Last Updated on September 22, 2023
The Pentax 645 will appeal mainly to DSLR or 35mm SLR shooters. The 645’s shooting experience is similar, the price of entry is very reasonable, and the results can be amazing for anyone just getting into medium format. Sure, a Lomography Diana is way cheaper (and admittedly a whole bunch of lo-fi fun), but for a camera you can grow into and actually use in a professional setting, the Pentax 645 is your best option.
Name and film formats: The camera produces negatives that measure 6 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters, hence the name: the Pentax 645. The camera can shoot 120 film (the most common today), 220 film (much less common), and 70mm film (not at all common now). You’ll get 15 shots from a roll of 120.
Dates: Introduced June 1984 and eventually replaced by the Pentax 645N in 1997, a commendable 13-year run. So any 645 you buy today could be as old as Metallica’s thrash masterpiece Ride the Lightning or as new as Radiohead’s groundbreaking OK Computer…which is still pretty damn old, especially for a camera. Like those albums, the Pentax 645 is still totally worth adding to your collection.
Current cost and availability: Six years ago, I paid $168 for the body, grip, and caps from KEH. A 120 film insert was $62 from the awesome used section at Roberts Camera, and a 75mm lens cost me $50 from some fellow on eBay. So all together, a complete kit in excellent shape set me back only $280. Today, the same kit could cost as much as $350 to $400, which is still an amazing bargain. Although the 645 is not as ubiquitous as Pentax’s 35mm K1000, deals definitely abound for patient buyers: you won’t have to hunt for long if you want one in good shape at a price that makes your wallet happy. [Update 2023: Prices have increased quite a bit. I see the same kit in good shape regularly sell for $500 to $650ish. The 645 remains a bargain, however, because the “expensive” medium format cameras have gotten even more expensive.]
Autofocus: Nope, the 645 is a manual focus camera. If you want autofocus, pick up either the 645N or 645NII and an autofocusing lens. Those autofocusing models, however, will definitely cost much more.
Lens mount: Pentax’s 645 A mount. There are a bunch of lens options available at really good prices now, especially if you stick to the manual-focus series, the “SMC Pentax-A 645.” The great thing is that you can use those lenses on Pentax’s other medium-format 645 cameras if you decide to upgrade, even digital cameras like the 645D and 645Z.
Batteries: 6 AAs in the grip. It’s awesome that such a cheap and readily available battery is used, but they do make the camera heavier.
Weight: And speaking of heavy, yeah, the Pentax 645 is a proper chunky monkey. The body, grip, and film insert weigh 46.2 ounces or 1,309 grams or 2.88 pounds according to the manual. But with batteries and a standard 75mm f/2.8 lens added, the kit tops out at 3.8 pounds according to my scale. That’s still not impossibly heavy of course (just about the same weight as Canon’s 1DX Mark III with battery and a 50mm f/1.4 lens), but the Pentax’s large, boxy, and bulky body magnifies the overall chunk factor. If Canon’s 1D series is a sleek sports car, Pentax’s 645 is a lumbering cargo van.
Light meter: Yes, it has one—a classic center-weighted pattern that produces nice exposures. It works in all the main shooting modes the camera offers: program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual.
Max shutter speed: 1/1000. That max speed is pretty typical of film cameras from the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s quite slow compared to digital cameras today. If you are shooting in bright light with fast film, you probably won’t be able to shoot wide open. In manual mode, the shutter speed can be adjusted in whole stops only. There is something refreshingly simple about being limited to whole stops, but for serious work on slide film, you’ll likely get annoyed.
Flash sync speed: 1/60. Very slow by today’s standards.
Film advance and rewind: Both are automatic and pretty quick for an ‘80s camera. The downside is that both are also very loud, so you won’t be able to sneak any street shots.
Continuous shooting: Yes, but the 645 is not a speed demon by any means. It shoots a mere 1.5 frames a second in continuous mode. Frankly, I hadn’t tried it until I started putting this review together, and I wish I hadn’t even bothered. It’s ultimately a nightmare of noise and wastefulness. For anyone shooting landscapes or portraits (which you probably are if you are interested in this camera), just save your film.
User manual: Like all film cameras, the Pentax 645 has a number of idiosyncrasies and old-timey irritations waiting for the uninitiated. I’ll go through some of them here, but grab a PDF of the manual from Butkus when you want an even deeper dive into the camera.
Tons of people started their film photography journey with a Pentax K1000 (even Drew Barrymore rocks one), but digital shooting over the past couple of decades has been dominated by Canon, Sony, Fuji, and Nikon—companies that have shaped contemporary photography with oftentimes bold and innovate gear. Pre-2000s, Pentax produced some pretty revolutionary stuff too. When the 645 camera appeared in 1984, for example, Pentax was attempting to create a new market at the intersection of image quality, automation, and affordability.
I mean, check out this particularly voluminous ad.
“One of a new kind,” Pentax insisted, but perhaps the better slogan would have been, “The best of all possible worlds.” Want great images? The 645 offers medium-format excellence. Need a camera that is easy to shoot? The 645 boasts motor-driven film advance and rewind as well as the autoexposure abilities of your dad’s 35mm camera. Don’t have a ton of cash? The 645 is way cheaper than any Hasselblad.
Even sports shooters were encouraged to get in on the goodness.
These days, shooting sports with the 645’s meager 1.5 frames a second prob seems a nonstarter, but medium-format magic combined with some still-modern conveniences? Yes, please. Take my money.
Just How Big Is the Pentax 645?
Really big. It might be the hugest huge you have ever seen in a handheld camera. Here is what the 645 looks like next to a regular old 35mm SLR.
As you can see from the pic above, the lens mount and mirror are gigantic. The area is substantially larger than 35mm film or full-frame digital sensors. It’s also larger than most modern medium-format digital sensors (e.g., Fuji’s GFX series or Pentax’s 645d and 645z).
The increased bulk and heft, however, are totally worth it if you also want giant and luscious negatives. Here is a size comparison between a strip of medium format and 35mm negatives.
The Grip and Batteries
If you are coming from shooting with a modern DSLR, you’ll appreciate the 645’s grip. It’ll likely be bigger than you are used to (the running theme of the entire camera), but it offers familiar handling and a great shooting experience.
The grip includes the on-off switch as well as the shutter button. The grip is removable, but I’m not sure why you’d want to take it off: the camera won’t turn on or fire without it. Perhaps you might want to remove it for storage or transport, but it’s probably easier and more efficient to just get a bigger camera bag.
The little slidey switch thing that releases the battery compartment is a total pain to open (at least on my copy of the camera). It feels perpetually stuck or jammed. If yours is the same, don’t fear giving it a proper push to get it open. Mine hasn’t broken yet.
For batteries, I use Eneloop rechargeables and haven’t had a problem. Eneloops rock. Even if you aren’t interested in the 645 but do use speedlights with other cameras, check them out. They cost more, but last a good long while.
One bummer with the 645—and all old-school film cameras that I’m aware of—is the absence of a battery meter. It’s one of the few modern touches that I really miss. I mean, how much juice is left? It’s annoying to have them die in the middle of a shoot. The batteries are rated for a large number of rolls, so it’s never actually happened. But I’m paranoid. I always keep a fresh set in my bag just in case.
Finally, there is the “reserve” battery—a CR1220—located at the bottom of the camera. It’s behind the round cover with the two little holes.
In theory, the reserve battery is supposed to maintain some of the camera settings only in case the grip batteries die, but when my CR1220 finally gave up the ghost, the camera’s shot counter went nuts even though the grip batteries were still fresh. Not sure what happened, but apparently a working CR1220 is indeed important.
If/when your CR1220 dies, the manual says to send the 645 to Pentax for service, but that seems kind of crazy for a 40-year-old camera. I’m not sure Pentax would even take it. Instead, you can replace the battery by removing the cover with a pair of tweezers.
The cover turns counterclockwise. I’ve read on forums that some are difficult to open, so you might have to give it some finger muscle. Mine turns easy-peasy.
Each battery is rated to last 5 years, so this CR1220 5-pack will get you through pretty much an entire career of shooting with the camera.
Film Inserts and Loading Film
Unlike most every 35mm camera, the Pentax 645 uses film inserts that you first have to remove from the camera and then load with film. Here is the back of the 645 with the insert in place and then the insert itself removed and with no film.
These inserts are not swappable mid-roll (like with Hasselblad’s mightily awesome camera system). Once you’ve loaded an insert with film, you have to shoot the entire roll before removing it. That is a bummer for sure, but you can’t have it all at the Pentax’s wallet-friendly price point. The 120 inserts can run close to $100 each now, and each will give you only 15 or 16 shots. 220 film inserts are still pretty easy to find and are less expensive these days, but the rolls cost more to develop and scan if you aren’t doing it yourself.
The first time I loaded film in an insert, I was a total fumbling idiot. It’s not actually hard to do, but it does take some getting used to. So no worries if it ends up a mess for you too.
To begin, get your film out of the wrapper.
Then insert the roll on the side with the red S on the spool retainer.
Grab the film leader and stretch the film across the insert. Make sure the black side of the film is facing up. If you see paper instead, you’ve put the roll in the wrong way. Thread the leader through one of the slots in the spool.
Tighten up the film by rotating the silver wheel thingy shown in the pic here.
Keep rotating until the Start arrows align with the red S and the red line.
You are now ready to pop the insert back into the camera.
Eyecups and the Viewfinder
The standard eyecup is large and hard and weird. I’ll link to a pic of one from KEH because mine has disappeared, long ago stuffed into a forgotten gig bag with other unloved bits and bobs. The eyecup is the consistency of a hockey puck. I’m not even sure what it’s supposed to do. Block light? Deflect bullets? Whatever the case, I just couldn’t get on with it.
Instead, I acquired the cheap version pictured above from Amazon [update 2021: damn, the price has increased quite a bit in five years]. It’s bendy and comfortable, but you do have to remove it when you are loading/unloading film. Mine doesn’t fit as tightly as the OEM eyecup, so be careful if you are walking around with the camera on a strap or holding it at your hip. I’ve had my eyecup pop off several times.
There is also a “standard” eye cup available. It’s much smaller than either of the previous two. My camera did not come with one, but I would def like to try it. You can still buy them new from eBay sellers, like this dude, in Japan mostly.
It seems like a lot of secondhand 645s are missing eyecups. No clue why, but you’ll definitely want to get something. The bare edge is brutal on glasses and would be absolutely catastrophic on your eye.
Like the rest of the camera, the viewfinder is enormous. Some people feel that it is too dim, but with the standard 75mm f/2.8 lens attached, the viewfinder is just fine for me. Not beautifully bright by any means, but you shan’t feel like Hellen Keller looking through it. Slower lenses will be even darker of course.
The Pentax 645 is quite a noisy camera. Definitely no chance for you to sneak some street shots with it. Below is our short video of what the shutter and film advance sound like—a veritable racket compared to the whisper-click of a Canon Canonet, for example.
Along with its giant body and SLR styling, the 645’s other design hallmark is its use of funky, rubbery push-buttons instead of traditional dials. Here are the camera’s main “selecting buttons,” which allow you to select shutter speeds and ISO and to cycle through the camera’s exposure modes.
They seem totally weird nowadays but were super common in the 1980s, part of the era’s design ethos. Manufacturers used them on calculators and watches and especially on that most ‘80s of all devices—the calculator watch. Behold this Casio monstrosity:
My ‘80s memories are sketchy at this point, but I suppose push-buttons seduced us with their future-is-now vibe. They seemed cool and clever-slick. But in 2020, you’d have to seriously be into retrofuturism to find the buttons anything better than mildly annoying and lame.
Definitely not a deal-breaker though. Once you get your settings (e.g., choose an ISO and an exposure mode), the buttons are really only impractical if you shoot manual exposure. I definitely prefer to do so, but I’ve embraced the necessity of aperture priority with the 645.
Do the buttons have good weather sealing? Probably not, but I haven’t even risked it. My 645 is a sunshine-only camera.
In addition to its affordability and SLR-like handling, the Pentax 645 offers one more enticement: autoexposure modes. If auto is your thing, the camera can shoot in program, aperture priority, and shutter priority. To access the AE modes, click your lens’s aperture ring over to “A,” press the aptly named “MODE” button on the top left of the camera, and cycle through them with those funky push-buttons.
The rub, alas, is that you have to select aperture values or shutter speeds with those same funky buttons. It can be a clunky shooting experience.
Happily, there is another (and definitely preferable) way to shoot in aperture priority. Just rotate the aperture ring like you normally would with any other old-school lens. The shutter speed the camera chooses illuminates in the viewfinder. No need to use the buttons to set your exposures.
For fully manual shooting, aperture is controlled on the lens as usual, but shutter speed is again controlled by the push-buttons. The lens allows for half stops, but shutter speeds can be selected in full stops only. That possible lack of exposure fine-tuning is fine for me because I very rarely ever shoot slide film. If you do, there is a kind-of, sort-of workaround: just ride the ISO button, which can be selected in thirds. Definitely not the most efficient, elegant way to get the exposure you need, but at the 645’s excellent price point, it’s probably a tolerable nuisance.
When you are shooting manual and have a “correct” exposure according to the camera’s meter, you’ll see the unmistakable, on-the-nose word “OK” in the viewfinder. Seriously.
If you are underexposed, you’ll be greeted with -1, -2, or -3. Overexposure is indicated by (no surprise here) +1, +2, or +3.
One more thing. Hand holding images at slower shutter speeds can be tough because of the camera’s weight. You might need to shoot a stop faster or use a tripod (boo). Landscape folks won’t be terribly put out, but on-the-move shooters will want to consider a faster film.
Lenses and Crop Factors
Pentax’s original A-mount lenses for the 645 are mechanically fantastic—super solid construction, butter smooth focus throw, and clicky aperture rings. Optically they are good too, but there is nothing faster than f/2.8.
If you grew up on 35mm film or full-frame sensors like I did, the focal lengths for medium format lenses might be mystifying at first. Multiply by 0.62 to get a 35mm equivalent. Because math sucks, here is a handy table.
|Pentax 645 Lens||35mm Equivalent|
|35mm||21mm (21.7mm actual)|
|45mm||28mm (27.9mm actual)|
|55mm||35mm (34.1mm actual)|
|75mm||45mm (46.5mm actual)|
|120mm||75mm (74.4mm actual)|
|150mm||90mm (93mm actual)|
|200mm||125mm (124mm actual)|
|300mm||180mm (186mm actual)|
|400mm||250mm (248mm actual)|
The really good news is that the old, manual-focusing 645 lenses will also work just fine on Pentax’s new digital medium-format cameras. The sensors though are actually smaller than traditional medium-format film, so multiply by 0.79 for a 35mm equivalent. Because math still sucks, here is another handy table.
|Pentax 645 Lens (on a digital body)||35mm Equivalent|
|35mm||28mm (27.65mm actual)|
|45mm||35mm (35.55mm actual)|
|55mm||45mm (43.45mm actual)|
|75mm||60mm (59.25mm actual)|
|120mm||90mm (94.8mm actual)|
|150mm||120mm (118.5mm actual)|
|200mm||160mm (158mm actual)|
|300mm||250mm (237mm actual)|
|400mm||300mm (316mm actual)|
One final thing about Pentax lenses: the focus ring rotates in the opposite direction than Canon/Minolta lenses do. For me, that means that all my hard-earned finger-muscle memory is for naught. But if you come from a Nikon background, a Pentax lens will feel like home. A better home even.
The 645 can also shoot 70mm film. If you actually want to shoot 70mm film (because you are a total masochist), you’ll need this attachment thingy and an eyepiece extender. I’ll post a photo here too in case the eBay auction is removed.
There are usually a few 70mm film inserts always available on eBay, but I’ve never seen them cheaper than $150.
Should You Buy One?
The 645’s main drawbacks are its hefty weight, lack of autofocus, and probably those super-funky push-buttons, but all in all I absolutely adore this clunky, chunky-monkey camera. It truly is the perfect starter kit for photographers who want to seriously explore medium format. And at the prices available now, you really can’t go wrong. Even if you end up hating the camera, you can always flip it for at least what you paid and get something more your speed—a Contax or Hasselblad or even one of Pentax’s own 6×7 cameras.
If you want to stick with Pentax’s 645 series and know you will shoot a lot, I’d probably step up to the 645N or 645NII. Along with more conventional dials, you also get the ability to use autofocus lenses. The bodies are newer too and thus (in theory) less prone to breaking down.
I’ll sign off with a simile. What I dig most about the Pentax 645 is that it’s like a humble, beat-up pickup truck in a world of shiny Porsches and Ferraris. It’ll get you where you need to go but at a fraction of the price. And the ride is a whole lot of bumpy, jumpy fun.