Will new cheaper medium format dSLRs like the Pentax 645D squeeze Canon and Nikon from above?

Written by Gary on March 23rd, 2010

While the Micro Four Thirds camera system with its compact, quieter, and lighter form factor is increasingly impacting the entry level dSLR market place, Canon and Nikon surely must be becoming concerned that falling prices for medium format dSLRs such as the new Pentax 645D may squeeze them from above as well.

For sports and other action photography, the pro dSLRs by Canon and Nikon such as the Canon 1D Mark III and Mark IV, or the Nikon D300s and D3s reign supreme courtesy of their fast burst rates of 8-10fps, good performance at high ISO, fast auto-focus (albeit not always accurate or focused on your subject) and range of wide aperture telephoto lenses. It is unlikely that in this sector, they will be seriously challenged for at least another 5 years.

Until now, pro photographers wanting to create very large and detailed prints requiring wide dynamic range and lots of pixels had to part with lots of money for either a medium format dSLR such as a Hasselblad costing some $US30,000+, or settle for a $US10,000+ 35mm full frame dSLR such as a 20+ megapixel Canon 1Ds Mark III or a Nikon D3X, or go for a $US20,000+ compromise on a medium format Mamiya dSLR.

Other options include the expensive, new Leica S2 system, or buying a medium format film SLR and adding a digital back, but this latter approach is quite cumbersome and risks lower image quality with potential lack of precise alignment of the sensor.

BUT, times are changing and Pentax is going to start the push for cheaper, but high image quality medium format dSLRs which handle more like a 35mm dSLR than the more cumbersome current medium format dSLRs.

The new Pentax 645D will be available in Japan only in May 2010 at an incredibly low $US9400 for body and sensor which has got to hurt Canon and Nikon, as their 35mm sensors will not be able to match a 645 size sensor for image quality when you need to create very large prints. When you can offer that image quality at the same price as a Canon 1Ds or a Nikon D3x, you have got to have a great chance of capturing market share.

The Pentax 645D offers the following features which make it very useful for landscape photography in particular, but also fashion if you can post-process out the potential moire artifacts:

  • Kodak 40 megapixel, high dynamic range (11.5 EV range is quoted), 14bit A/D, 44x33mm sensor (giving 6 micron size photosites) with dust removal system – that is 1.7x the area of a 35mm full frame sensor and the diagonal is 1.28x. Note that the 645D sensor is smaller than 645 film which 56 x 41.5mm which is 2.6x the area of 35mm film and 1.6x the diagonal of 35mm.
  • weatherproofed body with batteries optimised for cold weather – able to take 650 photos at -10degC on a single charge – perfect for the photo hiker wanting high image quality.
  • no anti-alias filter so that as much image detail as possible is captured – but at risk of moire on certain clothing, etc.
  • ISO 200-1000 – that is all that fashion or landscape photographers need – after all, they will usually be using a tripod or studio flash anyway
  • simultaneous RAW+jpg in-camera – unusual for medium format dSLRs, and offers DNG RAW file option as well as Pentax RAW files
  • sensor and body fixed to ensure precise alignment and cheaper manufacturing
  • no tethered shooting at present but HDMI output is available
  • no live view as no current medium format sensors offer live view
  • 2 axis electronic level indicator
  • 11 point autofocus
  • 77 segment exposure metering
  • ISO priority metering mode
  • uses SD memory cards
  • 98% viewfinder with diopter correction range -3.5 to +2.0
  • ability to use Pentax medium format lenses – the new 55mm lens is a Pentax 45AF2 mount but the camera will also take the older film mount lenses including 645AF (designed for the Pentax 645N and 645NII), and the manual focus lenses – 645A mount.
  • you can also use Pentacon and Kiev 88CM manual focus lenses via an adapter (the Pentacon 6 and Kiev lenses can also be adapted to Mamiya and Contax 645 cameras as well as used with tilt-shift adapters on Canon and Nikon dSLRs).
  • the Pentax 645 lenses can also be used on dSLRs such as Canon via adapters but obviously, only in manual focus.
  • a new digitally-optimised 55mm f/2.8 wide angle lens (gives a diameter field of view equivalent to a 43mm lens on a 35mm camera) – weather-proofed, 9 element, aspherical with USM AF, internal focusing and even coatings on rear element to reduce internal reflections of light bouncing from sensor.

If I was going to carry around a big, heavy camera for static subjects and the Pentax lenses suited my needs, then for the same price point, the Pentax 645D would have to easily beat any Canon or Nikon offering on image quality – assuming that the images of the 645D do live up to expectations.

The problem for Canon and Nikon is that either they will have to lower their prices or lose some of the high end market share to medium format sensors, unless they start to enter the medium format sector themselves – and perhaps Canon were considering this given that some of their latest pro lenses appear to have larger image circles than needed for 35mm sensors.

An issue with the Pentax is the narrow range of lenses and lack of tilt-shift capabilities:

  • the widest lens is the Pentax-FA 645 35mm f/3.5 AL IF Aspheric which on the 645D gives a diagonal of of a 27mm lens on a 35mm camera.
  • there is an older manual focus version of this lens which is not as sharp and has more vignetting on 645 film –  the Pentax SMC P-A 35mm f/3.5 MF.

See also:


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Damen Stephens says:

    WHEN the Pentax is available outside of Japan – still it is looking like a better camera since the announcement that the GH-2 will not have a global shutter or any form of double exposure ISO enhancement … and YES I AM crying about that !!

  2. admin says:

    The Pentax is a totally different beast to the GH-2 – but yes, I am disappointed the GH-2 will not have those features – but then again, I’m not quite ready to upgrade my GH-1 just yet, so I can wait for the GH-3 🙂

    The camera manufacturers need to get as much money from each of their developments as possible – no need for them to rush in and put them all into an early camera and spoil us!

  3. Jeff says:

    Hasselblad announced their “prosumer” 35mm killer back in Feb (http://www.dpreview.com/news/1002/10020210hasselbladh4d40.asp), a bargain at only $AUD 20k – still high, but all the signs are there to push prices down across the board over the next couple of years…

    I do wonder about the ‘blad’s APL “True Focus” setup, particularly given how critical they are of multi-point AF

    So, wait for a 1D4s, wait for a Red Scarlet, wait for a ‘blad price drop… I guess I’ll be waiting to win Tatts!!

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Jeff, I had forgotten that the price for the Blad H4D-40 with lens is only $US19,995 and it comes with true focus AF technology.

    Red Scarlet is likely to be too expensive, although much more versatile with its HD RAW video capabilities as well.

    Interesting times indeed – I’m not sure I would be bothered getting a Canon 1Ds Mark IV when it comes out though, unless there is a big price drop or it has some must have features.

    The link is http://www.dpreview.com/news/1002/10020210hasselbladh4d40.asp for those trying to view that page.