Hands-On Camera Review: The Pentax 645Z

May 19, 2016

By Theano Nikitas

The Pentax 645Z is Ricoh’s follow-up to its first digital medium-format camera, the 645D. Although the 645D didn’t realize widespread adoption at the time, I loved the camera and its outstanding images. But the 645Z trumps its predecessor with its 51-megapixel CMOS sensor, speedier performance (including up to 3 fps continuous shooting), expandable ISO up to 204,800, full HD video capture and, most importantly, stunning image quality. Better yet, the 645Z is priced at $7,000—more on par with professional DSLRs than its medium-format competitors, which cost four times as much as the same Sony CMOS sensor. And, like most Pentax DSLRs, it’s weather-sealed as well.
At 54.67 ounces fully loaded and measuring 6.14 x 4.6 x 4.84 inches, the 645Z is a large camera, but even when used with the HD D FA645 90mm f/2.8 macro lens, I was easily able to handhold the camera/lens combination. Shooting handheld with the smc D FA 645 55mm f/2.8 lens was even easier, although the bulkier HD DA 645 28-45mm f/4.5 lens required tripod support.

Image Quality
Image quality is, in a word, stunning. Test shots, whether shot in studio or outdoors, were crisp and extremely well detailed. Sure, that’s what one would expect from a medium-format camera, but achieving this type of image quality was surprisingly easy with the 645Z. Color reproduction was, for the most part, spot on—even with auto white balance—and skin tones were beautifully rendered. Dynamic range capabilities exceeded my expectations. Although I’d recommend keeping the ISO at 1600 or below for the best results, images shot at ISO 3200 and even 6400 were more than acceptable for even very large prints.

The only camera in its class to feature video capture, the 645Z—sadly but not surprisingly—fell short especially considering its beautiful still images. Video lacked the crisp, clean look we enjoyed when shooting stills. But, if you want or need short motion clips, the 645Z’s full HD video delivers good enough footage to include in a presentation. I just wouldn’t use it for long-form motion projects.

With 50 megapixels and a wide dynamic range at your disposal, you’re able to coax out an extraordinary amount of detail in your images.

In addition to its weatherproof design the overall build quality is excellent. The camera is sturdy and, in the hand, feels well constructed. A one-size-fits-all grip provides a solid handhold, regardless of hand size and upper body strength. A bright, large viewfinder is complemented by a 3.2-inch high-resolution, tilt LCD that comes in handy when shooting at high or low angles. Control layout, with only a couple of exceptions (the ISO button and choosing AF focus points), works well for easy operation, and most buttons and dials are within reach (even for my smaller hands). The camera also offers two tripod mounts, one on the bottom and one on the left side, a clever and convenient design component.

What We Liked
After being slightly intimidated by other medium-format cameras and digital backs in the past, the 645Z is a breath of fresh air. It’s easy to use with only a slight learning curve—the kind I’ve experienced when reviewing, say, a Canon DSLR after spending time shooting with a Nikon DSLR.

The camera is generally responsive and offers up to 3 fps continuous shooting—no match for DSLR performance, but quite good for a medium format. And its image quality is spectacular.

Dual SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots can be programmed for functions such as recording JPEG stills to one card and RAW to the other (the 645Z offers DNG, as well as Pentax’s PEF, RAW formats). Up to 29 custom functions are available, and battery life is excellent for a camera in its class, with enough power to capture at least 700 images. And since Phase One refuses to support for 645Z in Capture One, Pentax has developed its own free tethering plug-in for Lightroom.

What We Didn’t Like
Autofocus speed in very low light, especially with the 90mm lens, can be frustrating. When it finds its target, the AF locks in quickly and accurately, but with its 27 AF points clustered in the center of the sensor, focus and recompose is the 645Z’s mantra. Studio shooters may also be frustrated with the 645Z’s 1/125th of a second flash sync speed.
While Ricoh does offer a free Lightroom plug-in for tethered shooting, it only supports image capture and transfer—you can’t make exposure adjustments through Lightroom. To get more control during tethered shooting, you’ll have to part with another $200 for the company’s Image Transmitter 2 software.

How it Compares
Given the 645Z’s specs, the use of the same CMOS sensor as other medium- format cameras and its amazingly low price, it’s a strong competitor and an excellent point of entry into the medium-format world. Wedding and portrait photographers will appreciate its ease of use and astounding image quality.

It’s too bad that the 645Z’s video capabilities, which is one of the main features that sets it apart from other cameras/backs in its class, are lacking. However, aside from a few shortcomings mentioned earlier, the 645Z is a strong contender when high-resolution files with exceptional detail are desirable. The 645Z’s price is certainly a strong selling point but it’s not the only reason to consider this camera if and when you want to explore medium-format photography.