Five readers enjoy the company of a Pentax 645Z medium-format DSLR for an exclusive day’s shoot in the Lake District. Advanced Photographer Editor Will Cheung provides some insight into the event
When the alarm clock went off at 5.30am I looked out of my Keswick hotel room window and all I could see was rain. And it was proper rain: big, fat droplets, glistening under the streetlights as it fell.
Almost two hours later, the rain was just as heavy but the scene was very different: there were eight photographers sitting on a minibus staring out into the murk where Castlerigg Stone Circle was supposed to be, wishing the rain would go away.
It could have all been so different. This was meant to be a sunrise shoot, the first location of a day’s great photography for five readers all using the Pentax 645Z, the camera that has redefined medium-format digital photography.
Completing our cast for the day was Mark Cheetham, national accounts manager of Ricoh Imaging who had organised the loan of the Pentax cameras and lenses, and Matt Emmett, Pentax ambassador and expert urban photographer (forgottenheritage.co.uk).
Sunrise time had been and gone so the sky had turned a lighter dark shade of grey but the heavy rain persisted.
“The camera has 76 special seals so it’s weather-proof so it should be fine even in this,” said Mark. Our frustrated photographers took that as permission to take their loan cameras, worth £7700 with the standard lens, out into the pouring rain.
Remarkably, perhaps startled by the bravado of our photographers, the rain eased, not much but enough to make taking pictures easier if not exactly pleasurable and soon the sound of 645Z shutters firing could be heard.
Each reader had been issued with a 645Z with the 55mm f/2.8 lens and we had a good selection of other lenses available, covering a range from 25mm to 300mm including two macro lenses and the new 28-45mm f/4.5 wide-angle zoom.
We had also organised loans of Manfrotto MTCXPRO055 tripods with X-PRO 3-way heads for those who wanted them, plus a selection of products from Lee Filters including ND grads, the polariser and the Big Stopper.
Basically, we had everything for a grand day’s photography in the Lakes, given some half decent weather. As it turns out, the worst of the weather was over and the cameras had proved their reliability in the face of a serious drenching. More heavy showers came along during the day but nothing compared with the morning’s rainstorm.
After breakfast, the plan was to head for Watendlath, a photogenic spot owned by the National Trust. There are water cascades, a tarn, a packhorse bridge and mountain landscapes to enjoy, and on the way back there’s Surprise View and Ashness Bridge. Plenty of opportunities to explore with the Pentax 645Z and the collection of lenses we had on hand.
The afternoon was to be a change of scenery (literally) and the quarry and mining museum at Threlkeld. For the £3 entrance fee, it’s a brilliant location and you could easily spend a day there and not be bored.
Day’s end was to be back on the bank of Derwentwater where the landing stages is just one attraction to tackle in the fading light.
Read on to see how our talented photographers did using a camera they barely knew in weather conditions that were some way from ideal.
“I like to shoot people in landscapes, wildlife and motorsport. I never go out specifically to photograph things, rather it is always to document some activity I’m doing, invariably walking or climbing.
“I’ve never used medium-format before (either film or digital) and given its size the Pentax 645Z was surprisingly easy to handle. It was also generally well balanced irrespective of the lens that was fitted on the front.
“The button layout, especially the ISO and exposure compensation control both near the shutter button, is something I’m not used to. However, I suspect with time this would be fine.
“Overall the camera performed well and the level of weather sealing was extremely reassuring. The exposure system seemed excellent and accurate, especially the auto ISO mode. The autofocus system was good too although I would have preferred five points if they could have been placed towards the edges of the frame.”
“I am a landscape photographer mostly but I like to shoot travel, street and some portraits from time to time. Through my photography, I try to transmit some of the emotions I feel seeing the magic sceneries that nature presents to us. I mostly like dark and moody atmospheres and like to convey some abstraction.
“I am already a Pentax owner, having a K-3 and a K-5 IIs, so I felt really at home using the 645Z. I found however the body of the camera to be a bit bulky, which shouldn’t come as a surprise with a medium-format camera.
“It was quite similar to my K-3 but depended on the lenses you were using. Older lenses tend to slow down the autofocus a bit due to the mechanical drive.
“I was most impressed with the dynamic range and the resolution – they are just amazing! You can zoom and zoom into the image as much as you like and still see some of the details on wider landscapes. Recovering shadows and highlights on the Raws was child’s play. I used an ND grad filter at times but I don’t think I really needed one as the shadow and highlight areas could be recovered with so much detail.
“The image quality in general was really good. This comes at a price with Raw files weighing in about 60MB to 70MB.”
“I have been shooting seriously for around three years, mostly landscapes and travel although I have an interest in portraits also.
“I enjoyed my day of using the Pentax 645Z immensely. Coming from a Pentax K-5 I found it fairly easy to adapt to using it as the menu systems etc. were all familiar. The AF system worked well although I did also make a fair amount of use of live view with the focus peaking system (especially with the tilting screen for low angle shots).
“Despite the fact that the camera is significantly larger than I am used to I didn’t really notice it even when scrambling over rocks to try and find better shots and angles.
“The weather sealing held up well, in fact I think the camera fared better than I did in some of the downpours that we experienced through the day.
“I was most impressed by the quality of the Raw files and the latitude they provided for editing afterwards. I took several bracketed exposures of various landscape scenes with the expectation of needing to blend in correctly exposed skies in Photoshop, as I usually prefer this to working with graduated ND filters. When I came to edit the DNG Raws in Lightroom though, I found that I had plenty of scope within a single file to draw back a reasonable looking sky – although I realise my idea of a good sky might not be to everyone’s taste.
“The one shot that I did process through Photomatix actually didn’t produce any better clouds than the single files processed in Lightroom. The large file sizes also didn’t slow my computer down as much as I had expected either.
“I must confess I had lusted after this camera as soon as I saw its specifications. I have recently invested in a Pentax 645NII film camera, which should hopefully meet my medium-format needs for the time being.”
“I’m lucky to live on the doorstep of North Wales and I started doing more serious landscape photography when I bought a VW camper several years ago. Dawn shoots have now become my favourite time to be out with the camera and I moved to full frame earlier this year.
“After spending the morning feeling my way round the Pentax 645Z, I started to get to grips with it towards the end of day and felt this was being reflected in the better images I was capturing.
“Handling-wise this is a big camera and if you have the time to set it up and wait for the light then the image quality is fantastic.
“The camera’s exposure system coped well in more contrasty situations keeping good detail in both shadows and highlights. The ISO performance was very impressive too. I took it up to ISO 6400 and saw no visible noise on my processed images. Colour rendition was good.
“Its weather-proof qualities were tested in the heavy showers we experienced and the camera continued working perfectly despite the weather. It was also great not to have to rush to put the camera away when the rain came.
“The large sensor meant there was a slight delay writing the image to the memory card and previewing the image, so I found myself taking fewer images and spent more time setting up the camera for a shot. This in itself was not a bad thing. However, I found that I lost some opportunistic landscape shots where fleeting light was passing over the hills.
“Towards the end of our shoot I was starting to feel more comfortable with the handling of the camera and would have really liked another day with it. When you got it right the Pentax delivered in every way.”
“I’ve been in love with photography for over 30 years, coming from the dark old days of film, which I still enjoy shooting today. I now spend my time out and about capturing the beautiful scenery Scotland has to offer. Black & white is my main passion.
“The camera felt very comfortable in my hands, albeit heavy (as expected). Often medium-format digital cameras can feel quite clunky and cumbersome to use, but the Pentax 645Z felt good, even handheld. Ergonomically, I found it better than any other medium-format system I’ve used.
“Lack of familiarity aside, I found it an intuitive camera to use and the general ergonomics appear to have been well thought out. I used the menu system to assign functions to different buttons to suit my preferred way of working.
“The autofocus was responsive and quick for a medium-format system and only struggled in conditions that other cameras would have too. In terms of what else I’d like, there’s no built-in eyepiece shutter and I would have liked one. That said I didn’t encounter any light leaks on any of the long exposures I took. Then again the day wasn’t particularly bright and none of my exposures were that long, so I can’t be sure that it wouldn’t be an issue under more challenging conditions. Other than that, the ability to set a 1:1 frame in live view would be a welcome addition.
“The image quality is superb, there’s no doubt about it. The level of detail the Pentax 645Z is capable of capturing is astonishing.”
About the Pentax 645Z
The Pentax 645Z is a fully featured medium-format DSLR. Among its headline features are the 51.4-megapixel CMOS sensor, a top ISO of 204,800, articulating monitor and Full HD video capability.
Shoot medium-format and you would expect great quality images and the Pentax’s 44x33mm dimensions give files measuring 8256x6192 pixels, which translates to prints measuring 27.5x20.6in without any interpolation. And you get this top quality in a camera that is equally at home on location and in the studio. Handling is slick, AF responsive and accurate, the exposure system uses a 86,000 pixel RGB sensor and the battery has capacity for up to 650 shots.
For more details for this impressive camera please visit their website.
Also, did you know you can now bag yourself a Pentax 645Z with 0% credit?