The Pentax 645NII Visits the Jersey Shore
Article by Medium Format Marie / New York Institute of Photography
Introduction: Meet Marie!
Many professional photographers work exclusively with Single
Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras – either 35mm or digital models.
But there are larger formats out there just waiting for photographers
who – for practical reasons or creative desire – wish to work
with a larger piece of film. NYI’s Complete Course in Professional
Photography provides students with information about medium
format cameras that use 120- and 220-roll film, and the Course
also includes an entire lesson on how to use a view camera,
the big hood-over-the-head cameras that expose a single sheet
of film (either 4”x5” or 8”x10”) at a time.
The benefits of using a larger format camera include making
an image with richer detail, creating a larger negative that
can be easily retouched, and enjoying the challenge of working
at a slower, more thoughtful pace.
Many editorial and advertising photographers use medium format
cameras because of the incredible richness of the image. Many
wedding photographers use medium format to give adequate detail
to large group photos and to create negatives large enough
for easy retouching using traditional (non-digital) retouching
The number of medium format cameras
sold each year is much, much smaller than the number of 35mm
SLRs or point-and-shoot models. While sales of those types
of cameras are counted in units of millions, it is estimated
that only around 25,000 professional-level medium format cameras
are sold in the U.S. each year.
There are several reasons for this: medium format cameras
aren’t cheap, and they are built to last. The least expensive
Pentax, Bronica, Mamiya, and Hasselblad camera bodies start
in $1,000 to $2,000 range, Rollei’s start north of $2,500,
and at the top of the heap is the Hasselblad 205-FCC – just
the body is more than $7,500! Almost all lenses for these
cameras are in four figures as well. If you want to be a wedding
pro with two bodies, three or four lenses, and a half-dozen
backs and some other accessories, your investment can be well
over $10,000, perhaps even double that if you go for the top
So, sadly, many photographers never even dabble in the medium
format. This is a shame, and one that we’re out to fix.
That’s where Marie comes in. She’s tough, she’s a gear head,
and she’s taking her camera to the streets. We don’t have
advertisers to please, so Marie can write whatever she wants
about each model she gets her hands on.
Every few issues, Marie will be back with a review of a medium
format model, some of which are decidedly inexpensive. In
fact, there’s a plastic medium format camera, the Holga, that
sells for around $20! Our intrepid staffer, June Lang, started
the ball rolling by writing “Capturing Mermaids
with a Holga.”
We think medium format cameras
should be fun. So we’ll try to review some of the offbeat
cameras, such as Fuji’s GX-617 panoramic model or Mamiya’s
7II, which is really an overgrown point-and-shoot (for a little
under $3,000). But we’ll also cover used equipment, some antiques,
and bread-and-butter gear for the working pro. We’ll also
take a look at scanners that handle film this size. In fact,
Epson was kind enough to lend us their nifty 2450 Perfection
scanner that we’ll be reviewing in a later installment.
Naturally, this all depends on the cooperation of manufacturers
to lend us stuff to review, and your feedback. If there’s
something out there you would like us to investigate, e-mail
MFMarie and tell us what’s on your mind.
Remember, medium format can be fun. You can rent expensive
gear for a weekend fairly inexpensively, a topic we’ll also
cover. Fortunately, because of the competitive nature of this
limited market, some enlightened manufacturers seek to get
students interested in their system by offering a very handsome
discount to students purchasing a professional-level starter
kit. For several years, we’ve been able to offer NYI students
who are making satisfactory progress a discount with Bronica,
and recently we’ve established a relationship with Hasselblad
as well. Any interested NYI student should contact his/her
student advisor for details about how those programs work.
Now let’s see what Marie has for us this month!
The nice folks at Pentax let me borrow a
new-in-the-box 645NII camera body, a wide-angle 33-55mm
auto focus zoom lens and a 55-110mm auto focus standard
zoom lens. Now Marie is going to have some fun! I hope
the other camera manufacturers I’ve contacted will be
as gracious as Pentax. Let me share what I learned about
this medium format SLR. But first I’ll share some info
on the area where I took the photographs that accompany
A friend had a weekend portrait shoot scheduled on the
Jersey shore so I went along with him, bringing the 645NII
with me. It turned out to be one of the coldest days we’ve
had this winter, and while my friend was toasty warm inside,
I was not! We’ve been spoiled here in New York for years
now, winters have been mild and we haven’t had much snow,
but this year we’re having a real winter. And with that
come those great days with clear, bright, blue skies.
Cold weather aside; I had a terrific time with this camera.
I’ve taken many 35mm photographs in Asbury Park and Ocean
Grove, New Jersey, but this was the first time using medium
format. Ocean Grove, often called God’s Square Mile, has
been designated a National Historic District as a wonderful
example of a 19th century planned
community. The Boardwalk and beach are pristine clean
and a trip down Main Street will make you feel you’ve
just stepped out of a time machine.
In sharp contrast to Ocean Grove is its neighbor Asbury
Park. Once called the Jewel of the Atlantic Ocean, it
is now a shadow of its former self. Since the riots in
the 1960’s, followed by years of political corruption,
Asbury has been decaying like a moldy loaf of bread. With
an eclectic mix of historians, artists, Springsteen fans,
gay visionaries, long time residents, business people, redevelopers and intrepid New Yorkers as her saviors,
Asbury is struggling to climb out of the giant hole she
has been in for 40 years. Things are moving fast now —
the downtown area is full of life again. The Stone Pony
is still rocking and rolling. Ghostly abandoned motels
have been torn down. The Renaissance has finally come.
But maybe things are moving too fast. I just learned that
the latest threat from the bulldozer brigade is the fully
restored Baronet Theater. In a last ditch effort to try
to save the Palace Amusements building with its grinning
Tillie face; the Save Tillie group has listed it in Ebay’s
real estate section. If it hasn’t sold by April, it faces
demolition. I love this broken city-by-the-sea and I can’t
wait for her revival, but I’m hoping there will be something
there beside condos when the redevelopment is done.
Now let me tell you about the camera! The 6cm x 4.5cm
format produces an image 2.7 times larger than the 35mm
format. The Pentax 645NII is the follow up to the 645N
with lots of new features. The most notable are mirror
lockup, user-selectable exposure compensation and bracketing
increments, and 10 user selectable functions that allowthe
user to customize the camera. I’ve never tried the 645
or the 645N but apparently, Pentax listened to photographers’
comments about previous models and incorporated these
new functions as a result.
This was my first time using a film holder.
A quick look at the diagram in the manual was all I needed
to get started. It’s easy and fast and when you’ve loaded
your film, the holder pops easily back into the camera.
You set the film speed and you’re ready to go. Depressing
the shutter release button automatically advances the
film to the first frame. The 645NII uses exclusive film
holders that are compatible with the 645. I’d definitely recommend pre-loading
2 or 3 holders before you head out. With this camera you
get 16 frames on a 120 roll of film. Pentax also has a
220 film holder available and with the 220 holder you
get 33 frames. Unloading the film is just as easy, and
if you need to, you can unload the film in mid-roll.
Having only one film holder, I didn’t venture too far
from the car so I could quickly change film and warm my
hands at the same time. My gloves were a bit too thick
to easily handle the camera controls so my fingers got
really cold. I really do need a pair of fingerless gloves.
The 645NII camera body is made of rigid aluminum die cast
with a glass-fiber reinforced polycarbonate coating, making
it rugged but lightweight enough for hand held shooting.
The camera’s design makes it easy to hold and the viewfinder
is large and bright and sharp. The dials are easy to handle
and change quickly. There are two tripod mounts, one on
the side and one on the bottom, a simple thing that aids
a great deal in your ability to compose. With my eyes,
I definitely need a camera with diopter adjustment and
the Pentax has it.
If you want to try some hassle-free shooting,
you can start with Program AE by setting the aperture
ring to A and the shutter speed dial to A, and the camera
will set everything for you. You can also choose Shutter-Priority
AE or Aperture-Priority AE. For maximum control over exposure
settings, you can use the Metered Manual mode. The LCD
data panel and bar graph indicator, located at the bottom
of the viewfinder, give you a full range of photographic
data. The symbols and letters are easy to figure out and
bright enough to see.
Combining exposure compensation and auto bracketing will
take some getting used to, but mastering this technique
is definitely worth it and will give you a great deal
of control. Combining the AE lock function with spot metering
will give you another powerful tool. You can confirm the
depth of field in the viewfinder by depressing the preview
lever, another handy tool.
The 645NII accepts the CS-105 and CS-130 electronic Cable
Switches and the TS-100 Release Timer Switch as well as
a standard cable release. Pentax offers several dedicated
flash units for use with the camera’s hot shoe and it
has a PC terminal for studio strobes. With the addition
of mirror lock-up and the ability to program 10 different
functions, this camera seems like a great choice for pros
as well as those who are just moving up to medium format.
I took this Ocean Grove photo of the Great Auditorium
with the new Pentax Auto Focus Super Wide-Angle 33-55mm
ƒ/4.5 Zoom Lens. This lens takes a view as wide as that
description! The lens worked well for the panorama-like
shot of Ocean Grove’s winterized tent colony — canvases,
awnings and furnishings stored until next summer. When
the summer tenants return, the tents will once again be
bright and colorful and full of life. If you’re into scenics
and landscapes, you’ll definitely want to consider this
lens. It’s pricey (at approximately $1,300) but you may
fall in love with it.
we’re on the subject of the focal length of lenses for
medium format cameras, I should point out that, for example,
a 50mm lens, which would be considered “normal” on a 35mm
camera, is a wide-angle lens on a medium format camera.
That’s because the effective view of any lens is governed
by the size of the film in the camera. So a standard lens
with “normal” perspective for a medium format camera is
in the 80 to 85mm range.
In fact, this is such an interesting topic that we’ll
devote some serious space to it in a later installment.
For now, just realize that the angle of view that you
get with a lens of a given focal length that is mounted
on a medium format camera is different from what you would
see using a lens of the same focal length mounted on a
At first, I got a bit confused by the auto
focus lenses. The manual indicates there’s a switch on
the lens to change from MF to AF. Not so. A look at the
operating manual for the lens gave me the info. You simply
push or pull on the focusing ring to switch from manual
to auto, and then the words Auto Focus are visible on
the lens. There are three focus modes – AF Single, AF
Servo and Manual Focus. When you’re focusing manually,
look for the focus indicator in the viewfinder for a visual
confirmation and/or set the camera for an audible confirmation.
This is a great feature! You can choose from a wide “3-Point
AF” frame and the “Spot AF” frame.
I took some of the Asbury Park and Ocean Grove photographs
with the new Pentax Auto Focus 55-110mm ƒ/5.6 Standard
Zoom Lens. The new zoom lenses allow you many focal lengths
in one lens and I found this one to be a great all-purpose
lens if you want to travel light. Both zoom lenses accept
82mm filters and come with lens hoods that have a window
so that you can easily turn a filter. Pentax offers a
nice range of high quality lenses for the 645NII and both
auto focus and manual focus lenses work with this camera.
Breaking News: I just got word that Pentax introduced
a 150mm – 300mm Auto Focus Telephoto Zoom Lens for the
Pentax 645N and 645NII at PMA in Las Vegas.
For advanced operations, you can select a consecutive-frame
drive mode, a self-timer mode or a multiple-exposure mode.
I don’t take a lot of multiple images, but I do want that
function available to me. You can use teleconverters and
extension tubes with this camera. You can also imprint
a huge amount of information on the bottom of your negative
outside the image area.
The one thing that stuck out more than anything about
using the Pentax was that dials and controls were conveniently
located and easy to use and I liked the way the camera
felt in my hands. This is one of those common sense things
— first time buyers often get hung up on asking which
brand of camera to buy, without taking that all-important
step to find out whether they’re comfortable when holding
the camera and manipulating the controls. Sure, you need
to know first whether or not the camera has the features
you want and need, but once you have that info, take a
trip to the camera store and actually check out the camera.
No trip to Asbury Park would be complete without a shot
of the mid-century Howard Johnson’s on the boardwalk near
Convention Hall. This is the last Howard Johnson’s restaurant
in New Jersey. The Howard Johnson’s in Times Square is
closing soon so let’s hope they save this Asbury Park
landmark. Yeah, yeah, I’ll get off my soapbox now.
I would not hesitate to recommend the Pentax 645NII camera
to anyone who is considering moving up to medium format. It
is relatively lightweight, which makes it a good camera for
the field, and there is a big selection of Pentax lenses to
choose from. If you plan on buying a camera for landscapes,
photojournalism or architecture, this would be a great choice
for you. I’m told wedding photographers use it as well. The
camera is lightweight enough for hand-held shots and the two
tripod mounts make for easy compositions. There are so many
features that I didn’t even touch on here. My impression is
that this camera, combined with a few great Pentax lenses
and accessories, would be a great choice even for pros. The
one thing lacking is a digital back and hopefully Pentax will
remedy that soon. A quick trip to the Pentax
Web site will give you full info on this camera and lenses.
Let’s not forget why we’re all considering moving up to medium
format in the first place, those big beautiful negatives and
the ability to make bigger and better enlargements! The 645NII
blends the convenience of a 35mm camera with medium format
benefits. Go for it!
Approximate Street price:
Camera body only: $1900
Camera body with 75mm ƒ/2.8 lens and 120 holder: $2,480
Wide Angle 33-55mm ƒ/4.5 Auto Focus Zoom Lens: $1295
55-110 ƒ/5.6 Auto Focus Zoom Lens: $895
120 Film Holder: $170
Reprinted with permission from the New York Institute
of Photography web site at http://www.nyip.com
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