Pentax Digital 645 Prototype: A First Look

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*February 28, 2006 - *The focus of camera lust in Pentax's PMA booth is unquestionably the mockup of a digital medium format camera. It slowly turns on a small, mirrored platform, protected by an acrylic dome like a boxy, leatherette-covered Miss America.

Pentax took the lid off the display platform so we could photograph the model and shoot a video segment, but the lid on details is firmly in place. The company only volunteers a few key points:

-- The Pentax 645D will use a CCD sensor from Kodak, with a 9-micron pitch, and a resolution tentatively pegged at 18 megapixels.

-- It will be compatible with smc Pentax 645 lenses.

-- It will be introduced by the end of 2006.

-- It will have TTL flash connectivity.

Neither Pentax nor Kodak has released the final specs for the chip, says Ned Bunnell, Pentax's director of marketing, and Pentax has not released many specs for the camera. Even the designation ‘645D’ is tentative.

Sensor Comparison: 654 and APS  

Bunnell is clearer about the markets Pentax hopes to reach with the 645D. Bunnell calls the camera "extremely important for studio, landscape and fashion photographers."

His comment that Kodak's CCD "will deliver incredible dynamic range and clarity of image that will not be possible with smaller sensors" seems indirectly targeted at the 16 megapixel Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II. Bunnell would not comment about whether the 645D will be priced comparably to the Canon 1Ds, but did indicate that Pentax understood the market for very high-quality, high-resolution cameras. It seems clear that the camera will cost much less than Hasselblad's medium format DSLRs, which start at over $20,000.

Pentax 645 film cameras have focal plane shutters, as will the 645D. With an adapter, the film cameras can mount lenses made for the Pentax 67 camera, and the 645D will be able to as well. Both Bunnell and his colleague, Territory Manager Bill Gouge, note that Pentax has not released the 645D's dimensions, but when I said that it looks a little bigger than their 645 film cameras, they seemed to disagree.

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Gouge says that the 645D "will have storage," but does not say whether it will accept CF cards or some other, more exotic memory system. Gouge notes that Pentax expects landscape shooters to be a significant market for the 645D, implying that it will work well on location. "Pentax has always been more of a field system," he says. The camera is likely to function in tethered mode as well.

It looks like it. The model is very detailed, showing what looks like more than one terminal cover at the bottom of the back, below the LCD. The camera shows controls that many DSLR shooters would find familiar: on the back, to the right of the LCD is a column of buttons for playback, information, trash and a menu. Further to the right is a four-way controller and a function button. Above those are an exposure compensation button and an AF button, apparently for activating

autofocus when it's not in continuous AF mode. There's a small-looking control dial above that. The viewfinder is round, with a rubber eyecup that doesn't protrude much past the back of the camera. The 645D has a ridge along the right edge of the back that seems to be a duplicate of the thumb rest ridge on the back of the *ist DSLRs.

There's a latch at the far lower left of the back, apparently to open a door on the left side of the camera, perhaps for a media slot. The left side has a stud-shaped strap lug and a small dial which might adjust LCD brightness – it looks like a diopter control, but it's pretty far from the viewfinder. There is also a tripod socket on the left side. It's metal, and placed in a patch of rubber, probably to protect the side of the camera as it's mated with tripods. The socket is for mounting the camera for verticals without tipping the tripod head 90 degrees. Three buttons in a row, where the top of the camera and the left side meet, appear to control burst mode, resolution/quality and flash sync.

The front of the camera has few controls. A lens release button is to the lower left of the lens. There appears to be a lamp window high between the viewfinder hump and the handgrip. The shutter release is at the top of the grip, and a ring around it is the power switch. There is a control dial on the grip, just below the shutter release.

The right side of the 645D is made up mostly of the handgrip, which is covered in leather-textured material, and contoured with a deep indentation for the user's right-hand fingers. The right strap connector is toward the back of the grip. The side of the viewfinder hump shows a mirror lockup switch, a feature that Pentax's film 645's omitted for years.

The top of the camera reveals more about the camera function than the other views. A simulated LCD display shows an exposure of 1/4000 at f/2.8. The news there is the apparent maximum shutter speed, which is high for a medium format camera. A section of the display shows the word "RAW" and below that is a rectangle that reads "645." We could infer that 645D could hold 645 RAW images in memory – which would be a heck of a lot of 18 megapixel images – or we could guess that the 645D is a multi-format camera, and that "645" is a full frame shot, while a different crop is available. (The Nikon D2X is a prominent example of a multi-format camera.)

The display also shows battery status and exposure compensation, and even reminds the user that the front dial controls the shutter and the back one controls aperture. It indicates that the beep is activated and whether the camera is in burst mode; it can display ISO, but is not doing so on

the model. There are a couple other indicators, though their meaning isn't apparent. Below the display, there is a switch that may control the autofocus sensor pattern – there seems to be narrow and wide settings.

To the left of the eyepiece, there's a switch to set the meter pattern, marked with the common icons for spot, center-weighted and multi-zone patterns, and a switch for single or continuous autofocus modes. The mode dial is above those switches. It appears to turn about 1/3 of a rotation, offering Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual, Bulb and X Sync modes. It looks as though a piece of black tape covers part of the mode dial, where other settings might be hidden. Whether that indicates recent design changes, or the vicissitudes of model making, we can't know. At the very top of the viewfinder hump, there is a hot shoe with several contacts, indicating a dedicated TTL flash. Pentax confirms it will be TTL, but does not say what flash it will be compatible with.

In 35mm, the Pentax K1000 was for many years the acknowledged value leader – an excellent performer that was very durable, with a price well below its competition. In medium format, Pentax's equipment was also very solid, and less expensive than the European leaders, but capable of excellent results and often innovative.

The 645D – if that turns out to be its name – may pull off the same trick, albeit at a higher price point. It may be the medium-format DSLR for photographers who don't want to spend $20,000 on a camera.

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