Why does this comparison feel like a battle between David and Goliath? On one hand, you have the top of the line Pentax 645D – it doesn’t get any better then this body for the tough ‘underdog’ company. And on the other, you have king of medium format cameras, Hasselblad, offering the entry level H4D-31 at a similar price point to the Pentax, and approximately half the cost of their recent “entry point”, the H4D 40.

Part One: The Pentax 645D

Pentax had a few growing pains when digital photography took over the SLR market. Although once a leader in 35mm and medium format film cameras, their first kick at the DSLR can wasn’t until September 2005 with the introduction of the Pentax DS1. It proved to be a nice camera but Pentax was years behind Canon and Nikon in grabbing their market share.

However, Pentax has since come out swinging and with the 645D, and may even have a knock out on their hands in the medium format ring. Priced at around $12K AUD, the 645D comes in at a price tag the competition such as Hasselblad has had to match while still offering a quality product. Can Pentax regain lost ground with the 645D?

Out of the Box: Body Styling & Usability

The Pentax 645D is more then a scaled up version of the medium format K-7 and K-5s – it’s bigger, tougher and feels very solid although not overweight. That being said, it also doesn’t feel like the usual medium format SLR [MFSLR] either. First off, it fits comfortably in even small hands without the usual stretch modern MFSLRs tend to cause. Placement is well thought out and the camera feels ‘right’.

Medium format has also always been a ‘tripod only’ camera because of the bulk as well as the usual weight of the big bodies. However, the Pentax can be handheld if necessary without the typical muscle and back strain. Even after a long day of trying to find the perfect shot, your body does not ache from carrying the MFSLR camera.

Image Sensor, ISO & Processor Speed

The Pentax 645D runs a 44 x 33 mm CCD format image processor that produces a 40 megapixel file at 7264 x 5440 pixels, approximately 1.7 times larger then the standard 35mm equivalent. Along with the high performance CCD, the MFSLR runs the Pentax-original PRIME II imaging engine that runs exclusive algorithms developed for medium format photography.

When compared to 35mm DSLRs, the 100 to 1600 ISO range seems somewhat shallow. However, the quality of the capture is far greater with all medium format cameras comfortably allowing for the narrower ISO range. Even under very low light levels, at 1600 an ISO image has far less noise then expected and with easier image cleaning then most files.

Medium format cameras have never been and never will be about action photography. However, the Pentax 645D does offer a continuous shooting rate of 1.1 frames per second when shooting RAW + JPEG – not too shabby of a processor speed considering this is not an area of focus for the manufacturers.

At the end of the day, the images produced by the Pentax 645D have all the heart stopping, awe-inspiring look and feel of a typical medium format image. They are clean, with strong colour gradation, superb accurate colour representation, and with all the intensity of range and texture expected from a MFSLR.

Auto Focus & Light Metering

Auto focus has historically been a problem in medium format digital cameras with either sluggish action or a fuzzy final product. Pentax has dramatically improved on the system with the 645D however.

The new medium format body uses the Pentax SAFOX IX+ AF along with the new 77-point light metering system designed for the K-5. The auto focus uses 11 points of focus, mostly centered in the image, that have a unique cross-hair sensor so points are measured both vertically as well as horizontally. Meanwhile the light metering system actually allows for adjustments in focus dependent on the type of light available. This new auto focus and light-metering combo allows for sharper images with crisp edges.

View Finder & LCD Screen

Some things in life are a joy to use right from the start and this includes both the viewfinder and the LCD screen on the 645D. The trapezoidal viewfinder is large with a 98% capture and easily viewed information screen. It also offers Natural-Bright-Matte focusing screens, making focusing less of a chore under various lighting conditions.

The other significant improvement is the LCD screen. Medium format SLRs have a well-earned reputation of second rate screens with limited functionality. Instead, the Pentax 645D offers a 3” wide angle view screen with adjustable brightness and colour and roughly 921K dots. A usable screen on a medium format body – who would have thought it!

Extra Bonuses:

Battery Life & Size
Pentax outdid themselves with this camera when it comes to battery choice. The ridiculously inexpensive and readily available D-L190 battery is less then half the size, one-eighth the cost, and double the battery life then all other medium format cameras currently available. On average, expect 800 shots per battery – impressive when you consider the LCD screen stays on much of the time you shoot.

14 Bit Raw files
Pentax has developed a 14 bit RAW file that allows for richer, deeper colour separation and greater detail to highlights and shadows. Larger files mean greater versatility and postproduction capability in the final product.

Weather Proofing

Is it necessary for a camera mostly used in the studio to be fully weather sealed and mostly waterproof? Not really but for those times out in the field and the weather shifts, its nice to know your $12K investment is not going to die the moment a drop of water lands on its beautiful magnesium alloy body.

InCamera HDR Editing Capabilities
With the popularity of High Dynamic Range photography increasing, Pentax has built an in camera editing system that takes three consecutive frames with varying exposure settings and melds them into one single image with a greater tonal range. Fast and functional, the in-camera editing is a fast and simple way to produce HDR photographs without the headache of downloading images to a computer first.

Conclusion

In the 645D, Pentax has a camera that redefines who they are in the competitive world of digital photography but also sets them a step or two higher then the competition. Comfortable to use not only in the studio, but also in the field, intuitive and user-friendly, and at a price point difficult to match in the world of medium format cameras, the Pentax 645D sets a new standard to which all other manufacturers must now attempt to match.

Watch for Part Two of the Medium Format Showdown when we discuss in depth the Hasselblad H4D 31.