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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 techniques.

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 shelf brands.

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 this article.

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.

While 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 35mm SLR.

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

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