Pentax 645: Medium Format Quality with the Handling of a 35mm SLR

2009-03-20 13

Many of us get our start in medium format photography when we buy our first Holga. The size of the negative blows us away in comparison to those 24mm x 36mm rectangles. And while I would never be without a Holga sometimes I need a little more precision and focus. When that happens I turn to my Pentax 645, a medium format camera with the handling of a 35mm SLR.

image from here

If you love photography like I do, I’m sure you have looked from time to time at professional grade cameras. Even the most hardcore Lomographer can find some pleasure in high end analogue cameras. I love all sorts of photography including many alternative processes. Yet I can still drool over the latest high tech photo equipment. When I started scouting out potential medium format cameras I was flabbergasted at the prices. Most of the new autofocus 6 x4.5, 6 × 7, and 6 × 9 film cameras cost thousands of dollars. Many are hard to handle and do not have eye level view finders, or built in light meters. Adding those will set you back another thousand US or so. I looked at Mamiyas, Hassleblads, Contax, and Fuji and figured I would never own a professional 120/220 camera. Eventually, however, I found the Pentax 645, first released in November, 1984. This camera has been tweaked several times and has become an autofocus, out-of-my—price range camera. Yet in its virginal form it is even this Lomographer’s dream.

The Pentax 645, manual focus, medium format SLR comes equipped with an eye level viewfinder (with adjustable diopter) and a battery powered side grip to advance your film and offer meter readings. It is chunkier than your average 35mm SLR but it is still manageable in weight and fits nicely in my hands. The standard lens is a SMC Pentax-A 75mm f/2.8 lens. In medium format 75mm is roughly the same as a 50mm lens in a 35mm film camera. It is basically the equivalent of what our eyes see. This lens is fast and bright. The camera has several auto exposure options including a Program mode, aperture priority, shutter priority, a flash sync mode, bulb exposure, and, of course, an all manual mode. There are only a few buttons to worry about that set the mode, ISO, and exposure compensation. There is also a button near these functions to light up your LED read out for night time shooting. A dial near the viewfinder lets you switch between Single shots and multi shots firing at about 1.5 frames per second. There is also an easy depth-of-field lever that allows you to see what will and will not be in focus in your shot.

There are four backs for this camera that allows you to shoot 120 film, 220 film, 70mm film and Polaroid. I only own a 120 back which gets me 15 shots on a roll of film. The 220 back gets 30 frames, and the 70mm back allows for 90 frames. I don’t need to explain Polaroids to this group. When you depress the shutter button half way you can see the shutter speed and f/stop clearly displayed in red inside the viewfinder.

ISO can be manually set for ISOs ranging from 25 to 3200 with virtually every increment in between, including many film speeds I have never seen. This is handy for the pros who know that, for example, Kodak 125 film shoots more like ISO 64 and so on. The 645 has a hot shoe that uses five different Pentax flashes and a host of after market brands.

One of the features that Lomo people like is the ability to make multiple exposures. However, it is a slightly cumbersome task since you have to set a multiple exposure button, fire your first shot and then set the button again repeating as many times as you desire. It is not as simple as the Holga in that respect and you will not get any “happy accidents.”

The Pentax 645 is easy to use – intuitive really. It is a bit bulky but it is a fully functionally camera with all the necessary tools, and it won’t break the bank. A used model of this manual focus beauty complete with a 120 back, viewfinder, prism, side handle, and lens should cost less than $300US. It’s not cheap but those others will run you thousands, even the used ones. It’s a great camera although some of the screens can be a little hard to set your focus. It is well worth the money and other lenses can be had fairly inexpensively including both wide angle and telephoto. Zoom lenses are still costly but unnecessary luxuries. A 45mm, 75mm, and either a 120 or 150mm should do the trick. I still only have my 75mm and couldn’t be happier. It also has a cable release button and two tripod mounts (one of the bottom and one on the side).

written by altprocess on 2009-03-20 #gear #120 #medium-format #220 #70mm #multiple-exposures #pentax-645 #hot-shoe #review #manual-focus


  1. azd1
    azd1 ·

    cool camera- great review and nice gallery! i really want a professional 120 cam

  2. vicuna
    vicuna ·

    That looks really like a great camera! And I'd really like such a 120 cam..... Thanks for this review! :))

  3. rater
    rater ·

    Nice pics and review!

  4. jingseng
    jingseng ·

    no. 2. my favourite! nice!

  5. smclemon
    smclemon ·

    Great find, I do like the pics too :)

  6. eyecon
    eyecon ·

    Like you I was always searching for a "cheap" alternative to Hasselblad - my first choice was always the Kiew 88 but I heard so many bad stories about the camera that I didn´t dare to get one....but this baby here is a great choice - but they seems to be a liitle bit rare....thanks for the tip!

  7. stouf
    stouf ·

    Excellent work altprocess ! Wish you get te "review of the week" ! And I really like your dogs by the way ; )))

  8. deff1
    deff1 ·

    Great Review! Great shots! I've got to add this camera on to my list. 166+ then this one!

  9. superlighter
    superlighter ·

    interesting review and very nice gallery, I love the shot #2 and #6!

  10. kevincharlie
    kevincharlie ·

    I recently purchased a Pentax 645 on ebay and I'm anxiously awaiting it's arrival! Like you I've looked at Hasselblad, Mamiya and Contax and then discovered the P645... thought it would be a great start into medium format.

  11. luciasrose
    luciasrose ·

    Great review! I've been using a borrowed Bronica ETRs and have absolutly fallen in love with this sort of camera and I'm dreading the day i have to give it back.. maybe ill have to try and track down one of these

  12. ojjvz
    ojjvz ·

    I know I wouldn't use it enough since I have enough 35mm SLRs, but I must have this camera! ^^

  13. larsholte
    larsholte ·

    Great review with some very nice images to back it up.
    I have tried the 645 and now have 645N/645N II. The 645N-cameras have several improvements, improved user interface and auto-focus, but the image quality is the same. I can heartily recommend all of them. If you wallet permits it, go for the newer N-series cameras.
    The older A-series (manual focus) lenses are just as good as the newer FA (auto focus) lenses. A 45mm, 75mm (a must have) and a 150mm make up a great set.

    That all Pentax 645 lenses can be used on the digital 645D and 645Z is another plus.

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