Pentax 645n Medium Format Camera

In this quick review, I'm going to go over the pros and cons of the classic medium format camera, the Pentax 645n. This may be one of the easiest cameras for beginners to switch from 35mm to medium format, as well as serving the veteran film photographer well... with a few caveats.

I had a Hasselblad, which I really loved and it took incredible photos. The lenses rendered beautifully. The problem was, it is an extremely intricately designed camera, with complicated mechanical workings. It had no light meter, film advance or electronics, and that was nice. However, while the mechanics gave it precision and a swiss watch fine operation, it also needed constant tune-ups or it wouldn’t work well. So I sold it for a good amount of money (after getting it CLA’d one more time). For the amount that I received, I could probably purchase any old medium format camera. I decided to purchase two (and still had money left over).

The first was a Pentax 645n and the second a Minolta Autocord.

Impressions of the Pentax 645n? Well, it’s fairly big and heavy, but it handles like a 35mm camera, partly due to the battery compartment which doubles as a built-in handle (and of course 8 AA batteries add to the weight). It is fully automatic electronically, with built-in metering and film winding. It even does auto-focus if you have an AF version of the lens for it. The electronic options are limited, but all the basics are there, and on top of that, they all pretty much have their dedicated buttons/levers, so no menus. It is easy to set up for manual or auto exposure and/or focus, but also easy to set if shooting manual.

Pentax 645n with 120mm f/4 Macro Lens

One feature I really like is the combination of spot metering, exposure hold and exposure compensation. Coming from large format and the totally manual Hasselblad, I’m used to using spot meters and the zone system. With the Pentax 645n, I can decide which zone I want a model’s skin tone to be at, set the exposure compensation dial appropriately (say, plus 1 for zone six), spot meter the skin in the light I’m shooting (which will set the skin to zone five plus one in the exposure compensation), press the exposure hold button and shoot. Works well.

A positive for this camera is also a potential negative, and that is that it is electronically based in it’s operation. It won’t do much without batteries or if the electronics die. Fortunately, at this point, there are still part supplies and people who fix them, and the electronics are simple enough that they will work (until they don’t). Little fine tuning involved liked the mechanics of the Hasselblad. Shortly after buying my used “mint” 645n, I had to send it for servicing for about $120 because the automatic film advance mechanism was occasionally moving the film forward a bit too much, causing me to lose one or two of the 16 frames the camera gets on 120 film. I don’t really know the cause of the problem, but it is fixed.

Pentax 645n Camera with 75mm f/2.8 lens

So this camera is easy to pick up, easy to shoot lots of frames with quickly if you want, and very intuitive to use. The ergonomics work well to minimize the feeling of the weight, and the 645 format gives you a lot more film surface area than 35mm. A bonus is that the camera “prints” the exposure and shutter speed on the edge of the film.

The negatives. The lenses, to me, are not generally as good as the Hasselblad, and they vary substantially. It came with a manual focus 75mm f/2.8 which I thought was just ok, kind of dull and lacked character. I even put a Tiffen diffusion lens on it to get something more interesting out of it. I then purchased a MF 120mm f/4 Macro lens which is lovely and sharp. Then I tried an autofocus 55-110mm f/5.6 zoom lens. Works well but even less sharpness and character than the 75mm kit lens.

I finally ended up with a totally MF lens via an adapter: a Arax/Volna 75mm f/2.8. To me, much better than the Pentax kit lens. Not much sharper, if at all, but definitely more character and nicer out-of-focus rendering. So, the current set-up is the Arax/Volna 75mm and the Pentax 120mm macro.

More on the Minolta Autocord another time.

Arax/Volna 75mm f/2.8 lens

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