Pentax 645 Camera Review – The Best Entry Level Medium Format Film Camera

The desire to jump into medium format photography is usually accompanied by visions of Hasselblads, Rolleiflexes, and the Contax 645. And that’s understandable – the first has pedigree, the second has cool factor, and the third seems to be all that film labs share on social media. But these are seriously expensive machines and are out of reach for many shooters. Cheaper options exist, the Mamiya RB67 for one, but this camera demands compromise due to its incredible heft and lack of a light meter.

These are all great cameras, but for shooters looking to dip their toes into the water of medium format photography, sticker shock, lack of portability, and absence of creature comforts often lead would-be buyers to retreat back to the comfort of their 35mm cameras. That’s a shame, because shooting massive medium format negatives with a capable and affordable medium format camera is one of the greatest joys in vintage photography. Luckily, there exists a machine that offers the convenience of the 35mm SLR and a reasonable price point.

While browsing the shelves of a camera store in Wilmington, North Carolina some months ago, a very helpful (and effective) salesman recommended I try the Pentax 645. For $375 I walked out with the camera body, a 75mm and a 150mm lens, and two 220 film backs. This was a great kit at the right price. I now owned a truly portable medium format camera with internal metering, and money left over for a few rolls of film. More importantly, I’d been introduced to what may be the best bridge camera for anyone looking to jump from 35mm to bigger negatives.

In true Pentax fashion, the 645 is almost perennially forgotten and under-appreciated. It was released in 1984, almost twenty years after the debut of the Pentax 67, which continues to be a titan in the medium format arena. And just as the 67 looks a perfect representation of the classic professional cameras of the ‘60s, it takes all of one glance to pinpoint when the 645 debuted. From the plastic body powered by six AA batteries in the grip to the quartz display and rubber control button – this thing may as well play “Don’t You Want Me?” every time the shutter clicks.

What a difference twenty years makes.

Breaking further from the precedent of the 67, which was aimed at professionals in the studio, the 645 was marketed toward amateur photographers shooting their first weddings, breaking into the professional world. But it’s no slouch. It offers center-weighted metering with program, aperture and shutter priority auto-exposure modes, as well as full manual mode. ISO ranges in 1/3 stops from 6 – 6,400 with shutter speeds of 15 seconds to 1/1,000th of a second, plus bulb mode for long exposures. Its motor drive is capable of 1.5 frames per second, which allows us to blow through a whole roll in just twenty seconds. Expensive, and a bit absurd since barely anyone will be shooting sports with the 645.

Those are the specs, but what’s the real story? Let’s start with the not-so-good.

There’s no getting around the noise of this camera. It’s the loudest camera I’ve ever used, and it makes my Nikon N8008 sound like a mirrorless camera by comparison. If you’re like me and enjoy the sound of shutters then you’ll be in heaven with the 645, but if your photography requires you to be super stealthy on the streets the 645 will absolutely blow your cover.

Another thing that will surely be frustrating for some shooters, exposure compensation comes in whole stop increments up to plus or minus three stops. For photographers who are finicky about perfect exposure, this camera’s exposure compensation may be a bit too coarse. Workarounds involve messing around with the ISO adjustment, which is measured in the more versatile 1/3 stop increments.

And now the biggest pitfall of all – the viewfinder, which is about as dim as the shutter is loud. I don’t think I’ve ever looked through a darker VF. This can make speedy and accurate focusing a challenge in even adequate lighting, and absolute guesswork when the light begins to fade. And since the fastest lens in the 645-A lineup has a maximum aperture of F/2.8, fast glass isn’t coming to our rescue.

For all its wants, the VF does provide a nice LED display. In manual mode it shows how many stops we are from a perfect exposure, which it indicates with an encouraging “Ok!” If we use the exposure compensation, a very tiny plus sign will light up when compensation is engaged. Nice touches, but unfortunately not as useful as we might assume. In serious sunlight and bright shooting situations (which the dim viewfinder requires) the LED exposure indicator can be incredibly difficult to read.

Those are the cons. Here’s a big pro – you’ll never find a better medium format camera that combines this many features, as much capability, and as solid a lens lineup at anywhere near this price point.

And that’s the inarguable truth. Yes, there are medium format cameras with a better pedigree, and there are ranges that offer better glass. There are cameras that perform the same functions as the 645, and many more that can do even more. But when it all boils away, the 645 gives the photographer everything that’s needed to create wonderful images while remaining unbeatably affordable.

Its glass might be slow, but it’s sharp and light. A number of times my 645 took pictures way beyond my expectations. And in the hands of a better photographer, this glass can create stunning images.

I bought it because it checked all the boxes I was looking for: something portable and reliable that shoots medium format film. It was important that the investment was reasonably priced, because my experience with 120 was limited. I owned a Mamiya RB67 but the idea of taking it on a long trip was as laughable as was the thought of roaming around the city with it attached to a tripod.

I bought my 645 almost explicitly for traveling. I’ve taken it to Europe twice and it never got in my way or caused me any grief. I realize that my impatience makes external light meters a hassle when traveling, but fortunately the 645’s meter is accurate without fault.  In instances where I have to take it out of my bag and get a quick shot, it’s never failed me – which is kind of it, considering how often my abilities have failed the camera.

It will never be my everyday shooter, but it wasn’t designed to be. It was designed to be the entry point to medium format photography. Mission accomplished. Another victory from the people that brought you the 35mm beginner’s king – the K1000.

The 645 has undergone two facelifts over time: The 645N in 1996 and the 645NII in 2001. The 645N was a complete overhaul with a more sophisticated interface, autofocus, and matrix metering. The 645NII added mirror-lock up. Both the N and NII are much more sophisticated, professional cameras. You can do more with them than you can with the 645, but that comes at a price. Something around three times the cost of a 645. The obvious path is to master your fundamentals on the eighties camera, and graduate to the nineties camera (if you feel the need, which I never have).

The Pentax 645 is quintessential Pentax. It’s affordable, easy to use and delivers quality images. It’s under-appreciated when compared to the lustfully coveted Haselblads and Rolleis of the world, and sometimes panned for its simplicity. Right now, that translates into a lower price, helpful to young photo geeks looking to up their game (and the size of their negative). For those fiscally-challenged or budget-conscious film photographers, the Pentax 645 provides a higher tier of shooting while leaving enough money left over to buy the most important ingredient for their growth – lots and lots of film.

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5 Comments

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    May 29, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Do these cameras use a removable film carrier like the cheaper versions of the Mamiya 645 cameras do? These are usually made from injection moulded plastic and from my experience with the Mamiyas, just don’t hold the film in proper register accurately enough. I had two warranty replacement 120 film carriers for the Mamiya and none of them were accurate, all with diagonal skewing, so I only used the 220 film carrier insert, which was accurate. When 220 film became impossible to find, I gave up and sold the camera. With diagonal skewing you get two diagonal corners in focus and the other two have back focus on one corner and front focus on the other. I now always chose medium format cameras with all metal film carriers or heavily constructed removable backs. My choice for a cheap starter medium format would be the beautifully made Bronica cameras. Has the additional advantage in that it would save you the cost of going to the gym – lightweight they are not.

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      May 29, 2017 at 2:37 pm

      Thanks for the Bronica tip, Wilson. I’ve had my eye on the SQ series for a while now. As far as the 645 film backs, I’ve never had any trouble with mine. I haven’t tried a Mamiya 645 but from what I can tell the system is similar. I can say the Pentax film backs are very well build. Mostly plastic, but solid.

  • Reply
    bodegabayf2
    May 29, 2017 at 10:52 am

    I tried several medium format cameras (Hasselblad, Mamiya 645, Rolleicord) and none of them really did it for me. A friend suggested I try Pentax and offered to sell me a very nice 645n. The Pentax was the first medium format camera I bonded with. Easy to shoot, decent size and weight and very nice handling. I finally found my medium format camera!

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      May 29, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Glad to hear it! Pentax really upped their game when they came out with the 645n.

  • Reply
    Francois Hosy
    June 2, 2017 at 12:34 am

    My first medium format was a soviet one, a Kiev 60, and I love it ! Very cheap, a lot of lenses available, the viewfinder is amazing. there is even a light meter in the camera.
    You can find them on ebay. It just take some times to arrive.

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