A few years ago, I was in a position where my only medium format cameras were the Voigtlander Bessa III Wide and the Fotoman 69HPS. While both of these cameras are very special, they come up short in a few areas. First off, the Voigtlander is a rangefinder, so naturally it is extremely difficult to use with filters. Since I shoot mostly outdoors, some of my most useful pieces of equipment are graduated neutral density and polarizing filters. The Fotoman, on the other hand, can use filters, but using long lenses is not very practical since this style of technical camera employs a fixed cone system. My 120mm lens has an angle of view equivalent to 55mm on a 35mm camera, yet the total length of the lens+cone is seven inches.
So what I was naturally looking for was a medium format SLR. After some thorough research, I landed on the Pentax 645. In particular, I choose the 645NII variant. The original Pentax 645 uses a series of buttons to control settings, which is one thing that aggravates me on modern cameras. But the Pentax 645N swapped out that control scheme and went to control knobs, and they are brilliantly executed. Then the third iteration, the NII, came along and for the most part is the same as the N with mirror lock up added. Since I always intended on getting either Pentax’s 300mm or 400mm lenses, I decided the mirror lock up would be the best choice. That being said, the Pentax 645N still has a very well balanced mirror actuation and camera shake on a tripod is minimal.
This is one of the best performing SLR's I have ever used, medium format or otherwise. It feels great in the hand and is truly made for pro use. The matrix metering hits the mark every time, it performs much like my Nikon F5 in this regard. Since I've started using this camera regularly, my ratio of keepers has been steadily increasing.
Speaking of the F5, these 645 lenses can be adapted to Nikon bodies so I don't need to carry two of these bad boys into the field. I have discovered that my F5 will meter properly with Pentax glass, so now I have a viable backup that adds a different crop factor. I am working on a review of this method and releasing it soon!
It has been about three years shooting with the NII and I appreciate it more every time I use it. There is great satisfaction when I review my shots following a trip. The lenses are sharp, the camera is durable, and this is the first time that I can truly say I can operate a camera without looking down at it. There is also a huge advantage that I can invest in a medium format lens kit and have the option of using them in the future with digital if I wish.
There is not much negative to say about this Pentax, for me at least. The biggest issue I have with the camera, and the system in general, is the space it takes up in my bag and the overall weight. Lenses weigh much more than their 35mm counterparts. Though, I find that in a backpack, the addition load is an acceptable trade off for the superb performance and image quality.
One other item that I wish was different is the inability to change film backs mid roll. I recognize that this would have added weight and complexity to the components, but it is nice to capture scenes with different emulsions.
If you are looking for a medium format camera and would like to keep the agility and convenience of 35mm systems, than go with the Pentax 645N/NII. You will not be disappointed. I backed into the 645 format after first shooting 6x7 and 6x9 cameras. While I was hesitant on “wasting” special moments in the field on a smaller format, scanning has proven time and time again that 645 delivers. Galen Rowell’s work was very inspirational in getting rid of my resolution hang-ups. If Galen could produce the stunning photos he did on 35mm, 645 should be just fine.