Cleaning out your closet can be really dangerous at times. Apart from the risk of getting bonked by falling objects, there’s the bigger risk of simply cleaning out the old to move in the new – with the end result being only a newer glut of clutter, and nothing more. The flipside, however, is that you often can turn something useless into something useful, and for me, that’s always been my main reason for going on a rummaging expedition in the wilds of my closets.
This time through, I took a load of miscellaneous stuff I hadn’t touched in years, eBay’ed the hell out of it, and generated a fine little cache of cash that allowed me to have some extra fun money that was mine and mine alone. Thus, cash in hand, I decided to turn it into something that I had been wanting for a while, but never got around to pursuing too hard until now – a medium format film camera, and specifically a Pentax 645.
Why a Pentax 645? To put it bluntly, I like how they’re a single integrated package as opposed to the more typical modular construction of other medium format cameras. In some respects that makes me an oddball because the whole modular concept is what most folks really get excited over with these cameras, but not that odd apparently because many, many Pentax 645’s have been – and are still being, sold to this date. For me, the idea of an integrated package to work with means simplicity and a design that was made fit for purpose with no extra BS to deal with. I like that, and true to form the Pentax 645 is a very simple camera that is very direct to use and manage, especially the first-gen model, like the one I bought.
Control-wise the 645 is very minimal, with only the basics available, and not much more. You have direct controls for ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, plus mode select and exposure compensation as well. There’s also a multiple exposure feature, a DOF preview lever, a power switch/shutter lock, and finally the shutter button itself. That’s it. Later models added settings for AF, metering, and some other features, but the amount of fluff even on those is still nearly non-existent, so they’ve never strayed too far from the camera’s roots. I will say though, that the digital models – the 645D and 645Z – look to have broken the trend and gone the route of contemporary DSLRs, but they’re no worse than those cameras either, so maybe not such a great departure in the end.
As for the shooting experience, it is very similar to a standard 35mm film SLR, with the main difference being that it’s a somewhat different shape and noticeably heavier (though it’s actually almost identical in weight to my Nikon D3, so still quite manageable). In fact, it’s very, very close in many ways to the Pentax Program Plus I have that was contemporary to it at the time. As such, it makes for a very natural and quick shooting camera, despite its size and format, and that translates into I think one of the greatest advantages of the 645 over other medium format cameras like the Hasselblads and Rollei-Flexes, which is that you can carry and shoot it very easily. No hunching over, no awkward holds, no slow fiddly controls – nothing, just raise it to your eye, frame and focus like any 35mm manual SLR, press the shutter, and move on. It even has a power winder, so you don’t have to worry about that either. It’s fast and positive, thus you can use it exactly the same as a 35mm camera and in the same situations, but with all of the image quality benefits medium format brings to the table. It even has Program, Shutter, and Aperture Priority modes, as well as full Manual too. Anyone who’s ever shot a manual SLR will feel right at home in no time at all.
All of that’s great, of course, but in the end image quality is what’s really important, and in that area the 645’s no slouch. 645 negatives are just over 2.5 times larger in size than 35mm, so that means they capture much more detail and that they are cleaner looking than 35mm because the grain is proportionally smaller in comparison to the whole frame size. Since I scan my negatives in order to process them digitally, at 3200 dpi I get a nominal file size of about 32 megapixels, which is more than enough for most uses I feel. Quality wise, I’d say it feels very close to my Nikon D3, though the film grain is a bit more pronounced (this is based on scaling the images down to 12 MP for comparison purposes).
Now, you may asking, “Well, why bother with all this if the images are only about as good as a 7 year old DSLR? Shoot a modern DSLR and you would hand the film camera its ass on a plate, so again – why bother?”. My answer would be, “Who cares?”. Film is not digital, and it has a very specific look to it that you cannot, despite what some folks say, mimic with post processing. You can come kinda close, but it’s just not there in the end. This has a lot to do with factors like film’s handling of highlights, color palette, tonality (for B&W), and the effects of the camera/lens combination itself. No matter how digital is processed, it still looks digital because it is digital. Which is fine – each medium has its place and suits some types of work better than the other, and the smart, open-minded photographer uses both – applying either to whatever project it fits best. Many people will argue this point, however, but I feel they simply have a close-minded way of looking at things and are missing the bigger picture.
So there you go. Hopefully, after reading this you might become curious yourself about trying medium format film. If so, I say go for it. If you shoot 35mm film, the image quality boost is quite noticeable and very satisfying, and if you shoot digital, then the image quality will be closer to what you’re used to, but with all of that filmy goodness that real film naturally has. Not only that, but medium format cameras are dirt cheap these days. My 645 I picked up in mint/near new condition for $490 shipped from a seller in Japan, where a lot of these cameras seem to be coming from. That’s stupid cheap – especially when you consider that, new, the 645 went for around $2500 for the body/lens set (I have the original price tags for mine). Plus, lenses are about $150-160 on average I’m finding for clean minty samples. Other systems are similar – though the more popular ones like Hasselblad and Rollei hit the high end of the scale, but still far less than they were when new. The situation being what it is, you really have no excuse not to try one out, so go for it!
Here’s a handful of photos from the first few rolls I put through my 645. Most were just test shots and worthless otherwise, but there were some definite keepers and here they are:
Fuji Neopan 100 Acros in D76 1:1
Arista EDU Ultra 200 in D76 1:1
Arista EDU Ultra 100 in D76 1:1