A few years ago my friend was given a box of old camera gear from a retiring photographer.  In that box was a Pentax 645 camera with a 80mm f2.8 lens and a 120 film back.

At first I thought this camera was old and broken, as it would not dead fire.  However, one day I loaded it with film and it worked perfectly.  From that moment on, I was hooked.  I was now a medium format shooter.  I soon gave that Pentax, which was the 1980’s version, to my assistant.  I upgraded to the Pentax 645N, which was from the 1990’s, and had a better metering system.  Even though the camera has auto focus capabilities, I only used manual lenses with it.  In particular, I used the Pentax 80mm and 150mm lenses with my camera.  I generally only used the 80mm, so I eventually sold the 150mm lens.

Image courtesy of Joesph Prezioso

You may happen to hear a lot about the Contax 645 medium format system, or the Mamiya medium format systems, but for me, the Pentax 645 system is one of the best.  It’s built solid and always works.  I must have photographed hundreds of weddings with my Pentax 645N, and my assistant with the 645, and it has never failed us.

Image courtesy of Joseph Prezioso

The Pentax 645 offers a split prism focusing screen, center weighted metering and full shutter control.  The 645N adds a flat focusing screen designed for AF lenses, which I prefer.  It also adds matrix and spot metering, as well as the traditional center weighted pattern.  Even better, the Pentax 645N adds a digital LCD like that of a modern SLR in the viewfinder so you can easily see you shutter, aperture and exposure information.  

Image courtesy of Joseph Prezioso

Both the Pentax 645 and 645N offer full automatic exposure control with exposure compensation features.  The 645 camera has an LCD and buttons to change the mode and shutter, while the 645N has a shutter dial and knobs for exposure compensation and ISO.  I much prefer the 645N controls, because on the 645 it’s easy to change a setting and throw your exposures way off if you’re using its internal meter or program mode.

Both camera bodies take 120 and 220 film backs (and 70mm if you can get it!) that you can preload and store in your camera bag so that you can easily reload while shooting.  On a 120 roll you can get 16 images, and 32 images on a 220 roll.  

Image courtesy of Joseph Prezioso

Looking through the finder of a medium format Pentax is an eye opener if you have only shot 35mm or digital.  The mirror is much larger, and you get a lot more reflected light.  You also have a much brighter finder. 

645 images are also going to give you a much larger image than 35mm.  Your images will be much more detailed and less grainy.  Compared to digital, 645 images are very “high resolution,” they can be blown up very large and retain their detail.  As with all film, your images will reflect how you shoot.  Many factors can affect how your images turn out, such as what kind of film you use, how you expose the image and how you have the film developed and scanned.

Image courtesy of Joseph Prezioso

My favorite film to shoot with in medium format is the Kodak Portra film.  90% of the time I have my 645 loaded with Portra 400 so that I can shoot anything that comes my way.  If I am outside and shooting in super bright light, I will use Ektar 100 or Portra 160.  In my mind though, Portra 400 is the best.  I can shoot with an ISO anywhere from 200 to 1600, and get great results with my 645.

If you’re looking to get into medium format photography, I highly recommend the Pentax 645 system.

Contributor Bio: Joseph Prezioso is a professional photographer who has been shooting for over twelve years.  He went from shooting film, to 100% digital, and then back to film again. He says, "By trade I am a wedding photographer, I shoot over 30 weddings a year, and this year they were all on film. My career started as a newspaper photographer though. I was 16 and like Jimmy Olsen. I learned on the streets shooting next to veteran photographers for the AP and Boston Globe (I worked for some weeklies, but I got to cover a lot of cool events that the big news guys covered too!). Film is something I have fallen in love with; it's the medium I learned on. Film will always be something special to me. It feels more versatile and creative in my hands than when I am using digital."