Pentax 645n: First Thoughts

Of all the classic 35mm cameras I have tried over the past seven years, I can say that there are at least eight or ten that I really love. And any of those eight or ten would be good enough to shoot as my only camera. I can't say the same about medium format cameras. Haven't shot one up to this point that I'd put an exclamation point after.

My first MF was the Mamiya 645Pro. I actually liked this camera a lot when I was just fooling around with it in my house and yard. One day, however, I took it out for a day of shooting. By sundown, my neck and back were sore from lugging this behemoth around. There's nothing to complain about with the camera itself or Mamiya's fine lenses. This camera is just not meant for street shooting, hiking or even just walking around. It was designed for wedding photographers and studio work; areas where it excels.

Next up was a Rolleicord I inherited from a friend. Fine camera. Superb lens. I had never shot a twin lens reflex camera before. And because this camera had sentimental value, I wanted to love it. I didn't warm to the Rollei. It was fiddly and I found myself always using the magnifying eyepiece trying to get my shot into precise focus. Bending my head over to look down into the eyepiece and then looking up again aggravated my vertigo (a condition I have suffered with for years). It's bad enough I'm old and shooting an ancient looking camera. I really looked funny stumbling around with dizziness after focusing.

Next up were two rounds of Hasselblad 500-series cameras. To eliminate the viewfinder issue described above, I tried various versions of pentaprism finders for the Blads. The one I liked the best with built in metering was huge and heavy, turning the 500c/m camera into almost a Mamiya 645Pro. Again, the Hasselblad is a beautiful camera and the Carl Zeiss lenses will blow you away. And I loved the removable film backs. The Hasselblads just weren't my cup of tea.

I had almost resigned myself to being content as a 35mm shooter when a friend sent me an email and asked if I'd like to try the Pentax 645n. He had a nice, lightly used one for sale complete with 120 insert and SMC FA 75mm f/2.8 lens. We made a deal and I traded my Mamiya for the Pentax.

Pentax 645n with Pentax SMC FA 75mm f/2.8 and collapsable lens hood

Pentax 645n with Pentax SMC FA 75mm f/2.8 and collapsable lens hood

One of the things I do when I get a new camera is pay attention to the way it feels in my hand the first time I take it out of the box and peel away the bubble wrap. If it feels good then...that's a good sign. Don't get me wrong, the Pentax 645n is a big camera and it's not light, but it's well balanced and the hand grip is designed perfectly. This camera felt immediately satisfying. Because the 645n uses film inserts rather than removable backs, it's smaller and lighter than the Mamiya or the Hasselblad. The removable 120 film inserts are the easiest to load of any of the medium format cameras I have tried. The 645 format gives you 16 shots per roll.

The Pentax 645n uses removable film inserts

The Pentax 645n uses removable film inserts

The 645n shoots just like a 35mm SLR and offers matrix metering which allows you to shoot in aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual and fully automatic professional/program mode. Wanna see something cool? Look how smartly designed this Pentax is: Green Means Go! Set all of the controls on the top of this camera to green and the camera is in full auto-exposure mode. Easy peasy!

I was surprised at how quickly the SMC FA lens snapped into focus with no hunting and pecking. There's a little beep that sounds when the Pentax finds it's focus, a feature you can disable if you want. For a classic film camera, the 645n has an impressive autofocus system! The only 120 film I had on hand was some Ilford HP5+, not my favorite emulsion, but it would have to do. I spooled up the Ilford in the Pentax without having to read any instructions--nice! Now the real test...a long walk with the camera. 

First up, the sun on my patio furniture.

A wine barrel and my collection of golf balls that fly into my yard from the nearby course.

An intersection near my house.

The side of my neighbor's house.

Pride of Madeira, which grows like crazy here on the coast.

The beach.

And when I got back, the cat...right where I'd left her.

The 645n automatically advances the film on to the take up spool at the end of the roll. Open the back, remove the spool, seal the film up and you're done!

My walk lasted just over an hour and carrying the 645n around was no more tiresome than a modern DSLR. I probably wouldn't want to take it on an 8-mile hike, but this is a medium format camera I might use a lot more often. I think my results in the "auto-everything" mode turned out ok and the Pentax SMC glass rendered Iford HP5+ in a more pleasing way than with past gear I've used it in.

I've picked up some 120 format Portra 400 and am going to shoot the wildflowers, which are in big time bloom here in Northern California. The Pentax 645n is a smartly designed, easy to use and comfortable to carry medium format SLR. It might just be a keeper! (Oh my...exclamation points!)