Pentax 645N Review: The modern face of classic photography

In this review we will talk about a modern medium format film camera that is capable of competing against the big names. A camera that does not compete with its engineering but rather with its functionality and features.

Less famous than the legendary Pentax 67 (the tank), the 645N over the years has managed to win over many of its users, including portrait, wedding and fashion photographers. This is why at DustyGrain it occupies an important place in the top of the best medium format film cameras (see here).

Pentax 645N Specs

Release:1997
Camera type:SLR (Single lens reflex)
Film type:120, 220 format
Film format:6×4.5cm
Film Back:Stock, NPC Polaroid film back, Fuji FP-100C
Metering modes:Auto, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual
Exposure modes:Evaluative, Center-weighted, and Spot meter. 2 to 21 EV
ISO/ASA:6 to 6,400
Shutter type:Electronic vertical focal plane shutter
Shutter speed:4 sec to 1/1000 sec
Flash sync:1/60 sec
Focus modes:AF Single, AF Servo and Manual
Standard lens:Pentax FA 645 75mm F2.8
Battery:6x AA batteries
Dimensions150 x 111 x 117 mm
Weight:1280g with no battery

The 645N

The Pentax 645 is a medium format SLR film camera that features auto and manual focus on a list of mount-specific lenses. It also has auto advance and rewind, it also has aperture-priority and shutter-priority modes. The frame has a ratio of 6×4.5cm so in a 120 film you get 16 shots (and 32 shots in 220).

For those who come from the digital world and want to get into analog photography, either to try or to improve the quality of their work, without a doubt you will not find a better one than the Pentax 645N to achieve it. It has all the technological standards that the professional field demands to carry out an effective job, with the naturalness that is sought in the film.

The body

Some of the characteristics of the Pentax 645N body compared to other classic cameras of its type have to do with its simplicity. Being a modern camera, there is an emphasis on the ergonomics of the camera, which is why the grip is one of the most outstanding.

The grip

The grip protrudes from the right side and is part of the body itself, where the fire button is located, as well as the burst mode, timer and power selection functions. Besides that the grip itself is the holder of the batteries.

Cameras like the Mamiya 645 which is another great camera that “rivals” with this one. It implements a grip with similar functionalities with the difference that it is removable. Personally, I do not miss that everything has to be disassembled in a camera.

The back

Another component that is not made to be interchangeable is the back (at least not in the middle of a film already on), which is just an insert in the camera that houses the film and is not built with a darkslide holder like other professional cameras like the Hasselblad.

It should be said that the back holder insert also has another characteristic and that is that you will have to have one for 120 and a different one for 220 respectively. Each one is labeled with the type of film it can contain.

There is a polaroid back (NPC Polaroid film back) that does the full job to be able to shoot paper frames, but it only works for that type of paper. In addition, it adds a ridiculous volume on the sides that totally forgets any sense of ergonomics. The option is at least there.

The two mounting threads

Another notable feature of the Pentax 645N is that it has 2 threads for mounting on the tripod, one for portrait mode and one for landscape mode. This already suggests to you the strong emphasis towards portrait photography.

Metering

The exposure modes of the Pentax 645N are Evaluative, Center-weighted and Spot metering. In the range of 2 to 21 EV. Evaluative mode is similar to what matrix metering mode would be like on other cameras.

The evaluative mode is really good for all kinds of situations, both controlled and difficult to read. There are no complaints about its efficiency in the 645N. For more “creative” situations we will have the other two modes accordingly.

The Shutter

The shutter on this camera is an electronic vertical focal plane type. What he means is that it is very similar to what many modern SLR cameras have. The shutter is positioned inside the body and not on the lens as in more classic medium format models like the Rolleiflex.

So it has its advantages and disadvantages:

  • Advantages: It’s fast, capable of moving speeds of up to 1/1000sec, which doesn’t seem crazy fast, but in the world of medium format it really is.
  • Disadvantages: It is not silent, so if you want to walk stealthily with this camera you will not succeed. But this is something that for many photographers is not relevant, especially in fashion photography, or portraits.

In general terms it is not as noisy as the Pentax 67 for example, since the fact that it is electronic is a great advantage.

Added to the sound of the shutter will be the film advance motor, so you will have the typical sound that some call “satisfying” that comes a bit from the nostalgia of the sounds of the 90’s.

Viewfinder

The 645N’s viewfinder is an eye-level type, has around 100% coverage, is bright and quite enjoyable to look through. But it is not perfect and now we will see why.

Although the coverage is wide, it is good to have a larger eye-cup to position the eye more appropriately, since with the one it comes with by default, it does not have the ideal separation to look through.

The viewfinder doesn’t have a split-image focus aid or anything like that, so when focusing manually you’ll just have to go by what you see. For many it is not a problem since it is perfectly perceived thanks to the clarity it is, however if you want a “mathematical” precision, you will have to choose to use only AF lenses.

The original version of the 645 had this setting for both types of focus, but they decided to invest more in brightness and go all-in on AF. It is understandable, although it will be missing if you are more of a manual focus.

645 mount

The mount of the Pentax 645N is known as type A or simply type 645, which is what its predecessor introduced in 1984, the original Pentax 645. For this reason, in addition to the new autofocus (FA) lenses, we will have available the range of lenses from the original 645.

Lenses

The 645 mount has a wide range of lenses, ranging from the first appearance of the original model, to incorporating the more advanced AF models in the 645N and 645NII. Of course we’ll only be sitting here on the most relevant lenses for those starting out with a 645N. High-quality lenses that have nothing to envy to German names.

Wide-angle: The SMC PENTAX-FA645 45mm F2.8 is the wide-angle option for the 645N, and I confess my favourite. It’s fast, well built, with reasonable distortion. Check prices at KEH Camera

Standard lens: The SMC PENTAX-FA645 75mm F2.8 is the lens that you will surely have when purchasing the camera, it is the 50mm of a lifetime in a 35mm. It’s fast, reliable, accurate, and remarkably built. Check prices at KEH Camera

Portrait Tele: The SMC PENTAX-FA645 150mm F2.8 [IF] is excellent for closer portraits. If you want photos with creamy bokeh like cream itself, this lens is the one to go for. Check prices at KEH Camera

If you do animal photography, which is also one of the targets of this camera, you may be interested in a very long lens like 600mm f5.6. It is a beautiful beast and a favorite of nature photographers.

Autofocus modes

There are two autofocus modes, AF Single and AF Servo. As the name itself indicates, the AF Single focuses only once per action, that is, for each time we press to focus. The Servo AF mode, on the other hand, performs a continuous change of focus as we move the frame and keep the focus button pressed.

Servo AF mode would have to be the follow focus mode as we know it from modern digital cameras. But on the Pentax 645N we won’t reach the speed with which today’s cameras do. Even so, it works correctly and is one of its most notable features.

Price and buying guide

The price of a Pentax 645N can be around $600 to $1000 together with the 75mm 2.8, there are those who sell it with the manual lens, which is not ideal since, as we said, the manual focus is not the forte of this camera (you could consider the original version for this case). But hey if the price is reasonable and the condition of the body is with its original shine, it can be a considerable option.

As with everything, it is best to buy from specialized sellers who tell you exactly the state of the camera. Being an electronic camera, the proper thing is that you buy it in the best possible condition, without blows of any kind, since we are not talking about a mechanical camera where this may not be a problem. In an electronic chamber, humidity is the great enemy, and it is necessary to avoid its passage to the interior.

See prices at KEH Camera

645N sample shots

Conclusions

In this review of the Pentax 645N we saw that we are facing one of the most versatile medium format film cameras. It is fast, direct to the photographic act without having to go through too much technical details. And precisely because of this it is very reliable. Although it still has the volume that any medium format camera has, it is not so noticeable since it is very ergonomic and weighs slightly less than others of its type.

So if you’re interested in buying a Pentax 645N, go for one without hesitation, plus it’s a very good price for all it offers.

Useful links

Camera manual: https://www.cameramanuals.org/pentax_pdf/pentax_645n.pdf

List of 645 lenses: https://www.pentaxforums.com/lensreviews/SMC-Pentax-645-Medium-Format-Lenses-i4.html


Jorge Ferrufino

Fashion photographer, regular contributor for Dusty Grain.


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