Written by Charlene Hardy
About 4 years ago, I was the happy owner of a Contax 645 medium format system (Find at KEH Camera or eBay). I loved the results of shooting with the Zeiss lens and was pretty happy with the camera system.
Although I was able to overcome most of the Contax quirks, I had one obstacle I just couldn’t get around. With the Contax, I never felt comfortable taking it outside of the studio setting. My Contax had issues if I was shooting in any type of weather that was too cold, too hot, too humid, or too dusty. Whenever I wanted to shoot film outside, I would carefully evaluate the weather and environmental conditions, and, most of the time, I would leave the Contax on the shelf and take a different camera.
Learning About the Pentax 645Nii
At WPPI that year, I was talking with a few different photographers, and the Pentax 645Nii system (Find at KEH Camera or eBay) kept getting mentioned. They couldn’t stop raving about how much they were loving the Pentax system, the lenses and the price. Right away, I started researching the Pentax and googling everything I could about the system.
I found a mint system on Ebay with a 75mm lens for around $700 and hoped for the best. I feared nothing could ever take the place of my Contax camera. My fears were completely unfounded. I used the Pentax for a week, shot multiple rolls of film through it, and listed my Contax for sale at the end of the week. After I sold my Contax, I was able to pay for the Pentax body and buy two additional lenses for the camera.
Pentax 645Nii First Impressions
After I got the Pentax in the mail, my first impression was how well it fit in my hands. It is a medium format camera, so it is not lightweight, but it felt comfortable and comparable to the Contax systems. My biggest surprise was the brightness of the viewfinder. I had no trouble composing and focusing the camera. With the Contax, I struggled to focus during low light situations.
My Experience with the Pentax 645Nii
During the past four years, I have enjoyed using my Pentax 645Nii for portrait and personal work. The Pentax goes with me to all of my portrait sessions. It’s been on snowshoeing trips and family vacations, including hiking in the Grand Canyon and a backpacking trip. The following contains my personal experiences and thoughts about the system. More technical specs can be found in the Pentax 645Nii owners manual online.
The Viewfinder & Focusing
As I mentioned before, the biggest surprise was the brightness and clarity of the viewfinder. I mainly use modified lenses on the camera, which means using manual focus almost exclusively. I do not have any issues with focusing the camera. The viewfinder makes focusing fast and accurate.
With my Contax, I had plenty of out of focus photos, but my “keep rate” for focus with the Pentax is around 95-100%. On the rare occasion when I do use auto focus, I find that it is nothing like a SLR camera in terms of speed (it is SLOW). But it is more accurate and a little faster than the Contax.
Ease of Use & Metering
The Pentax 645Nii is a pretty straight forward camera. I like that I can use it as a manual camera without any issues or problems. When I got mine in the mail, I didn’t feel like I had to read the user manual before I could use it. The controls on the Pentax 645Nii are clearly labeled and very easy to use.
I exclusively use the camera in manual mode. The camera has a built-in matrix meter which is rumored to be pretty accurate. I shoot mainly black and white film, so I meter using a handheld light meter. When I compare the handheld meter reading to the camera meter reading, the two readings are pretty close. I know quite a few photographers that use the in-camera meter and are quite happy with the results.
Downside to the Pentax 645Nii & Loading the Film Back
One of the “quirks” about this camera is the lack of interchangeable backs. There isn’t a way to switch film stocks mid-shooting. I wish it had a system with a few different backs so I could switch between film stocks during sessions. Loading the back with film takes a bit of patience due to the way the film threads through the back, but, after a few times, it became second nature for me.
The interchangeable back is not a deal breaker for me because the camera system has more than a few redeeming qualities, such as the battery system. The Pentax 645nii takes 6 AA batteries. At first, I thought I would hate using so many batteries. But I bought rechargeable batteries, and, after the initial investment of the batteries and charger, I don’t invest any more money into the batteries. I am also a big fan of being able to pick up batteries almost anywhere instead of ordering obscure camera batteries online.
Lenses & Adapting Lenses for the Pentax 645Nii
One of the most exciting reasons I switched systems was the ability to adapt and use lots of different lenses for this camera. It opens up so many possibilities for experimenting with different lenses.
The first lens I used was the 75mm that comes standard with the camera. This lens is the equivalent to the 50mm on a 35mm camera. This lens has the best autofocus capabilities and doesn’t add much weight to the camera.
The next lens I purchased was a lens designed for the Pentax 67 camera. I purchased the 105mm F/2.4 lens and an adapter to use it on the 645 system. I really liked the lens, mainly the bokeh it produced and the ability to focus on subjects very close to the camera. The downside of this lens is it is a large and heavy, not much fun to travel with.
Looking for an alternative to the bulk and weight of the 105mm lens led me to The Bokeh Factory and their wide variety of lenses they modify to fit the Pentax 645 system. I eventually saved up almost $2000, and purchased the Contax 80mm F/2 lens. After experimenting with the different lenses, and shooting hundreds of rolls of film, I finally felt like I had found “my lens.” I really love the combo of the Pentax with the 80mm Zeiss lens. The bokeh is very unique and adds such a three dimensional look to the photos.
The downside to this conversion is that the lens is now a fixed aperture lens. It can’t be moved from F/2. I still have my other lenses for situations where I need to stop down for an increased depth of field, like group photos, but I use the Bokeh Factory lens for 99% of my photos.
Overall, I am very happy with the Pentax system. I think as a photographer it is important to find the tools that work for you as an individual artist. After trying a few different camera systems, I have shot with the Pentax for almost 4 years now and am very pleased with the photos it helps me create.
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