Pentax 645Z Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Phenomenal resolution and detail
  • Excellent prints beyond 30x40 inches at base ISO, and really good 8x10s at ISO 12,800. (Even ISO 25,600 came close to a good 8x10!)
  • Great high ISO performance for a medium-format camera
  • Mostly very accurate exposure metering
  • Huge sensor provides great opportunity for isolating subjects with depth-of-field blur
  • Rugged, weather-sealed body
  • Large, bright viewfinder
  • Versatile tilting LCD monitor
  • Relatively quiet shutter for the size
  • Good ergonomics; shoots much like a typical DSLR
  • Good lens selection (but predominantly optics designed for film use)
  • Fast autofocus, and works well in low light
  • Low shutter lag
  • Reasonably fast burst mode (considering sensor size and resolution)
  • Generous feature set
  • In-camera HDR supports raw capture, so you can remerge on the PC later for better results
  • Video capture is a rare feature for medium-format
  • Decent battery life
  • Very affordable by medium-format standards
  • Quite bulky (but not unduly so for a medium-format camera)
  • Older lenses typically aren't weather-sealed
  • Autofocus points are clustered near center of frame
  • Default program line tends towards shutter speeds that can be hard to hand-hold (but easily fixed by changing program line)
  • No AA filter means more prone to aliasing artifacts
  • High default saturation, contrast and sharpening
  • Buffer clearing times can be lengthy
  • 60i video is badly degraded in resolution
  • Suffers from significant moiré and false color in video, especially at 60i rate
  • Shake reduction for movies introduces ugly, distracting distortion and shimmering

Three years ago, we reviewed Pentax's first medium-format digital camera, the 645D, and found lots to love -- but also quite a few limitations that it shared with all of its medium-format competition. Fast-forward to today, and the Pentax 645Z keeps the best of its predecessor, while answering most of our criticisms. It's faster, shoots at far higher sensitivities, adds live view and movie capture, and plenty else besides.

No question about it: This is a much more complete camera, and yet it's actually priced lower than was its predecessor at launch. (Account for inflation, and the Pentax 645Z is an impressive 20% more affordable -- and the 645D was already much less expensive than competing medium-format cameras, which can run into the tens of thousands!)

Image quality of the followup Pentax 645Z is excellent, with absolutely spectacular detail, especially at base sensitivity. And the new, wider sensitivity range is very usable, allowing for 11 x 14-inch prints at up to ISO 6400, and 4 x 6-inch prints all the way up to ISO 51,200. As is typical with Pentax cameras, color is punchy and occasionally inaccurate at default settings, but let's face it, the Pentax 645Z shooter is very unlikely to stay with defaults.

There are no two ways about it, though, this is a fairly chunky camera, especially in terms of its depth. And thanks to that size, you will very likely attract attention when shooting with it which may rule it out for subjects where you need a bit of stealth. But for landscape, nature, product photography -- subjects that don't care how about the size of your camera -- the Pentax 645Z can shoot absolutely amazing photos. And importantly, while it's larger than the typical professional DSLR, the Pentax 645Z's weight is indistinguishable from that of smaller-sensored pro cameras like the Canon EOS 1D X. Compare it to cameras with a similar sensor size, and it's clear that the 645Z is relatively trim and light, by medium-format standards.

And compared to rivals in its category, the Pentax 645Z offers some features that are rare or downright unique, beyond its lower pricetag. Admittedly, its movie capture is not the rival of smaller-sensored cameras in terms of detail -- and if you enable the 60i frame rate, it's hard to call the result high-def -- but it's nice to be able to shoot short movie clips with the Pentax 645Z, take the camera with you anywhere rain or shine, and to have access to swift multi-point, phase-detection autofocus as well as sensitivities far in excess of medium-format rivals for handheld night shooting.

The Pentax 645Z's size and pricetag obviously mean it's not for everybody -- for many of us, a smaller-sensored APS-C or full-frame camera is a better choice -- but its insatiable hunger for detail helps it stand apart from pro-camera rivals. If you routinely print at extremely large sizes and need maximum detail, you need to be looking at a medium-fomat camera -- and this strikes us as far and away your best option at anything even resembling its price-point. Compared to its rivals in the medium-format space, the Pentax 645Z is significantly more versatile and affordable, and a clear Dave's Pick! We only wish we didn't have to give it back, now our review is complete...

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