly and securely, and the strap itself is quite comfortable for extended use. MSRP is about $31, but you’ll find it retail at around half that, so it was a good value as well. Despite the massive weight of the body plus the 45-85mm zoom lens I mentioned above, the OP/TECH strap makes the camera easy and comfy to walk around with. 

The only other major accessory I’ve purchased for my 645 was a Pentax AF280T flash, which you can read about here. That eBay purchase was a bargain, but given the time of year with its long days of sunshine, and the types of photos I’ve been shooting, I’ve not had much of a need for a flash just yet. But it’s nice to have to round-out the outfit, and I like that the two are tailor-made for each other, with effective TTL metering, in addition to high/low auto modes, and of course, a full manual mode too.

Finally, let’s talk cases. As I’ll describe below, the Pentax 645 is a beast, and hauling it and its glass around has proved (and continues to prove) to be challenging. Most bags you can find at retail today are designed with modern DSLRs in-mind — not medium format film cameras with heavy lenses. I ended-up buying into Peak Design’s system, and I’ll link to a separate review of that when I write it in the weeks ahead. Regardless, you’ll need to do a little work to find something that works for this camera, and while I like the Peak Design choices I made, it’s still a compromise no matter how you cut it. That said, I’m not sure how you haul around roughly 12 lbs. (~5kg) of camera kit in a way that makes it feel like 12 ounces, with everything at-hand and easily accessible. (The 12 lbs., by the way, is the camera body, and all the lenses I own, plus the flash, and the Gossen exposure meter I prefer to use, and I didn’t include the latest lens purchases in that weight, so it’s higher still.)

The Camera Itself

One of the things I like about the Pentax 645 is that it’s a serious bit of kit. When you’re holding it, you know you’re holding onto something. The construction of the camera body seems quite solid, and the beefy battery grip — required, since it holds the six AA batteries needed for the camera to operate — is comfortable. Some reviewers have criticized its ergonomics; I just haven’t found any issue with that personally.

If you’re used to lightweight modern DSLRs, or even “old skool” 35mm SLRs, you’re in for a surprise — and a workout. With its 75mm lens attached, the Pentax 645 weighs-in at almost exactly 4 lbs. (nearly 2kg). And when I attach that lovely 45-85mm zoom? The weight spikes up to 5 lbs. 3 ounces — almost 2.5kg.

The extra weight and bigger size of the 45-85mm zoom rubs right against the threshold of almost too bulky and too heavy for “take it anywhere” use, but I do it anyway; the Pentax 645 in this configuration accompanies me most times when I leave the house and have any expectation of a photo-op. (Well, sometimes I grab the Yashica-A!)

Carrying this camera around, with that lens, telegraphs more than I intend to others. It makes me look like a professional photographer (or something), and it’s garnered a fair number of looks, comments and questions — a fact I’m perfectly fine with, honestly.

The only challenge I’ve had with the camera itself is that my OP/TECH strap tends to get positioned around the viewfinder’s diopter adjustment when I’m putting it into a camera bag. More than once, I go to take a picture and can’t focus the image — only to realize that the diopter adjustment is completely off. Not the camera’s fault.

Changing lenses is easy, but fiddly to do with one hand. The release button is on the front panel, so you have to press it with a thumb while attempting to unscrew the lens. It’s easier to just do it with two hands, and I actually like the snug fit the lenses have against the body.

Using the Camera

Loading film in the Pentax 645 isn’t particularly challenging, or any more so than any camera that uses 120 roll film. The unit has interchangeable backs, but unlike a Hasselblad, later Mamiya 645s, or a Bronica S2 or EC-TL, you can’t change backs mid-roll. Available in 120, 220 and 70mm sizes, the only back that makes any sense today is the 120. (70mm is obsolete, and as of late last year, 220 is no longer being made.)

I think the 120 back makes loading as easy as it possibly could be; most of the battle is getting the film end tab not to slide out while you’re attempting to get it to wrap around the take-up spool. It is a bit fiddly, but it’s hardly difficult.

Once started, hand-wind it until the start line on the film backing aligns with the red lines on the back, insert it into the camera, secure the back, turn on the camera and click the shutter. In a couple of seconds, you’re ready to shoot 15 shots on that roll of film.

Actually taking a shot begins by understanding how to use the camera’s interface. It has a small LCD screen — reminiscent of a 1980s digital watch — and several buttons. In most cases, you press and hold one of the buttons on the left, and then press up or down arrow buttons on the top near the grip to make selections and change values. There’s just not that much to tinker with:

  • You can change the ISO
  • You can turn the LED display on and off
  • You can turn the LED display illumination on and off
  • You can change the exposure compensation
  • You can change the camera’s operating mode

If you read the manual (readily available in digital form online), you won’t have any trouble dealing with it. It is, however, a bit unintuitive; but once you set the ISO after putting-in a new roll, and you know how to select your preferred shooting mode, there’s very little to know (or do).

Speaking of that manual, a native English speaker will struggle a bit to get through it. The poor English translation is clumsy and challenging in places to read, but the information you need is there. In addition, some of the information is important enough that I would recommend a good, solid, front-to-back read before you take the camera out.

On exposure compensation, many reviewers have complained that you can’t set anything other than full stops from -3 to +3. I don’t consider myself enough of a pro to understand why I’d even want exposure compensation to the accuracy level of fractional stops, or what situations would warrant it; perhaps at some future point I’ll grasp the need, but given film’s latitude, close enough seems close enough. At the moment, I don’t use compensation to start with; I adjust ISO, aperture or shutter to achieve what I’m looking for.

The modes are initially a bit confusing. When you set the aperture ring on the lens to the “A” position, you can access Programmed AE, Shutter-Priority AE, and one of the two versions of Aperture-Priority AE. When you set the aperture to an actual f-stop, you can access the second version of Aperture-Priority AE, as well as manual, 1/60 fixed (flash) mode, and bulb mode. I tend to fumble through the menus, and because I never use the “A” position on the lenses by choice, there are only four possibilities to pick from to find what I want.

As I explained in this post, I don’t much care for the way the Aperture-Priority AE mode works when metering in challenging or mixed lighting situations. With a center-weighted in-built meter, I’m accustomed to metering the shot by pointing it at the desired meter point, taking a reading, then setting the shutter speed. Unfortunately, in the Pentax 645, that means metering in Aperture-Priority AE mode, switching to manual, dialing-in the shutter speed, then taking the shot. It’s not hard, it’s just cumbersome, and lately, I’ve preferred to just keep the camera in manual mode, and use my Gossen Sixtomat F2 light exposure meter (also mentioned in that post). The incident metering is more accurate anyway, and I feel like I get more control — not to mention cycling through equivalent combinations of shutter speed and aperture and consciously thinking about the effect I’m going for, then dialing it in. (I’m a meter convert.)

Visible in the viewfinder is a small red LED display that shows the set (or metered) shutter speed, as well as indications about whether the camera thinks you’re over- or under-exposing, and by how much — 0 to 3 stops either way. That is, anyway, what I see in the modes I use. In other modes, you’ll see the f-stop value there as well. In the shot below, you can see it’s set to 1/250, and that the camera says that’s “OK.” (Forgive the poor quality shot taken with an iPhone through the viewfinder.)

Note that the Pentax 645 has a depth-of-field preview lever on the side of the body, making it easy to double-check the bokeh effect (or lack thereof) with your shot as you have it currently set-up. Obviously when the lever is not depressed, the lens is wide-open to make the preview as bright as possible (unless you’re using an extension tube).

However you choose to meter the scene and set the camera — which I won’t go into any further here since it’s largely a matter of personal preference — a press of the shutter button is all that’s required, of course, to capture the shot. The shutter operates, and the motorized film advance readies the next shot — or winds the film fully, ready for removal, when your 15th shot is completed.

One complaint many reviewers have is how loud this camera is, and I won’t mince words… You won’t miss the fact that you’ve taken a picture. The shutter itself has a satisfying and noticeable click, and that motor drive might make you think the camera’s going to morph into a drone and fly off someplace. Unlike most reviewers, however, I just don’t think it’s a negative. I have no need to clandestinely take pictures, and the size of this camera is hardly discrete to begin with. Comments from others have drawn the conclusion that this would be a poor choice for wedding or street photography; most wedding photographers have long since gone digital for a start, and as for street photography, I don’t think the sound your camera makes is going to somehow make the difference when it comes to inviting comments or confrontation. Your mileage, however, may vary.

One word of caution to anyone new to this camera: Start by installing a fresh set of six AA batteries in the grip before you take a single picture. There is no battery check function on this camera, and as I discovered the hard way, you have to acquaint yourself with the sound of the motorized film advance to know when the batteries are starting to fade. To do that, put-in fresh ones with the first roll, get to know its sound — and more importantly, its speed — and then make a mental note. When the motor begins to sound like it’s lagging, or the film advance isn’t pretty much immediate and of short duration, it’s time to replace them. Trusting that the batteries in my used one when I bought it were fresh enough was a recoverable mistake, but an annoying one, and you really don’t get much warning; the camera basically works on the last shot, and stops working on the next — often mid-advance, as was the case for me. I replaced the batteries during my second roll of film, and fifteen rolls later, they are still functioning like new, so it’s not yet clear how quickly they’ll become exhausted. (For the record, these are cheap, no-brand alkaline batteries from a gift shop, so it’ll be interested to see how long it takes.)

My last bit of advice is that if your camera is supplied with its various plastic plugs intact, you might want to use a bit of gaffer’s tape or a plotter-cut adhesive vinyl dot to keep them in-place. The X-sync port cover and the external power port cover on the bottom of the grip have both already gone missing, and replacements are simply not available. (I did recently manage to score a replacement power port cover after approaching a dealer about a parts camera they had; they were willing to sell me just the plug for $10; deal!) And if you choose to store the camera for an extended period, remove the batteries; eBay is full of these cameras with damaged or missing battery holders from people who failed to do so, and you’ll be hard-pressed to replace it. Given that the camera is unusable with the batteries, well, it’s an expensive mistake.

Results

Rather than clutter this blog post with tons of locally-hosted examples of my Pentax 645 photography, I’ll refer you instead to my Pentax 645 album on Flickr. I don’t post everything to Flickr, only my favorites, but it should give you a great idea about how the camera performs with my various lenses, and across color negative, color reversal, and black and white film stocks. Additionally, check back; any shots taken with this camera and posted to Flickr will be found in that album for the foreseeable future.

That said, here are three random favorites of mine:

Color rendering and everything else is a matter of film choice as much as the camera, but from my point of view, the Pentax 645 provides a great foundation for you to explore photography to its fullest.

Conclusions

I won’t mince words here: I absolutely love — and I do mean love — my Pentax 645. Yes, it weighs a ton to shlep it and all its glass around with me, but I frankly just don’t care. I know that when I use this camera, and use it skillfully, it won’t let me down in any way. It’s simple to learn, simple to use, and there are great and flexible options available in original Pentax lenses that you can find at decent prices on the used market — if you’re persistent and patient in your search. While a changeable back or magazine would be nice (a la Hasselblad), the lack of one has just caused me to embrace using whatever is loaded into it vs. over-thinking things. And finally, the results from this camera speak for themselves.

Bottom line: I have not a single regret in buying this camera — and investing significantly more in the lenses and other bits that have since joined the party. It’s a joy to own, and a joy to use.