Seeking the bigger picture
We are always in pursuit of the best, and in photography this is achieved by a combination of skill, lens quality and image size. One of the perennial rules of all photography is ‘get it right, in camera, on the shoot. ‘ Post shoot photoshop work is necessary at times but never replaces the natural image. 35mm systems do a great job but as a photographer we are never satisfied, especially when we know there is something better. Hello medium format. Probably the first thing you notice when you start looking at MF cameras is price. Generally expensive - usually twice the price of a mid range 35mm. The second is bulk, twice as big. Those are a couple of real negatives to focus on ! Ahh, but the medium format image – once you get your first MF images developed the price and bulk are forgotten. Probably so are most of your 35mm cameras. Medium format is defined by the image size, from 60x45mm to 6ox90mm compared to 35mm at 24x36mm. The more image detail recorded at capture, the greater the print size that can be achieved. Medium format film images have a certain indefinable quality about them. – a sense of three dimensional depth, more natural and closer to the human eye. Medium Format film is either 120 or 220, the latter simply twice the length. 220 film is very hard to come by these days. The various image dimensions shot with MF cameras produce more or less frames on a given film length, For instance, my Pentax 645 produces 16 frames on a 120 film, whereas the Voigtlander 6x6 Perkeo II produces 12 frames. The Fuji 690 (6x9) prroduces only 8 frames.
Review our Developing black & white film article for some useful tips for processing 120 MF film compared to 35mm film. There are some serious differences.
Focal length lens comparisons, or crop factors between medium format and 35mm can be a little confusing but need to be taken into account when selecting MF lenses, especially moving from 35mmm to MF. Rather than delving into the technical and complicated angle of view calculations the simplest way of comparison are the image size differentials between medium format and 35mm. MF 645 lenses have a 0.62% larger image circle than a 35mm lens with the 645 image being 2.6 times larger than a 35mm image therefore, a 28mm lens in 35mm format = 45mm in 645 MF format. A ‘standard’ 45mm lens in 35mm format is equivalent to a 75mm 645 MF lens. 6x6, 6x7 and 6x9 have different lens requirements. For instance on a Fuji GW690, producing a 6x9 image, it’s fixed 90mm lens is equivalent to 39mm in 35mm terms. The Voigtlander Perkeo II needs an 80mm lens to produce its 6x6 image. As in the 35mm format the different MF camera bodies capable of lens changes have their own lens mounts designed for their native lenses. Various adapters can be utilised to use a third party lens on a particular body however some lens functions may not be available via an adapter. Research is the key.
My 25 year journey through photography started with 35mm film, moving to early digital then progressing to modern digital, then the rediscovery of film, especially black & white and it is far from over yet. Careful study of early 35mm slides shot with a 1960s Canonet 45mm F1.9 from the 60s and 70s revealed the qualities of superior lenses and attention to composition. Some of these early slides could be proper photographs, worthy of printing rather than just snaps consigned to the box in the cellar and revealingly, the percentage that are to be prints is not great, pointing the finger at our composition and depth of field skills, not the camera. Being in film and certainly medium format makes you think about your image subject, composition and exposure settings before you press the shutter button. The percentage of ‘keeper’ images rises and those consigned to the bin decreases. Your photography becomes more about creating an image which has purpose and meaning rather than snapping everything.
When you start to take a serious look at medium format it is soon apparent there are more than a few options and research, research, research is required. Photography is not a cheap business to be in whether you are commercial or a hobbyist. You will always be looking for the best, and the best costs. However this can be moderated by starting from the viewpoint of – what will I be doing with my medium format camera? The definition of quality comes into play here – ‘fit for purpose’. So, what am I doing? I have long admired medium format imagery but have not seriously considered it for my own work as 35mm was, and is mostly good enough, but I have got to the point now where I am just not happy with ‘good enough’. I know there is better and I want to have a shot at creating the best photographs I can. I have taken the decision to step into the bigger pond. As said at the start of this paragraph – lots of research. The brands I have turned up are – Contax, Mamiya, Pentax, Fuji, Hasselblad, Bronica and Plaubel Makina. These are all film cameras although some manufacturers produce digital versions. Hasselblad and Mamiya (Mamiya-Leaf) do a digital back which allows interchange between film and digital on the same body. For studio professional applications it is the norm but digital medium format has 3 drawbacks – 1) super expensive gear, 2} loses the subtle quality of MF film and 3) the digital files produced per image are huge requiring hi-power computing to open the files, process and archive.
We know these digital options are out there but we are not going to consider them for our step towards capturing the bigger image. Two reasons – we love film and we can’t afford them. The Contax 645 system is one to be lusted after due to it’s quality and the Zeiss lens options available. Phase One also have a digital back for the Contax 645 if a switch from film is ever contemplated. A lotto win would help with the purchase of a Contax system and bearing in mind that all these systems are from the 2nd, third or even fourth hand market a lower price point on entry may be wise. The Mamiya offerings become interesting as there are several different bodies and a range of excellent Sekor lenses. Going back a few decades the Mamiya 6x6 folder was popular and still is capable of good results. Finding one in sound condition is the challenge with the folding mechanism, bellows and shutter operation potential trouble. A very low price could make the 6x6 a worthwhile punt. My thinking is, if you, and I have made the positive decision about medium format then we don’t want to be mucking about with a non shooter. Voigtlander also offered a couple of nice MF folders – the Perkeo and the Bessa II and the same comments as with the Mamiya 6x6 apply. A beautiful , operational condition Perkeo II came into my hands recently and I am enjoying it enormously. Quite quirky and slow to use but get it right and the results are outstanding. If you are tempted by these, and they certainly take you back to the completely manual days when hand held light meters were needed, then a few hundreds for a good condition example is enough. Focus could be zone or uncoupled rangefinder on the Perkeo E model – very rare. The Bessa II was blessed with a coupled rangefinder in later iterations. The Bessa II’s are mostly overpriced unless the example being considered is in pristine condition, and certainly the few which appear for sale fitted with the renowned Apo-Lanthar lens are very definitely over priced. The Bessa II's are reported as having a film flatness problem due to the image size (6x9) which resulted in focus difficulties. Back with the Mamiyas, in later years the RZ67 appeared then the 645, then the 645AFD. Also 3 rangefinders with interchaangeable lenses, Mamiya 6, 7 and 7II. The 645 series is capable of accepting a digital back which makes the system quite versatile. With a 120 film back they run about NZ$2000 which may include a standard lens. The rangefinders are considerably dearer, moving up towards NZ$4000. I took a good look at the Bronica 645 which is a very nice rangefinder camera with a suite of outstanding Zenza Bronica lenses, however the final $ were out of my budget. Similarly the Hasselblad and Plaubel Makina. If you can afford and justify ownership of these famous brands, go for it – you will not be disappointed. I liked the Fuji offering, especially the 690 rangefinder. Good price point, solid build and a well reputed 90mm lens, but that is the problem – the 90mm is the only lens.
I had been considering the Pentax 645 system for a while and it continued to bubble away during my overall research. The first 645 is a basic body, no auto focus and basic metering but The Pentax 645N is a huge step up from its forebear - an SLR auto focus body with TTL matrix metering able to take 120 or 220 film backs and half a dozen manual and auto focus lenses. 220 film is very hard to find now so we will only be concerned with 120. They are the same film except 220 is twice the roll length. The Pentax 645NII is nearly identical to the N body so the extra $ usually asked don’t represent extra value. Acceptable price point – around NZ$950 for a near new body including 120 film back, lens options – what’s not to like. Another major plus is the batteries used – 6 x AA, available anywhere. The Pentax is not particularly battery hungry. The Pentax 645 mid range manual lenses usually can be acquired for NZ$350-$400 with their auto focus FA cousins about double. If you are used to using manual lenses on 35mm rangefinders then the manual MF ‘A’ lenses will not present any problems, especially as the Pentax 645N has in viewfinder focus confirmation very similar to a Nikon SLR.
Well, the 645N has landed and it’s a beauty to behold. Yes its BIG but this is good as I am taking the bigger picture. The Pentax 645 looks like business – it has purpose and I can’t wait to run the first roll. Immediately obvious is the control setup and layout. Nothing is superfluous, unlike some of today’s digitals – that I should live so long to find out what all those buttons do!
The controls on the 645N do exactly what they are there for – nothing more or less. The on/off switch, top right is a 3 position slide switch, off – on beep – and on. Shutter release is just forward of the on/off and has a threaded standard cable release socket. The drive mode dial selector rotates around the shutter release enabling selection of single shot, consecutive shot and self timer operation. In consecutive mode with an AF lens attached and the AF mode selector set to single the focus of consecutive frames will be locked to the focus setting of the first frame. Directly to the right of the LCD panel are the up/down buttons with which, when selected the ISO can be changed. The LCD display includes, current ISO setting, low battery warning, frame counter and whether, or not exposure data information is being imprinted. This is very useful and is thoughtfully imprinted on each frame outside the image area unlike some 35mm slr cameras, with this function available but it was imprinted in the image area. Very annoying so always turned off. No surplus information on the LCD display. On the slanted section of the handgrip, just below the up/down buttons is the memory lock button which when in spot meter mode enables a particular exposure to be held while the frame is recomposed. The memory lasts for 20 seconds. Just to the left of the LCD is the shutter speed selector, which can select auto shutter, or manual, bulb to 1/1000 sec. Press the lock button on top of the selector to rotate. Set below the shutter speed selector is the metering mode selector which has 3 positions. Spot, centre weighted and multi 6 segment. The multi mode is best for general shooting. With a manual focus A lens attached the in viewfinder focus indicator confirms focus easily and clearly. With an FA, auto focus lens attached a half press of the shutter button locks subject focus. Our experience with A lenses: 45, 75 and 150mm is they are incredibly sharp, well made and easy to use. The FA lenses are also of very good character but expect to pay double an A lens price. We like the A lenses and can recommend them. Our lens policy over the years has been to only shoot primes as these have dedicated function, lack vices and with their single focal length, very sharp. Medium format lenses with maximum apertures of F2.8 are the norm, whereas in 35mm format F1.2 – F2 is not unusual.
The medium format lens is much larger than its 35mm equivalent needing to cover a larger field of view. There are Pentax6x7 (105mm F2.4), Hasselblad 6x6 (110mm F2). These lenses create beautiful bokeh effects having very shallow depth of field. The Pentax 105mm is possible for the 645 via an easy to find adapter and is actually not too expensive (US500-600). A large bulky lens though. If you have a special application for its abilities then a worthwhile acquisition. We have become a bit sidetracked with lenses here so back to the camera controls.
The viewfinder is very bright and clear with a dioptre adjustment ring around the eyepiece. This is a good size and easy to grip. Rotate until you have a sharp view. Over to the left is the exposure compensation dial +/- 3ev. Immediately below is the film speed ISO switch which is used in conjunction with the up/down arrows on the top panel right. Auto bracketing is a useful function where a perfect exposure can be difficult to capture. 3 exposures can be made at either 1/3ev, 2/3ev and 1ev between each. Obviously the camera cannot be moved between exposures and must be firmly based on a tripod. Focus is lockied at the first exposure and remains until the bracket is finished.
That completes the camera controls and I can comment the Pentax 645 N is an intuitive and easy camera to shoot, yet includes a professional function level which can be utilised as needed.
Lens attachment is really simple. Looking at the front of the camera depress the button on the lower left of the camera housing , align the red dots on the camera and the lens, carefully insert the lens into the body being careful to be square on and turn slowly to the rigjht until a click is clearly heard. Lens attached. Reverse to remove. Be careful not to touch the mirror or the lens contacts as skin oils do not help these delicate parts. Halfway up the camera body, to the left of the lens is the depth of field (dof) lever. To confirm DOF at a particular aperture, set required aperture on the lens , look through the viewfinder and move the lever towards you. The aperture stops down to the preset value. Shutter cannot be released during this procedure.
Loading 120 film is an equally simple but more multi step procedure. The Pentax has an excellent interchangeable film holder which allows at least 2 holders to be preloaded with film making film change a quick procedure. The film holder which is not in use has its secure light tight outer case. Raise the lever with the green ‘120’ in the middle and turn to the right where a release of tension can be felt. Turn a little more against resistance and release the film holder from the camera body. Never force anything. It is quite a complex and well built precise mechanism. Looking at the film holder from the back you can see an empty spool in the bottom spool holder. This needs to be transferred to the top spool holder. Lift the spool retainers away from the film holder body to allow the release, transfer of empty spool and loading of un exposed film. Insert the unexposed film roll where the empty spool was after carefully removing the tape film keeper being watchful to not unravel the film. The black inner side of the paper backing must face outwards. Close the spool retainers. Take the leader across the pressure plate and insert the tip through the slit on the take up spool. Slowly wind the silver gear wheel anti clockwise to secure the film on the take up spool. At the beginning of this process the tip of the film leader appearing through the take up spool slit needs to be gripped – a pair of tweezers is useful for this – until the winder positively secures the film. The leader tends to slip out if this care is not taken, leading to some frustration. Continue slowly winding until the black arrow on the backing paper appears on the film spool and aligns with the red start mark. Do not continue winding as there will be danger of film fogging. Now is the time to insert the film holder back into the body. Ensure the film holder is orientated correctly to the camera body, is square on and press gently home until a click is heard and return the lever to its locked downwards position. Power the Pentax on and release the shutter. This automatically winds the new roll to frame #1 ready to go. A very useful extra for the 645N, and I wouldn’t call it an extra but a necessity is a second 120 film holder including it’s outer case. With this in your bag quick film change is a simple task. It is possible to rewind a part used roll but it is not possible to interchange film holders with a part exposed film loaded.
That really completes our look around the Pentax 645N and I can say now from experience of quite a few rolls of Ilford Delta 100 and Kodak Tmax 100 that it is a thoroughly capable and satisfying professional film camera which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to step up to medium format at a mid range price point.