Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Treatise on the Pentax 67 (and the Pentax 67D????)

I have been thinking about writing something like this for quite some time, so here goes nothing.

I have to come clean about something. For an eighteen year old coming from a middle class family, I own way too many cameras. For people with large bank accounts, the purchase and use of big expensive cameras is fine, but for somebody who is college aged this represents a ridiculous proposition. So, how many cameras do I have? Well, at last count, I have nineteen plus a sizeable collection of lenses. Now, before you call me a spoiled rich brat, know that most of these cameras were purchased with my own money and many of them are film cameras. (Yes, I do shoot film, how quaint!) Among this collection of mostly toy cameras, there are a few gems. There is a 1971 Polaroid SX-70 (probably the best instant camera ever made), a mid-1960s 4x5 large format monorail, a Nikonos underwater camera, a Canonet rangefinder, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and an assortment of lenses, and my crown jewel, a Pentax 67II and a full complement of lenses. Some might question why I prefer an early 2000s film shooting relic to the 5D, one of the best selling and high tech cameras of the modern era. Don’t get me wrong, I love the 5D, and it will probably become the camera to which I compare the 67, but, given the choice, I will always reach for the 67 first. WHY? Well, perhaps I should start with a background and a brief history…

The Pentax 67 was first introduced as the Pentax 6x7 in 1969 and hasn’t changed much since. The camera was renamed the 67 and given an electronic shutter in 1989 and given Aperture Priority AE and advanced metering in 1998 when it became the 67II, but when you get right down to it, the Pentax 67 has always been a 6x7 medium format camera designed for landscape and outdoor photographers who wanted to take wonderful image quality with them. It had fast and sharp lenses (a complete range from 35mm fisheye to 1000mm super-tele that included macros, PC-lenses, and some great zooms and ED telephotos), a higher top speed than a Hasselblad or Mamiya, and was shaped like an overgrown 35mm camera so it handled well and could be handheld. It also became the stuff of photographer legend due to the fact that, like many Pentaxes, it had its quirks, most notably it’s notoriously loud and vibration filled shutter and mirror mechanism.

So how did I come to own this wonderful beast of a camera? Well, there I was, an impetuous long-haired sixteen year old kid who took a high school black and white photography class on a whim and fell in love with everything photographic. I loved manually controlling my Canon Rebel film camera loaded with Kodak Tri-X, getting my hands dirty developing my own film, and coming out of the darkroom reeking of fixer but clutching in my hands a tray that held an 11x14 black and white fiber print that I had just made! It was wonderful! But then I caught the worst bug a young photographer could catch… GAS!! That’s right; I had terrible Gear Acquisition Syndrome and I had to get more cameras! After hours of perusing the internet finding out everything about cameras, lenses, film, digital sensors, and the like, hours I should have been spending trying to pass math class (thanks for that D, Mrs. O’Brien), I decided I was going to take a plunge and get a medium format camera that shot larger negatives than my Rebel 35mm. I found out everything about the various choices, Bronicas, Mamiyas, Fujis, Hasselblads ad nausem, finally settling on a Pentax 67, preferably a 67II with aperture priority because I’m lazy. (For the uninitiated, medium format uses a film format called 120 film. This film is not in a cassette like 35mm, instead having an opaque backing paper running the length of the film, and is about double the height of 35mm. There is also a variant called 220 which is the same size but double the overall length and lacking a backing paper, but it is much harder to find and much costlier overall. To add to the confusion, medium format never standardized an image size, so different cameras produced different negatives. The most common sizes are 6x4.5cm, 6x6 or 2 ¼, 6x7, and 6x9. There are also esoteric sizes like 6x8 or the uber-panoramic 6x24. Perplexed beyond the point of no return? Sorry.) Either way, after renting one to try it out, I put out classified WTB ads, found a man who had a complete 67II kit that included 6 lenses (45mm f/4, 55 f4, 75mm f/2.8, 90 f/2.8, 135 f/4, 165 f/2.8) and a range of useful accessories like the left hand flash grip, and managed to convince the custodian of my bank account (AKA Mom) to allow me to buy the kit. I also picked up a large used tripod to support the vibration prone camera and put together a little film developing station in my bathroom. And then, in mid-summer 2009, a large FedEx box arrived at my house containing what became my baby. It was everything I wanted and more. This is why I still love this thing to death, even if it is a relic in the digital age, and even if it is quite overdue for a service and beginning to take on a set of quirks unique to itself. Wow, that was more than a brief history, but now on to what makes this beast so great.

First and foremost, it handles just like a 35mm camera, and a good one at that. Anybody who has ever used a manual film camera like the Pentax K1000 will be instantly familiar with how the 67 works, which is great because the user manual is written in gibberish. It has none of the clunky bulkiness of, say, a Hasselblad or a Mamiya RZ67 and is truly handholdable in daylight situations. At the same time, it is not a festival of button, dial, and menu frustration that is so prevalent in modern cameras like, oh, say, the 5D or the Nikon D3. Using this camera, you really get the feeling that the designers of the 67 were photographers making a camera they would want to use in the field, not engineers building a statistical marvel that performs best on a test-stand. To give an example, this camera has a lever near the hand grip, easily triggered by a finger when needed, to lock the mirror up. That’s right, no need to delve in to Custom Function hell to find the mirror lockup, its right at your fingertips! This is great when shooting on a tripod. Also, unlike other big medium format cameras which usually ship with a waste-level finder, the 67 comes with a big, bright eye-level pentaprism viewfinder which has a brilliance and clarity I have never seen in any other camera. This is a viewfinder that truly puts the photographer in the scene as if he were part of it, and it really aids precise manual focusing (no auto-focus here, boys). Finally, it has a big comfortable built-in grip for your right hand and there is an optional left hand grip for your left hand which doubles as the flash shoe, and every touch point has a well made and comfortable feel to it. Which brings me to point two, this thing is BUILT! The whole body is built of metal, and it weighs quite a bit. This camera is not for the faint of heart who enjoy taking smoochy-faced self portraits while holding the camera with one hand, and such an activity could quite possibly result in wrist injury. The lenses, which are also all metal, have big smooth focus rings and real click-stopped aperture rings. Call me a Luddite, but this is how all lenses should be! Sorry, Canon and Nikon, but the rear control dial is nowhere as simple or tactile as a big metal aperture ring. The same thing goes for the big, click stopped shutter speed and exposure compensation dials… So much better than a front multifunction dial! Even the film winder is made of a single piece of metal and has loud click stops that have an industrial feel. This really is a camera that encourages you to use it manually and grab every exposure by the aperture ring and get the best out of it. All in all, the whole camera gives off the feeling of being made in a manner that can take a beating and keep on shooting. (I joke all the time that if some thief tries to mug me of my precious Pentax, I will simply grab the camera by the left hand grip, whack the aggressor unconscious with a single blow to the head, and then take a photo of the bastard!) However, at least on my 67II, it does have modern technology where it counts, and I am a bit of a sucker for that. The matrix metering is very accurate and I have learned to trust it for when I shoot slide film, there is TTL flash metering, and there is aperture priority. I know true purists will call me a ninny for using aperture priority, but for me it is the mode to be in. For one thing, on the 67 it gives access to more shutter speeds than are available on the dial because aperture priority is in third-stops instead of full stops, and also, when I do street photography, being able to make a perfect exposure just by bringing the camera to my eye, focusing, and shooting is very helpful in such quick situations. This use of electronics only to aid the photographer in capturing his subject is what sets the 67 apart from the herd. Finally, there is a small LCD screen near the wind lever that tells the current frame and what ISO speed the camera is set to, and in the viewfinder there is an electronic display of the shutter speed and the exposure scale. This is so much better than the endearing but outdated frame window now found only on disposable cameras or an old style match needle meter in the finder.

Still, this is a Pentax, which means it will have its quirks. That LCD that tells you the frame isn’t illuminated, which means you have to shine a light on the camera to see what frame you are on at night. My camera has now developed a lovely little bug that causes it to reset its frame counter sometimes, which is REALLY ANNOYING, and I can’t fix it right now because I am studying abroad this year and away from anybody I would trust to fix my favorite camera. Also, the flash sync is an abysmal 1/30th of a second and yes, it is very vibratory and noisy. I have been on the street photographing people and after I take a shot I see several people have turned to face me. Hi there subjects, its me, a small guy with a huge camera! I do love the attention this camera attracts, and I’ve had conversations with people all over the world about my camera, many of them ending with the other person considering the purchase of a 67! Still, the biggest flaw with this camera, if you can call it a flaw, is that it is not exactly ready for the digital revolution. Scratch that, what I meant to say is that Pentax was sideswiped by the digital revolution and within a few years of digital’s almost complete takeover of the camera marketplace the 67II had been discontinued. But is digital really the final nail in the 67II’s coffin? I for one don’t think so.

Yes, the digital revolution has made the 67 a bit antiquated, but the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of SLR cameras sold these days have a sensor that is approximately 23x15mm, and those lucky enough to have full frame cameras have sensors that are 36x24mm. The Pentax 67’s negative size is a massive 70x55mm! Because of this, there is simply so much negative space to work with, and a high quality scan will yield very detailed images that are both very high quality and full of life. Because of the large negative, depth of field becomes smaller, and because of the random nature of film crystals as opposed to the structured nature of digital pixels, out of focus areas have a smoothness I can’t seem to find with digital. Now, sure, image quality of modern digital cameras is very high, hell my 5D is currently at the forefront of digital camera technology, but I believe that to even come close to the look and potential image quality of the 67 digitally, one has to go past all the big expensive full frame cameras and venture into a new strata of price and image quality called medium format digital. Yup, these are cameras or backs that attach to older cameras that crank out between 30 and 80 megapixels and cost in the area of 20,000-30,000 dollars. HOLY CRAP!! I’ve shot with one of these backs, and yes, they do look phenomenal, but they are pricey as hell and the cameras are not worth the amount of money you spend. The market leaders right now are the Hasselblad H-series and the PhaseOne/Mamiya 645 cameras and backs. The sensors may be great, but the rest of the cameras are slow, unintuitive, complex, and shockingly chintzy. The Hasselblad uses cheap plastics and doesn’t feel as good as an $800 Canon Rebel, let alone a camera with a price tag of $30,000! Yes, these cameras are studio wonders, but I would never take them to the places I have taken my 67 or my 5D for fear that they will not return in one piece. But maybe you want all those megapixels… Well, buy yourself a Pentax 67 and a really high quality scanner, preferably a drum scanner. Both of these devices used to be massively expensive but thanks to the digital revolution the prices have been slashed. I picked up a Pentax 67II kit that used to retail for about $15,000 for about $2,500. You could get one for less if you don’t need aperture priority or as many lenses. As for the drum scanner, these used to retail for about $40,000 and now sell on eBay for less than $3,000. This combination costing about $5,000 will produce images that I would put toe to toe with any 60 megapixel image that cost a million figurative dollars to make. Now, I am no grouchy old man protesting the digital revolution. I have two digital cameras and I really use them quite gladly. But I think it is complete and utter hogwash to claim that the digital revolution has killed film off completely. Sure, it would be foolish to think that the point and shoot wielding masses will ever go back to film, but the camera I am talking about is not for the masses, it is for people who take the art of photography very seriously and want to make beautiful images, and in this field, film is alive and kicking, and I really do believe that in today’s world there is a place for both digital and film in the fine art photography buffet table.

So how do you use the 67 in a digital world? Well, you can do what I did and buy both a 67 and a 5D, but I wouldn’t recommend it for true fine art. What you are doing by going my route is buying into two separate and completely incompatible lens lines and is therefore crazy unless you own a sizeable stable of Canon glass. You could also stand by your drum scanner waiting for the “future” Pentax 67D digital 6x7, but let’s be realistic and admit that camera is at least 10 years away, if it will ever be made. Now in 2011 we are just starting to see full frame 6x4.5 sensors, which produce huge files and cost thousands of dollars to make and even more to buy. Just think of the cost of producing a 6x7 digital sensor, or the huge amount of computing power needed to process the files, or the sheer amount memory you would need to store the files! It is simply impractical to think of such a camera in the near future, even from the never say never Pentax. The best option though comes from Pentax themselves. Recently they introduced to the world the cheapest, toughest, and in my opinion coolest medium format digital camera I’ve seen yet. It is called the 645D and it is a digital adaptation of the 645N II film camera made by Pentax until about 2005. This camera has been in development for years and has finally come out to very positive reviews. People are calling it the deal of the century at $10,000 because it bridges the gap between high end 35mm digital and medium format. It is also rugged, weatherproofed, and well built. For once, this is a medium format digital camera I would want to use in the field, and what a surprise that is exactly what it is designed for! Now the 645 lens mount is different than the 67 mount, but Pentax made an adaptor that maintains almost full lens functionality, and it can be had for about $200. If you can afford the 645D, I really do endorse buying that and a 67II kit to go with it. It’s the best film/digital hybrid I can think of. (There is even an adaptor to use 67 lenses on Pentax K-mount cameras like the excellent K-5, but auto-diaphragm is lost. Still, if you can’t afford the 645D and want a digital solution to your 67 addiction and you don’t mind the slow and contemplative approach to photography, go for it!)

So what about me? Well, I am really happy with my current camera life and I cannot afford the 645D, so I think I will concentrate on lenses for the foreseeable future. My 4x5 is aching for some modern lenses to complement the 1920s brass lens I currently use, I would love to pick up an EF 17-40mm f/4 L for my 5D and replace my Rebel with a better Canon film camera, probably an EOS 1v. And my 67? I have my sights set on the elusive and expensive ED telephotos (300mm f/4 ED and 400mm f/4 ED), but they never pop up on eBay and are out of my price range when they do. And I still have to fix that damn frame counter issue. J Still, it’s been all around the USA, its been at my side in the middle of a mosh pit (bad idea), and this year its been with me to Canada, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, The UK, Spain, Turkey, Hungary, Slovakia, The Czech Republic, Germany, and it will be strapped across my shoulder in a few weeks in India. It’s a loyal sidekick of mine and I love the thing to death, so you can excuse it for the occasional electronic demon. You would be pretty beat up if you had seen what it’s seen and done what it’s done.

I hope that I haven’t rambled too much, and I hope that whoever reads this is inspired to go waste… er… invest their money on a Pentax 67 of their own. You can’t have mine though! I hope people my age see film as more than a thing to for idiotic hipsters to put in their Holgas, and if anybody is curious and wants to know more, I don’t bite. Happy shooting, and just remember to have a great time and strive to make beautiful pictures.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful blog about the Pentax 67ii. I have two, and am in love too. What scanner and scanner software do you use?

  2. Great post. The 6x7/67 is truly one of the often overlooked medium format cameras of its ilk. There is no other medium format camera that looks or holds like the Pentax.

  3. I bought a 67II in mint condition with the 105mm, 55mm F/4, 200mm F/4 and the amazing 75mm F/2.8 and I LOVE THE CAMERA.

    Great article BTW.

  4. Excellent post. Thanks for making your experience and thoughts available. I just bought a 67 and look forward to understanding the differences to digital.